Sowell, a 4-year-old black Labrador, flunked out of training to be a seeing-eye guide dog. When he put his nose down to it, however, it turned out he had a real talent for detecting ignitable liquids. In 2019, he was partnered with Capt. Craig Matthews of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services and became a K9 arson dog, working for Howard, Frederick and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City.
“He has had several cases where he has been able to detect ignitable liquids present resulting in several arrests of suspects,” said Matthews, of Marriottsville. “He is also out in the community as a public safety educator.”
Sowell’s accomplishments led Matthews to nominate him for the 2021 American Humane Hero Dog Awards in the Law Enforcement and Detection category, where he is now contending with two other dogs for the title in that category. The finalists from each of the seven categories will go on to compete for the top title.
“A dog’s nose is 50 times stronger than a human’s,” Matthews said. “He saves fire investigators a lot of time. It may take a couple hours to get through all the fire debris and collect a good sample in a room. Sowell goes in there and, in 30 seconds to a minute, he works the entire room and tells us if something is there.”
Sowell’s lab results are also impressive, testing positive 93% of the time for some sort of ignitable liquid, Matthews said.
“Of the 75 calls he responds to a year, I bet close to 50 of them are acts of arson,” Matthews said.
Even while on vacation at the beach this past week with Matthews’ family, Sowell had to train.
“He is a food reward canine. He never gets the same amount of food a day or at the same time,” Matthews said. “Some days we run three fires, others four or five. He has to have that drive to want to work for that food.”
More than 400 dogs were nominated from across the country in seven categories: Therapy; Service; Military; Law Enforcement; Shelter; Search and Rescue; and Guide/Hearing, according to Mark Stubis, spokesperson for American Humane. The field was narrowed to 21 semifinalists (three in each category), based on more than a half-million votes by the animal-loving public.
“Maryland certainly has more than its share of courageous canines competing in the 2021 American Humane Hero Dog Awards,” Stubis wrote in an email. Besides Sowell, a dog from Severn in Anne Arundel County and another from the Frederick County side of Mount Airy are in the running.
Colt, a 3-year-old Belgian malinois, and his two brothers were left at a shelter in Montgomery County at a young age. While his brothers were chosen for work at a local law enforcement department, Colt was deemed too shy and timid for the job. When his owner, Carrie Vosburg, adopted him in 2019 and brought him home to her family in Severn, she said Colt’s personality came shining through.
“He is the sweetest thing and he is a hugger. He’ll gently jump up and put his head on your chest and just want to be held,” Vosburg said.
He is also extremely driven and needs to be active, Vosburg said.
The Vosburgs got Colt active in three dog sports: dock diving, where an object is tossed into a pool and the dog leaps to retrieve it; barn hunt, where dogs sniff out rats hidden in a maze of straw and hay; and fast cat, a timed 100-yard dash.
“We try to do an event a month,” Vosburg said. “He also does toss and fetch with a Frisbee once a week, but it has been so hot right now that it’s been too much. We have to keep him healthy.”
Colt is nominated in the Shelter category for his transition from a scared shelter puppy to an outgoing, loving dog who was ranked as the fourth-highest jumping Belgian malinois in the Dockdog World Championships in 2020, according to Vosburg.
After tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where she did routine patrols searching for and identifying weapon caches and explosive devices, Summer, a yellow Labrador, retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 and became a police explosive detection dog, working for seven years before retiring.
Her handler since 2014, Sgt. Micah Jones is retired from the Air Force and works for the Amtrak Police Department as its K9 unit supervisor. He nominated Summer in the Military category.
“Being in the military myself, we get all the attention — dogs don’t. She’s the one who found the stuff,” Jones said. “When I found [the contest], I reached out to get her the recognition she rightfully deserves. She is a four-legged veteran.”
Now 10 years old, Summer visits residents at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in St. Mary’s County, where Jones shares her stories and adventures. Most days, she’s out enjoying life by the pool, Jones said.
“She’s been diagnosed with canine PTSD,” Jones said. “Loud noises will startle her and start her shaking. She shuts down. It’s from what she dealt with in Afghanistan. I’m really proud of her.”
Voting continues until July 15 at HeroDogAwards.org. Of the 21 total nominations, the seven finalists from each category will go on to compete for the top title of 2021′s American Hero Dog through a combination of votes by the public and a blue-ribbon panel consisting of animal experts and animal-loving celebrities. The seven category winners will be named July 29, after which finalist voting will begin.
“We need as many votes as we can possibly get,” Matthews said. “It is a pretty cool competition. I encourage voting every day.”