K-9 arson fighters show off skills in annual recertification

Ritzey and Deputy Dale DeKorte participate in annual recertification for State Farm's Arson Dog Program on June 7, 2017.

GOWEN, Mich. (WOOD) — A human can walk through a fire scene all day and not pick up the scent of what caused the fire. But a specially trained dog can do in a matter of seconds.

“She smells 100 times better than we do,” said Kent County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Dale DeKorte of his dog, Ritzey.

The Labrador-Golden Retriever mix has the ability to sniff out oftentimes trace amounts of an accelerant baked in to what’s left over after the fire.

For the past four years, Ritzey and DeKorte have traveled across Southwest Michigan, finding evidence that humans never could.

“It would be hard because of all the smells that are coming from that fire,” said DeKorte. “Where[as] the K-9 can go in and differentiate those smells and zero in on a smell it’s been trained for.”

Ritzey and DeKorte, along with about 30 other K-9 units from the U.S and parts of Canada are put through their paces for two and a half days for their annual recertification, hosted by the Kent County Sheriff’s Department in Gowen, Mich.

“Recertification like this is critically important for these teams because oftentimes, they have to go back and testify in a court of law,” said Heather Paul, the Arson Dog Program relationship manager for State Farm Insurance.

Through the Arson Dog Program, State Farm covers the costs of the dogs, along with the training of both the K-9 and their human partners, which is about $25,000 on average.

The dogs are used to investigate suspicious fires, whether State Farm insured the property or not.

Arson is tough to prosecute because most evidence burns up in the fire.

Not only can they be deadly, they’re also costly. Intentionally set fires cost insurers billions in fraudulent insurance claims every year.

On average, the rate of successful prosecution for arson is anywhere from 12 to 14 percent, according to Paul.

“With an arson dog on scene, the national average goes from 40 to 50 percent,” she told 24 Hour News 8.

The K-9s are also used for arson prevention and are used extensively in school fire safety programs — especially those aimed at juvenile fire setters.

“These guys go into, with their dogs, will go into schools and teach about fire safety, what arson is and hopefully be able to stop the more than 50 percent of fires that are started by juvenile fire setters,” Paul said.

Like most working K-9s, Ritzey goes home every night with DeKorte.

“She’s with me 24/7. She’s with the family all the time. Everywhere we go, she goes,” DeKorte said.

And when it comes to picking a four-legged partner over a human partner, DeKorte said he’d rather have Ritzey.

“She never argues where we’re having lunch,” DeKorte said.