Doing Double Duty
Meet Darlington, S.C., Fire Department’s new ambassador. She’s got big brown eyes, golden hair and a slobbering smile.
Cato, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, joined the department in May 2017 after graduating from the State Farm Arson Dog program. The $50,000 cost for the program was sponsored by State Farm®.
A year after her arrival, Cato’s partner and handler, Darlington County Fire Chief Ricky Flowers, says he can’t imagine life without her.
“There was a media blitz when she arrived, and arson fires have dropped 85 percent since she came on board. Cato did what we wanted her to do – cut down on the number of suspicious fires.”
But her role has expanded to be much more than an arson dog. Ricky says he is beyond amazed at Cato’s expanding role in the fire department’s public relations efforts.
When not investigating suspected arson scenes, the cuddly canine is seen around town promoting fire safety, social interaction and literacy to local students.
Cato’s recent visit to a local elementary school resulted in a request from the school for more State Farm-branded dog bone flashlights for a Cato-inspired pajama party and reading event for its students.
“We went to the school to demonstrate fire prevention, and the kids fell in love with her,” Ricky says.
In turn, Ricky was inspired by the request to expand the elementary school's literacy efforts.
“This year we’re trying a program where local elementary school students in every grade who read the most books get to spend the day at the firehouse with us,” he says. “We’d like to do it before winter break and again after winter break to give the kids something to look forward to and inspire them to read.”
Ricky says the pair have become local celebrities of sorts to students.
“State Farm gave us trading cards with our picture on them that we hand out to the kids,” Ricky says. “They’ve been a big hit. Kids come up to me in the grocery store to say hello.”
Kim Conyers, Public Affairs specialist, says the fire chief has developed a clever extension of the Arson dog partnership.
“Using Cato and the elementary schools in the area to morph safety education into promoting literacy is a great concept,” Kim says.
In addition to literacy, Cato helps college students learn more about sociology.
Ricky’s wife, Shannon, teaches sociology and criminology at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C. Cato visits her class to demonstrate her arson technique.
“I explain that Cato is totally unbiased. She doesn’t see suspects. She’s just looking for clues,” her handler says. “The students love the demonstration, and they also love to pet her. They ask if I can bring her back before exams to help them relax.”
Like the students, Cato relaxes in her down time. At home and at schools, she is a playful puppy.
Until it’s time to go to work. Like many working dogs, Cato’s personality changes depending on the situation.
“Her chests puffs out, and her mood changes. She goes from playful to working girl as soon as she sees me pick up the leash,” says Ricky. “When the leash goes on, her nose goes to the ground and she doesn’t care what else is going on around her. She’d ignore a T-bone steak. It’s like she’s got a split personality.”
Cato couldn’t make it as a disability support dog at Paws for a Cause because of her energy and curiosity.
“She is our first arson dog. Our original plan was to slow arsons down in the county because we were having a problem,” he says. “When I approached our administration to ask about getting a dog, I said I didn’t know what else the dog would be able to do. Now we see that she does so much more. She is the most valuable tool we have in the department right now.”