Tarpon Springs Officer Tommy Nguyen with his K-9 Dobies in July. The pair completed training in July.
TARPON SPRINGS – Tommy Nguyen left home at 14, but it was barely by choice.
His father had been a high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese Army, but when the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the communist government sentenced him to eight years in prison; his wife was sent to a work camp.
Even after he was released in 1983, the elder Nguyen was denied legal documents, which prevented him from living in one place for long and forcing the family to continue moving around Vietnam.
Seven years later, Nguyen and his father decided that life had to be better anywhere else and joined the growing list of Vietnamese citizens fleeing the country and communist rule.
Along with 19 other Vietnamese people, the two Nguyens crowded into a small fishing boat and traveled for three days and nights through choppy waters and pirate attacks. When they reached land in southern Thailand, they joined thousands of refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in a refugee camp. If they were lucky, they slept in a hut without a blanket; on bad nights, they were at the mercy of nature.
In November 1993, 18-year-old Tommy and his father made it to the United States, hurtling across Florida highways until they made a home in a mobile home park in New Port Richey.
In time, Nguyen learned English while completing his degree at Countryside High School, then studied in the Air Conditioning, Refrigeration and Heating program at Pinellas Technical Education Centers. He worked in a restaurant, a factory in Tarpon Springs and as an air-conditioning technician. But he dreamed of becoming a police officer.
“There aren’t a lot of Asian cops,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to help out the older, Vietnamese community.”
The Tarpon Springs Police Department became home, where Nguyen began as a patrol officer.
His father died of liver cancer in 2000, but Nguyen said he knows his dad would be proud of how far he’s come from the refugee camp. He brought his mother to Florida five years ago, but his three older brothers still live in Vietnam.
“I know my dad would have loved to see me (as a police officer),” he said.
working toward his dream
Last April, Nguyen took the first step toward his dream: a 16-week training camp with Dobies that would allow them to be a fully-certified K-9 unit.
The class, which included lessons on obedience commands, search work including buildings and outdoor areas, tracking and human odor responses, was as much to familiarize dog with man as it was to familiarize man with dog.
But before he could start, Nguyen had to pass a course to ensure he was capable of working on a K-9 unit. He didn’t pass the first time.
“He never became disgruntled,” said Barbara Templeton, operations captain for the Tarpon Springs Police Department. “The test is about measuring endurance and abilities, but it’s also about teamwork and heart. And Tommy has all of that.”
Applicants, police officers from various departments in Pinellas County, ran through water, roadways, tunnels and woods, all while carrying an 80-pound bag of dog food; eventually, if all went well, the officers would soon be carrying an 80-pound dog instead of kibble. In the dark and cold water, Nguyen couldn’t be sure if there were alligators near him. Even when he fell into the water because his legs were so cramped, he didn’t know if he was in danger. He just needed to make sure his canine partner was safe.
“If that’s what you want, it’s all worth it,” he said. “They just wanted to see if you can handle it, if you’re fit physically and mentally.”
After passing the initial test, Nguyen still had 16 weeks of training, 10 hours a day, until he could go out in the field. Four months of practice for his dream career.
“I’d come home every day, soaking wet with bruises everywhere,” Nguyen said. “I lost 15 pounds by the end.”
Nguyen, small to begin with, can barely afford to lose 15 pounds. And in the simplest sense, he didn’t lose weight by the end of camp: he gained 65 pounds of Belgian Shepherd Malinois.
Typically, a police dog can cost anywhere from $8,500 to $9,500, but Dobies was donated to the Tarpon Springs Police Department by his namesake, Tom Dobies, the owner of Dobies Funeral Home and Crematory in Tarpon. All other costs, including training, food, equipment and veterinarian visits, come from department forfeiture funds.
“If it weren’t for Mr. Dobies, we wouldn’t have a K-9 unit,” Templeton said at a City Commission meeting in February.
On the job
On July 26, his first day after completing certification, Nguyen and Dobies got their first call: a woman saw someone walking down her street with a handgun, but he fled when police officers approached him. When he was arrested, officers found crack cocaine, but no gun.
Dobies found the gun, hidden in a bush, exactly like he’d been taught to do.
Since then, Dobies and Nguyen have found a suspect hiding under a house, tracked two girls who ran after an attempted house burglary and convinced a suspect to surrender after barricading himself in his house; together, they’ve apprehended nearly a dozen criminals since July.
There’s not much that they can’t find, Nguyen said, but the approach is simple. Dobies, who lives at home with Nguyen, just wants a reward, usually a black rope toy with lime green handles; Nguyen estimates he’s gone through at least 100 of those rope toys since they graduated from training.
“When we go to work, (Dobies) knows what to do,” Nguyen said. “Like if I tell a suspect to stop and he doesn’t, Dobies knows he’s the bad guy and he’ll go after him.”
For a misdemeanor case, Nguyen is allowed to use Dobies to track a suspect or evidence (called an article search). Only for a felony is he allowed to release Dobies from his leash.
Nguyen typically works 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., but he and Dobies are on call 24/7.
“You have to commit 100 percent to this job,” Nguyen said. “If the call comes out, I have to go. I want to go. I want to catch the bad guy.”
Together, dog and man make an unbeatable team, on the streets and in the community. Recently, Nguyen and Dobies have visited Tarpon Springs Elementary School and Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary, as well as made appearances at various community events.
“It’s a good marketing tool to let people interact with (Dobies),” Templeton said. “We’re showing that the dog isn’t vicious.”
A year after training, police dogs and their handlers can go back to school for another eight-week course to specialize in either narcotics or bomb-detecting. Nguyen said he and Dobies will likely focus on drugs as they’re more likely to deal with that in Tarpon. But no matter what happens next, Nguyen has no desire to change plans any time soon.
“This is my dream job,” he said. “I got exactly what I wanted.”