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    A deputy dog in training

    The Sheriff's Office hopes to put Ruby to work soon finding missing children and tracking suspects on the run.

    photo
    [Times photo: John Pendygraft]
    Ruby's handler, Deputy Gary Herman, trains the excitable hound, who prances like a reindeer when she finds a scent. Ruby received her novice certification recently.

    By AMY HERDY
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 11, 2001


    TAMPA -- Her nose snuffling like a steam engine, Ruby the bloodhound picks up speed as she tracks the bait.

    Acting as a decoy, a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy crouches out of sight behind a hay bale. Ruby's discovery of him sends her lithe body into convulsions of delight.

    "You found me! You found me!" Deputy Greg Mitchell exclaims in a singsong voice.

    Ruby's handler, Deputy Gary Herman, joins in with his version of baby-talk praise. "Oh, you big girl!" croons the 6-foot-2, 270-pound Herman.

    Ruby, the first sheriff's bloodhound in many years, is poised for a promising career. You would not know it to look at her.

    Eight months old and 65 pounds, she acts like a gangly teenager with bony shoulders and meaty paws. Her head appears too large for her body. When she drinks, her enormous ears plop into the bowl and her eyes disappear in the folds of skin.

    There is nothing subtle about her. For some bloodhounds, the only indication they've picked up a scent is a slight turn of the head.

    Not Ruby.

    "She starts spinning around, jumping up and down and prancing," Herman said.

    "(Bloodhounds have) a real clumsy look to them. But it's unreal the way they can track."

    Unlike other dogs, a bloodhound can isolate a particular scent and stay with it. Ruby, who received her novice certification just last week, will someday be able to track a single scent over miles and hours.

    But for now, training is a game. Some time soon, Herman hopes, Ruby will be ready to find a missing child or a suspect on the run.

    "Eventually, we're going to start finding people," he said, "and there's nothing more rewarding."

    Her registration papers bear the name "Jimmy Ryce's Erica II," as she was donated in May from the foundation named for a 9-year-old boy who was kidnapped, raped and killed in 1995. Dubbed "Ruby" for the red color of her coat, she lives with Herman and his family and another sheriff's canine unit dog, Scooby, a German shepherd. Unlike Scooby, she is not yet trained to sleep in the house.

    "She's a great loving dog," Herman said. "Now, as far as obedience goes. ... If you get her out of the car, she will just run until she's done, and not come back."

    For now, Ruby only begins the classic bloodhound baying -- "Aaroooo! Aaroooo!" -- at the sight of food. She gets a bath once every three weeks so that her coat will not dry out. Leftover food must be cleaned out of her jowls. Like most hounds, she keeps a musky smell.

    "It's not a favorable odor," Herman said. "I would not buy "Eau de bloodhound."'

    Still, to Herman, she's beautiful. "You just look at her face and see her eyes, and you just ..." Herman sighed. "She's got a real cuteness to her."

    But the soft looks belie a burgeoning will of iron, Herman said, one he's counting on for the years and cases ahead.

    "Bloodhounds have this drive in them," he said. "When they get on a track, they would just as soon die as stop before they find what they're looking for."

    -- Amy Herdy can be reached at 226-3386 or herdy@sptimes.com

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