PUNTA GORDA — One hundred fifty K-9 officers and their handlers are expected to descend on the city in a little over a week, all hoping to take the top spot in the United States Police Canine Association’s National Field Trials.
Doing so will make the winner “Top Dog,” a distinction that means the same as earning most valuable player in the Super Bowl for those who strive for perfection in police dog competitions.
A Top Dog winner already lives Charlotte County, having retired here after nearly two decades of service as a police officer in Newburgh, N.Y. Darren Terry, 45, talks about his former partner Quu, a German shepherd, with the type of reverence generally reserved for children and family members.
But in a way, Quu was even more than that to Terry.
As his partner, the two spent 24 hours a day together for 11 years. In that time, they clocked hundreds of arrests, dozens of physical apprehensions, appeared on “America’s Most Wanted” and “20/20,” and were inducted into the American Police Hall of Fame.
Terry said Quu saved him from two shootings, and they were so in tune with each other, Quu knew what to do before Terry even asked.
“He made me look like a star, but I couldn’t do it without him and he couldn’t do it without me,” Terry said Friday. “You complement one another and you work together. You spend more time with these animals than with your own family.”
Terry said winning the distinction of Top Dog can come down to tenths of a second, which he found out in 1998 when he and Quu were heading into the final day of competition in first place. During the “bite work” portion of the competition, which tests the dog’s pursuit of a criminal subject, Quu held on a tenth of a second too long, and the duo finished third.
It was the following year, 1999, that they did some fine-tuning and were able to take the top prize in competition in Atlantic City.
“It was the most special accomplishment I could have had with my dog, to show the world how special he really was,” Terry said.
Quu was hurt in the line of duty in 2000, so he wasn’t able to compete when the K-9 trials first were held in Punta Gorda that same year. That competition was how Terry discovered the area, and decided it was the place to go once he retired from public service.
Quu would pass away in his sleep a year later, at age 11, and the loss rocked Terry and his family. They expected to nurture Quu into his old age, but instead were forced to be thankful he did not suffer in his passing.
Terry plans to attend the K-9 trials, and offers some basic advice to those, like Punta Gorda Police Officer Jonathan Mendel, who might find themselves in competition for the first time: Keep your eyes off other competitors, know what the dog is capable of, and remember that the dog will sense and feel everything the handler is sensing.
Terry believes the trials will be a hit in the community, but he can’t help but think back on his partnership with Quu, which extended beyond the competition field to matters of life and death and family.
“The competition is interesting because there’s bragging rights involved, but the real trophies are the ones we earn in the streets,” Terry said. “Quu was the cream of the crop, and the bond we had was special.”
The USPCA K-9 Trials start Oct. 15 at various locations in Punta Gorda.