On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lisa Caughlin received a frantic phone call from a friend, who told her to turn on the TV right away. She did, and what she saw — the second of two hijacked airliners smashing into the Twin Towers — cemented her commitment to fighting crime. And she still fights crime today, in her own unique way, with the help of man’s best friend.
“I watched in horror, but also in awe, not just on that terrifying day, but also as the police dogs of 9/11 searched for weeks and weeks in the rubble,” Caughlin told Free Enterprise.
A few months earlier, while she was working at a crime lab, Caughlin, a lifelong dog lover and former forensic toxicologist, had purchased an accelerant detection dog from a company called Canine Academy in Leander, Texas.
Canine Academy master trainer Lisa Caughlin and a shelter pup named Chewy, who had just flown in for narcotics training with the help of pilot Shane Torgerson and co-pilot Zee Ahned. Source: Pilots N Paws.
Caughlin bought the pup to give firefighters a hand investigating suspected arsons in her Northern California hometown. Accelerant detection canines, also known as arson dogs, are trained and certified to sniff out trace amounts of highly flammable chemicals that may have been used to start a fire. Their snouts are so skilled they can often detect even a tiny, imperceptible-to-the-naked-eye drop of gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, turpentine, butane and many more ignitable solvents.
What started as a side gig eventually morphed into a full-time entrepreneurial venture for Caughlin. In 2004, she flew back to the Canine Academy for some additional training with her dog and found out that the school’s owners were selling the business. They asked her to take it over and she jumped at the chance. In April 2005, she renamed the company Canine Academy Training Center and, as she puts it, she’s “been loving it ever since.”
So far, she’s graduated 10 dogs that now assist in arson investigations throughout the country. Most of the pups that come through her program are rescued from shelters that would have likely put them down. “Rescuing more dogs from shelters and giving them a job and a better life is what our company is all about,” Caughlin said.
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She continued: “We work in conjunction with all of our central Texas animal shelters and rescues to take dogs that may not be the lay around the house kind of dog that every family wants. And we take these dogs — that people have basically thrown away — and give them jobs and get them out to fire departments or police departments, or even termite inspection companies. Rescuing a dog that would normally be euthanized and actually have them turn into a phenomenal working dog is the most satisfying feeling I can have.”
Caughlin’s beloved dogs are trained with positive reinforcement only. To teach them to find accelerant odors, she rewards them with food or toys. Training a single dog takes three to four months and costs the dog handler who will eventually work with the pup to assist with arson cases around $7,500. The fee also includes a two-week dog handler screening.
Law enforcement officials in need of arson dog services then typically pay the dog handlers for their trained pups’ crime scene work by the hour. Rates often vary widely by geography and on individual canine’s level of experience.
Bella donning her arson dog vest with reflective trim.
One of the accelerant dog-and-handler duos to graduate from Caughlin’s academy is St. Helena, Calif.-based Bella (the pup) and Veronica Barclay (the human). Bella is trained to be a passive-alert food-reward arson dog. Barclay says the sweet-eyed, 45-pound Labrador retriever — who loves to nibble on cheese — has a proven record in assisting with several successful arson convictions.
Together, Barclay, a former ranch manager, and Bella work with fire departments and law enforcement agencies on the West Coast through Barclay’s own eponymous entrepreneurial upstart, Barclay Fire Services.
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A dog trainer found Bella in a shelter in Santa Rosa, Calif., when she was two and a half years old and flew him to the Canine Academy Training Center to start his new, exciting life. Barclay and Bella, the latter of whom can sniff out 17 different ignitable liquids, were officially certified as an accelerant detection K-9 team on July 11, 2007.
Veronica Barclay’s trusty pup, Bella, sniffing a burned bed at the scene of a suspected arson.
When she’s not busy assisting in arson investigations and convictions with Bella (for $1,200 to $1,800 a day, plus travel expenses), Barclay also runs a nonprofit called K9.org. She founded the 501 (c)(3) in 2009 to support independent K-9 accelerant detection teams throughout the U.S. and Canada. Through the organization, she, too, also offers dog and handler training and certification services to member teams.
Barclay and Caughlin agree that running a business and training accelerant dogs have a lot in common.
“Both can be a slow process to move forward, but if you keep at it, you’ll see the benefits in the end,” Caughlin said. “Just as a trainer like me would reward the dogs for the good work they’re doing, you’ve got to reward yourself as a business owner, too, for your successes along the way. Positive reinforcement works for both dogs and humans, and that’s the most important part of both training and running a business.”
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As for what’s next for Caughlin and her crime-fighting canines, she aims to grow her business in order to place yet more accelerant detection dogs in more cities across America.
“Our dogs are making the world a safer place by helping to put arsonists in jail or prison,” she said. “Visiting schools and community organizations, they also help their handlers in doing community education for fire safety.”
For accelerant dog trainers, the work is never done: “It’s a daily training commitment — like a marriage,” Barclay said. “It’s a long-term relationship. Bella is a partner, not just a pet, and a top priority. She goes everywhere with me and is part of our family. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”