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Arson dog visits local school

Kent is a flunky, but you'd never know that by looking at him. His bright eyes, friendly disposition and sharp nose are some of the glowing traits marking his success.
   This 5-year-old Golden Labrador got his start serving humans in the Guiding Eyes program for the blind in New York City. His career as a guide dog for the blind was cut short however, when his gregarious nature began to emerge as youth.
   "The ATF buys all of their arson-involved dogs from this program," explained Kent's handler, Detective Maurice `Mo' Austin. "It's my understanding that about 1,200 dogs go through the program and a small percentage fail and Kent is one of those dogs. His problem is that he was just too friendly."
   Kent was in Prineville recently to help with an arson investigation following a house fire on February 4. Kent spent most of that Monday morning sniffing for suspicious smells at the burned out structure and most of that afternoon visiting with Crook County elementary students, showing off his talents along with his human buddy, Austin.
   The detective explained and demonstrated to kindergarten students in Mrs. Fields' class at Cecil Sly that dogs like Kent are trained to recognize odors which are commonly used as accelerants in fires set intentionally. The arson dog's nose is specially trained to detect odors such as gasoline, kerosene, and lighter fuel or diesel, and they are capable of telling the difference between what it smells like when other substances like plastic is melted and burned fuel substances, which apparently have similar components.
   To demonstrate his unique ability, a number of paper squares with suspicious smells were scattered among students gathered in a circle on the floor. Kent was released into the circle where he carefully sniffed each square until he found just the right one.
   Upon detecting a potential accelerant, this sleek Golden Lab immediately sat down, and looked expectantly at Austin. When asked to verify his findings, Kent repeatedly pointed with his nose at the paper square, and the kids exclaimed in appreciation. At this point, Kent receives a well deserved reward and wags his tail enthusiastically.
   It is quickly evident that this canine and his human counterpart have a special relationship. "Kent goes with me everywhere, even on vacation. He only eats out of my hand, and never out of a dog bowl. In order for him to eat he has to work," he explained. "So if I don't have a real fire scene, I have to create a training scene." Austin's method of feeding when not working is to create situations where Kent can detect spots of chemicals set out on bits of paper, similar to the demonstration held at Cecil Sly. Kent doesn't seem to mind his continuous working schedule, and his sleek coat and healthy look indicate that he doesn't have a problem winning treats.
   Austin indicated that depending on the time of the year, there are about 45 to 50 dogs like Kent in service across the country. He said that Oregon is particularly lucky to have two dogs to work with, who's special training costs a whopping $50,000 per subject.
   Kent was the second member to join the arson and explosives canine team. Based in Central Point, these two have been assisting law enforcement and fire service agencies in seven Southern Oregon counties since 1998.