Doggone: Altoona Fire Department’s arson dog retires after seven years
‘Amazing’ canine worked 350 fires
On the sunny steps of Altoona City Hall, a chocolate labrador named Tyra rolled over, last week, presenting her belly for a crowd of city officials and firefighters to scratch.
Like any other dog, Tyra was playful and the center of attention, her graying nose nudging any idle hands that could instead be scratching behind her ears.
Unlike many of her canine peers, however, Tyra was a city employee, or rather, an asset used by the city to help firefighters determine whether or not liquid accelerants played a role in the ignition of a fire.
She retired 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 children laugh and keeping company with her longtime handler, Tim Hughes, a retired Altoona Fire Department fire inspector.
Before Tyra could become an “arson dog,” she first had to fail out of training as a seeing-eye dog for the blind, Hughes, 57, said.
“It’s a little harsh, but it’s true,” he explained. “Tyra wanted to keep her nose to the ground, which is not great for the blind, but it helped her become an amazing arson dog.”
Officially designated as liquid accelerant detection canines, arson dogs help law enforcement and first responders determine whether arson might be a factor in a fire.
The Arson Dog Training Program funds training and dog placement within agencies, such as the Altoona Fire Department. The program comes with a price tag of about $30,000, which is entirely paid for by State Farm, Hughes said.
Former Altoona Deputy Fire Chief Mike Tofano discovered the program and encouraged Hughes to apply in 2013, and by the summer of 2014, he was on his way to Maine for a month-long training course that would change his life.
“It was pretty brilliant how they paired each of the applicants with their dogs,” Hughes said.
The training itself was conducted by Maine Specialty Dogs, whose owner and head trainer, Paul Gallagher, interviewed each of the applicants about their work life and personalities.
“As we got further into the month of training, it was pretty clear the dogs were perfectly matched with their handlers,” Hughes said. “I was a bit older, and so was Tyra. She was calm, but still high-energy. We got along great.”
A Desert Storm veteran who served in both the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army as a demolitions engineer, Hughes was nearing the end of his career when he decided to become a handler.
When the pair met, Hughes was 50 and Tyra was 3, or about 21 in dog years. The other dogs, all labradors, in the program were about 1.5 years old.
As a food-reward dog, Hughes learned to feed Tyra from his hand only after she located an accelerant. This intensive training-reward system dominated their lives for the last seven years.
“She was constantly training — day and night, workday or weekend — because that is the only way to feed her,” Hughes said. “And it can’t be on a schedule; otherwise, when it comes time to work, she might think, ‘I’ll get food in an hour, so it’s not worth my time.'”
The amounts of food changed as well. To do her work, Tyra needed to be a little hungry, so Hughes said he constantly managed her diet to ensure she was always ready to earn a meal.
“I’d wake up at 2 a.m. sometimes, take her out, dab some accelerant in the yard and let her do her thing,” he recalled. “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 no longer gets regularly fed by hand.
“She didn’t really know what to do with the food bowl at first,” Hughes said. “It took some time to convince her to eat out of it, but she’s doing good now.”
More than 350 fires
On Hughes and Tyra’s first assignment after training seven years ago, she helped Allegheny County firefighters solve a month-old case.
“The site had sat there being rained on, sun shining down and all other sorts of weather for 30 days or more,” Hughes recalled. “But despite all the time that passed, she showed up and immediately identified liquid accelerants.”
An arson dog is not a silver bullet for determining whether liquid accelerants were used, but rather one of many tools investigators use to learn a fire’s story. The dogs identify a spot where accelerant use was likely, and investigators take samples from those locations.
In the early years, Tyra occasionally misidentified locations, but for the past few years, Hughes said she’s had a 100 percent accuracy rating in both the field and training.
During her time with the department, Tyra worked more than 350 fires, according to a certificate of recognition given to her by Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico last week.
“Tyra’s retirement is bittersweet,” Pacifico said. “She’s worked so hard, but she’s earned it.”
More than an arson dog, Tyra was an ambassador to the community, bridging the gap between civilian and first responder, 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 was often the highlight of the department’s school visits.
“Sure, the children watched as our guys donned their turnout gear and talked about smoke detectors,” Hileman said. “But, when Tyra came out, that’s when their eyes lit up. Ask any kid who went to school in Altoona in the last seven years, and they’ll know exactly who Tyra is.”
Tyra worked her final assignment in April.
“She’s been dealing with some health issues,” he said. “I could just tell, her heart wasn’t in it anymore.”
After a series of vomiting incidents, a veterinarian looked her over and ruled out cancer, but determined her stomach walls were hardening with age, requiring Hughes to micromanage her diet — a task that would eliminate the possibility of maintaining her food-reward training.
“She’s been having some hip troubles, too,” Hughes said. “It was just time.”
Officially, Hughes retired first in 2018, but he agreed to stay on with the fire department as Tyra’s handler until she was ready to retire as well.
Now, the two are ready for some downtime, playing with Hughes’ grandchildren, visiting Ocean City, Maryland, and lounging poolside in the backyard.
Maintaining an arson dog requires more than a dedicated handler, Hughes said. 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, all which donated care and supplies during Tyra’s service, said Hughes and Hileman.
Although she was Altoona Fire Department’s first arson dog, Hileman said he’s hoping Tyra won’t be the last.
“We’re planning on applying for another, because Tyra proved just how much of an asset an arson dog is to the department,” he said. “But, it takes time, and we have to have a willing handler. It’s a big commitment for not only the firefighter, but their family.”
Mirror Staff Writer Ike Fredregill is at 814-946-7458.