Savannah Young / American Humane Communications
The fact Hansel the pit bull is still alive is a minor miracle, but the hero dog is doing more than just living—he's working to help his local fire department save lives all while chipping away at the stereotype surrounding his breed.
Hansel was rescued from an alleged Canadian dog fighting ring when he was just 7 weeks old. He'd never fought, but he was still scheduled to be euthanized. Thankfully, a shelter in Florida took him in before he was plucked by the Throw Away Dogs Project, which trains dogs to become K-9 officers in the Philadelphia area.
That's how he and Millville (N.J.) Fire Department firefighter Tyler Van Leer found each other. Van Leer approached his chief in the summer of 2019 to ask about obtaining a department dog, one who could help with fire detection and also serve as a community ambassador. With the help of a police officer friend and Carol Skaziak, the founder of Throw Away Dogs, he had his first meeting with Hansel that September at the firehouse.
"When he came out of the vehicle and me and him locked eyes, the bond had started," Van Leer tells Daily Paws. "I knew he could feel it, too."
Erik Larson/ Larson’s Images Hansel the Pitbull and Tyler Van Leer
The newly bonded pair entered the academy that month, focusing on scent training. Hansel completed more than 3,000 searches, graduating in January 2020. He's now an arson detection dog who can detect the presence of ignitable liquids like kerosene and lighter fluid.
Hansel's nose detected the source of an October 2020 fire last year resulting in an arrest, Van Leer says. More recently, he detected lighter fluid that was connected to a warehouse fire. Four people were arrested in that investigation, in part thanks to the pit bull.
"Nobody knew a pit bull could do a job such as scent work," Van Leer says.
He'll often ask audiences at community events to guess which breed Hansel is. Bloodhound? German shepherd? Labrador retriever? Belgian Malinois? Everyone is usually surprised at the answer, but they soon fall in love with Hansel, a happy boy with a big smile who likes to carry around his favorite toy. It's not what many people think of when you mention a pit bull, a dog stereotyped as dangerous.
"That's how he's destroying the stigma," Van Leer says. "He's a true rock star."
Speaking of being a star, Hansel is a finalist for the American Humane Hero Dog Awards, representing the Law Enforcement and Detection category. The 2021 Hero Dog winner will be announced Wednesday, October 20 at 9 p.m. eastern time on Hallmark Drama.