Arson dogs: 5 facts about accelerant-detection canines

Detailing training, programs, capabilities, years of service, and even some famous arson dogs


Arson dogs, also known as accelerant-detection canines, are specially trained dogs that assist in the investigation of fires. These dogs are trained to detect and locate the presence of accelerants, such as gasoline or lighter fluid, that are commonly used to start fires.

The training process for arson dogs typically involves a rigorous selection process, followed by an extensive training program that can take up to two years. During this time, the dogs are trained to recognize the scents of various accelerants, as well as how to alert their handlers to the presence of these substances.

The training of arson dogs is typically done by organizations such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the State Farm Arson Dog Program. These organizations work with local law enforcement agencies to provide highly trained arson dogs to assist in fire investigations.

Here are several facts about arson dog-related work:

1. Arson dog training

Arson dog training is a highly specialized process that requires a significant investment of time, effort and resources. Here are some key points about arson dog training:

  • Selection process: The selection process for arson dogs typically involves testing the dog's scenting abilities and drive to work. This can involve a series of tests and assessments, including odor recognition tests and prey drive assessments. Dogs that show the most promise are selected for training.
  • Basic obedience training: Before beginning arson detection training, dogs must first undergo basic obedience training. This includes learning commands such as sit, stay and come, as well as leash manners and crate training.
  • Accelerant detection training: The core of arson dog training is the process of teaching the dog to detect and alert to the scent of accelerants. This involves introducing the dog to a variety of accelerants, such as gasoline, diesel fuel and lighter fluid, and teaching the dog to recognize and alert to their scent.
  • Scent discrimination training: In addition to learning to detect accelerants, arson dogs must also learn to discriminate between the scent of accelerants and other scents that may be present at a fire scene, such as burnt wood or plastic. This requires extensive training and reinforcement to ensure that the dog is reliable in identifying the presence of accelerants.
  • Handler training: Arson dog handlers also undergo extensive training to learn how to work with their dogs and interpret their behaviors. This includes learning to read the dog's body language and alerts, as well as how to properly document and collect evidence.

2. Arson dog accelerant-detection capabilities

Arson dogs are trained to detect a wide range of accelerants that are commonly used to start fires. The specific types of accelerants can vary depending on the training program and the region but typically include gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, lighter fluid and various types of solvents.

In addition to learning to detect the scent of these accelerants, arson dogs must also learn to differentiate between the scent of accelerants and other common scents that may be present at a fire scene, such as burnt wood or plastic.

Some common types of accelerants:

  • Gasoline: Gasoline is a highly flammable liquid that is commonly used as a fuel for vehicles and other equipment. It is also a commonly used accelerant in arson fires.
  • Diesel fuel: Diesel fuel is a type of fuel that is commonly used in diesel engines, such as those found in trucks and buses. It is less volatile than gasoline but can still be used as an accelerant.
  • Kerosene: Kerosene is a type of oil that is commonly used as a fuel for lamps, heaters and stoves. It is also a commonly used accelerant in arson fires.
  • Lighter fluid: Lighter fluid is a type of flammable liquid that is used to light charcoal for grilling. It is also commonly used as an accelerant in arson fires.
  • Propane: Propane is a type of gas that is commonly used as a fuel for heating and cooking. It is also sometimes used as an accelerant in arson fires.
  • Butane: Butane is a type of gas that is commonly used in lighters and portable stoves. It is also sometimes used as an accelerant in arson fires.
  • Solvents: Various types of solvents, such as acetone, benzene and toluene, can also be used as accelerants in arson fires. These substances are often found in household cleaning products, paints and other common items.

Arson dogs are trained to detect the scent of these accelerants, not to identify the specific chemical compounds themselves. Additionally, accelerants can be mixed with other substances, such as gasoline mixed with oil or diesel fuel mixed with gasoline, which can complicate the detection process.

3. Arson dog programs

There are two primary paths through which arson dogs are trained:

  • The ATF: The ATF has the largest and oldest arson dog program in the United States. These dogs are primarily used in investigations involving explosives and arson and are stationed at ATF field offices.
  • State and local law enforcement agencies: Many state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States have arson dog programs. These programs vary in size and scope but typically involve a few dogs that are trained to work in a specific region or jurisdiction. Some examples include the Maine State Police, the Illinois State Fire Marshal's Office, the California State Fire Marshal's Office and the FDNY.

4. Arson dog years of service

The length of an arson dog's service can vary depending on a variety of factors, such as the individual dog's health, the demands of the job, and the preferences of the handler and agency. However, most arson dogs serve in their role for around 8-10 years before retiring.

Retirement is typically based on the dog's age and health, as well as their ability to continue performing the required tasks. In some cases, retired arson dogs may be adopted by their handlers or other individuals who can provide a suitable home.

5. Famous arson dogs

Some arson dogs are so good at their jobs that they become famous. Here are three examples:

  • Mattie: Mattie, a black Labrador retriever, is believed to be the country’s first working arson dog, according to a 1987 Associated Press article. “Her nose is more sensitive than state-of-the-art electronic gadgets and she’s absolutely fearless sniffing her way through smoldering rubble, said Trooper Douglas Lancelot, a trainer at the state police canine unit and one of Mattie’s three handlers. Her training was reportedly a pilot project sponsored by the ATF.
  • Hansel: Hansel became the first pit bull in the U.S. to be a certified arson dog. He serves with the Millville (New Jersey) Fire Department and has his own Facebook fan page. Hansel won a hero dog award from the American Humane Society.
  • Kai: Kai served with the San Antonio Fire Department for 9 years before she passed away in 2019. The K-9 won the 2014 American Humane Arson Dog of the Year award and was featured in two National Geographic books.

Editor’s note: If you have worked with a famous arson dog that you would like to highlight, please email FireRescue1 at editor@firerescue1.com with any verifiable information, such as a fire/police department website link or a news story about the dog.


FireRescue1 used generative AI to create some of this content, which was then edited and fact-checked by an editor. 

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