Meet Haywood County's newest tool in fighting arson

By Kyle Perrotti | Oct 17, 2016
Photo by: Kyle Perrotti Deputy Chief Dean Castaldo was joined at the ceremony introducing Dante by representatives from State Farm Insurance.

Anyone thinking of committing arson in Haywood County may want to think again.

Dante is the area’s newest weapon in finding crucial evidence that could help track down individuals who intentionally set fires.

The two-year-old English Yellow, the state’s fourth dog trained to detect arson, was obtained and trained thanks to a $25,000 grant provided by State Farm Insurance. The aptly name pooch, who belongs Deputy Fire Chief Dean Castaldo, is the newest member of the Clyde Fire Department. Although the dog is locally based, he will also be available to surrounding counties.

Dante was formally introduced in a ceremony in front of the Haywood County Courthouse Tuesday afternoon. The ceremony, which was attended by members of the press, Clyde Fire Department, Clyde Police Department, Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb, Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher and representatives from State Farm, began with opening remarks from a few individuals, including N.C. Deputy Fire Marshall Greg Grayson and State Farm’s Clay Dangerfield.

Grayson’s speech highlighted how valuable of an asset Dante will be, as well as how serious the arson problem is, noting that there were 1,584 intentionally set fires in North Carolina last year. Dangerfield spoke about issues regarding loss of life and property. According to Dangerfield, false claims amount to roughly $30 billion per year, which adds between $200 and $300 to everyone’s annual insurance premiums.

But with Dante — who can detect accelerants in parts per trillion, over 40 times more minute what humans can — those numbers should go down.

It wasn’t easy for Castaldo to get the ball rolling on the program. First, he had to ask around to figure out how to apply for the hefty grant. Then after spending days working on it, submitting it and getting accepted, he had to fly up to Maine to participate in an intensive, four-week training program with his new canine.

Dante made his way into the program from another organization called Paws with a Cause, a group that trains service dogs for disabled individuals. However, because Dante proved to be too energetic for the program, Paws with a Cause gave him to State Farm. Once in State Farm’s care, Dante underwent imprint training which entailed learning how to detect accelerants.

“They teach the dogs the scents and reinforce it with treats,” Castaldo said. “So they smell it, they sit and they get a treat.”

Once Dante finished imprint training, he was introduced to his new owner.

“I got off the plane, and one-and-a-half hours later I had a dog in my lap,” Castaldo said.

The first step of the program was leash training. Castaldo had to learn how to read the dog as well as the importance of proper handling.

“It’s important to know how to use the leash because you don’t want to pull the dog off a scent,” he said.

Following leash training, Castaldo and Dante underwent weeks of long days, sometimes up to 14 hours, learning how to smell accelerants in various environments. The final step of the training was a three-day certification process which required Castaldo to take a written exam and Dante to perform a practical test.

Since completing training, Dante has moved in with Castaldo and his family. Beyond being a new pet, Dante goes to work with Castaldo, where they train every single day. In fact, the only way Dante gets fed is out of Castaldo’s hand and only when he successfully identifies an accelerant.

To prove his ability to detect the accelerants, Dante and Castaldo performed three demonstrations.

The first was a scent discrimination test. For this, several cans were lined up, each containing a different material, ranging from wood to vinyl, with one containing a couple drops of accelerant. The second, the evidence sniff, required Dante to pick one towel out of several that had accelerant on it. For the third test, four people lined up, one had a drop of accelerant placed on him and Dante picked him out.

Although Dante has yet to respond to an actual call, Castaldo said he is confident in his dog’s abilities.

“We’ve done a couple training burns, and Dante performed as he should, just like in training,” he said.

He added that both he and Dante are excited to get out into the field and begin curbing the state’s arson problem.

“Here we are now, and we’re ready to do what we need to do.”