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ATF Accelerant Detection Canine Program


Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Department of Justice

General Information

ATF's Accelerant Detection Canine Program

ATF's ADCP Focus Areas

Training Methodology

Certification Standards

Annual Recertification

The Breed of Canine

Terms and Conditions of Participation in the ADCP

Front Royal Canine Training Facility


Attachment 2: ADCP Application Form

This is an overview of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) Accelerant Detection Canine Program (ADCP). This state-of-the-art accelerant detection system was pioneered by ATF and its National Laboratory in the early 1980's. The ADCP was developed to address today's arson threat to the general public and to assist the arson investigator in the collection of field samples for laboratory analysis. It builds upon and incorporates ATF's expertise in the enforcement of Federal arson laws.


Between 1992 and 1996, ATF investigated 2,970 arson-related fires in the United States that caused 349 deaths, 1,031 injuries, and approximately $2.9 billion in reported property damage. These statistics are from ATF's 1995 Arson and Explosives Incidents Report and ATF's Explosives (and Arson) Incidents System (EXIS) database.

In furtherance of its enforcement goals and to address the increasing threat to public safety in this country, ATF has committed to establishing enforcement support programs designed to expand and amplify the investigative capabilities of its field personnel, as well as other Federal, State, and local law enforcement entities. The ADCP, with its scientifically validated methodologies and protocols, is one such initiative.

Arson is one of the most difficult criminal offenses to establish because most cases are based largely on circumstantial evidence. Generally, there are no witnesses and the composition of the evidence is consumed by the fire. Extracting and processing evidence from the crime scene become essential for developing evidence needed to secure prosecution. The ADCP addresses the arson investigator's need to have a more accurate, credible, and mobile accelerant detection resource than currently available field detection devices.

ATF'S Accelerant Detection Canine Program

In a 1984 pilot program, ATF trained the first accelerant detection canine, a yellow Labrador Retriever named "Nellie," to explore the feasibility of this new detection system. The results of this study were subsequently submitted to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. In May 1986, the first operational canine, "Mattie," began training in conjunction with the Connecticut State Police (CSP) and was field operational by September 1986. Both canines were acquired from guide dog foundations.

Based on the findings of this pilot study, the National Canine Accelerant Detection Program was established. Since the inception of the program, ATF has trained and certified accelerant detection handler/canine teams that operate throughout the United States with State and local fire departments, police departments, and fire marshals' offices. These teams are available for deployment on ATF National Response Team (NRT) activations and other significant ATF arson investigations.

Included within this information booklet is a comprehensive report published on the program (see Attachment 1). It was written by ATF's Chief Explosives Forensic Chemist Richard A. Strobel and ATF Explosives Enforcement Officer Robert Noll, who technically oversee the ADCP. The report thoroughly explains the program's focus, training procedures, methodologies, and certification standards.

A brief, less comprehensive explanation of program focus areas, training procedures, methodologies, and certification standards are described below.


ATF's study of the feasibility of imprinting a canine with an accelerant odor identified the following focus areas, which are an integral part of ATF's ADCP success:

1. A Canine can be conditioned to respond to accelerant odors.

The initial stage of training involves imprinting the canine with the accelerant odor through classical conditioning. A positive response, or "alert," by the canine to the presence of an accelerant odor is indicated when the canine sits.

This is reinforced by a food reward from the trainer. The target odor selected for training is 50 percent evaporated gasoline, which closely approximates the evaporated gasoline encountered at many arson scenes. Once the canine is conditioned to detect gasoline it is trained on other accelerants.

A sample of the evaporated gasoline is placed in a perforated container to allow the canine access to the vapors. As the gasoline evaporates and changes composition, it exposes and conditions the canine to a collection of gasoline odors and compositions. Once conditioning is complete, blind tests are conducted to establish that there are no false positive or false negative responses.

2. A canine can respond to an accelerant odor with greater sensitivity than current field accelerant detection devices.

ATF research has shown that a canine's olfactory and discriminatory capabilities are more sensitive than the standard field accelerant-detection machines used by arson investigators. The ADCP provides a more effective detection system than mechanized field detection instruments, such as hydrocarbon detectors.

An additional limitation in field accelerant-detection instruments is that many classes of compounds used as accelerants are naturally formed as a result of the fire chemistry that occurs when a synthetic material burns. Plastics, for example, are naturally composed of hydrocarbons, which may also be found in many accelerants.

