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Dog stationed in Mitchell trained to sniff out arson

With a quick look at Maggie, a 5-year-old yellow labrador retriever, one would think she's a calm, friendly house dog who loves to get her belly scratched.

But there's one clue that shows she's different than your normal, cuddly canine.

Her collar reads "accelerant detection K-9."

In short, she's an arson dog.

Maggie is partnered with Chris Konrad, a South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agent in Mitchell. The duo help law enforcement investigate whether fires were started intentionally.

Maggie is the only arson dog in South Dakota, and one of two in the Midwest trained by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

"There are only 44 of these dogs in the country," Konrad said. "Because there is no other dog in South Dakota, the DCI asked me if I wanted to take her on and assist throughout South Dakota."

The partnership began in 2010 when Maggie was just 1 year old. She was originally bred to be a seeing-eye dog in Canada. The ATF only trains labs for arson dogs and tested her and her two brothers and found them to have an aptitude for the job.

"She's just happy to work," Konrad said.

Labs are particularly easy to train as arson dogs because they have friendly dispositions and are easily trained, using food as a reward.

As an arson dog, Maggie detects whether any accelerants -- gasoline, kerosine and the like -- were used at fire scenes. Konrad and Maggie have helped investigate at house fires, vehicle fires, wildland fires and other scenes. Mainly, she detects petroleum products, he said.

They work roughly 40 to 70 fires per year, typically in South Dakota, but they also have worked in North Dakota and Minnesota. They can respond wherever the ATF needs them.

"We did eight in the last two and a half weeks," Konrad said last week, referring to fire scenes he and Maggie worked. "Sometimes, it's streaky like that."

In one recent investigation in Lyman County, a large shed was set on fire and a person was arrested for arson. The sheriff's office requested Maggie and Konrad to investigate the scene.The case is still under investigation, so Konrad said he can't discuss about what he and Maggie did or what they may have found.

The duo also recently walked through a burned area north of Mitchell near the town's namesake lake. Maggie didn't detect any accelerants, so they used it as a training ground.

Training and cost

Maggie and Konrad first met in January 2010 when they trained for six weeks in Front Royal, Va., at the K-9 training center. After that, they were certified through the ATF and came back to South Dakota. They renew their certification each year through training, which usually takes place on either coast. They've trained in Portland, Ore., San Francisco and at Front Royal, Va.

Although she's invaluable because of her talents, Maggie was given to the DCI for free. The ATF owns her, but Konrad is her handler. In return, the DCI agrees to assist in any ATF investigations in the region. The ATF also provides equipment and training, and DCI pays for her food, vet bills and Konrad's vehicle.

If Konrad and Maggie travel out of state to assist on fire investigations, the ATF picks up Konrad's wages, gas and food.

Otherwise, the two train each day and use real life situations as much as possible, like the burn near Lake Mitchell. After they determined the fire at the lake wasn't started with an accelerant, Konrad placed "less than a raindrop" size of accelerant somewhere in the burn, which was about 40 yards by 50 yards.

"Then I let her go out and find it on a long leash," he said.

On days that the weather is rainy and not as nice, like this entire last week, Konrad trains Maggie inside at the Mitchell Technical and Career Education Academy building.

"I train Maggie every day," he said. "That's the only way she eats."

Maggie is a passive-alert arson dog, which means she sits as a signal to notify Konrad when she detects an accelerant. She has sniffed suspects, for example, detected an accelerant and sat directly next to them. Konrad said many of those suspects later confessed to arson.

To train Maggie, Konrad will set up several obstacles -- a line of shirts along a wall, one of which has a gasoline aroma. He runs Maggie along that line and once she smells the gas and sits, Konrad feeds her a handful of dog food. They train for about an hour each day.

"It's a game for her to go to work," Konrad said.

Basically, Maggie is food-driven, he added. That makes her excited to train every day. She eats 2.2 cups of kibble each day, which can really pack on the pounds if not carefully monitored. According to ATF regulations, Maggie must stay between 62 and 65 pounds, which is her optimum weight.

"Because of that, I have to watch her weight closely," he said. "It's amazing how much a half-cup of food will make her weight go up."

It is important to keep Maggie healthy because overweight or unhealthy labs often develop issues like hip dysplasia, which is when a dog's hip joint is improperly formed and the leg moves around too much. That causes painful wear and tear on the dog, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Konrad and Maggie visit the veterinarian weekly to keep an eye on her weight.

"We want her to be extremely healthy. It's also a safety thing," he said.

At the scene

At fire scenes, Maggie's calm demeanor and passive alert signals keep her safe. As she sniffs her way through a scene, she carefully moves across rubble and around sharp items.If she were a toy-driven dog, like many drug dogs, she would be at risk for injury, Konrad said.

"I do safety walks at a scene before I take her," he said.

Her passive alert signals also help her partner. If Maggie and Konrad are set to enter a burned structure and it is unsafe, Maggie can detect that and will sit.

At times, Konrad has not heeded her warnings.

He once ignored her warning that a set of stairs going into a basement was unsafe.

"She didn't want to go down," Konrad said. "I was trying to get into the basement to search it, so I picked her up and we hit a bad stair. We tobogganed down into the basement. We didn't get hurt, but she was upset with me."

They always wait until the scene is clear of fire, cooled down and it is daytime before investigating. Sometimes Maggie even wears booties on her feet to protect against broken glass, nails and other sharp objects.

"She doesn't like them," Konrad said. "We've had no injuries since I've had her. Maybe a nick or something, or a scuff of fur taken off."

Maggie saves a lot of time on fire scenes, too. Whereas it would take fire investigators days to dig through a fire scene to find any sign of accelerant, it would take Maggie less than a half hour to find a trace. This helps investigators concentrate on one area rather than the whole fire scene.

"Her nose is more sensitive than the machines they use in the state lab," Konrad said.

In one case, Maggie sniffed out a gas can that had melted right into the rubble at the front steps of a house.

When she's not working, Maggie gets a taste of the sweet life. She lives as a pet at the Konrad household and mingles with the family's other pets, a dog and a cat.

ATF arson dogs can serve until they are 9 years old, Konrad said. The DCI has a five-year contract with ATF for Maggie, so she has about two years left. After that, it's up to Konrad and the DCI and Maggie's health whether they will to continue using her as an arson dog.

If not, she retires.

"Then she becomes a big, fat, lazy lab," Konrad said with a laugh.

Until then, Maggie happily wags her tail and runs with her nose to the ground, and begs for belly scratches as often as possible.