It was the first time the veteran firefighter had been back to the firehouse on Georgia Avenue NW since retiring a few months ago, and when he got out of the vehicle Wednesday morning he couldn’t contain himself. There were so many familiar things for Roo, the old arson dog of the Engine 24 station, to sniff.
“He circled around like he was 3 months old again,” said Scott Wilson, the District fire investigator who handled the dog officially known as K-9 Roo. “Just running, running, running. He was here 10 years. This is his home away from home.”
The occasion was to introduce the local news media to Roo’s replacement, K-9 Bandel. Like Roo, she’s a black Labrador retriever. She’s 3 years old, and someone remarked that she seemed to still have a bit of the puppy in her.
“So does Roo,” Scott said.
Labradors are like that, youthful well into middle age. They can seem goofy, but when they’re trained, they do their jobs with a single-minded purpose. Roo’s old job — Bandel’s new job — was to visit the scenes of fires with Scott and search for signs of accelerant.
Well, the smells of accelerants. Dogs have incredible noses. Scott said an arson dog can detect minute quantities of anything from lighter fluid to diesel oil. Bandel was trained by Maine Specialty Dogs in a program that’s underwritten by State Farm, the insurance company. It costs about $25,000 to train an arson dog.
Scott opened the door to the large doggy compartment at the back of his red truck and out jumped Bandel, 50 pounds of silky blackness.
Scott placed five silver paint cans on the floor of the firehouse equipment bay, one of which held a few drops of an accelerant. He ran the leashed Bandel past the cans. At one, she flopped to the ground excitedly. You and I might say she “sat.” The proper term is “alerted.”
In the field, Scott would mark that site — and any others where the dog alerted — with a white golf tee and then return to take samples. He’d run another test with Bandel, complete with empty cans as a control and then take any positive samples to the lab to be examined.
Engine 24 is home to another arson dog, K-9 Meadow, handled by Rodney Taylor. The dogs don’t investigate every fire in the city. But if there’s a loss of life, a large conflagration or one that’s suspicious, the dogs are deployed.
Bandel works on the food reward system, as did Roo. When the team is working, Scott wears a pouch full of Purina kibble. If the dog alerts, out comes some food. No accelerant, no food. This helps reinforce the dog’s job, and it keeps it from alerting every time the scent of something suspicious wafts its way.
“Everyone asks, ‘What about at a gas station?’ ” Scott said. “Roo, you could put a gas can right here, he wouldn’t touch it. If I don’t have the food pouch on, it means I didn’t ask him to work. They know it’s gasoline but the other things that we do to prepare them for a fire scene aren’t there. They have a little switch.”
To make sure the dog has a healthy diet — about two cups of kibble a day, same as we used to feed our dog, Charlie — it’s fed throughout the day, but always after alerting on an accelerant, always by hand and never at the same time.
Such reliance on the handler makes for a strong bond. “The relationship is like nothing else,” Scott said. “These dogs know they’re not pets. These dogs know exactly what they’re trained to do. They enjoy working. We just facilitate that for them.”
Scott opened the truck again and Roo leapt out. Gray around the snout and larger than Bandel — 74 pounds — he was nonetheless trim and well-shaped. None of that post-retirement flab for Roo.
What does a retired arson dog do? Roo lives with Scott and his family — including a new baby — in Montgomery County.
“He’s very comfortable now being a couch dog,” Scott said. “He’s transitioned very well.”
These area reunions are coming up:
Academy of the Holy Names Class of 1967 — Date TBA. Contact Eleanor Kelly Budic at 202-298-8067.
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High Class of 1992 — June 24. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bladensburg Senior High Class of 1977 — Classes of 1975 to 1979 welcome. Oct. 7. Visit www.1977BHSMustangs.com or Paula Farris at 1977Mustangs@verizon.net or James Horn at email@example.com.
Buffalo Gap Camp — Campers and staff from the summer camp in Cold Stream, W.Va., are reuniting Sept. 16. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Regina High (Hyattsville) Class of 1967 — Oct. 7. Contact Penny Clover Petersen at Classof1967@msn.com.
Washington-Lee High Class of 1962 — Oct. 6 and 7. Email Nancy Appler: email@example.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.