Doggone: Arson Dog from Altoona Fire Department Retires After Seven Years | News, Sports, Jobs
On the sunny steps of Altoona Town Hall, a chocolate Labrador named Tyra turned around last week, presenting his belly to a crowd of city officials and scratching firefighters.
Like any other dog, Tyra was playful and the center of attention, her grizzled nose nudging all the inactive hands that might instead be scratching behind her ears.
Unlike many of her canine peers, however, Tyra was a city employee, or rather an asset the city used to help firefighters determine whether or not liquid accelerators were playing a role in starting a fire.
She retired on June 15, surrounded by her fellow firefighters and city employees. Now Tyra will live out her golden years as a pet with no more responsibility than making the kids laugh and keeping her longtime master, Tim Hughes, a retired fire inspector from the service of the city, company. ‘Altoona fire.
Before Tyra could become a “incendiary dog” she first had to fail after training as a guide dog for the blind, said Hughes, 57.
“It’s a little harsh, but it’s true” he explained. “Tyra wanted to keep her nose to the ground, which isn’t great for the blind, but it helped her grow into an amazing arson dog.”
Officially referred to as liquid accelerator detection dogs, arson dogs help law enforcement and first responders determine if arson could be a factor in the fire.
The Arson Dog Training Program funds the training and placement of dogs with agencies, such as the Altoona Fire Department. The program has a price tag of around $ 30,000, which is paid for entirely by State Farm, Hughes said.
Former Altoona Deputy Fire Chief Mike Tofano found out about the program and encouraged Hughes to apply in 2013, and in the summer of 2014 he was on his way to Maine for a month-long training that would go change his life.
“It was quite brilliant to see how they paired each of the candidates with their dogs,” said Hugues.
The training itself was conducted by Maine Specialty Dogs, whose owner and head trainer, Paul Gallagher, interviewed each of the candidates about their professional life and personality.
“As we went through the training month it was pretty clear that the dogs were perfectly suited to their handlers,” said Hugues. âI was a little older, and so was Tyra. She was calm, but still full of energy. We got along very well. “
A Desert Storm veteran who served in both the US Marine Corps and the US Army as a demolition engineer, Hughes was nearing the end of his career when he decided to become a material handler.
When the couple met, Hughes was 50 and Tyra was 3, or around 21 of dog age. The other dogs, all Labradors, in the program were around one and a half years old.
As a food reward dog, Hughes only learned to feed Tyra from his hand after locating an accelerator. This intensive training-reward system has dominated their lives for the past seven years.
“She was training constantly – day and night, work day or weekends – because that’s the only way to feed her,” said Hugues. âAnd it can’t be on a calendar; Otherwise, when it comes time to work, she might think, “I’m going to have something to eat in an hour, so it’s not worth my time.” “
The amounts of food have also changed. To do her job, Tyra had to be a little hungry, so Hughes said he constantly managed her diet to make sure she was always ready to win a meal.
âI would wake up at 2 am sometimes, take her out, dab a little gas in the garden and let her do her thing. “ he remembers. “We never knew when she might be needed for a fire, so I had to keep her ready 24/7.”
Now that Tyra is retired, she is no longer regularly hand-fed.
“She didn’t really know what to do with the food bowl at first,” said Hugues. âIt took a while to convince her to eat it, but she is fine now. “
Over 350 fires
On Hughes and Tyra’s first mission after training seven years ago, she helped Allegheny County firefighters solve a month-old case.
“The site had been standing there in the rain, the shining sun and all other kinds of weather for 30 days or more”, Hughes remembers. “But despite all the time that has passed, she introduced herself and immediately identified the liquid accelerators.”
A criminal dog is not a quick fix in determining whether liquid accelerators were used, but rather one of the many tools investigators use to learn the history of a fire. The dogs identify a location where the use of accelerators was likely, and investigators take samples from those locations.
In the early years, Tyra sometimes misidentified the locations, but in recent years Hughes has said she has a 100 percent accuracy rating both in the field and in training.
During her time with the department, Tyra worked over 350 fires, according to a certificate of recognition presented to her by Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico last week.
“Tyra’s retreat is bittersweet” Pacifico said. “She worked so hard, but she deserved it.”
More than a criminal dog, Tyra was an ambassador for the community, bridging the gap between civilians and first responders, he said.
“She was so great with the community” Pacifico said. “She wants to be social with people and she’s great with kids.”
Altoona Fire Chief Tim Hileman said Tyra is often the highlight of school visits to the department.
“Of course the kids watched our guys put on their bomber suits and talk about smoke detectors,” said Hileman. âBut, when Tyra came out, that’s when their eyes lit up. Ask any kid who has been to school in Altoona in the past seven years, and they’ll know exactly who Tyra is.
Tyra completed her last mission in April.
“She had health problems”, he said. “I could just say, his heart was gone.”
After a series of incidents of vomiting, a vet examined her and ruled out the possibility of cancer, but determined that the walls of her stomach hardened with age, forcing Hughes to micromanage her diet – a task which would eliminate the possibility of sustaining his food reward training.
“She also has hip problems,” said Hugues. “It was just the right time.”
Officially, Hughes first retired in 2018, but he agreed to remain in the fire department as Tyra’s manager until she was also ready to retire.
Now the two are ready for some downtime, playing with Hughes’ grandchildren, visiting Ocean City, Maryland, and lounging by the pool in the backyard.
Maintaining a criminal dog requires more than a dedicated handler, said Hughes. Tyra’s service was made possible by State Farm, Maine Specialty Dogs as well as local businesses such as Sylvan Veterinary Hospital, Fabulous Fido and Petco, who all donated care and supplies during Tyra’s service, said Hughes and Hileman.
Despite being the first arson dog in the Altoona Fire Department, Hileman said he hoped Tyra wouldn’t be the last.
“We are planning to apply for another as Tyra has proven how valuable a criminal dog is to the department” he said. âBut it takes time and we have to have a volunteer manager. It is an important commitment not only for the firefighter, but also for his family.
Mirror staff writer Ike Fredregill is at 814-946-7458.