Sheldon has a nose for solving arson cases, and he proved it on his very first day at work.
The dog — part golden retriever, part black labrador — was trained by State Farm Insurance to use his incredibly sensitive snout to detect fuels and other accelerants, when authorities suspect that a fire was set on purpose and need evidence to support their case.
Sheldon’s handler, Saginaw fire battalion chief John Tadlock, remembers the eager pooch’s very first case, in the spring of 2018. The human-canine duo, having just completed a month of training on the east coast, had returned to Tarrant County and was called to a car dealership where several vehicles had mysteriously burned three days earlier.
Local and federal authorities had video of a suspect leaving the dealership minutes before the fire, but didn’t have evidence of what caused the fire itself. They were baffled.
“We get out of the truck, and put him to work. It takes him about 30 seconds, and he gives me an alert,” Tadlock recalled. “We dig through some debris and find a Molotov cocktail. It was just under some debris from the vehicle that had burned away, three days earlier. You couldn’t even see it (without the dog’s help).”
Sheldon and his handler recently completed their annual certification under the State Farm arson dog program, said Heather Paul, program coordinator. The certification, which this year was held virtually, includes the handler demonstrating the dog’s ability to distinguish between different types of smells at a fire site, and the handler’s ability to answer questions about their daily training and investigative work.
Tadlock, who lives in Stephenville and commutes several times per week to his job at the Saginaw Fire Department, said he and Sheldon train daily. Sometimes they work together in Saginaw, and other times they work at home or at a first responders training facility at Tarrant County College Northwest.
Sheldon was initially trained as a service dog, like those used by people with sight impairments or epilepsy. But the gregarious, playful pooch “flunked out of that school,” Tadlock said.
State Farm gets many of its fuel-detecting dogs from service dog training companies.
“He made a better arson dog than a service dog,” Tadlock said.
Tadlock said he and Sheldon are often called to investigate suspicious fires not only in Tarrant County, but in many counties north, west and south of the Fort Worth-Saginaw area.
Dogs are certified according to the standards outlined by police in Maine, where the State Farm program started back in 1993.
The working animals and their handlers are required to complete a four week, 200-hour training course.
The animals are trained using a food reward method, and showered with praise.
“We train every day, two to five times a day,” Tadlock said. “Every kibble of food he eats is from my hand. His eating is dependent upon his work.”
Tadlock uses a solution of 50% evaporated gasoline to train Sheldon, and the training can be done at a variety of places either indoors or outdoors. Using a dropper, Tadlock places a tiny amount of the liquid in a few selected spots and gives it a few minutes to dry before getting Sheldon out of his truck and essentially taking him for a walk in the area where the gas has been placed.
Tadlock then repeatedly says “seek!” and points in a general area where he wants Sheldon to sniff around, as the duo takes its time walking through the training area.
When Sheldon detects a fuel, he points at it repeatedly with his snout and sits down — refusing to leave, even if Sheldon repeats the word “seek!” and tries to get him to walk away. That confirmation is a signal that the dog is certain of what he has found.
Tadlock then provides Sheldon with a handful of food, and repeatedly pets and praises him.
“He’s looking for the strongest source of the odor,” Tadlock says, explaining the dog’s behavior during a recent session at TCC Northwest. “He went past it (the odor), smelled it, backed up, found the strongest point and sat down.”
Arson insurance claims
Labrador retrievers are often chosen for the program because they can detect smells in parts per quintillion, Paul said. That breed of dog also tends to have a good disposition and an outgoing personality.
Since State Farm began the arson dog program in 1993, the company has funded the acquisition and training of more than 425 dogs in 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces, Paul said.
Presently, there are 100 human-canine arson teams operating across North America, including seven teams in Texas.
“Each year hundreds of lives are lost and billions of dollars’ worth of property damage occur as a result of fires set by arsonists,” Paul said in an email. “State Farm underwrites the program costs because arson is a serious problem for everyone in society and it is important that law enforcement officials have every tool possible to combat this costly and deadly crime.”