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From police dog to house pet: Retirement a 'ruff' transition

DUNEDIN — His shift started in half an hour, so Clearwater police Officer Doug Ambrose went into his bedroom to put on his duty vest and belt.

He shut the door softly, blocking his German Shepherd, Buck, from coming inside. The dog paced in the living room. He knew the routine he was no longer part of.

For 6½ years, Buck worked as a police dog with Ambrose, his handler. For thousands of hours, man and dog jumped fences and traversed parking lots, chasing down crime suspects across Clearwater as part of the agency's five-person canine unit. The bond is so strong that Ambrose turned to a line in the police action comedy Bad Boys II to describe it:

"We ride together. We die together. Bad boys for life."

That's why it was a no-brainer for Ambrose, 47, to take in Buck, almost 8, when the inevitable came this month. Like humans, police dogs, too, retire, and when the spinal injury caught up to him, causing a limp in his back left leg, Buck became a house pet.

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It's a common path for retired canine partners. But, like humans, the transition from worker to retiree takes some ... adjustment.

"Probably they're the single worst house pet that you could imagine," Ambrose said recently. "He doesn't go around furniture. He goes on top of furniture."

Or, in his wife, Jamie's words: "It's like having another 2-year-old," she said, their almost 2-year-old human daughter, Amelia, on her hip.

To be fair, police dogs aren't trained to be polite, Ambrose said. When he was still a working boy, Buck spent his time at Ambrose's Dunedin home in a backyard kennel the size of a shed, a decision by Ambrose to ensure a clear delineation between work and home. The kennel is now home to Ambrose's new dog, Wyatt, a lively young German Shepherd who, unlike his predecessor, loves belly rubs.

And thus raises another quirk of canine retirement: the changing of the guard. It's not difficult to imagine the potential pitfalls of introducing the old to the new.

"You got the one guy who's retired who thinks he should be working," said Sgt. Michael Spitaleri, who leads the agency's canine unit. "Then you got the new dog who thinks he's boss now."

It's up to each human to decide how to handle the introduction. Spitaleri, also on his second dog, kept his two separate for the first month or two, then started introducing them by taking them on walks together. Since Wyatt came home at the end of June, Ambrose has mostly kept the dogs separate or muzzled on leashes when they're out together.

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But shifting from one dog to another beats no dog at all. Largo police Officer Jeff Rogers also retired his dog, Fritz, this month. And after 15 years and two dogs — Draco, who died in 2011, was his first — it was time for Rogers, too, to move on. He started on patrol this month.

After Fritz's retirement party at the Largo Police Department, Rogers, 43, in full uniform, turned misty-eyed and quiet when asked about the prospect of working without a dog.

"That's tough," his wife, Leslie, said, petting Fritz.

"I love my job. Love it. And I'm blessed to have done it for 15 years," Rogers said. "But I want to give other guys a chance."

Luckily, he's got Fritz at home to help him through. They had already planned his first camping trip to kick off his life of leisure. They're staying close to home, at Fort De Soto, just in case.

Perhaps the biggest transition is less about the human and more about the dog. Watching their handlers, or, as some call themselves, dads, leave for work without them is jarring. Spitaleri described the struggle in a letter after the 2016 death of his dog, Major, that went viral on social media.

"When you retired in 2014 due to medical conditions, the adjustment to being a normal dog was difficult for you," he wrote. "You would watch me get ready and run to the door in anticipation of going to work. I know you didn't understand the reasons I retired you. However, I did it because I loved you, buddy."

At Ambrose's home, before one of his recent shifts, he got the last of his stuff together to head into work. He walked to the front door. Buck trotted at his heels, a tennis ball perpetually lodged in his mouth to help with the nerves. Ambrose opened the door degree by degree, shuffling his feet around to keep Buck inside.

"This is the dance," Ambrose said with a sigh.

The officer slid into the front yard, toward the cruiser still adorned with "Buck" in white lettering on the window. Buck watched through the front door for a moment. Then the pacing began. Front door, living room window, back to front door, whimpering throughout.

Jamie Ambrose looked on at what had already become a familiar routine. He would calm down, she said. It just takes time.

Contact Kathryn Varn at kvarn@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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