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Meet the dogs by helping the emergency services to investigate the fires and find missing people

Say hello to the adorable team of hard-working dogs who help investigate the fires and find missing people in North Lincolnshire.

The K9 Firefighting Investigation Unit is a nonprofit company that enlisted man’s best friend to assist the Humberside fire and rescue service and Humberside police.

The unit was established in 2014 by joint administrators and dog managers Mike Shooter and Jon Willingham and is primarily funded by scholarships and police and firefighting services.

Their team consists of six dogs, divided into two specializations, which detect flammable liquids and perfume tracking dogs.

Flammable liquid detectors are specially trained to detect any liquid accelerators used at the scene of a fire, which can help confirm whether the situation is malicious.

The dogs on this team are cocker spaniel Sox, springer spaniel Aston and black labrador Etta.

Mike Shooter, co-directors of the K9 Fire Investigation Unit, left and Jon Willingham with their dogs Yura, Aston, Sox, Yuki, Chuck and Etta

Perfume tracking dogs are used when the police are looking for a missing person, with their hypersensitive sense of smell and localization skills put to good use.

This team is made up of Yuki and Yura, who are both Polish hunting dogs, and Chuck, a wire pointer.

There are only 18 dog teams across the UK and even fewer of those have specific dogs for tracking perfumes.

Mike said, “The dog team is quite specialist, when you are a fire investigator and you think a liquid accelerator could be used, bring a dog in. They walk on the scene and identify any liquid much better than any person.

“Even when a liquid accelerator is burned and the smell is no longer felt, it does not disappear completely and the dog can notice the smell, trace it and identify it.

“All dogs have their own individual abilities and personalities, though. Aston, for example, is crazy like a box of frogs, is very active and can run forever.

Etta, while training with Mike Shooter at the Peaks Lane fire station in Grimsby

“So his best job is on large sites and buildings, he covered a big fire in the bingo hall in about a minute and identified the areas we should look at.

“He may still be distracted by the strange squirrel, but he is very good at his job.

“Sox joined the team when Aston needed a knee operation that knocked him out for a while. He may be quite loud and even angry but as soon as he enters the door he lowers his nose and goes to work.

“Etta, however, is a little calmer and ideal when you’re in homes or smaller places.

“For hunting dogs, we take them originally from Holland, where they are trained by a puppy to follow the smells. So when we catch them, we only do some operational training and then they are ready.

“We have three because Chuck needed a shunt in his liver and he wasn’t feeling well for a while and they offered to take Yura and Yuki on board.

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“They are originally from Poland and are very intelligent dogs, especially since they originally learned the commands in Polish, then Dutch, then English.

“Three dogs benefit us, also because we can do longer searches and exchange dogs when they are tired.”

Tracing dogs have been used more frequently since Humberside police were involved in the unit two years ago, with the force having used the dog’s unit to help find high-risk missing persons.

Mike said, “Dogs are normally called for high-risk missing people, then for the elderly, people at risk of suicide, and so on.

“If we can’t track them down and find them, at least we can give the police a direction to look for.

“Normally we ask the family of missing people to provide us with something like a pillowcase, which holds the scent of a person much more than other clothing.

Jon Willingham plays with Sox, Etta and Aston after finishing some training

“It’s not just about finding people. Once a body showed up in someone’s garden and the dogs were able to use their perfume to track down their final movements, find the house key and which house it came from.

“It is also used to exclude areas during searches. We were once looking for Weelsby Woods at night to look for a missing person and we could exclude him after about an hour.

“It prevents the police from focusing their research on areas where they could get hurt and take a long time.

“In 18 months we have used our perfume tracking dogs in over 100 accidents, they are used much more than firing dogs.”

Research is only part of the job, however, with the K9 unit being brought to local schools to raise awareness of fire safety.

Mike said, “The other part of the job is very busy in the community, we go to local schools and help talk about fire safety.

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“Animals are really good at breaking down walls between adults and children and making them talk and get involved.

“He can be very good at helping them remember why they remember dogs from experience.

“We started the unit because we love dogs as a hobby and we knew that having a specialized dog unit is important. So we worked out a good business plan that would benefit Humberside Fire and Rescue and have worked with them ever since.”


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