Imagine having a job you love. Now imagine getting to do it with your best furry friend. Fire investigator Jodie Grisdale doesn’t have to wonder. She works with a black Labrador retriever named Willow, one of the few fire-accelerant detection dogs in Canada.
Grisdale started out as a firefighter and worked her way up to being an investigator, a role that seeks to figure out how fires start. When signs point to arson, it can be difficult to determine what happened, as most of the evidence has likely gone up in flames. This is where Willow comes in, to assist in determining origin and cause.
Willow was born into an organization that raises dogs to work with people with disabilities, but she failed her training on account of being overly food-driven. This particular trait is important for fire-accelerant detection dogs, so Willow was given a new calling. Grisdale had been working as a fire investigator in Calgary for a year before she flew to New Hampshire for a month of training with Willow. The two have been working together ever since and have investigated more than 100 fires in the past three years. “The trust that has developed between us is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Grisdale. “We can’t communicate verbally, but we have our other ways of communicating.”
Once a fire scene is deemed safe for Willow, she and Grisdale do a sweep of the site. If Willow sniffs out ignitable liquid — even a very small amount — she’ll alert Grisdale by sitting. Grisdale will then reward Willow and take a sample to send to the forensic lab for testing; an expensive and often difficult process made easier by Willow’s nose. Willow is brought on-scene for suspected arsons, but also for non-arson fires where the source is unknown. There have been instances where Willow and Grisdale’s results have changed the course of an investigation.
“When I was a firefighter, I spent a lot of time going to fires and wondering, ‘how did the fire start?’,” Grisdale says. “Now, my job has come 360 as I get to go to fires and help figure out how they started.”
After a long day, Willow likes to unwind by playing with her ball or going on a hike. She lives with the Grisdale family, which means that she and Jodie truly are inseparable. But Grisdale, who describes this work as her “dream job,” wouldn’t have it any other way.