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Matthew Dixon and his incredible fire dogs

Created: 25/07/2016

Tom Burrington talks to Matthew Dixon about his career as a fire investigation officer and the dogs he works with.

Matthew Dixon pictured with Labrador Ellie.

THE JOBS dogs do for our communities seem endless so it’s no surprise that the Fire Service has been keen to utilise the skills and abilities possessed by trained canines.

Matthew Dixon has worked as a fire investigation dog handler for West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service since 2005 and his passion and enthusiasm for what he does was evident as soon as we started to talk.

Since childhood Matthew has been an animal lover and he has always had dogs and an interest in working them. The four dogs he lives with today are important tools for the Fire Service and their work involves investigating the cause of fires and helping to prevent them from happening in the future through education.

Matthew said: “My love of dogs has been lifelong. I became a dog handler for West Midlands Fire Service ten years ago and before that I had been an RSPCA inspector.” 

Matthew covers the whole region which includes the West Midlands, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Hereford, Worcester and Warwickshire. He has a close relationship with all four dogs as they spend most of their lives together. Despite being owned by the Fire Service he sees them as his pets and his dear companions.

His first trained and assigned dog was Ellie with whom he was teamed up with when he passed his initial training. A Labrador-Springer Spaniel cross she is now retired although does do some school and other community visits to keep her mind working and to enable her to continue to feel part of the team.

Matthew explained what the initial training involved: “It starts off as being all about general search. It’s the same as the police dogs, explosive dogs and the drugs dogs. It’s about getting the dog excited about sniffing and finding its favourite thing, which in Ellie’s case was a tennis ball. It’s not until all those foundations are put in place that you can then start getting a dog to search for a flammable liquid instead of the ball.”

German S/h Pointer Pepper at work investigating the cause of a fire.

Due to her age Ellie’s work is now restricted to visiting different social groups in the community. She regularly attends schools, dementia centres and day care centres. Her role could almost be seen as that of a therapy dog, but she also has the important job of relaying the Fire Service’s fire safety message.

It was when Ellie was coming up to retirement that Pepper, a German S/h Pointer, was sourced and obtained to take over her duties. Matthew said: “Pepper’s now coming up to eight years old and does the same job as Ellie – she’s a fire investigation dog.

“She looks for flammable liquids. After we’ve put a fire out the dog and I will go and do a search. We are there to rule out or acknowledge the fire has been caused by arson. The dog will show us where any traces of a liquid are.”

Dogs can find 12 flammable liquids in total, which covers the spectrum an arsonist is likely to use. A dog can be used at the scene of a fire or later at a suspect’s address to look for evidence.

Border Collie Fly pictured at work on top of rubble and building debris.

Matthew’s other two dogs are younger and at different stages of their career development. Kai, a Belgian Shepherd Dog obtained from Hilbrae Rescue, is a fire investigation dog but is also in the process of being trained up as a flood rescue dog, which can involve roles such as giving out lifejackets and taking lines across rivers.

Matthew recalled a recent good deed of Kai’s while the two of them were out on a walk: “Somebody had thrown a bunch of life rings (buoyancy aids) into a lake. I presume it was kids messing about and not thinking their actions through. Because part of Kai’s training is to retrieve these types of things I sent him into the lake to bring them back to me and then we put them back on the stands. As well as making the lake safer in the quickest possible time it’s also faster and more cost efficient to send a dog in rather than putting a boat on the water, so yes Kai will be in a position to help us with flood rescue work soon.”

The youngest dog Matthew currently has is a Border Collie called Fly and he came from the Border Collie Trust. He is in the process of being trained up in Search and Rescue, which means his job in the future could involve searching for live people in the rubble of disaster zones or, more likely in the UK, searching for missing people, for example dementia sufferers, who have wondered away from their homes.

Fly will work predominantly with Matthew but all the dogs are available to other fire services as and when they are needed and Matthew hopes that one day Fly could have the opportunity to work abroad.

Matthew is normally on call 24 hours a day and is always contactable through his pager. When he gets a call it’s a case of putting the dogs required into the van and getting to where he’s needed.

