BROOKSVILLE — Ruger spent most of his life performing a grim duty — using his highly trained sense of smell to find people in the most arduous of circumstances.
Amid the wreckage of Sept. 11 in New York City, wading through the horrors of post-Katrina New Orleans, even during the high-profile search for a missing teen in an island paradise, the 12-year-old German shepherd sniffed out the living and the dead.
Last week, death found him.
Ruger had been beset with a cancer that was gradually degrading his spine, said his owner and handler Mary Peter of Stillwater Dog Training. In recent days, it grew worse.
"He woke up, and he couldn't walk," said Peter. It was time, she decided, to have her partner euthanized to ease his pain.
Over the years, Peter and Ruger had become a team on demand to search for and rescue the lost and living, plus locate cadavers. The duo worked — no pay, on vacation time from Peter's dog training school — for sheriff's offices in Hernando, Pasco, Lee and Orange counties.
They scoured possible crime scenes at the invitation of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement with its Child Abduction Resource Team, the FBI, Team Adam for America's Most Wanted and the federal Crimes Against Children.
"We just all worked together for eight years," said Peter, 57.
"After 9/11, I was just so frustrated. I needed to do something to make a difference."
So, she and Ruger volunteered to search debris after the downing of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
In 2005, Ruger and Peter helped search for the American teen Natalee Holloway, who disappeared during a high school graduation outing to Aruba in the Caribbean. Nothing was found then.
When Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans in 2005, Ruger and Peter answered the call.
"We did find one confirmed body call and the rest of the (10) alerts were on piles of debris that the (hazardous materials) teams followed up on,'' she said. "We didn't wait for confirmation since we had so much work to do. However, each alert was confirmed by four individual search dogs."
Peter said of the New Orleans disaster, "It was horrible. No street signs, cars and refrigerators on tops of roofs, 6 to 8 inches of sludge inside homes, bodies in trees and under debris. The dogs just alerted, then they sent in archeologists and firefighters to dig under debris."
Ruger did not escape unscathed.
"He came out with Rocky Mountain spotted fever," said Peter. The tick-borne disease affected a number of search dogs, she noted. Plus, "He tore a ligament on a rooftop," Peter reported. It required a year and a half of convalescence.
But Ruger came back in 2008 to respond to a mission after Hurricane Ike in Texas. "He was just an incredible animal," Peter said.
Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, also praised Ruger.
"All of us knew and loved him. He was a true canine hero (that) worked through very hard and dangerous conditions,'' she said. He was "a friend and companion to Mary, a community hero."
Ruger's cremated ashes reside in a little dog house urn, a sort of toy. A law enforcement officer suggested a toy so that Peter would always smile, and not cry, when she saw the urn.
Today, Peter is training a year-old sable-colored German shepherd named Buckshot.
"Buckshot loves everybody," she said. He has "a totally different personality. He'll make a good life and search dog, not a cadaver recovery dog."
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]