On a recent afternoon, Kai – a former shelter dog whose outlook once looked bleak – hopped out of a black Ford Crown Victoria and was ordered to “seek.”
Once that word was spoken, the man on the other end of her nylon leash had to hold on tight.
“It’s like putting a leash on lightning,” said Fire Department arson investigator Justin Davis, Kai’s handler.
The 6-year-old black Labrador retriever’s humble beginnings – caught by a dog catcher in Illinois, where she probably would have been euthanized had she not been rescued by the local Humane Society – now are nearly forgotten, several years and 1,000 miles away. These days, she’s known locally as the Fire Department’s lone arson dog, and her reputation is growing well beyond the boundaries of San Antonio.
She’s one of the nation’s top working canines, according to a recent online contest that will result in her and Davis traveling to California next month to compete against other service dogs.
But the recent leash exercise – a typical training session in which Kai was tasked with finding petroleum-based flammable liquids at the SAFD Training Academy – had little to do with a contest.
Kai yanked Davis inside a dark, charred training building and sniffed along each wall. She meticulously found each liquid drop that had been placed earlier by Davis, looking up at her partner and offering a bark as he reciprocated with a treat.
The dog has been sniffing out such liquids, in training and in more than 200 live situations, for the department since becoming Davis’ partner in July 2010.
She never has seemed to have an off day, say those who work with her – one of the reasons she’s a finalist for the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards.
Kai already won the top arson dog category and will now compete against dogs that won the seven other categories: law enforcement, guide/hearing, search and rescue, military, service, emerging hero and therapy.
The grand prize winner will be announced at a California black-tie gala.
In the meantime, the duo has the usual full schedule planned, including appearances at hospitals, schools and forensics classes.
One of the few times Davis remembers Kai acting up was during one such appearance, at Tejeda Middle School. Once in the classroom, Kai started inexplicably shaking and barking.
Then Davis realized the distraction: Each table in the room had tennis balls – Kai’s version of Kryptonite – attached to the bottom of each leg.
“She’s amazing, she’s perfect – (but) there’s one thing she can’t control,” Davis told the San Antonio Express-News. “If you brought out a tennis ball right now her eyes would turn different and glaze over. It’s like a drug.”
Kai goes everywhere with Davis. They share an office, with the dog’s circular bed positioned under his desk. She sometimes steps out to play ball or tug-of-war with one of the other 13 arson investigators, but Davis estimates they’ve been separated no more than a couple of weeks over the past four years.
The mutual trust started after Davis earned a scholarship to get paired with an arson dog through a program that trains dogs in Maine.
Kai had ended up there from the McLean County Humane Society in Illinois after she was recognized for her ability to follow directions.
After more than 500 hours of initial training together and years of working side by side, Kai knows Davis won’t let anything happen to her and Davis knows Kai won’t leave his side, he said.
One time, during an arson investigation that Davis described as being in a rough part of town, Davis was reaching in his trunk when he saw Kai turn around.
“There were these three dogs charging at us from these guys a few houses down,” Davis said. “Now, there’s no way of knowing if these dogs were sent to attack us or what.
“But Kai turned around and stood there next to me. I yelled out at the guys to call their dogs off – I never want to hurt an animal, but I would never let anything happen to Kai. And she stood there right next me the whole time.”
When not in the office or in the field, Kai lives at home with Davis and his family.
Now that she has become such an integral part of the department, investigator Tim Bays said, he often marvels at how they once got along without her.
“She does in 10 seconds what can take us hours,” Bays said. “And she never has a frickin’ bad day.
“I’ll tell you, it’s good to see Justin and Kai roll up to a scene. It’s like seeing a cavalry.”
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