Looking back: Dog helps West rescue efforts

By Rebecca Fiedler
Staff Writer

A member of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives contributed to the investigations involved with the West fertilizer plant explosion using nothing but her nose. Now, one year later, Farlee the Labrador retriever is retired from detecting explosive chemicals but still enjoys practicing her skills with her owner and past trainer, Claire Rayburn.

A year ago, as reported in the Lariat, West’s mayor pro tem Steve Vanek kept the public updated on the inspections of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, also known as the ATF. The ATF and state fire marshals worked to investigate the area of the explosion and determine which residents were safe to return home, Vanek said.

Rayburn, at the time a special agent canine handler for ATF, worked with Farlee at the time of the investigation. Farlee didn’t play a large part in the investigation, Rayburn said, but was required to perform tasks on the scene.

“Farlee was utilized only two times,” Rayburn said. “One of them was on a search warrant that was in conjunction with the fertilizer plant explosion. The other time was in reference to taking some samples that were going to be sent to the laboratory.”

Farlee was an explosives detection canine. Whenever these dogs work in post-explosion situations like the one in West, Rayburn said, they often sniff the perimeter of the explosion site to determine its exact borders. Farlee’s tasks were different, however, and even included a few trips along Rayburn’s side to offer peer support after the fertilizer plant explosion.

Law enforcement members have peer support, Rayburn said, where other law enforcement members who have been through traumatic experiences offer conversation and support.

“Quite often people very much gravitate to the dog,” she said. “They seem to get a lot of comfort out of Farlee. Sometimes, especially if it’s somebody that’s really having trouble talking about something that occurred, they seem more able to relax a little bit and share a little bit more.”

Farlee has used her nose to ensure the lack of explosives at major events such as NBA basketball games and gubernatorial inaugurations. She has also used it at the scene of a crime. Dogs like Farlee can be used to detect fire arms and shell casings.

Years ago there was a shooting in a small town, Rayburn said. It occurred outside. The shooter fled the scene and was caught, but he didn’t have his firearm with him. Police knew the route he had taken before they caught him, but couldn’t locate the gun he had used.

“I went back with Farlee, and she found the gun in less than 15 minutes,” Rayburn said.

Farlee was rewarded with food for her work. She only ate when she completed an explosives-smelling task, Rayburn said.

“That meant that 365 days a year I had to set up some kind of a training scenario for her to eat every day,” she said. “It’s a Pavlovian theory – every time her nose would smell an explosive, her mouth would receive food.”

Farlee is seven years old and Rayburn worked with Farlee for five years until the two of them retired together in January. Explosive detection canines live with their trainers while active with the ATF. The bureau gave Farlee to Rayburn as she was retiring to keep as a pet.

The ATF acquires their Labrador retrievers from service dog institutions like Guiding Eyes for the Blind or Puppies Behind Bars. Dogs that have characteristics that make them incompetent for these positions can be given to the ATF to be explosives detection canines.

“If it’s a curious dog, a very high energy dog, or very inquisitive, those are all things the ATF looks for,” Rayburn said. “So what’s kind of neat is that if a dog doesn’t actually turn out to be good at one job, the ATF evaluates them. If the dog has what the ATF is looking for, they put the dog in the program, and the is trained as an explosives detection canine.”

Rayburn said when she worked for the ATF she took Farlee to career fairs and demonstrations at schools. She would use Farlee both to teach children about a unique side of law enforcement, and that, just like the ATF’s dogs, people don’t have to be skilled at everything to succeed.

“I’ve talked to kids a lot of times before, and I explained to them that just because you’re not good at something you try the first time doesn’t mean you’re not good at something else,” Rayburn said. “Maybe you’re not good at basketball, but you’re good at soccer. You have to look for what you’re good at.”

Farlee has a more relaxed life now, but still gets training exercises with food, Rayburn said.

“Farlee didn’t understand at first why we weren’t getting in the car and going to work,” she said. “So she really enjoys going out and doing stuff. I may go out to a field and toss some shell casings in the field and let her look for it. Every time she finds one of the shell casings she’ll get some of her dog food. And she thinks that this is big fun and excitement for her. I think she kind of misses it.”

Rayburn said Farlee is a happy and friendly lab.

“Farlee is very social,” she said. “She’s rather humorous. She kind of thinks that she’s like a Wal-Mart greeter. She wants to know everybody. Everybody’s always her friend – she wants to say hi to everyone.”