00:00 AM

Not Your Typical Teen

Nineteen year old Gaetana Almeida seems like your typical teenager. She is a sophomore in college who loves her family and her home state of Maine.

She also really loves dogs. A LOT!

When Gaetana was younger, she wanted a dog, but her parents said no. Instead, at 10 years old, she volunteered at a local farm owned by head trainer for the State Farm Arson Dog Program, Paul Gallagher.

After two years, Paul asked Gaetana if she would like to foster an arson dog. She did, and simply told her mom, Wendy, with a laugh, “We’re getting a dog and you don’t have a say in it.” Gaetana is the only teenager currently raising arson dogs in the area.

Arson dogs are trained to sniff out accelerants that may have been used to start a fire. The dogs go through extensive training before becoming certified arson dogs. Then, each dog is matched with a human handler – a law enforcement officer trained to investigate fire scenes.

An estimated 17,400 arsons in residential buildings were reported to U.S. fire departments each year, from 2010 – 2012. These fires resulted in 275 deaths, 800 injuries, and $513 million in property loss.

During the same time period, an estimated 9,000 arsons occurred in nonresidential buildings each year, resulting in $282 million in property loss.

The connection between a girl and her dog

Shadow was Gaetana’s first foster dog. “I was super attached to him,” she says. “He was crazy, but sharp. His handler wasn’t sure of him at first, but now loves him immensely.”

Gaetana receives the dogs, all Labrador retrievers, when they are between one and two years old, and has them for approximately six months. She gives them back when they begin intensive accelerant detection training. After they finish their training, they are matched with handlers across the U.S.

“While I have them, I give them lots of love and exercise,” says Gaetana. They are hyper dogs, so we run a lot. Plus, we have goats, sheep, chickens and cats, so the dogs get used to other animals.”

Gaetana shares how difficult it is to give up the dogs after she’s become attached to them.

“Shadow was the hardest because he was my first foster dog,” she says. “I put work into them and become attached, but I know they’re going to good homes. I get to meet their handlers, but it’s still hard to say goodbye to my best friends.”

Gaetana fondly remembers each dog by sharing how they all have distinct personalities.

“Tanya was a sweetie, but very protective,” she explains. “Ransom was an absolute goofball. Anyone who worked with him had to have a sense of humor because he was so silly. Patty was sassy and had an attitude for two. And Vinnie always wanted to cuddle, but unfortunately, didn’t make it as an arson dog. He’s now living with a Maine chemist who creates accelerants for the arson dog program.”

Patty, who graduated from arson training in spring 2015, is one of Gaetana’s success stories. Over the past several months, an arsonist started more than 10 fires in Beaver Falls, PA, causing a great deal of damage and public alarm. Patty and her handler, Dave, were called to a scene where Patty alerted him to the presence of gasoline on the arsonist’s shoes, resulting in a confession.

The young girl was so proud of her former student “That was awesome, “Gaetana says. “I’m so excited! That’s my girl!”

Patty, along with Gaetana’s other dogs, are trained through the State Farm Arson Dog Program, which was established in 1993. Since its inception, more than 350 dogs and their partners have been trained and now work throughout 44 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces.

“It’s great these dogs are doing such a great job in helping communities by sniffing out accelerants and putting arsonists behind bars,” says Gaetana.

Where are Gaetana’s dogs now?

  • K9 Vinnie is living with a family in Maine was a pet
  • K9 Shadow is partnered with Richard Howard at the Evansville Fire Department in Evansville, IN
  • K9 Ransom is partnered with Barry Overman at the Elizabeth City Dire Department in Elizabeth City, NC
  • K9 Tanya is partnered with John Galaska at the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office in Georgetown, DE
  • K9 Patty is partnered with Davis Seidl at the Beaver Falls Fire Department in Beaver Falls, PA

To read more about State Farm and our support of all dogs please read: