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"You've got to get on with it'

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 Interstate 4 near Thonotosassa. His longtime partner, known around the department as Gator, grew excited as the siren blared. Tracking a fleeing felon at night is what Gator lived for.

And on this night, just over one week ago, it was how he would die.

Shea and Gator both joined the sheriff's K-9 unit three years ago. They worked together. They lived together. Gator, a 5-year-old German shepherd, was part of Shea's family.

Together they had tracked armed robbers and missing children through deep woods, with Gator in the lead and Shea, in green fatigues, racing along behind. Working with vice detectives, Shea and Gator had found bags of marijuana, cocaine and speed in cars and houses.

Mostly, the pair worked by themselves.

Shea, an ex-Marine with a body builder's physique, knew his partner's moods. At times Gator thought he should be the boss in the relationship. But when he set to work, Shea said, his partner was simply awesome.

Shepherds are working dogs, and Saturday morning, after a long night of inactivity, Gator was eager for some action.

"As soon as he heard the alarm go off, his ears picked up," Shea recalled. "He got excited."

At the restaurant, he slipped Gator into a body harness and attached the 30-foot lead cord. Gator put his nose to the ground, trying to pick up the freshest human scent. Suddenly, they were moving through a parking lot. They ran through a ditch and came up on U.S. 92. The night was black.

Shea pulled Gator's leash shorter. One car passed, then Gator ran forward about five feet as Shea stepped onto the roadway.

He heard a second car behind a crest in the road.

"I just got out of the road and I tried to pull the dog back and the car just slid into him," Shea said. It threw Gator 150 feet into a ditch, breaking his back.

And a sheriff's deputy, with eight years on the force, faced his worst professional nightmare.

"It was terrible. You know your dog is going to die someday, but it's different standing there. It's like watching your partner get shot."

The driver of the car was not charged. The suspect escaped. Shea was left to ponder the what-ifs.

What if he had left the call for the day shift unit? What if he'd held Gator back just another few seconds more?

But all 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 from a family of police dogs. He's living in a temporary chain-link kennel behind Shea's new house near Riverview. The department will soon build an 8- by 8-foot home for Max in Shea's back yard.

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

"Tracking is our bread and butter," Shea said.

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. Shea said he won't forget his first dog. But he has to move on.

"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."