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Dog has nose for fires

News editor

Sifting through charred remains of burned structure or vehicle has been largely a solo pursuit for state fire investigator Chris Mercer of Marion, but now he has a furry, four-footed partner to assist him.

Mercer recently returned from a six-week stay at a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives facility in Virginia with Bingo, a 17-month-old Labrador and golden retriever mix trained to detect substances that start fires.

Officially dubbed an Accelerant Detection Canine, Bingo is one of just 54 such animals in the country, Mercer said.

Bingo showed off her specialized sniffing Tuesday for Marion Kiwanis Club members, and Mercer talked about what getting a new partner entails.

Bingo started life as a guide dog candidate, but proved unsuitable for that work.

“She failed out of the program because she distracted easily,” Mercer said.

When Bingo came to the ATF training program, her eating habits changed drastically, Mercer said.

“Dogs go from getting bowls of food to nothing,” he said. “It’s meant to foster dependence on ATF trainers.”

Bingo received food and praise from trainers for successful performance, a practice Mercer learned and must keep up throughout the dog’s career.

“She has to find accelerants to get fed,” he said. “I’ve actually got to hand-feed her every day.”

That means when they’re not actively investigating a fire, they’re training. To acclimate Bingo to working at any time of day, Mercer often wakes up in the middle of the night to put her through her paces.

It takes about two and a half cups of food a day, doled out one reward at a time, to maintain Bingo’s ATF-prescribed weight of 55 pounds, Mercer said.

Bingo can sniff out residue from six different classes of accelerants, although laboratory analysis is needed to determine what specific substance is involved.

As one of just two ADC canines for the state fire marshal department, Bingo can be called to action throughout the eastern half of the state, Mercer said. In the three weeks the pair has been back from training camp, they’ve investigated nine fires, including two with fatalities. Bingo identified accelerants at two of those sites.

Meanwhile, Bingo is adapting to family life with the Mercers and new playmate Milo, a 3-year-old male chocolate Labrador.

“Bingo is the inside dog and Milo is the outside dog,” Mercer said. “They get along; they wrestle and play.”

Mercer filled out a 30-page information form that ATF officials used to match him with Bingo, and so far she’s been a good fit. When her working life is over, expected to be from five to 10 years, she will become just a regular member of the household, Mercer said.

Last modified Jan. 4, 2017

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