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Pasco search dog's struggle to live ends

Pasco Sgt. Troy Fergueson trained Sophie to sniff out buried remains and weapons.

Special to the Times

Pasco Sgt. Troy Fergueson trained Sophie to sniff out buried remains and weapons.

HUDSON — Sophie's last search began at home. As Troy Fergueson stood in the driveway, fetching his son's Little League baseball gear, the search dog was scouring the house, trying to find her master.

Fergueson's wife, Laura, found Sophie collapsed, tongue lolling, on the kitchen floor. When Fergueson saw her, he yelled, "Sophie girl!"

She cut her eyes at him, breathed deeply and thumped her tail on the floor. Her head sank. On Nov. 7, about 10 years after her birth, she was gone.

"It was almost as if she was waiting for me to come back," Fergueson said. "She was trying to get out to me to say, 'Hey, dad, hurry up. This is it.' "

• • •

A purebred Labrador retriever, Sophie was the runt of her mother's 10-puppy litter. Fergueson, a training sergeant with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, first saw her while searching for his wife's Christmas gift. Sophie was young and sweet but untrained.

Sophie quickly proved herself skilled at the search, earning the highest rank, ValeDogTorian, at her obedience school. Fergueson, 42, began training Sophie in the highly specialized field of forensics: the tracking of bodies, buried remains, blood splatter and murder weapons. Most K-9 units devote their dogs to sniffing out missing people, drugs or bombs. Sophie's niche training would make her invaluable at the crime scene.

But it wouldn't come easily. Unlike bloodhounds, which track a person's scent by skin cells and odors left behind, Sophie trained on a much more chemically generic smell — what Fergueson called the "scent of death." Sophie's favorite toy would become a scent tube, a plastic pipe tinged with the odors of cadavers.

As part of the K-9 Forensics Recovery Team, a volunteer group Fergueson founded in 2001, Sophie searched green swamps, thick brush and collapsed rubble. She lent her nose to the Jessica Lunsford search and the hunt for a murder victim near a Hudson bowling alley.

She also pulled double duty as the team's "social butterfly," Fergueson said. The relative of a woman found dead near Jasmine Lakes hugged Sophie and wouldn't let go.

"If she was fearful," Fergueson said, "she didn't show it."

• • •

Fergueson knew this day would come. When Sophie was diagnosed in 2008 with transitional cell carcinoma, an inoperable cancer in her urethra, she was given a month to live.

Veterinarians at the University of Florida's teaching hospital found early success with stereotactic radiation therapy, an experimental procedure that could attack the cancerous tumor directly. When Sophie lived for 15 months, doctors were stunned.

Sophie received 25 chemotherapy treatments even as she continued her search work. Donors and foundations who learned of Sophie's story paid for most of her $25,000 in medical expenses. She appeared to be improving.

But a March diagnosis of kidney failure, blood work and aggressive treatments began to leave their mark. Sophie was retired this summer, four months before she died.

On the day she died, Fergueson gathered her body in his arms and carried her to his car. He unclipped the blue-and-orange Florida Gators collar she had worn since her Gainesville treatment began and left it inside. On it hung two medallions, both of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. One of them Sophie was given as a gift. The other she had found in the back yard, seemingly out of nowhere.

On Friday, at the Dobies Funeral Home in Hudson, Fergueson will lead a memorial for his partner. He'll keep her cremains at the home where she last searched, with the collar on top of the urn.

"We're going to be bringing her home, where she can watch over us in her own way," Fergueson said. "I want her to keep wearing her collar."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Pasco search dog's struggle to live ends 11/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 16, 2010 9:56pm]
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