Eight years ago, a badly neglected German shepherd from Buffalo was evidence in a criminal case against his owners.
Today, the same dog is a highly trained New York State Police explosives-detection K-9.
The adolescent pup named Cash was a sad sight when a State Police handler visited the back kennels at the SPCA Serving Erie County in early 2003 to check out another dog, but he spotted something special in Cash.
"He was grossly underweight and his hair was falling out," says Trooper Brian Pazderski, who works out of Troop A's Niagara station on Witmer Road in the Town of Niagara. Worst of all, Cash's neck was shaved after surgery to remove a collar that had been put on him when he was small and tightened as he grew, eventually cutting into his flesh.
"When he came in, the collar was embedded very deeply in his neck," says Gina Browning, director of public relations for the SPCA. "That kind of pain is enough to make some dogs very aggressive, even if they're the sweetest dogs in the world. Not this dog. It's almost like he was smart enough to know that he was being helped."
Cash was rescued from his life of neglect when a concerned person called police after seeing Cash chained out in front of a house in Buffalo day after day. "He was probably purchased to guard a drug house -- who knows?" says Pazderski. "Luckly, someone called, and the owners were arrested and he was removed."
Despite his bedraggled look and raw surgical scar, the handler noticed that Cash had a strong play drive. Even though the dog was in a noisy back kennel with other dogs barking, "he focused in on that tennis ball, and he had that real drive we are looking for," says Pazderski.
As a rule, the New York State Police K-9 program doesn't purchase dogs, but accepts donations from breeders or selects homeless dogs from shelters.
There was one complicating factor -- the dog was evidence in a police case against the owners who had so badly neglected him. Then-District Attorney Frank Clark approved Cash's transfer to the State Police, so the former crime victim was on his way to a career in law enforcement.
The dog joined his new partner, Pazderski, at the training academy in Cooperstown in May 2003. There, like all the other State Police canines, he got a new name to honor a trooper who had died in the line of duty. The neglected dog from Buffalo was now T.C., named to honor Trooper Thomas C. Lynes, who died in 1935 at age 25 in a vehicle crash in Dutchess County.
The 22-week training program, using play sessions when the dog completes a task, was comprehensive and challenging for both human and canine, says Pazderski. "The dogs do explosives or narcotics detection, which is their specialty, but also tracking and handler protection, which is bite work. That's why we use shepherds, because they do everything well. They are very intelligent."
Upon graduation, T.C. and Pazderski became one of about 60 State Police K-9 and handler pairs statewide, with about half trained to detect explosives and half trained to find narcotics. A trooper since 1992, Pazderski is also a bomb technician, and he and T.C. "are on call 2 4/7 ," he says.
Among their many assignments, the team helped in the hunt for fugitive Ralph "Bucky" Phillips and responded to a report of a gunman seen near a Grand Island school, both in 2006. T.C. also found two handguns that had been used in home invasions in Niagara County and then thrown out of moving cars into brush-filled ditches. "The guns were not only evidence in the cases, which was huge, they also prevented someone else from finding them," says Pazderski. T.C. and Pazderski also do many presentations, showing off T.C.'s training for groups ranging from preschoolers to college students.
When he's not on duty, T.C., like all the other State Police dogs, lives with Pazderski and his wife, Wendy, and sons Nick, 9, and Jack, 6. T.C. is "part of the family. He's a very happy dog; he really shines."
T.C. is now about 8 years old, and will keep working as long as he can pass the periodic physical tests, says Pazderski. "It's hard to say how many more years he has, because we don't have a strict retirement age," says Pazderski. "When they retire they stay home with the handler's family, although they do get depressed when a new dog comes in and gets to go off to work."