Keegan the arson dog peered around the corner of the firehouse, anxious for his handler to reappear with his hip pouch full of dried kibble. Boston Fire Lieutenant Tom Murray dripped the last tiny splashes of charcoal lighter fluid into a crack in the concrete and headed back out into the sunlight.
“Let’s go to work,” said Murray, and Keegan was off: loping in tightening loops around the firehouse and plopping down on his haunches every time he discovered a droplet. It took him less than four minutes to find six dashes of accelerant and press his nose – or, as Murray’s adoring daughters call it, his “moneymaker” – onto each scent, leaving a trail of wet smudges behind him.
“It’s kind of a game to him, he gets a lot of praise,” said Murray, an arson investigator with 30 years on the department, who coos “Good boy, good boy” to Keegan nearly every time the two make eye contact. “It’s, ‘This is fun, Dad’s feeding me.”‘
Keegan, a 1-year-old yellow Lab weighing 65 pounds, is the Boston Fire Department’s first arson dog since the early ’90s, when Shuttle the black Lab retired along with his handler. In the intervening years, Boston relied on Massachusetts State Police dogs. Keegan was a gift from the Connecticut State Police.
He is “imprinted” on 17 of the most common accelerants used in arsons – among them gas, diesel, kerosene, lighter fluid, Coleman fuel, mineral spirits, acetone, and lacquer thinner. He can detect as little as two microliters of accelerant – that is, two one-millionths of a liter – and he can do it in smoky darkness, while the embers of a fire still burn around him and smoke detectors and sirens wail.
“If there is an accelerant involved in an arson fire, he can bring us right to the splash pattern – the point where the accelerant was spread out in the building,” said Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn. “He eliminates timely investigative stuff. He can bring us straight to the scene.”
Keegan was originally bred to be a guide dog, by an organization called “Guiding Eyes for the Blind.” But when he was 10 months old and the organization tested him to see where his strengths lay, they realized that with his sharp nose, he was better suited to the accelerant-sniffing life.
Guiding Eyes handed Keegan over to the Connecticut State Police, who Murray said do some of the best arson dog training in the country. The Connecticut police worked with the Massachusetts State Police and Murray to train Keegan for 10 weeks, free of charge, and then gave him to the Boston Fire Department. The MSPCA has offered to cover his wellness care, Murray said.
Murray, who is the supervisor of the Major Case Unit, took Keegan home on Oct. 1, and his wife and four daughters – ages 12 to 19 – were immediately smitten.
“You would have thought I brought a male model home,” said Murray. The girls were in love.
Which is good, because Keegan spends literally every waking hour with Murray, on and off the clock. He eats only from Murray’s hand, both to keep him from eating anything at a fire scene, and to ensure that he is constantly training.
“We don’t go away often, obviously,” said Murray, smiling.
Keegan trains every single day, sniffing piles of burned clothes, metal buckets of charred debris, and lineups of firefighters where one person has a single drop of isopar on a shoe or a cuff. Murray documents each training session, and memorizes Keegan’s personality traits and body language – how his zigs and zags narrow as he closes in on the “cone” of the scent, how his tail rises and he salivates when he’s getting close. When Murray testifies in court, he said, he has to know exactly what his dog was saying to him, so he can tell the jury.
“I know this dog better than I know my kids, is the goal,” said Murray.
Though Keegan has been to fires as part of his training, he was just certified the day before Thanksgiving, and has only rendered an official verdict on one fire: Not arson.
The department’s old dog, Shuttle, investigated hundreds of fires during his career, said a department spokesman. Keegan will likely work for about 10 years, showing up to suspicious fires and major blazes, no matter the hour.
He’s happy to work, his moneymaker sure and true.
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