At an empty Stanford Stadium on a chilly afternoon, Deputy Sheriff Chris Mazzone and her canine partner, Flash, wander the concourse. They’re not here for football.

“It’s more like hide-and-seek,” said Mazzone.

Leading her by his leash, Flash aims his snout to the ground, sniffing every corner, nook, and cranny. After a few minutes, he makes his way to the stands where, behind a Cardinal red seat, he finds a small container planted by Mazzone that carries the scent of the explosive C-4. Then he waits patiently for his reward.

“His pay is a tennis ball on a string,” Mazzone said. “That's his favorite thing in the world!”

For Flash, this routine activity isn’t just a game – it’s his job. For the past six years, the black Labrador retriever has been Stanford’s explosives detection canine (EDC) with the Department of Public Safety. Together, he and Mazzone help protect the Stanford campus.

“Being a canine handler is the best job in law enforcement because we get to do really serious and impactful work to keep our community safe,” Mazzone said.

The duo is currently assigned to patrol campus, where Flash’s regular presence often catches the attention of passersby, especially students, who enjoy petting and taking photos with him and collecting stickers with his portrait, which Mazzone carries with her and hands out to dog lovers. But Flash’s popularity and unlikely celebrity status at Stanford are a far cry from his humble beginnings.

Flash is the explosives detection canine in the Stanford Department of Public Safety. | Andrew Brodhead

‘A bumblebee on a string’

Flash was born in Oklahoma to a breeder who raises trial, or hunting, dogs.

“He was the runt of the litter – too small to do trials, but perfect for what we do,” Mazzone said.

Flash arrived at Stanford in February 2018 at nine months old to partner with Mazzone. He had no professional training, but plenty of puppy energy.

“He was a bumblebee on a string,” Mazzone recalled. “Our first couple of months together, we focused almost exclusively on obedience training.”

Later, they spent six weeks working with a local trainer who taught Flash to recognize 14 odors, like C-4, dynamite, and ammonium nitrate. To practice scent detection, Mazzone frequently takes Flash to a location on campus, like the stadium, and hides a scent for him to find.

When they’re not training, Flash and Mazzone patrol campus, often in a sheriff’s car, answering calls for service, conducting traffic control, or participating in bike education. When called upon, they’ll shift gears and conduct sweeps – or searches – of campus venues prior to a major event, like football games, Commencement, or visits by dignitaries.

“Once the security perimeter is set and access is controlled, Flash and I will go in and he’ll sniff around and look for any explosive odors that he is trained to identify,” Mazzone said. “We’ll sweep the entire venue and when we finish, we advise whoever is managing that event that no explosives were identified and that the venue is clear.”

It’s an intense and consequential job. Unlike other law enforcement canines, EDCs like Flash only have one opportunity to find what they’re looking for.

“If an apprehension or narcotics dog doesn’t find the bad guy or the drugs, it’s okay. They’ll get them the next time,” Mazzone said. “But if Flash doesn’t find the bomb, it’s a bad day.”

But Flash is a pro, highly intelligent, and reliable. Until recently, he was the only EDC working with Stanford DPS. While his job is based on campus, he is part of a larger group of EDCs in Santa Clara County and occasionally works elsewhere when a need arises.

Mazzone, who’s been at Stanford since 2010, said the best part about working with Flash is attending outreach events, like last year’s Halloween party at Escondido Village where Flash donned a shark costume and met trick-or-treaters. More recently, they visited Stanford Children’s Hospital to meet and play with pediatric patients.

“He was the belle of the ball,” Mazzone said, adding that Flash enjoyed getting belly rubs from the kids.

Due to Flash’s popularity with the Stanford community, DPS is considering getting him an Instagram account.

Home away from Stanford

For law enforcement dog handlers, like Mazzone, doing the job well means maintaining a strong bond with their canine partners. “It takes a lot of time and trust to build up that relationship,” she said.

Flash and Mazzone are not just law enforcement partners, they’re family, spending nearly all their time together. When he’s not busy protecting Stanford, Flash lives with Mazzone and her family on a 10-acre ranch with horses. He has four sisters, including a pointer and pit bull mix who’s also named Flash and is an explosives detection canine, and Bailey, a German shorthaired poodle who’s a trained PTSD dog.

Although very healthy and strong, Flash is now middle-aged and will likely retire in a few years. Until then, he and Mazzone are enjoying the excitement of safeguarding Stanford.

Mazzone said she has always loved dogs and has worked with them before, but nothing compares to being Flash’s partner.

“This is the most intense and most specific role that I've had with a canine,” she said. “And it's been awesome.”