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Sniffing out crime: Arson dogs are a firefighter's best friend 

Jan. 17, 2014 at 11:07 AM ET

Video: NBC’s Tom Costello talks to firefighters and meets their loyal assistants: Arson dogs, who whiff out clues to suspicious blazes with extraordinary accuracy.

A dog searching through the charred remains of a burned building can sniff out traces of gasoline just as easily as a human can smell a slice of pizza. And now those talented noses are helping arson investigators solve big crimes.

“[The dogs] take the guesswork out of where we need to take samples to figure out what was here," said Jerry Means of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. He has worked with his dog, Sadie, on 600 fires in Colorado — and counting. 

On a crime scene, Sadie will weave through the debris with her nose pointed to the ground, with Means in tow. If Sadie picks something up, she will sit and use her nose to point. Means will then place a marker, which is a small plastic circle with the words, “Sadie was here.” A sample of the spot will then be taken in for testing. 

Sadie marker
TODAY
A special marker preserves where Sadie has sniffed out an arson clue.

"We can't see, we can't smell it,” Means told NBC’s Tom Costello of the accelerants that are used in arson crimes. “It's halfway burned up, but it's easy for her to come in and identify."

Not just easy: Sadie is able to distinguish the differences between more than 60 different types of accelerants. It's a characteristic of her breed's strong nose. Labs are popular with trainers not only because of the strong sniffing abilities, but also because of their playful and curious nature. 

Sadie and Means are one of 81 specially trained teams now working in the U.S. and Canada. Every dog must be recertified each year to ensure their noses remain in tip-top shape. 

Arson dog
TODAY
The special K9 teams have made such a difference, they now have their own statue in Washington, D.C.

State Farm Insurance foots the bill for the expensive training, convinced that puppy power is one of the best ways to search for evidence of arson crime, which costs nearly $700 million each year and kills 170 people across the U.S. annually.

Though Sadie has been trained to be a professional investigator, to her and other dogs like her, the work is just a big, fun game. 

“All she’s asking for in return is a pat on the head, somebody to tell her she did a good job,” said Means.

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