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With wildfire season stretching longer each year, dog lovers in fire regions should always make sure they know how to keep their dog safe if a blaze breaks out. But what about all the ways dogs have kept humans safe from fire over the years?

That’s right: man’s best friend has also long been a fire-fighting ally — and today, ingenious dog-canine teams are finding ever-newer ways to pair up against fire.

Dalmatians and the Fire Service

The Dalmatian running alongside the fire truck is an American icon, but, uh, why?! It all goes back to the 1700s, when English aristocrats would keep Dalmatians to run alongside their horse-drawn carts, chasing off other dogs and any other possible frights along the way. But why Dalmatians? Partly because they’re excellent companions and very intelligent, with a lot of energy. Dalmatian lore, albeit unproven, also has it that these famously spotted pups form especially close bonds with horses.

By the 1870s, the New York Fire Department was using Dalmatians to run ahead of their (still horse-drawn) fire trucks. It was the start of a lasting relationship: even when the horses were replaced by engines, firefighters kept the Dalmatians around as faithful firehouse dogs. Famously, after the Ladder 20 division of FDNY lost seven members in the 9/11 attacks, the Rochester Fire Department gifted them a Dalmatian Puppy as a support dog and companion. That happy pup, Twenty, lived until 2018, enjoying a whole lot of love and attention from her firefighting friends.

Dalmatians Sussex and Bingo Bango, with members of the Defense Squad of the Boston Fire Department, 1943.

Swedish Dogs Prevent Wildfires

So we know dogs are super helpful in supporting the humans who fight fires. But can they fight fire themselves? You bet!

When firefighters tackle a wildfire, defeating the flames is only the first part of the job. Any embers or hotspots that aren’t properly extinguished could flare up again in the coming days or weeks, and spark another fire. The trouble is, it can be very hard to find these hotspots, making this last stage of firefighting a costly and time-consuming process.

Unless you’re a dog. We all know by now that dogs’ senses of smell give them superhuman abilities to sniff out disease, drugs, explosives — and, it turns out, embers and hotspots, which they can smell days before they’re likely to start burning again. In Sweden, dog owners can now have their dogs certified to sniff out embers and prevent wildfires before they start up again — and several dogs have already taken the training and are actively helping with fire efforts.

Fire investigator Dennis Woodring receives an alert from his canine partner Loki, an accelerant detection canine. Photo from U.S. Fire Administration

Dogs Sniff Out Arson and More

Dogs’ extraordinary noses also come in very handy in the aftermath of fires, when the authorities need to identify how the blaze started and who has been affected.

For the first of those jobs, they turn to accelerant detection canines (ADCs), which are trained to detect any substance that was used to start a fire. If a fire was started deliberately, using an ignitable accelerant such as gasoline, ADCs can sniff out even tiny trace amounts of the substance, helping law enforcement find out how the fire started. Using ADCs at fire sites leads to a higher conviction rate for fires started deliberately — and can also help the authorities to rule arson out, allowing an insurance claim to proceed more easily. These pups work fast: they can cover an entire fire scene in 30 minutes, making them much more efficient than human detectives. And sometimes, they might not even need to sniff out the whole scene — ADCs are encouraged to mingle with the crowds that gather at the scene of a fire. If the fire starter happens to be in the crowd, the ADC will detect the smell of gasoline or other flammable substance on their clothing.

And when a wildfire has ravaged an area, dogs can also help bring survivors lasting peace. The temperatures in affected areas typically get so high that there’s nothing but ash left behind. This can be devastating for the already-devastated individuals who fled their homes but left loved ones behind. Without a body to bury or cremains to scatter, closure can be all-but-impossible.

Enter remain-sniffing dogs. These pups are trained to identify the specific smell of human ashes, as distinct from the ash produced when other substances are burned. They can identify the cremains even after extreme fires, where the ashes might reach eight inches deep. Thanks to their diligent service and their extraordinary noses, many distraught humans have been able to grieve, scatter, and honor their loved ones.

Just when you thought dogs couldn’t get any better, you find out they’re saving lives, healing grief, and fighting crime in all kinds of unexpected ways. Here’s to the firefighting pups of the world.

Related article: Can Cuddling Wolf Pups Turn Them Into Dogs?
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