'My Dog Flunked Service School, Now He's An Arson Detector'

Growing up as a kid in Texas, the volunteer fire department was right by our house and as soon as I turned 18 I joined. I knew all along being a firefighter was what I wanted to do but it was put on hold when I married and had my kiddos. In freshman year of college I had taken an ENT course and I went to paramedic school right after that, so I didn't become a paid firefighter for the Saginaw Fire Department in Saginaw, Texas until I was 31 years old.

Then, about five years ago, I decided I wanted to work with a canine. I wasn't sure how but I came across the State Farm Arson Dog Program. After talking to my wife about it, I applied for the program and was accepted. It took about 18 months to get in, and then in 2018 I travelled up to Concord, New Hampshire to train for a month.

All the dogs in the program either come from a shelter, or they are a career change dog- which is a fancy way of saying they flunked out of service training! On the first day of training you meet with the instructors and tell them about your home life. Based on that and your attitude, they immediately pick a dog from those that have been trained in detecting accelerants that are used to start fires. I was paired with Sheldon, a black labrador, and from that point forward, he was with me 24/7.

We stayed in dorm rooms on a campus and his kennel was in my room. We bonded pretty quickly. The dogs know what they're doing so the training is you learning them, and learning their cues. Sheldon is a passive alert dog, so he sits down and puts his nose at the source of the accelerant and then looks at you. He'll then poke his nose back to where the source is. He's telling you: "Hey dad, it's right here"

Some dogs also have more subtle cues, they may smell something and change their body language. Sheldon's cues, fortunately for me, are really easy. When he catches an odour, his tail starts wagging. He's also a food reward dog. He eats every meal out of my hand. He works to eat, so we train every day. That's a way you bond quickly. We train two to six times a day depending on what the day allows.

The woman who raised Sheldon actually reached out to me when I was training with him in Concord. Her story is that Sheldon supposedly ate a pork chop off a counter and it got him kicked out of service training. When service dogs reach a certain level of training they have to be able to ignore food. Additionally, Sheldon is a super curious dog, he's always under everybody's desk, sniffing around and looking for something, so I believe those factors got him booted out of school. Someone from the arson dog program then visited the shelter Sheldon was at to see if any of the dogs had the aptitude for arson detection work. I'm not sure what the criteria was, but Sheldon certainly can sniff things out and he was accepted.

Sheldon's job now is to work with me to look for petroleum based accelerants like gasoline, lighter fluid and diesel fuel that you can set on fire to start a fire with. There are thousands of items that have petroleum products in them, but what's cool about dogs is that they can scent discriminate. Sheldon can tell the difference between the small amount of petroleum product in the pad under your carpet and actual gasoline.

John Tadlock and Sheldon the dog
After flunking out of service dog school, Sheldon the dog was trained by State Farm Insurance to be an arson detection dog. Sheldon has been working with John Tadlock for three years. Heather Paul

I've been a fire investigator for five years, and I would go into a home or a business and look at different clues, signs and burn patterns and sometimes determine that someone poured something and set it on fire. It takes a long time to walk through a house or building and do that, whereas Sheldon can find something in a matter of seconds.

When we go into a house to search, I will go in and walk through the scene to make sure it's safe and there are no hot spots. Then I bring Sheldon in and we start searching. If he finds anything I pull samples, put them in sterile tins and take them outside. I'll also pull samples from areas where I know there was no accelerant. Sheldon will then go over a set of cans and make sure he alerts again on the right can, so I know we have an adequate sample. Sometimes there is so much debris, he may have smelt something underneath the debris and I've picked up the debris itself. Once I'm confident we have what we need I'll ship the samples off to the lab.

Our very first day at work after we came home from New Hampshire, I had the department call me to look at a fire that had happened several days prior at a car dealership. There was video footage of a gentleman walking into the lot with something in his hand, and walking away a little later with nothing. Several minutes after that, it was clear there were vehicles on fire. The fire department had spent three days searching the scene, trying to work out what had caused the fire. We showed up and I put Sheldon to work. It only took him about 30 seconds to give me an alert. We then dug through the rubble and found a melted Molotov cocktail underneath one of the trucks. To be away from my family for a month and then come back and have that happen on my first day was awesome. I was so proud.

Sheldon the arson detection dog
John Tadlock and Sheldon the dog
John Tadlock and Sheldon the dog working

Another time there was an apartment fire that was suspected arson. Sheldon ended up sniffing around but we didn't find anything in the apartment. Sometimes everything just burns up, or the water and other products used by firefighters to put out the fire mean it's impossible to trace an accelerant. We got back outside and Sheldon dragged me over to a bush next to the building. There was a hat laying in the bush and we sent it off to be tested. It had gasoline on it and because there was video surveillance of a guy walking through the parking lot with that cap on, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Dogs are unbiased. Sheldon doesn't care if you're the most prominent person in town, or not. All he's looking for is whether there is a petroleum product at the site of a fire.

Sheldon is also just the coolest dog. He doesn't have a mean bone in his body, there's nothing aggressive about him at all. We live out in the country and we have chickens. He'll chase them around the yard and play, but he'd never hurt them. He's just got a cool personality. One of the offices I work at is in city hall and Sheldon often roams through the building, going into everybody's room. Nobody knows who I am, but everybody knows Sheldon.

Although there's no set time frame, when Sheldon retires he'll live with my wife and I full time. He's part of the family, he can't go anywhere else.

The experience of working with him is something I can't really put into words; I don't know how to explain how it's changed my life. It is the most rewarding thing I've ever done, and I've been a paramedic for 25 years, and in the fire service for 18 years.

I'm with Sheldon more than I'm with anybody else. We have been apart for maybe 20 nights in three years. If I could go work and investigate fires with him all day, I would.

Battalion Chief John Tadlock and K9 Sheldon work for Saginaw Fire Department. Sheldon and John were trained through the State Farm Arson Dog Program.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.