Michigan County Hopes Insurer-Gifted Dog Sniffs Out Arsonists

September 28, 2010

With big, liquid brown eyes and a mouth that seemed to stretch into a smile, Gunner has the look of a family pet ready to run after a stick and curl up at the foot of a bed.

But while he might still do those things, there is more to the 16-month-old Golden Retriever-Labrador cross.

Gunner is the state’s third accelerant-detecting dog and one of only about 250 nationwide sponsored by State Farm Insurance.

And he recently started his first day of work at the St. Clair County (Michigan) Sheriff Department.

Gunner and his handler, Sgt. Scott Braun, recently completed a four-week certification program in Maine and now are on duty.

“It’s a great job to have, you just have to have the dedication to keep it up,” said Braun, who also coordinates the department’s fire investigation program.

The department received Gunner and the training because of an about $28,000 grant from State Farm Insurance.

Sheriff Tim Donnellon said the arson investigation program is part of the reason they received the grant. The department started the program in 2009 after a slew of arsons hit the area.

The county had 17 arson fires in 2008 and 15 in 2009, according to FBI data. The city of Port Huron had 11 arsons in 2009 and seven in 2008, according to the statistics.

Braun said Gunner originally was a Paws with a Cause dog, meaning he was going to be trained to assist people with disabilities.

But Braun said the dog had too much drive, making him perfect for arson investigations.

“They want a hard-working dog,” he said.

Donnellon said Gunner will be one more tool available for investigators when fires are reported.

The dog sniffs for accelerants, and when he finds some, he indicates it to Braun by sitting or lying down.

On Wednesday, he eagerly awaited his training session at the county jail, sniffing the floor rapidly and indicating where drops of an accelerant had been placed before eagerly looking to Braun for his food reward.

Angie Rinock, State Farm spokeswoman, said departments often are on the waiting list for a dog for a few years. She said St. Clair County was chosen because it showed a need for the resource.

“Fighting arson is very important to us; it’s an issue we feel needs to be addressed,” Rinock said.

Arson is one of the most expensive property crimes in the United States and is both an issue for law enforcement and insurance companies.

Kimball Township Assistant Fire Chief Ed Gratz, who is a fire investigator, said Gunner will be a good asset to the community.

“I’m very happy. … I think it’s great for our county to have such a resource,” he said.

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