Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog

Over the past twenty or so years I’ve met dogs who’ve done extraordinary things.

I spent a few years as a teenager living at a gundog kennels which was home to three of the most famous Spaniels in the world. They were called Badgercourt Moss, Jasper of Parkbreck and Jade of Livermere, but I knew them as Moss, Jasper and Jade.

I admired Moss, he was the most successful working English Springer Spaniel of his time and his reputation will live forever. I think he knew he was the bee’s knees in truth, he was always quite aloof giving off a ‘yes, you may sit in my presence’ kind of vibe, so you couldn’t help but admire him.

Jasper was Jade’s son and he followed in his dad’s footsteps becoming a champion in the field. Jade’s style, looks and winning ways were the foundation for many future champions too. To me though, these Cocker Spaniels were gentlemen of the field and gentle dogs off it. I can’t count how many times I sat with them, glad of the kindness in their eyes. You can tell a lot about a person – or animal – by their eyes I think.

All three of these dogs cemented my admiration for dogs with jobs, whatever those jobs may be.

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy this Summer, social media gathered to support the victims, their families and those active on the ground trying to help – including the fire investigation dogs.

We wanted to know more about what fire investigation dogs do and so we asked Dave Coss, the handler of fire investigation dog, Dexter.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

Hi Dave! How long have you been a dog handler?

I became the first regional dog handler in 2004. There’s only me who covers the whole of the East Midlands but that’s what makes it productive. I cover Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire with my dog, Dexter. He’s the third fire investigation dog we’ve had.

We started with a chocolate Labrador called Fudge and when she retired a Springer Spaniel called Freckle took over. Dexter, who’s a Cocker Spaniel, took over from Freckle when he retired.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

So, all gundogs. Is there anything that makes them especially good for the job?

The thing with the gundog group is that for centuries they’ve been trained to search out game, so we don’t actually need to teach them how to search – instead, we’re just changing the scent that they’re looking for, which makes it easier.

I do know one handler once had a Collie, who’s now retired I think and if I remember rightly Devon and Cornwall’s first fire dog was an Old English Sheepdog.

Have you found much difference in training the different gundog breeds? I’ve always been told there are lots of different traits between Cockers and Springers?

I’ve had to learn how to work Dexter differently to Freckle. He was a nightmare in the early days.

How did Dexter come to join the team?

South Yorkshire Police Dog Training School is where we’re trained and licensed. We knew Freckle was coming to the end of his service, although we didn’t know how old he was exactly because he was donated, but we knew he was getting ready for retirement.

We said to South Yorkshire Police that we needed to be on the lookout for a dog and they’d had a call from a breeder they use and had gone up to look at a Labrador. While they were there he said to them ‘you don’t know anyone who wants this one, do you?’. The police don’t typically take on puppies unless they’re breeding them themselves because they have to wait for them to grow up before they can begin training, but with us it was a bit different because Freckle was still working, meaning Dexter could grow up in the background ready for when he retired.

We took a bit of a gamble with him because normally we’d take on a dog who was a bit older, who you know more about – with a puppy you don’t always know how they’re going to turn out.

So, I’ve had him from when he was 16 weeks. He’s now three years old and he’s with me 24/7. As we speak he’s curled up on my knee (laughs).

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

How do dogs like Dexter get trained up for fire investigation work?

It’s very similar to police dogs. Normally you begin with a 12-18 month old dog who’s absolutely mad for a tennis ball and you go through a six-eight week training course in the same way you would for a drug detection dog.

It was a bit different with Dexter though because we trickle trained him as he was growing up. But at six months old he wasn’t interested in tennis balls at all and I was worried about how he’d turn out because he wasn’t bothered about chasing balls, but at 9-10 months old he suddenly just turned it on.

How do they make the move of coming into the field with you after training?

Dexter had to come into the field a bit earlier than we would have liked because Freckle suddenly stopped working.

