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July 1, 2016

Retired fire scene dogs find lifelong homes with handlers

The dogs that help State Fire Marshal’s Office handlers detect ignitable liquids at fire scenes also share a big part of the handlers’ off-duty lives. They show up in Christmas pictures and accept challenges to play tug-a-war from family members. They are fixtures on family road trips. And in a dog’s later years, the handler’s home often becomes the dog’s retirement refuge.

Clint Williams and Nico Captain Clint Williams and Nico

Tommy and Tess Captain Tommy Pleasant works with Tess.

“Buddy is just another kid; he’s the brother my kids never had,” said Lt. Tommy Hubertus. “We have a bond after being together 24/7, and it’s hard to give that up. We’re really partners.” Buddy was retired in 2013 and Hubertus currently works with his dog Clear.

The bond between handlers and their dogs starts in training and grows as they work hundreds of fire scenes together. Results of their work are vital to investigators and can become key evidence in criminal cases.

With their history together, handlers feel a responsibility for their dogs when they are no longer able to work. They agree to pay for the care of their former partners including everything from veterinary checkups to surgeries. In some cases, grants are available to help with the expenses, but it’s mostly one last personal gift from the handlers to their beloved canine partners.

Sgt. David Rives has been working with Saxon since 2008 and is preparing to keep the dog after his August retirement. Rives said the expense of caring for Saxon is minor compared what he feels he owes the dog.

“He’s been my partner and has done too good for me for too long for me not to want to take care of him,” Rives said. “These dogs are like therapists that ride around with you in the back of your truck.”

The vet bills can be sizeable. Captain Tommy Pleasant said the dogs often develop arthritis as they age. Back problems also are common as the dogs are often asked to climb over debris at fire sites. “Geriatric care for dogs can be very expensive.”

 “There is a remarkable bonding experience with a dog,” said Pleasant, an instructor and senior handler for the canine unit. He offered a home to both Heiko and Tess when they retired and currently works with Gabby. “Even at the most difficult fire fatality scenes, the dog is there to offer unconditional love.”

The Fire Marshal’s Office has gotten its dogs from the same training facility in Alabama since 1997. The facility teaches dogs to detect petroleum hydrocarbons used in ignitable liquids and it uses toys rather than food as a reward.

Pleasant said as a canine instructor, he learned that the personalities of the handlers needed to be a good fit with the dogs before training begins. He works with the training facility to find dogs with temperaments that match the handlers.

Keiko Don’t let the teeth fool you; Heiko enjoyed playing under the Pleasant family Christmas tree. Heiko is one of two dogs that Captain Tommy Pleasant continued to care for after they retired from state service.

“It’s important for the guys to know what their dogs are capable of, to be able to work with them, and control them,” Pleasant said. “Every dog is different.”

After staying loyal to their partners for their entire careers, the dogs are close to the hearts of their handlers and parting ways is not easy.

“We had Heiko with us on Christmas Eve in Aransas Pass,” Pleasant said. “Our vet was staying nearby and he was aware that he might be needed. As usual, Heiko got to do things his way and we euthanized him on the beach.”

Captain Clint Williams is the former partner and caregiver to retired canines Rex and Nico. He took Rex home in May 2012 after he was retired due to a degenerative spinal disease. Rex died that same month.

Williams soon started working with Nico, but the dog developed an eye disease and had to be retired in November 2015.

“Right now, it’s just the normal feeding, shots, and checkups,” Williams said of Nico’s care. “He still wants to play fetch, but we are throwing his toy closer to him because of his eyesight.”

Williams now works as a captain in the fire marshal’s fire safety inspections program.

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Last updated: 7/5/2016