Cloquet, Minn., dog, handler spread arson awareness
CLOQUET, Minn. -- As handler of the only accelerant detection dog in the state, it seems fitting that Jason Maki and his dog, Wish, can be found posing together on their own baseball card. The back of the card doesn't include Wish's arson-solving...
CLOQUET, Minn. -- As handler of the only accelerant detection dog in the state, it seems fitting that Jason Maki and his dog, Wish, can be found posing together on their own baseball card.
The back of the card doesn't include Wish's arson-solving statistics, but it does feature a quote from the service canine: "If you use an accelerant to start a fire, I will find it," Wish says.
Maki is an arson investigator with the Cloquet Area Fire District. He typically gives the cards out during public appearances at schools and community organizations.
He agreed to meet Tuesday outside the fire station on Cloquet Avenue during Arson Awareness Week. As he turned the corner, he was being dragged down the sidewalk by a leashed dog with seemingly boundless energy.
"You can see," Maki said, "that she kind of drives."
For a demonstration, Maki placed droplets of a 50 percent evaporated gas solution in the vast concrete staging platform in front of the station. Wish was eager to work.
"She's a food reward dog," Maki said. "She only eats when she's working."
Nose down, the 3-year-old golden Labrador sussed out the droplets in no time. She sat proudly each time and waited to be fed.
Wish is the second accelerant dog within the Cloquet Area Fire District, following the late Nick. When she's not working she either stays in Maki's fire hall dorm room or at his home with his family. She's fun-loving and craves attention that Maki and his two young children are eager to provide.
"When we go to a fire scene, she's all business," Maki said. "But around the house she's just a baby. My kids hang off her ears, pull her tail. She's very friendly."
In discussing their role in fire investigations, Maki sounds like a man who has found his dream job. He and the dog have been all over Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, and even into the Dakotas, to assist with arson investigations. They tend to get involved in cases that feature high-dollar losses, fatalities or suspected hate crimes. They've spent a lot of time in Duluth, Maki said, and helped solve, for instance, the 2013 Windwood Townhomes fire at the corner of Pecan Avenue and Upham Road that damaged several housing units. A man was later arrested and charged with arson, in part thanks to Wish's involvement.
Wish joins the investigation after a scene has cooled, to avoid injuring her feet. When she hits on one of up to 60 accelerants she's trained to detect, a flag is placed to mark the spot. Investigators then follow up with the flagged items after Wish leaves the scene.
Wish doesn't replace fire investigators who do things like search for a fire's origin; she supplements their work.
"It's nice because you're making the investigation a little faster and a little more thorough," said Paul Gallagher, Wish's trainer. "They're a heck of a tool to use; they're good for eliminating things we weren't sure about."
In doing so, Wish elevates the probability levels of samples sent to labs, helping to streamline the work of the investigative team.
Gallagher is the owner of Maine Specialty Dogs, where Maki went in 2013 to meet and train with Wish for five weeks that culminated with certification by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. After a short personality test the first day, Maki was paired with Wish.
"We started bonding that first night," he said.
The program is sponsored and paid for by State Farm Insurance. The program has 81 dogs throughout the United States, and has trained 450 total since 1993, said Gallagher.
The cost to train a single dog is between $18,000 and $24,000, estimated Gallagher, who added almost all of the Labradors are "career-change" dogs.
"We get a lot of seeing-eye dogs or aid-assist dogs that were too exuberant for their training," Gallagher said. "They're very active canines."
From the end of a forever taut leash, Maki can attest to that. But he wouldn't have it any other way.
When it comes to Wish, "You don't trick her," he said. "She's smarter than we are."