Hillsborough K-9 officer to miss catching bad guys
CARROLLWOOD - Driving countless miles patrolling Hillsborough County during his decades-long career, not once did sheriff's Deputy Richard Armstrong offer his law enforcement partner a chance behind the wheel. His K-9 sidekicks always rode in the backseat. Early this month, the 59-year-old Carrollwood resident retired from the deputy job he took in 1983, taking with him the last surviving male German shepherd among the four he worked with during his career. Armstrong was the agency's longest-serving officer in its K-9 unit, said a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman."I think I had the best job in the sheriff's office — catching bad guys," Armstrong said, citing a love of the adrenalin rush of tracking fugitives. Miki, his constant companion since 2007, is 8 years old, standard retirement age for most police dogs. Miki will remain a member of Armstrong's family, off the agency's property list and "payroll," which provided the animal's food and veterinary care during his training and years of service. The ashes of three earlier K-9 partners are displayed prominently in "the war room" of Armstrong's home, along with photographs and other mementoes of all four K-9 partners. "That's the hardest thing," he said, "when it's time for your partner to go." Armstrong transferred to the agency's K-9 unit in 1989 after watching dog training exercises at Lake Park on North Dale Mabry Highway on his days off. "Man, I've got to do this," he told a sergeant in the unit. "It's really interesting." Armstrong's first partner, Zeke, was a medal winner in competitions judging obedience, agility and other skills. Dogs that successfully complete the 420 hours of training are certified for dual purposes, which include tracking suspects and searching for cadavers. Zeke was certified to track and sniff out marijuana and other drugs. "Back then they didn't have any bomb dogs; it was basically drugs," Armstrong said. All that changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Miki and Armstrong's partners after Zeke — Nero and Bary — began their careers in this new era, when explosive-detecting dogs' tasks include patrol duties at Raymond James Stadium events and at other public gatherings. Because sheriff's office dogs and their handlers live together, the animals become part of the family. "They have been amazing dogs," said Debbie, Armstrong's wife of 35 years and a nurse. "Their loyalty to Rick — they're so close, they do everything together." The Armstrongs limit their vacation trips, partly to avoid trusting a local kennel with the dog. After years of patrolling western Hillsborough during 12-hour shifts ending at 5 a.m., responding to alarm calls and backing up other officers, Armstrong's retirement plans, for now, are merely to relax. "I'll find something," he said. "But I've got to give it a break." That probably will not include scaling back training for endurance-race cycling, sometimes clocking 60 miles in a day. Looking toward the very distant future, he points to the urns containing the ashes of his past dogs, laughs and recalls what he has said to his wife: "I told her when I pass, you've got to put the boys with me."
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