A local woman and a dog have teamed to investigate fires.
Avon works for her food each day.
Avon, a 5-year-old yellow Labrador, is an accelerant detection dog -- commonly referred to as an arson dog. Avon and her human partner, Nancy Thomas, live in Lawrence and work for the state Fire Marshal's Office.
Actually, the two work and train at Thomas' home. When their services are needed, they pile in the state car assigned to Thomas and head for a fire scene.
Avon is called in by fire officials who need additional help investigating a blaze they believe was started by petroleum-based accelerants -- such as gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid, paint thinner and diesel fuel.
Watching Avon train is fascinating. One morning last week, Thomas laid down two carpet squares that Thomas had burned earlier. She took Avon by her black collar, led her toward the squares. And Avon went to work, sniffing one square before moving to the next.
Avon stopped, backed up and stuck her nose toward the carpet. She'd smelled an accelerant.
This time, it was a drop of gasoline that Thomas had placed on a corner of the carpet. She rewarded Avon with food taken from her food bag, a black fanny pack.
"She can smell gasoline all day long," said Thomas, a state fire investigator. "As long as I don't have this food bag on, she doesn't pay any attention."
The gasoline that Thomas put on the carpet wasn't full-strength. It had been "weathered," so it was much like the burned gasoline found at fire scenes.
No food bowl here
At fire scenes, Thomas sticks bright pink flags attached to nails in the rubble where Avon has detected accelerants. Then samples can be analyzed to determine which accelerant Avon sniffed.
Avon and Thomas are called out once a week, on average. And they may spend several days working a fire scene.
But they train every day, and Avon is hand-fed by Thomas during training. She never eats from a bowl. Avon gets two nickel-sized kibbles 100 times a day, which is the equivalent of about a pound a day. The state buys her food.
The hand-feeding method works well when the two are toiling at a fire scene because it helps keep up Avon's strength.
The duo have worked for about a year for the state of Kansas, which employs eight other fire investigators, all of whom also work out of their homes.
Dick Rosebrough, chief investigator for the state Fire Marshal's Office, said Avon and Nancy have cut down on the amount of time investigators spend at fire scenes. At a lumberyard fire last year in Emporia, Rosebrough said, Avon saved five or six investigators about three days of digging.
"To me, it's just astronomical the amount of potential time that she's saved," he said.
A real asset
During the past year, Avon and Thomas have invested a lot of time educating people about what Avon can do. Rosebrough certainly is sold.
"When she walks into a scene and she sits down, you better pay heed," he said.
During a demonstration for a criminal justice class at Washburn University, Avon was supposed to detect a drop of weathered gasoline. But several times, she walked past it and headed for a young woman sitting less than two feet away. Avon sniffed the woman's sneakers.
"It was almost to the point that it was embarrassing to us that she wasn't hitting on that gasoline," Rosebrough said.
As it turned out, the woman had spilled gasoline on her shoes the night before. And Avon was attracted to them because she's trained to go for the strongest source of an accelerant. Once the woman left the room, Avon detected the drop.
"She's such an asset that I'd hate to lose her," Rosebrough said.
Thomas and Avon first teamed in 1993, when Thomas worked in Grandview, Mo.
Avon received some training at the Connecticut Foundation of the Blind. Her initial scent training was done by the Connecticut State Police.
Thomas traveled to Connecticut to meet and work with Avon, under a program by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. After putting Thomas and other human program participants through a battery of personality drills, the dogs were paired with the humans.
"It was amazing," the 35-year-old Thomas said. "They matched us up so perfectly."
Avon is a slow, precise dog. Thomas said that if someone yells at Avon or if she gets otherwise upset, the dog will fold. If that happens at a fire scene, Thomas takes Avon to the car, talks puppy talk to her to reassure her, then brings her out again.
Although Avon and Thomas are a team, Avon is owned by the state of Kansas. When Avon retires, she'll likely be a family pet -- and Thomas hopes she'll be able to adopt her.
But Thomas expects to have a long professional relationship with Avon.
"Once you get working with one dog, it's like working with a partner," Thomas said. "It's real hard to switch."