Normally, what happens is that you retire your old dog before he goes over the hill, so he retires before he gets to the peak of the hill at around 8-10 years old when he’s still at the top of his game. I think in Freckle’s case because we didn’t really know his age, he went over the side of the hill and that’s why he just decided he didn’t want to do it anymore.

All of this meant Dexter had to step up to the plate and ‘come on the run’, as we call it, really early. He was actually on the run at 13 months and normally we wouldn’t even begin training until 12-18 months.

So, it just meant he still had to grow up as well as do his job.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

Kind of like a young footballer making it into the first team.

Exactly, like a 16 year old Wayne Rooney coming through, it’s not just the football you have to worry about, it’s everything else.

What does the average day look like for you and Dexter?

I'll get up between 6-7am and then let Dexter out and feed him. Normally my pager will go off between 6-8am and that will tell me where we’re needed because normally what happens is a house catches fire overnight, they’ll put it out and set it up as a police cordon and call me in at daybreak with Dexter.

Once we know where we’re going, which can be anywhere in the East Midlands, and what time we need to be there by, we plan around that.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Dave and Dexter / Photo Credit:

What’s the most common incident you’re called to?

The most common is a deliberate house fire, so someone setting fire to somebody’s property either by pouring something through the letterbox or breaking a window and pouring something like accelerant through.

How many jobs do you and Dexter attend a year?

We get called to an average of 200 jobs a year and we can be at an incident for 10 minutes to three days, depending on the size of the fire.

We were called to a fire in Leicester where a family of four were wrongly targeted (they got the wrong address) and an innocent family were killed. We were there for three or four days, but others take longer. It really depends on the case and what the associated searches are. So, say we turn up at a scene and there’s a suspect, we then search all of the suspects associated things, such as his house, clothes, vehicle.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

The dogs are trained to pick up trace evidence. If you think about filling up a car with petrol, when you’ve got petrol on your hands, you can smell it, can’t you?

Well if you’ve got petrol on your clothing, the dog’s going to find those clothes that you’ve hidden behind the wardrobe at home when he searches your house. If you’ve used a vehicle that you’ve driven before setting the fire, there’s a chance there will be trace evidence inside and the dog can then find the petrol inside the vehicle too.

Can the areas you and Dexter search can be quite a distance away from the incident then, depending on the trace scents of petrol?

It can. We do open area searches. If someone’s run away from the scene and they’ve thrown the container away as they’ve been running then that’s where the dog will come in to find that container and if they’ve come in a vehicle and the police have recovered it, then we can look inside that as well.

How do you keep Dexter on his toes for unusual jobs?

Our day to day training involves me putting samples out for him. But we also have continuation training at South Yorkshire Dog Training School and we try to go back once a month. It works well for both Dexter and me because if I’m putting the samples out, I know where they are so it’s only Dexter being tested, whereas when we got back to the dog training school it’s testing me as well since they put the samples out.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

And on top of that every year we have to do what’s effectively a MOT. When you’re first trained you get an initial license so you’re check tested to say you’re safe to work and after that every year you’re check tested for re-licensing and that’s a two-day event covering lots of different scenarios – clothing, vehicles, inside and out of buildings.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

Did you always want to work with dogs?

(Laughs). No.

It all came about because I’d been involved in mountain rescue for about 10-15 years before I became a dog handler with a Border Collie called Sally, who I’d trained as a mountain rescue search dog and that got me working dogs.

One day I saw someone working a fire dog and I thought ‘I could have a go at that’ and by that time, I’d already got Fudge as a pet, and then with the help of South Yorkshire Police I trained her up as a fire dog and it went from there.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

I think at the moment there are 15 dog handlers in the country and I’m the only one in the country who’s funded regionally, which means everyone else is paid for by individual brigades whereas I’m funded by a consortium across the East Midlands, which is why I cover such a wide area.

If you look at the areas individually, like Lincolnshire, for example, which isn’t a big brigade, for a quarter of the cost it has a fire dog in Dexter whenever needed. In this day in age, it makes the most of the resources and works to their advantage.