During the burning process, the plastic changes chemical composition, or undergoes pyrolysis, to form individual hydrocarbons that are detected by all field accelerant-detection instruments available. This results in a false positive indication to the presence of an accelerant.

The arson investigator requires a detection system that differentiates between products of pyrolysis and true accelerants. ATF-trained ADCP canines offer this capability.

3. A canine can differentiate between accelerants and similar chemical gases normally present at a fire scene.

ADCP-trained canines are subjected to discrimination training so that they can learn to differentiate between pyrolysis odors and accelerant odors. The ADCP conducts blind tests to ensure the canine is able to detect the target odor without alerting to other odors present. This is achieved by subjecting the canine to repeated training repetitions on a four-can circular matrix. The matrix contains various configurations of gasoline and pyrolized material. The canine is rewarded when it alerts to the can containing the accelerant sample. Following repeated exposure to this training paradigm, the canine will be capable of discriminating between the pyrolysis odor and the pyrolysis odor plus the accelerant. The training process is verified when the canine alerts on the proper can with no false positive alerts.

ATF conducts yearly recertification seminars to ensure that the canines continue to detect accelerants in a working environment. Previously processed fire scenes are used to test the canines' operational and odor recognition capabilities.


The training methodology is based on a food reward system, utilizing classical response conditioning wherein the canine is rewarded with food when a successful detection or "alert" is accomplished.

The food reward conditioning method was chosen over several alternative methods because it offers the following three advantages:

1. Speed of Training - The canines are subjected to many training repetitions in the course of a workday by metering out small portions of food, thus working the canine for longer periods of time. This is difficult with other reward systems, such as those relying on praise or play.

On a normal training day, ATF canines train with 125 repetitions of smelling accelerant odors. If a canine trains 125 repetitions a day, it will have trained 45,000 times a year.

2. Stronger Stimulus - The canines are never fed without exposure to an accelerant odor. This conditioning stimulus is based on a strong motivator--food. This allows the canines to train and work for longer periods in more demanding environments.

3. Multiple Handlers - The canines will work with any trained handler who will feed them. This is a distinct advantage over the widely used "bonded team" because the canine can work effectively with a properly trained alternate handler when the regular handler is unavailable.


Canines train with their handlers for 5 weeks. Evaluation at the end of the training period utilizes blind testing procedures.

ATF's National Laboratory provides technical and scientific oversight throughout the training and certification process.

Each ATF ADCP canine must pass the laboratory certification test in order to receive ATF certification. This pass/fail standard ensures the proficiency of the canines and maintains the integrity of the ADCP.

To date, every handler/canine team entered into the ATF ADCP has successfully completed the entire training program and has received ATF certification. These impressive results are due in part to the excellent quality of canines procured from the guide dog foundations.


Validating the canines' proficiency is of the utmost importance. Therefore, ATF hosts a mandatory annual training/recertification seminar for each ATF ADCP-trained canine team. During this seminar, the team's proficiency is tested (recertified), and the handlers are required to produce their training logs from the previous year. These seminars include formal training on the latest advances in canine health and safety, as well as legal updates, practical field exercises, and formal testing.


Various breeds of canine, classified as working dogs, are used in law enforcement throughout the world. The only breed of canine used by the ADCP for accelerant detection is the Labrador Retriever. This breed is hearty, intelligent, can readily adapt to changing environments, and possesses a nonaggressive disposition that is necessary for the required work.

Volunteers, called "puppy raisers," raise the dogs from 8 weeks of age until they are approximately 14 months old. These families give their time, love, and homes to socialize the puppies. When the ADCP receives a canine from one of the guide dog foundations, it is housebroken, spayed or neutered, has received all its vaccinations, and has a clean medical history.


State and local agencies wishing to participate in the ADCP should forward the attached application form (Attachment 2) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at the address indicated on the form. Selections will be made based on the geographical location and workload of the requesting agency and the qualifications of the proposed canine handler. Upon receipt of the application, ATF will forward an acknowledgment letter to the agency, which will include the date that the ADCP agencies will be selected, the date of the training class, and the number of handler/canine teams that will be selected. Upon selection, ATF will forward a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that outlines the selected agency's and ATF's responsibilities and terms and conditions of participation in the program. ATF, and/or a sponsoring insurance company, will purchase the canine for the Agency and pay for the travel, lodging, per diem and miscellaneous expenses associated with the 5-week training class.

