February 7, 2000
By Marc Belisle
The Bradenton Herald
MANATEE, Fla. (AP) – Scratching his partner's belly, Sgt. Keith Noordzy smiled and snatched the toy from Cuffs' mouth.
The four-legged cop rolled off his back, barked at his master and peered into his eyes.
Noordzy flung the toy across a field and chuckled as Cuffs raced after it. Noordzy stood watching, his face beaming with joy and with a love he once thought he'd never feel again.
Cuffs is a newcomer in Noordzy's life. And although he doesn't know it, he has big paws to fill.
A year and a half ago, Noordzy, an 11-year deputy with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, lost his first K-9 partner to a heart ailment. Rocky, a Malinois, was his name.
Noordzy and Rocky were a team _ they made 60 arrests in their three years together, tops in the sheriff's K-9 unit. Noordzy and Rocky were close. Rocky's death at age 4, in a breed with a life expectancy of 10 to 12 years, devastated Noordzy.
It's not a love known exclusively by Noordzy. It's a bond most K-9 cops develop after hours of training, cleaning, feeding, working and playing with their canine partners, say K-9 officers from the sheriff's office and the Bradenton Police Department.
``It's hard for people to recognize how close we get to our dogs,'' Noordzy said. ``These dogs are like our kids; they're very affectionate. You're always with them and you even take them to work. I spend more time with this dog than I do with my family.''
Sometimes Noordzy catches himself wishing good ol' Rocky was still prancing about his kennel behind Noordzy's home, raring to go to work and catch bad guys.
``It's hard because sometimes I catch myself comparing Cuffs to my old dog. I try to stop myself from doing it, but . . . ,'' he said. ``At first when I got Cuffs I was trying to distance myself from him, so we wouldn't get so attached. But it's impossible because we spend so much time together.''
Rocky was a whiz when it came to tracking suspects. Bad guys hid in swamps, vacated buildings, under bushes – they could have hidden on the moon and Rocky would have found them.
Cuffs is better at searching buildings for people and drugs. And he's much more affectionate than Rocky was.
``I realize both of them have their good points and bad points. It's going to take a lot of work to get this dog up to the caliber Rocky was,'' Noordzy said.
Eventually Cuffs won Noordzy's heart.
Forming a close bond is crucial to the dog's happiness and, ultimately, its performance, K-9 officers say.
``You can't just leave them in the patrol car. You have to let them out and run and play,'' Noordzy said. ``That's how you build a relationship with him. If you leave him in the kennel, he won't work for you. These dogs go out and try to do a good job because they know it makes you happy. I believe they're looking for your love, affection and support.''
Much of the bond develops during training: K-9 cops must train a minimum of 480 hours with their dogs to receive certification.
Deputy Christine Thomason spent her first month with Roy, an 8-year-old Malinois, just grooming him and getting to know him before any obedience training could begin.
Thomason spent so much time with Roy, she learned to read him like a book.
``When we're tracking someone I know exactly when he's getting close to finding the suspect because he gets real frantic and starts jumping and shaking,'' she said. ``He's got the greatest personality. When it's play time, he loves to lay on his back all night and chew his toy, with his legs hanging in the air.''
As well as she knows Roy, though, she still learns new things about him. At a canine training seminar in Mississippi in July, Thomason and Roy entered a cadaver-finding competition.
``I told the woman he really didn't have much experience finding cadavers and that I didn't think we'd win,'' she said.
Roy surprised his handler by finishing first. During one test, Thomason and Roy were on a boat searching for an underwater cadaver. After a while, Roy, with his snout over the side of the boat, signaled to Thomason. Sure enough, the cadaver was there.
Noordzy said, ``When we're tracking someone, I have to help my dog. I have to know how to read him so I can tell when he's lost the scent.''
Bradenton K-9 officer Mike Underwood, said his 4-year-old Hungarian black shepherd, Bear, knows how to read him.
``If you're having a bad day, I guarantee the dog is going to have a bad day,'' he said. ``The dog perceives me as family, like a wolf pack. If someone tries to hurt me, they are trying to hurt his family, and he's not going to take too kindly to that.''
Dogs that don't form a close bond with their handler aren't nearly as dedicated to the job, Underwood said.
Underwood, who was a military police officer before becoming a Bradenton officer, said military K-9 police use different dogs each time they work, which limits their dedication.
``He's not going to put his all into saving me because we don't have that bond,'' he said. ``(Bear) will do anything for me. He's willing to give his life for me. If I had my way, every cop would have a dog.''
Even though the K-9 cops love their partners, the nature of their job requires them to put their dogs in dangerous situations. K-9 units are called upon to break up fights, search buildings for drugs, and track suspects, some armed.
``Sometimes it's too dangerous for humans and they'd do a better job. And as much I'd hate to lose my dog, I rather lose a dog than another officer or myself,'' Underwood said.
There has been talk of strapping bulletproof vests on the police dogs but none have been purchased because of the expense and the stifling summer heat would quickly tire dogs wearing heavy vests. Each vest costs between $800 and $1,000, Noordzy said.
Seventeen months after Rocky died, Noordzy and Cuffs are becoming quite attached. Cuffs, the renowned building searcher, is steadily improving his tracking abilities.
He's no Rocky just yet, but he's getting there.