HUDSON — Troy Fergueson's phone kept buzzing but he didn't answer it. Fergueson is a sergeant with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and on that day, May 4, he was teaching a class about parking enforcement. After several calls, Fergueson was frustrated.
"Excuse me," he told the class. "This must be important."
It was his wife, Laura, who was rushing their yellow Labrador, Sophie, to Florida Veterinary Services in Tampa. Sophie had been stung by a bee and was on steroid treatments, which made her thirsty. But Sophie wasn't able to urinate. Laura's vet in Hudson said there was a blockage and Sophie's bladder was literally about to explode. She could die. Fergueson raced to Tampa.
There, a catheter solved Sophie's immediate threat. But the doctors found a tumor — called transitional cell carcinoma — in her urethra, which caused the blockage.
It was cancer.
And it was inoperable.
"She only has a few months to live," the doctor told them. There was a new laser radiation and chemotherapy treatment that could be tried on Sophie at the University of Florida, but it had only been done on three other dogs. And it would be expensive — at least $16,000, if there were no complications. The doctor said it was understandable to have Sophie put to sleep.
"That's off the table," Fergueson said. There was no way he was going to give up on Sophie.
"You need to know how special she is," Fergueson said.
Fergueson's wife wanted a puppy for Christmas. At the time — the fall of 2000 — their son, Christopher, had not yet been born. Laura wanted a dog, but he wasn't sure. Fergueson loved animals, of course. They had three rescued cats — Trash, who was found in a Dumpster; Mama, a stray cat, and Bobbie, whose tail had been cut off by something before they found her. But dogs need you more than cats do.
Fergueson agreed to go look at some Labrador puppies. The runt of the litter, with a peach colored ribbon around her neck, came running to him. She played a fierce game of tug and cried when they left. When she was 8 weeks old, she came home with them.
Sophie was house-trained in two days. At her obedience class, she was the ValeDogTorian and then excelled at every advanced training class. She loved everyone, had a great sense of smell and was highly-motivated by Snausages treats.
Fergueson wanted to find a job for her so that she could use her talents to help the community. There is an abundance of search and rescue dogs, as well as therapy dogs. So, Fergueson decided to train her in canine forensics, a niche field. He and a few others created the K9 Forensics Recovery Team, which is a nonprofit group that finds people who have died but whose bodies cannot be found. Homicide victims. Suicide. Murder weapons. She can ride in a boat and smell a body underwater. Any place human remains have been — a car trunk, garage, rubble, dirt — she can find it.
She's so good, she's even hit on pre-Civil War graves. Sophie has worked on high profile cases such as Jessica Lunsford and Sandra Prince. She's also helped locally — a drowning victim in New Port Richey, a person murdered and hidden in the woods in Hudson.
"Sophie gives families closure and helps to put criminals in prison," Fergueson said.
Five days after her diagnosis, Fergueson, his wife, son and Sophie were in a hotel room in Gainesville, readying themselves for this new battle. The Ferguesons put the first bill — $7,000 — on a credit card they had paid off. They hoped they would figure out a way to pay it and the other bills that would come.
A good patient
Sophie did well in her first treatments. The chemotherapy did not make her sick. Fergueson and his friends went into action to see if people could help. It was difficult for Fergueson, a tough man used to being in control and helping others. It was humbling. Soon, strangers began sending donations. Businesses held auctions to raise money.
"It restores your faith in humanity," Fergueson said.
He kept each donation on a spreadsheet and wrote a letter to every person who helped. Sophie's last treatment was on Aug. 20 and her tumor has reduced by 60 percent. She has a few more to go, but the doctors hope she soon will be in clinical remission.
At their home Thursday morning, Fergueson and Sophie did a demonstration. Earlier and out of site, he hid targets smelling of human remains — bits of cloth and dirt gotten from the medical examiner's office — in the woods. As he put on her harness, Sophie whined and pulled and then she was off, running, steadfast. Watching her, you think, if that was you, if you were lost and gone, what a lovely spirit to come find you, this happy dog with such a sad job.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.