When the Denver Fire Department investigates a blaze, they might be on the lookout for signs that an accelerant was used — gasoline or paint thinner that might point toward nefarious activity beneath the ashes.
Until Thursday, the team behind those investigations was entirely human. Now, they have Cora, the 2-year-old black lab with a nose for arsonists’ tools.
Cora was trained by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and placed in Denver as part of their partnership with the fire department. She’s the department’s first accelerant-sniffing dog, and joins Randi, another black lab who’s trained to find explosives.
Cora now lives full-time with her boss/trainer, Technician Scott Renter.
“I don’t want to say she’s the best partner I’ve ever had, but she definitely listens to me more than my previous partners,” Renter said in a presentation as Cora, who’s still a puppy, tried to wander away from her place of honor.
After Chief Eric Tade placed a badge-adorned collar around her neck, Renter demonstrated Cora’s skills. He strapped on a treat bag, Cora’s sign to start working, and brought her through a series of partially burned items to find those laced with accelerants. One by one she found her mark, and after each she pounced on Renter to receive her reward.
“As long as there’s physically molecules there, she can sense it,” Renter said. “We do open field searches, and she’ll get wind of it thirty, forty yards away and just take me to it.”
He said she can work a house in about five minutes. “She is absolutely a rocket.”
And that correlation between food and training is key to the ATF’s approach.
“The only time that Cora eats is when she works,” Renter said, keeping her skills fully tuned for any situation. “Twice a day, every day, I have to work her and feed her.”
Renter, who has another dog at home, said the ATF did some serious homework to make sure Cora ended up in the right hands. They came to his house to interview his wife and make sure she would get along with Renter’s other four-legged housemate.
While this week marked Cora’s official welcome to the department, she has already been out on twelve calls in Denver and four in outside jurisdictions. She was even on site at the massive blaze on Emerson Street in early March, but Renter said the situation there was too dangerous for her to be deployed.
“There’s always safety concerns,” he said.
Part of Renter’s job is to ensure that safety by visiting a site before Cora enters. The ATF has even equipped him with a NARCAN overdose antidote in case she sniffs an opioid substance in the course of her work.
While Renter said arson is always an issue, he said Cora’s addition is not a sign that those crimes are on the rise. And they got along just fine before she joined the force, she just helps them wrap their investigations much faster.