By Langley Cornwell
Sometimes CANIDAE gets the honor of helping out truly special pets and their amazing owners. It’s even more amazing when the duo goes further than just making a phenomenal team, but actually helps save lives and solves crimes together. That’s why I would like you to meet Ashes, a five-year-old chocolate Labrador fire dog, and her owner and partner, Brooktrails Fire Chief Daryl Schoeppner, of California.
What makes this story even more unique is the outpouring of community support and hard work—by both Ashes and Schoeppner—that it took to form their partnership. In fact, the community has stayed involved and continues to do what’s necessary to keep it going strong. You see, Ashes is a completely donation-driven dog, meaning that taxpayers are not charged for her upkeep or training.
Ashes herself was a gift. Schoeppner lost his first fire dog and partner of ten years to cancer. That special dog was an accelerant-detecting golden retriever named Eddie, who was also sponsored with dog food from CANIDAE. When sympathizers in Devonshire, England, heard about Eddie’s death, they gifted Ashes to the program.
It’s Hard Work Being a Hero
“She definitely earns her groceries,” says Chief Schoeppner, when asked about Ashes’ workload.
Having already helped to investigate over a dozen arson cases in 2013 alone, one memorable case Ashes and Schoeppner worked to solve wrapped up last year in Mendocino County. In this case, a 52-year-old mother was found guilty and sentenced to 13 years in prison for setting fire to her home while her quadriplegic son was inside. The fire was particularly dangerous to local firefighters, as propane and oxygen tanks were used as accelerants.
And it’s not just major local arson cases the duo work to solve. They are a shared resource for the Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma County region. Ashes also recently helped with a weapons search in a local high school, searching over 600 lockers after a weapon was discovered at the school.
Rigorous Training Required
There is a lot of training – for both dog and handler – that goes into making an arson dog worthy to carry the title. Considering that what these canines discover is used for court evidence in cases like the one above, the evidence has to be solid enough to withstand the courtroom environment. The work is so rigorous and scrutinized that there are less than a hundred canines in the U.S. that do this type of work.
Ashes has always proven more than worthy of the challenge, though. When she was almost a year old, she was flown to Texas to attend the Canine Academy Training Center for three months of intensive training. It’s not easy detecting accelerants when you’re talking parts per billion. As part of her testing, she would have to identify one syringe drop of accelerant, such as 50 percent weathered gasoline, in a mixed matrix of materials, explained Schoeppner.
For example, containers mixed with carpet fibers, wood and plastics would be presented to Ashes and she would have to locate which one contained the tiny drop of fire accelerant. That alone is amazing, but Ashes had to identify the substance correctly within a six-inch area. Ashes can detect specific substances in vehicles, on the clothing of suspects and in large open areas, such as parking lots.
After her individual training course, Chief Schoeppner joined Ashes for an additional two weeks of intense training. They had to prove that they could pull their own weight, singularly and as a team, and meet every criteria with a 100 percent correct rating. “She’s a multi-disciplined dog and quite the working girl,” said Schoeppner.
The initial thorough training isn’t all there is to it, either. They have to be re-certified every year in order to work together. Ashes and Schoeppner will soon be traveling to San Diego to do just that. There they will be joining other arson dogs, including three others from the state, although Ashes is the only public agency dog in Northern California. Washington and Colorado are also expected to have dogs present.
Giving Back to the Community
In addition to firefighting, Schoeppner and Ashes participate in grade school fire safety education by visiting local elementary schools. Ashes is a hit with the children. “She’s a great tool to get the attention of the kids,” said Schoeppner. “We even have trading cards with Ashes’ photo and stats to hand out.”
This is fitting, considering the community support it takes to adequately see to Ashes’ care. Their initial training and travel costs were covered by the Mendocino County Fire Chiefs Association, who is a big supporter of the program. The community at-large also donates, through fundraisers and a special dog house, as well as collections taken at local merchants’ counters.
Ashes is so well recognized in the community that Schoeppner says people always come up and ask him, “Hi, how’s the dog?” and then inquire after him. Not that he minds. “She’s the rock star and I’m the roadie,” Schoeppner jokes.
Fueling a Fire Dog
CANIDAE has been happily providing food for Ashes for five years. For ten years before that, they supplied the food for Eddie. It all started 15 years ago when Schoeppner contacted a member of the CANIDAE sales team, who was always supportive of making sure he had what he needed.
Even his vet is pleased with the use of CANIDAE dog food for Ashes, citing good weight and health. “Without CANIDAE’s sponsorship, it would be very difficult for us,” said Schoeppner. “I’ve always liked the food and it’s a great working dog food. I would like to extend a special thank-you to CANIDAE.”
Photos by Daryl Schoeppner /Brooktrails Fire Department
Read more articles by Langley Cornwell