How this pitbull from an Ontario dog fighting ring became a K9 arson detective

How this pitbull from an Ontario dog fighting ring became a K9 arson detective

A pitbull pup condemned to die as a menace to society after he was seized from a dog-fighting operation in southwestern Ontario is alive and well and sniffing out crime in the United States. 

Hansel was just seven weeks old when police and OSPCA officers raided a compound in Tilbury, Ont., in October of 2015 and rescued him along with 30 other dogs — all pitbulls. 

Now, the four-year-old pooch is making history as the first pitbull to work as an arson detection dog in New Jersey; his first day with the Millville Fire Department was this week.

"I am 100 per cent sure there are no other law enforcement pitbulls in the state of New Jersey," said Carol Skaziak, the co-founder of Throw Away Dogs Project, the Philadelphia non-profit that helped train Hansel.

"I've done a lot of research and haven't heard about any others in the country," she added.

Throw Away Dogs Project trains what it calls "misunderstood dogs" to become K9 officers. Hansel was trained for a year before being enrolled in a 16-week K9 academy to become certified in arson detection.

"M\y goal is to find these dogs and give them a new purpose while helping out the community," Skaziak told CBC News.

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Hard-fought battle

It has been a lengthy journey for Hansel.

After the raid, the pitbulls each underwent behavioural evaluation by the American SPCA. Hansel was among the 21 dogs deemed a menace to society and could not be rehabilitated. 

The OSPCA, however, had to apply to court to have the dogs euthanized. which led to a public outcry.

Dog Tales, a dog rescue and horse sanctuary north of Toronto, launched a publicity campaign, called #Savethe21, featuring celebrity endorsements from Richard Branson, Enrique Iglesias and Paris Hilton, all pleading with the OSPCA and the Crown to save the dogs.

It worked. The campaign prompted a second behavioural assessment, which showed improvement in most of the dogs, including Hansel.

Since Ontario has a ban on pitbulls, Hansel was sent to a facility in Florida, and eventually taken in by Throw Away Dogs Project in Philadelphia.

"Not every dog could be a police dog," said Skaziak.

"When it comes to odour detection, we train with positive play. So we are looking for a dog that is absolutely off the charts with high energy and a dog that loves to play. Hansel had those qualities."

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When she heard the Millville Fire Department in New Jersey needed an arson detection dog, she knew Hansel would be perfect for the task.

Working with his handler, firefighter Tyler Van Leer, the pitbull was trained to identify 14 different ignitable liquids often used by arsonists, like kerosene, gasoline and diesel. He can now accurately detect traces the size of one 1,000th of a drop.

Skaziak hopes Hansel's story will pave the way for more dogs like him to be saved — and trained to do good.

"There are so many misunderstood breeds out there."