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Arson dog makes debut | News, Sports, Jobs

Acting Altoona City fire inspector and handler Justin Smithmyer is seen with new arson dog, Lucille, during Flag Day ceremonies at Heritage Plaza on Tuesday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

At a City Council meeting this week, Altoona’s new arson dog, Lucille, was lying on her side on the floor, oblivious to officials and attendees, many of whom had come to see her introduced to the public.

“You’ll see a change in her demeanor,” predicted her handler, acting fire inspector Justin Smithmyer, as he left the podium to fetch food in preparation for Lucille to show how she could locate a few drops of gasoline that Smithmyer had placed around the room.

Lucille was a good as Smithmyer’s promise, popping up, tail wagging, and on his command of “seek,” leading him around with her nose to the floor, dropping to her belly each time she found a spot of gas.

Lucille is the city’s second arson dog, after Tyra, who retired not long ago with her handler, former fire inspector Tim Hughes — both of whom attended the meeting for a recognition that was coupled with Lucille’s introduction.

“She’s a regional asset,” said Fire Chief Tim Hileman, explaining that Smithmyer and Lucille will help investigate fires in several counties in central and southwestern Pennsylvania.

Smithmyer previously worked as assistant fire inspector with Huges and Tyra, and when they retired, he volunteered as Hughes’ replacement.

It was a “perfect fit,” given that he grew up with dogs, Smithmyer said.

I have connected with Lucille at Maine Specialty Dogs in New England.

They trained together for four weeks, every day, including weekends, for a total of about 300 hours, Smithmyer said.

There were five field tests for them working together.

At one point, Lucille had to find a third of a drop of gasoline placed 2.5 weeks earlier in a can, along with wood and burnt paper.

Smithmyer worried she wouldn’t find it.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “She was a rock star.”

There was also a 50-question, fill-in-the-blank test for him.

Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors, 50 times more than people, according to a handout from State Farm, which paid all the training expenses.

The part of a dog’s brain that analyzes smells is 40 times bigger than that part in human beings, according to the handout.

State Farm established its Arson Dog program in 1993, in cooperation with the Maine State Police and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, and the program has trained more than 435 teams, with 100 currently operating, according to the handout.

All the dogs are Labrador retrievers or Goldadors, which are a Lab-golden retriever mix.

Labs do well discriminating scents at a fire scene, and can smell in parts per quintillion.

They learn to detect up to 30 compounds used as accelerants by arsonists, according to Smithmyer.

Arson dogs operate on the “food reward” system: they eat only as a reward for locating an accelerant, whether in training or on the job.

They always eat directly out of their handler’s hand.

Smithmyer hung a rag from his waist Tuesday, so he could wipe his hand after the demonstration.

“She’s a messy eater,” he said.

They train six to eight times a day.

Ella es “like a finely tuned athlete,” Smithmyer said.

Lucille, who is 2 years old, lives with Smithmyer’s family and plays with his two sons, 3 and 8.

Eventually, perhaps eight or 10 years from now, Lucille will retire and become the Smithmyers’ pet, at which point she can learn to eat from a bowl and “become a normal dog.”

They can live 14 to 16 years, Smithmyer said.

Smithmyer carries a bag with him containing medications in case Lucille encounters anything harmful at fire scenes.

Those are often “not pristine,” he said.

Her predecessor, Tyra, is now graying around the muzzle.

She and Hughes “set a high bar,” Smithmyer said.

After two months, he sees why Hughes liked his gig so much, Smithmyer said.

At the end of the presentation, the chief snapped a badge affixed to a leather strap around Lucille’s harness.

“Lucille is now official,” Hileman said.

“I love this little girl,” Smithmyer said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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