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K-9 unit deputy mourns one dog, trains another

It was almost 4 a.m. on a surprisingly quiet Saturday morning.

When the call came, Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Ed Shea and his partner had 10 minutes left on their 12-hour shift. A man in a cowboy hat and blue jeans had robbed a Denny's and fled on foot.

Shea sped toward the scene, just off I-4 near Thonotosassa. His longtime partner, known around the department as Gator, grew visibly excited as the siren blared. Tracking a fleeing felon at night was what Gator lived for.

And on this night, just over a week ago, it was how he died.

Shea and Gator joined the sheriff's canine unit three years ago. They worked and lived together. Gator, a 5-year-old German shepherd, was part of Shea's family.

But while chasing the Denny's robbery suspect on the end of a 30-foot lead held by Shea, Gator was struck by a car and killed, leaving Shea to wonder what he could have done differently.

"It was terrible," Shea said. "You know your dog is going to die someday, but it's different standing there."

That can cripple your confidence. The best thing you can do is get back to work. So Tuesday, three days after the accident, Shea was at a North Carolina kennel.

He came back with a new partner. Max was born in the Czech Republic about 14 months ago. He's living in a temporary chain-link kennel behind Shea's house near Riverview. Soon, the department will build an 8- by 8-foot home for Max in Shea's backyard.

Monday night, the two started training together. Tracking human scent, with help of carefully placed bits of hot dogs, was part of that first night of training.

In about 10 weeks, Max and Shea should be on the street together. Gator's name will be removed from Shea's cruiser window and Max's name will go up in its place.

"It's going to be tough, but you've got to get on with it," Shea said. "I've got a job to do and the dog's got a job to do."

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