Julia, the arson-sniffing dog  

Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.
Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.
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Julia, a 2-year-old goldador — crossbreed of a Labrador and Golden Retriever — may have not made the cut to become a guide dog, but her path of service didn’t end there.  

Through strenuous training with dog handler Capt. Casey Flanders, Julia has now earned herself a spot on the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s arson unit.  

Julia serves as the accelerant and ignitable liquid detection canine. 

Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.
Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.

“The average human has between 5 to 6 million olfactory receptors. Dogs have between 225 to 300 million, so their sense of smell is about 50 times greater than ours,” said Flanders. “One-eighth of their brain is dedicated to that same processing and 50% of that nose anatomy is dedicated to that odor processing.” 

Last year the L.A. County Fire Department’s arson unit got to brainstorming about bringing back a canine program that was once instilled many years ago.  

The idea floated around, but it seemed no one jumped at the chance to be a part of it, primarily because of the demands that go into becoming a handler.  

Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.
Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.

Wanting to dive further into his new assigned arson unit, Flanders volunteered himself.  

“I wanted to kind of dive headfirst into the arson world,” said Flanders. “I’m definitely in that learning phase, so I figured, hey, why not? Why not one more? I wanted to be involved. I thought it was a fun, or could be, little niche of the arson world to have the dog and having that knowledge and that skill set.” 

The unit approved Flanders for the job and in April he flew to New Hampshire for an entire month of training.  

Julia was trained by Maine Specialty Dogs as part of the Arson Dog program.  

Flanders and Julia were matched by the program and got right to work.  

Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.
Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.

“The dogs are essentially trained before we get there. The training is for us,” said Flanders. “They’re training us to efficiently work the dogs.” 

“We are certified by the Maine State Police and that’s under the guidelines of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.” 

Flanders and Julia worked together to form a bond of trust and mutual respect. Julia has not left his side since.  

Training on and off hours led the two to be one of the 13 trainer-handler teams that passed the program. 

Julia came out on the other end obedience trained, with the ability to scout out ignitable liquid or fire accelerants, and was trained to be food rewarded.   

The two will return every year for the next five years to repeat their training for recertification. 

Julia became a part of the L.A. County Fire Department, but also became a part of Flanders’ family.  

Flanders has a wife and children who were excited to have a dog again after their previous Labrador had died two years ago.  

They all fell in love with Julia.  

“At home (we’ll throw) balls with her, every now and then they will let her get into a pool. She loves the water, being that breed,” said Flanders. “They go crazy when they hit the body of water.” 

Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.
Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.

Coming home doesn’t mean Flanders and Julia are entirely off the clock.  

Julia is a food reward dog, meaning she doesn’t have a traditional dog bowl to eat from. She has to only ever eat from a person’s hand. 

“You know when a dog eats out of your hand its whole life, it really grows in connection with you,” said Flanders.  

She must work for her food by running drills. These drills have to be repeated enough so Julia can get enough food for the day.  

“She only eats when she finds gas,” said Flanders.” When I say gas I mean the training aid that I spoke of (a mixture of gasoline and other substances) … What it means is both on duty and off duty I have to set up drills and evolutions for her, different variations of drills that we do for her to find gas so that I can feed her. We do it in the morning, we do it throughout the day and we do it at night … So she’s a lot of work, just to feed the dog. We don’t feed her in a bowl — she only eats out of my hand ever.” 

“At home, the kids help out, the wife helps out. They knew how to do some of the basic routines that I do with her, so sometimes if I’m occupied or busy or not home, I will ask them to help me out and actually it’s good for the family because it forms bonding.” 

Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.
Photo courtesy of Casey Flanders.

Julia, just like many members of the human working class, has to balance her home and work life.  

At home she can embrace being a normal dog. At work she is a key component of solving arson cases by sniffing out the exact starter locations of ignitable liquids or fire accelerants, laying down and waiting for the other professionals to do the rest of the dirty work.  

“The dog helps us pinpoint down that piece of evidence for our arson case, but the arson case needs to be made with or without the dog,” said Flanders. “It’s a piece of the puzzle.” 

“My job is to trust the dog.” 

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