SAFETY HARBOR — Firefighter Ron Neuberger drips a golden liquid onto gauze in a plastic container and offers a whiff to a bystander.
The pungent gasoline brings tears to the eyes. Then Neuberger clamps the blue plastic lid on the container and offers another whiff. This time, nothing.
Neuberger places the container on a carousel holding other plastic containers with blue lids.
He leaves the room, returning with Quincy, his buff-colored puppy, and leads the dog to the carousel and instructs him to find the container with the gasoline.
Everything seems to be fine as Quincy sniffs each container. But suddenly the puppy is distracted by a photographer a couple of feet away and mugs for the camera. Finding the container with the gas quickly is forgotten.
Quincy's loss of concentration is perhaps not surprising. The puppy is still learning his trade — searching charred remains for the scent of accelerants to help investigators determine whether a fire was set deliberately. If Quincy hits on a scent and sits, investigators will be able to zero in on a possible arson faster than they would by just picking through the ruins.
Quincy, a Labrador mix, was not intended to be an arson dog. Neuberger and his girlfriend were searching for a pet when they found him at Pet Pal Rescue in southern St. Petersburg. They were doubtful about getting a dog until Quincy looked at them.
They took Quincy home and soon found he was an ace at searching out dead lizards Neuberger had thrown out of the house. Neuberger wondered if Quincy could also sniff out accelerants. He approached his boss, Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham, to propose that Quincy be trained as Pinellas County's next arson dog. The county's last arson dog retired in December with his owner.
Graham told Neuberger to take his proposal to the Lealman Fire Commission, whose members thought having an arson dog would be a great idea. The department would fund the dog, who would be on call for the rest of the county.
Neuberger promised to try to offset some of the cost of training and upkeep by getting donations. And he took Quincy to see Bill Whitstine, owner of Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor. Whitstine, a former firefighter who owned and trained the county's first arson dog, Villain, offered to cut his training fee in half, from about $8,000 to $4,000.
Whitstine has been training dogs to sniff for specific scents for about 20 years. He "invented" the bedbug dog, which locates bedbugs in hotel rooms and elsewhere. Whitstine has about 60 of his bedbug dogs around the country and in Canada, England, Mexico and Japan. He has trained other dogs to locate mold, underground gas leaks, bats and turtle eggs.
One of his most recent trainees finds peanuts. The dog is intended for a family whose daughter is deathly allergic to peanuts. The dog will be able to go into classrooms or other places and locate peanuts in whatever form — raw, roasted, boiled, even peanut butter. If the dog finds nothing, the child will be able to come into the room.
"This dog is going to allow her the potential of going to school with all the other kids," Whitstine said.
Another first for Whitstine came recently when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called to see if a dog could be trained to be a snake sniffer. Not just any snake. The department was interested in locating the Eastern indigo snake, a threatened species. Finding them is one step in trying to save the species.
"A snake's a snake to you and me," he said. But for a dog's sensitive nose, "this snake has a definite odor (and dogs) can absolutely pick out the difference. ... It doesn't matter what the odor is, cocaine or peanut butter, we can do that."
The cost of training sniffer dogs depends on the purpose. Bedbug dogs cost about $8,700; mold dogs, about $9,700. The peanut dog would normally have cost $10,000, but Whitstine did the training for free. The snake dog also cost about $10,000. The cost is the same whether you bring your own dog for training or you buy one of Whitstine's.
Whitstine trains by using food and praise as rewards. The dog learns that the only way it can eat is to play the scent game.
Quincy, for example, will be put through his paces twice a day every day at mealtimes.
The process takes two to three months. Whitstine does some of the initial work with the dog, but then has to teach the handler what to do. That's the difficult part, he said.
"The humans, obviously, are much more difficult," he said.
Neuberger learned that "what goes down the leash, comes up the leash." "You have to be in almost a good state of mind when you work with them," Neuberger said. If the handler is tense because, say, a photographer is a foot away, the dog will sense that and be less likely to do its job well. The two have to work as a unit that can shut out the rest of the world.
"It's been an eye-opening experience," Neuberger said.