Local arson dog serves with Bensenville Police Department, assists fire investigators across DuPage County

BENSENVILLE — Zoe is a normal dog. The 3-year-old yellow Labrador keeps busy with walks through town, playing fetch and visiting her neighbors.

The 65-pound pup still appears like your everyday pet until Jack Barba, an officer with the Bensenville Police Department, takes out a black pouch that belts around the waist. When Zoe sees the pouch, it's time to go to work.

Zoe is an arson dog that uses her keen scent of smell to locate accelerants that might have been used to intentionally start a fire, working alongside investigators at crime scenes.

She's lived with her handler, Barba, since 2010. The duo was trained through the State Farm Arson Dog Program, which has prepared more than 300 dogs to work and assist fire investigators throughout the country.

"She can search a building in minutes, where it takes investigators hours or days," Barba said.

Although Zoe and Barba are based at the Bensenville Police Department, they're part of the DuPage County Arson Task Force, assisting at fire scenes throughout the suburbs. In the past year, they've worked fires in Lombard, Villa Park, Downers Grove and Bensenville.

Zoe is able to identify between 30 to 60 different types of hydrocarbons, which are used to start fires. She practices what Barba calls "scent discrimination" — finding the difference between an actual accelerant and a normal household item, such as carpeting or plastic, that smell similar to a hydrocarbon.

To keep in top form, Barba trains with Zoe several times a day, and she's only fed when she trains. Most drills follow the same theme: Day-to-day items such as socks, carpet squares or gym shoes are marked with small amounts of gasoline and mixed with other items, and it's Zoe's job to identify the "hot" one.

She's fast. The energetic Zoe must work on a leash, as fire scenes aren't safe for unleashed dogs. As Barba holds her, she strains and pulls, eager to quickly search a room.

When they're working, Barba commands, "get to work" and "seek." Zoe scratches when she's found the accelerant, and when Barba says, "show me," she points her nose to the specific spot on the item that holds the scent.

"The best evidence is collected if she can pinpoint it," Barba explained.

Once she's located accelerants in a real fire, investigators send the evidence to a lab to determine if the presence is suspicious.

"She's only one part of the puzzle," Barba said. "Everything has to match."

Before joining the police department almost six years ago, Barba spent 30 years with the Bensenville Fire Department. His colleagues thought he'd be a good fit as an arson dog handler, so the police department applied for and received a scholarship to the State Farm program.

In addition to training and working fires, Zoe and Barba travel throughout DuPage County visiting schools, community groups, the county fair and fire department open houses. In February, they gave a demonstration at the International Kennel Club of Chicago's dog show at McCormick Place.

While Barba's attention to Zoe's regimen is extensive, at the end of the day when her training pouch is put away, she seems less like an arson dog.

"The pouch is the on-off switch," Barba said. "She can be a regular dog when she's not working."