Meet Durham’s new weapon in the fight against arson ... Scrappy the Firedog

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Officially he is a hydrocarbon detection dog but to the team at Durham and Darlington Fire Service he is known affectionately as Scrappy Firedog.

Scrappy the Firedog. Lee Aspery. Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue, Peterlee.

Scrappy the Firedog. Lee Aspery. Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue, Peterlee.

Scrappy is a crucial part of the service’s bid to become a centre for excellence in detecting the cause of life-endangering fires.

Fire investigation manager Lee Aspery is the two-year-old sprocker spaniel’s trainer.

“The way we do an excavation uses scientific archeology – it’s exactly like Time Team,” said Lee, 46.

“Scrappy has to look for vapour buried up to a metre deep in burnt debris.

“That’s why we train him on the finest amount of material we can – 0.001 of a litre.

“We also have to get him to recognise naturally occurring hydrocarbons that are there all the time, like the foam in office chairs and the veneers on most desks.

“We need him to read right through that and hit on the target.

“We’re looking for origin and cause and certain physical evidence at the scene.”

Like any member of the service, Scrappy has to be dressed for the job.

He wears “Ruffwear” boots with a heat-resistant vibram sole and a specially adapted harness.

Lee said: “His harness has a carry handle so we can lift him up and over when we need to.

“If the staircase has fallen in he can go up a ladder or we can clip him to a rope and carefully lift him up.

“As soon as his boots go on he knows he’s working.”

Scrappy is Lee’s first training project.

Lee said: “I had working dogs when I was growing up but Scrappy is the first fire dog I’ve trained.

“He’s highly intelligent – he problem-solves all the time.

“He’s got the tenacity of the gun dog breeds and he wants to do it. He wants to get the reward and please me.”

Scrappy has visited eight fire scenes so far and shows real promise.

Scrappy and Lee will undergo rigorous final testing throughout August to become fully qualified and licensed.

To prepare for the job, Scrappy’s superior nose has been trained to sniff out 10 hydrocarbons, including petrol, lighter fluid and white spirit.

Lee trains Scrappy using Hides – a durapipe with a piece of towelling inside daubed with a tiny amount of hydrocarbon.

Successful hydrocarbon detector dogs can then speed up convictions.

Lee explained: “What we’re able to show is that, working alongside the police, we can give good value for money and you haven’t got long drawn out protracted investigations.

“The Philpott case [Mick and Mairead Philpott were convicted of killing six of their children in a deliberate house fire] came through very quickly.

“The Derbyshire dog Freckles was used there.

“When you end up with a situation where lives are put at risk directly by someone’s actions, more times than not the material they have used will be consumed by the fire. “So what we’re down to is looking for that fine trace evidence.”

Scrappy has been taught using tried and tested methods, adapted specifically for his unique job.

Lee said: “I’ve clicker-trained him because normal search dogs are rewarded by getting the ball when they hit their target – but I can’t throw a ball for Scrappy at the scene of a fire because it wouldn’t be safe.

“The click brings him to me and then I throw the ball for him somewhere safe.

“I’ve also trained him to respond to my hand signals so if we’re somewhere really noisy he can see what I want him to do.

“We started with verbal commands and just playing with him to find out what makes him tick. He passed the selection process with flying colours. He’s got such a high drive for the ball.

“He learns really fast. At times we have to slow him down.

“We cut tennis balls into tiny pieces for him to find and he was striking them every time. He works purely on scent.

“When we’re out for a walk and he loses his ball in the grass he bounces around everywhere looking for it so I call him back and give him the command to ‘seek’ and use his nose.

“We then went to Wales for a 24-hour visit to meet Malpas station manager Matt Jones who wrote the book on hydrocarbon detection so we could learn how to swap Scrappy’s fascination with tennis balls for hydrocarbons.

“He went from tennis balls to petrol and lighter fluid in one day. He’s really fast.

“I’ve also trained him to ‘turn off’. When he’s got his harness on and he’s working his heart rate goes up so when he’s finished he gets a moment to unwind and a double pat so he knows he’s not working any more and he can relax.

“It’s one of those excellent techniques from the police dog school.”

Scrappy was given to Durham Constabulary to become a search dog. But it soon became clear he could be an excellent fire dog.

Lee said: “We train with Sergeant Sue Masden at the North East Regional Dog School in Spennymoor.

“Scrappy is quite a divergence from the normal training for drug and explosion dogs. Everywhere I go I take small versions of accelerants so we can train.”

The next-nearest hydrocarbon detector dogs are in Derby and Merseyside, so Scrappy will cover a huge area when he completes his training in August.

Lee says the final exams are a real pressure, but ultimately he has faith in the bond he has built with Scrappy.

Lee said: “I’m responsible for everything - his safety, his well being.

“He comes home with me at night and there isn’t a day I don’t take him for a walk.”

Lee lives in Middlesbrough and is also a lecturer for Teesside University’s fire investigation course.

He has been with the fire service for six years after re-badging from Durham Constabulary’s CSI department where he worked for 16 years. Before that he did eight years with his local Army regiment, the Green Howards.

Lee said: “I rebadged in 2006 when the fire service took on some of the police work in forensic investigation.

“I am really lucky that people have paid me for what I want to do. I love my job.”

And it is much more than a job, requiring a lot of dedication.

When not at work, Scrappy lives with Lee’s family – wife Linda, son Elliott, 15, and daughter Lucy, 18.

Lee said: “At home Scrappy has his own bachelor pad. A kennel with a patio surrounded by flowers.

“He likes to sit out in the sun. The family love him. He’s not a lap-dog though, he won’t leave you alone if you’ve got a ball in your hand.”

Lee gets up at 5.30am to take Scrappy for his morning walk and he gets a minimum of three hours of exercise per day.

Scrappy is not paid for from the public purse but sponsored by local businesses.

Lee said: “We’re not going around with our cap in hand but it would be nice if there is a company who can help out with things like kennel costs and vet fees.

“When I’m away he needs to live in police kennels to keep up his training and it all adds up.”

l To find out more, search for Scrappy Firedog on Facebook.