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Axe, the fire dog, joins Erie County Sheriff's Office

Axe suffered through puppyhood tied up outside a home in the Carolinas. Even after this black Labrador retriever was rescued, he still couldn't find a home that wanted him.

An energetic pup with soulful eyes, Axe bounced from house to house but always wound up back at the shelter, returned by owners who could not keep up with his rambunctious spirit.

Last Friday, Axe graduated from the New York State Fire Training Academy in Montour Falls after eight weeks of training. Certified as an accelerant detection canine, Axe, who is 1 1/2 years old, is the newest member of the Erie County Sheriff's Office Fire Investigation Unit (FIU).

"We needed a dog with a lot of energy," said Detective Scott Kuhlmey of the FIU. "Dogs for this program are selected based upon their high play drive, and the ability to focus and interact positively after an indication of an ignitable. He's a perfect work dog. Once he picks up the scent, his demeanor and the way he breathes changes. He'll be casting with his nose. His nose will shift."

After using his nose, Axe gets rewarded with a game of tug-of-war played with a towel or – more appropriately – a piece of fire hose. The game builds excitement for the dog, and reinforces the positive behavior, Kuhlmey said.

Axe was provided to Erie County at no cost by the New York State Department of Homeland Security Emergency Services Department.

Axe and his handler, Det. Scott Kuhlmey. Axe, a two and a half-year-old Lab mix, will be deployed to fire scenes throughout Erie County to search for the possible use of accelerants. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The county sheriff's K-9 team is often called to the scene of fires while the fire is still being suppressed. Axe may face hot and smoky conditions. The team can search rooms and buildings in minutes.

"Alcohol is light and evaporates quickly. The longer we wait, the better the possibility of it evaporating," Kuhlmey said, explaining the necessity for a speedy investigation.

The Sheriff's FIU is a four-man unit that includes Detective Shaun Hediger, Deputy Lee Richard, Kuhlmey and Axe. Axe and Detective Kuhlmey are taking over K-9 fire investigations following the retirement at the end of 2016 of Detective Steven Meerboth and Blaze, another dog trained to sniff out accelerants.

Only a few good dogs can do the job, Kuhlmey said. Axe and Kuhlmey were connected in February by Peppertree Rescue in Albany, after Axe was found to have good hips, good health and a good temperament.

"Usually Lab or German shepherd mixes are selected," said Kuhlmey. "They are typically smart and agile dogs with olfactory receptors that lend themselves well to this type of work."

When on the job Axe rides in style in a transport cage permanently mounted in the sheriff's temperature-controlled vehicle. Axe and Kuhlmey are available to all 97 Erie County fire departments and law enforcement agencies to help investigate fires suspected of being started by an arsonist.

"Axe is my partner and my pet. He comes home with me," said Kuhlmey, who has two children, ages 14 and 12, at home. "Axe is a nice family dog."

Kuhlmey, a volunteer firefighter since 1988 and former assistant chief and chief for the Lancaster Fire Department, makes sure there is no confusion as to when Axe can play and when he must work.

"There's specific things we do," Kuhlmey said. "When I put his harness on, he knows it's time to change hats and become a work dog."

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