K-9s help bolster security during convention

With hundreds of thousands of commuters passing right beneath the convention floor, New York's Pennsylvania Station is under heavy guard: city cops; transit cops; firefighters; state police from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; Secret Service; and crew-cut men in polo shirts with a small red-and-gold insignia who won't say who they are. But even among the security professionals, one officer named Dempsey is a bit of a star. Maybe it's his furry tail and four paws.

"How do you train 'em?" asked one firefighter, coming up to Dempsey's handler, Sgt. William Schade of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's K-9 Squad. "I have a German shepherd at home."

"You get a lot of that," Schade said after chatting with the firefighter. "But the basic course is six months."

Dempsey, a 2-1/2-year-old German shepherd trained to track down suspects, subdue assailants, and, above all, sniff out hidden explosives, is unusual among police dogs: He was abandoned in an apartment as a puppy and rescued, Schade said. Schade is a bit unusual himself: He's always loved dogs but never had one before Dempsey.

The bond between dog and handler is intense. "They go home with us, they live with our families," explained Sgt. John Kerwick, a K-9 officer with the MTA since 1990. And when a dog retires after seven or eight years of service, added Schade, "we get to keep him."

Kerwick credits his previous canine partner, Spike, with saving his life in 1998 when an assailant doused Kerwick with lighter fluid and tried to set him on fire, only to be subdued by Spike. But later that year, the MTA disbanded its canine unit. It did not bring the unit back until after 9/11. Kerwick's current dog is named "Hero" after a friend of his, NYPD Officer Stephen Driscoll, who died on that terrible day.

Three years later, the revived dog squad is working overtime to prevent another attack. The unit is normally on duty for 10-hour shifts, four days a week. "For the convention," Schade said, "we're working all week, 12-hour days. It's taxing for the dogs as well."

"Our dogs get tired," Kerwick agreed, "but we have all kinds of medical assistance." Veterinarians from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are on hand to check the dogs' respiration, pulse, and hydration -- and a patch of artificial turf awaits inside Penn Station for dogs too busy even to take a, er, walk.

That's so the canines can concentrate on the task at hand, sniffing the station for potential bombs. "Can we pet him?" cooed a woman passing by. "Not right now, no," Schade said. Dempsey is on duty.