Working with the dogs on a day-to-day basis means Matthew must be used to the wonderful work they do but he still finds being in awe of their intelligence a regular occurrence.

Matthew's work also includes school visits and demonstrations.

He said: “Every day what the dogs are capable of amazes me. There have been jobs where dogs have made finds where we wouldn’t have expected a dog to get a find. We’ve had someone on the scene who has had a sniff and said ‘No I can’t smell anything – the dog must be wrong’, but I say ‘No that’s why the dog is here’. The dog’s nose can smell it and the human nose can’t.

“They have found evidence which has been absolutely vital in securing a conviction and also evidence that wouldn’t have been found without them.

“The dogs have been responsible for arsonists being convicted for murder and getting substantial prison sentences.”

While the dogs do an important job in investigating fires and helping to bring those who start them to justice they are also just as essential when it comes to educating the public about arson and fire safety. As we see in all walks of life dogs can often connect with people in ways no one else is able to.

Matthew gave me an example of when Ellie reached out to a young person who had struggled with social situations in the past.

He said: “I was in a special educational needs centre speaking to a group of young adults. I wasn’t there trying to deter these kids from arson. I was there more to just engage with them and let them see that the Fire Service is a friendly bunch.

“There was an autistic child present who had been attending the centre for several months but who hadn’t spoken to anyone. I entered the room with Ellie. This lad was at the back at the beginning but as I started talking he began to move forward and at the end was sat there stroking Ellie. He was talking to her and interacting with her. The staff were amazed as they’d not seen him interact in this way in all the time they’d known him.”

Community work is essential to spreading the fire safety message and ensuring residents feel safe.

This is a perfect example of how the title of ‘fire investigation dog’ is only a small part of what the dogs do and Matthew’s passion when speaking about this kind of work shows that he’s the ideal man to have on the front line when it comes to the educating vulnerable people about fire and arson.

If a spate of bin fires are reported by one of the schools in the area it’s likely Matthew will be called in to give a talk to the pupils. It’s here that he feels he can really try to get through to young people about fire and the implications starting one can have. He hopes these visits can help to prevent someone becoming what he calls a ‘fully-fledged arsonist’.

He said: “It’s a wake-up call to the kids and shows how we can easily find out who has started a fire. If we can get to an arsonist at school age, let them know we are going to catch them if they go on to continue to commit the crimes and stop one of them going on to become an arsonist when they become adult age then it’s a success.”

Matthew is an extremely friendly and approachable person and because of this it’s clear how powerful his talks must be. He likes to get people involved but admits the dogs help in a big way. When he walks into a room with a dog on a lead he gets a lot more interest, especially when he puts on the dog’s shoes and safety harnesses. It’s then that he’s able to get across his message while keeping it fun and as light-hearted as possible.

An impressive part of his demonstrations can include leaving a drop of lighter fluid in a room before the audience enters. After the talk he’ll ask if anyone has had a whiff of anything and after they say no he’ll call in a dog. When the dog comes in and finds it in seconds he’s won over his listeners and hopefully left them with a lasting message.

Matthew also meets and talks to known and convicted arsonists. He lets them know that if they continue to start fires one of the dogs will help to convict them. He told me again that the dogs help to connect this group of people. They ask questions, become more interested and Matthew is able to communicate better with them and get more information to them about what they are doing and the error of their ways.

Matthew's four dogs pictured from right to left: Ellie, Kai, Fly and Pepper.

Matthew is extremely active when it comes to social media and you can follow the exploits of him and the dogs on Twitter at @wmfiredogs. He knows how important it is to get his and the Fire Service’s message to the users of the internet and whether it’s directly through his account or from a retweet, the reach of social media can go a long way in helping to stop a potential arsonist or fire.

He said: “Once an arson is committed we have failed. We haven’t got that person, we haven’t deterred them, we haven’t educated them sufficiently.”

Arson in the West Midlands is dropping and it would be foolish not to think the work of Matthew and his dogs have not played some part in this.

Once again the potential of dogs is being used to help break down barriers in society and in this case prevent and solve crimes which can often have the most devastating effects.