The following terms and conditions will apply:

ATF will:

  • Provide the training facility for the ADCP. The training will be conducted at the ATF Canine Enforcement Training Center (CETC), 828 Harmony Hollow Road, Front Royal, Virginia.
  • Provide technical oversight during course curriculum development, training, and throughout the Agency's participation in the ADCP.
  • Provide a forensic chemist to evaluate, test, and certify the canine for proficiency in detecting accelerant odors. The chemist shall conduct all annual recertifications.
  • Reimburse the Agency for travel-related expenses incurred by the handler as a result of participation in an NRT activation. ATF will not pay for the handler's salary, overtime expenses, or other employment benefits incurred during the handler's participation in an NRT activation.

The Agency will:

  • Pay for the handler's salary, overtime, and employment benefits and ensure that the handler is covered by the Agency's insurance during the initial 5-week training at the CETC, as well as during all subsequent annual recertification seminars, in-service training classes, and NRT activations.
  • Ensure that the handler is available for weekend training during the initial 5-week training course at the CETC.
  • Have available for its use a laboratory capable of conducting comprehensive analysis of accelerants. The Agency will ensure that the laboratory prioritizes the examination of canine alert samples.
  • Make the canine team available to ATF for a 1-week annual recertification seminar. The Agency will be responsible for all travel-related costs incurred by the handler/canine team during this recertification seminar.
  • Make the canine team available to ATF for NRT activations.
  • Provide food and veterinary care (after initial training), to include an annual physical and heartworm check, for the canine during its working life in the ADCP.
  • Continue to train and maintain the accelerant detection canine in the food reward methodology and protocols in which it will be trained.
  • Provide, at its expense, a full-time vehicle to the handler/canine team suitable for the team's working environment.

General Guidelines:

  • While all personnel who participate in the ADCP will give primary consideration to the regulations and guidelines imposed by their own department/agency, they will be mindful of those imposed on their personnel by other departments/ agencies.
  • All personnel who participate in the ADCP shall comply with ATF enforcement policy regarding the use of firearms, financial and property controls, investigative techniques, and supervisory controls, during the 5-week training course, annual recertification seminars, and NRT activations.
  • When applicable, all personnel who participate in the ADCP shall qualify with their respective firearms, using and complying with their own department's/agency's firearms proficiency standards.
  • State and local law enforcement officers who participate in the ADCP will be made aware of the Justice Department's Use of Force Policy.
  • All ADCP participants who are either assigned or may occasionally use ATF-owned or -leased vehicles will be made aware of ATF policies concerning use and care of Government-owned vehicles. ATF vehicles may only be used for official purposes.
  • All ADCP participants will be made aware of the Department of Justice's Standards of Conduct, particularly as they relate to sexual harassment, EEO and liability issues.


ATF has joined in partnership with the U.S. Customs Service to utilize the 250-acre Canine Enforcement Training Center (CETC), in Front Royal, Virginia, to accomplish its training objectives. ATF is in the process of constructing training and kennel buildings on the compound. ATF's offices and training building will facilitate the accelerant detection canines' intense training regimen and will enable the ADCP to train indoors during inclement weather. The well-equipped, state-of-the-art kennel will house 150 canines.


The Accelerant Detection Canine Program was designed to incorporate all the support systems necessary to maintain the integrity of the program and provide other Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies with the most dependable, durable, and mobile accelerant detection system available today. The ADCP incorporates the research and development of the ATF forensic laboratory and the technical expertise of ATF canine trainers, forensic chemists, and special agents into its training regimen. This produces a final product capable of assisting the fire investigator in the efficient and expeditious recovery of samples for subsequent submission to the laboratory for accelerant analysis.

The ADCP recognizes that a canine's indication (alert) to the presence of an accelerant is only one of the many resources available to the investigator in determining the origin and cause of a fire. The canine's indication must never be the sole basis for identification of a particular accelerant material but must be followed by a thorough laboratory analysis of the collected sample.

Because of the sensitive nature and significance of this investigative tool, ATF devotes additional resources to complement the handlers in the field. These resources include

laboratory analysis, Certified Fire Investigators, National Response Teams, Fire Protection Engineers, the Explosives (and arson) Incidents System (EXIS), automated audit and major case oversight assistance, profiling, and polygraph examinations (See Attachment 3).

ATF is proud to share this innovation with other agencies and looks forward to continued partnerships in our mutual goal to provide for a sound and safer America.

Attachment 1: The ATF report on the Accelerant Detection Canine Program (NOT INCLUDED IN interFIRE VR)

Attachment 2: ADCP Application Form

reprinted with permission

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