We don’t prioritise jobs by area, we prioritise by the job. A fatal job, for example, where someone’s died in the fire takes priority over anything because that could potentially be a murder.

Were you and one of your dogs called in to investigate the Philpott house fire in Derbyshire which made the news everywhere a few years ago?

I was. It was Freckle who was on the job there. We were there every day for nearly a fortnight.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

Do you have any standout memories of cases you’ve been involved in?

The cases which stand out for me, because of the work of my dog, aren’t always cases which go anywhere.
So, say for example, when the dog’s found something that no one else was looking for. That’s when the dog really comes into their own on the job and I go home thinking ‘if I hadn’t had my dog, we wouldn’t have found that’.

That’s the satisfaction but nine times out of 10 they’re not the big jobs.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

As for big cases, we’ve been either lucky or unlucky, but we’ve attended every big case in the East Midlands. We go to court quite regularly and we were given a Crown Court Commendation for the Langley Mill job we did, which was the last major murder case we did. They poured petrol over a car outside a block of flats and killed the occupiers of the flat. A dad and his two sons were convicted and we got the Crown Court Commendation because of the effort we put into the investigation for the case.

In the Langley Mill case, how did you and your dog start your investigation?

We searched the doorway of the property and the dog indicated. Then we searched the suspects houses and car and there were all sorts of pieces of evidence that linked it all together. It was a painstaking inquiry.

In other jobs, we’ll turn up and they won’t be big jobs for the fire dog. The Philpott case, for example, when we turned up Freckle indicated inside the door saying ‘there’s petrol here, dad’. We searched all the houses in that row and their gardens, the back carpark of the supermarket which backed onto it and all of the surrounding streets, but we were really searching at that point to negate rather than to prove, and that can be a big part of the fire dog’s job as well.

So in that case, because there was only petrol behind the door and not outside the front of the door then Freckle was able to tell us that there was nothing in front of the house, only inside it.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

I understand. So sometimes you and your fire dog are there to say there’s nothing there as much as finding the evidence when it is there?

Exactly, yes.

How do you prevent cross-contamination from job to job?

Dexter has about 16 sets of boots and each is numbered. They’re all sealed and dry packed clean and when we go to a job we break open the seal pack there, and once we're finished they’ll go off to be cleaned before they’re used again.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

He also has an all in one harness for when he has to work at height, going up ladders instead of the staircase because a lot of the time after a fire the staircase will have burnt, so he has to be able to get in and out of buildings bypassing stairs.

He also works a lot on flat roofs because sometimes that will be how someone breaks into a building and he has to be able to work up there to check for evidence left behind.

Did you need to train him to be comfortable with heights?

He’s trained to sit on my shoulder like a parrot. He always has his harness and a rope on and if it’s not too high, I’ll climb up with him on my shoulder. If it’s higher than that, the fire crew will assist us.

If we can though, we’ll use the aerial ladder platform which has a cage, so we’ll sit in it and they’ll whizz us up.
He also has a lifejacket for when we need to go near the water. We’re a bit landlocked in the East Midlands so we don’t have lots of coasts but Lincolnshire does have some, so he’s trained to be delivered by boat too, which means if we get called to a job on a ship on the coast we can be deployed by boat to search the ship.

If you could sum it up, what is it about the dog that makes them so useful to the fire service?

Well, there are scenting/sniffing machines out there and they get used for all sorts, drugs, explosives, that kind of thing, but what they can’t do is match the speed and accuracy of the dog.

For example, if you go into a big warehouse that’s around 100m x 20m and its burnt down, you have to go through that whole building on your hands and knees with the machine. If you go through it with a mechanical sniffer, it will take you days, if not weeks to do that, whereas a dog will clear that in about 30 minutes to an hour.

Meet Dexter: The Crime Fighting Fire Investigation Dog
Photo Credit:

A dog can pick up a scent from a distance and track it down to the source, whereas with the machine you’ve got to be standing over the source for it to detect it.

Leave a Reply