October 2019

Nero the Hero

Carolyn Sisk grimaced. A biopsy revealed a cancerous lesion on the leg of her 10-year-old German shepherd. She’d taken in Nero just a few weeks earlier, and the dog fell in love with his new surroundings on her Rappahannock County, Virginia, farm. He was the very best of the six German shepherds she had parented, and it hurt that their time together was so brief. But this is not a story about the way Nero died. This is about the way he lived.

Nero was European by birth, as are most of the canines at Southern Coast K9, a working dog facility set on 12 acres near Daytona Beach, Fla. In December 2010, William Bryant was on the grounds, looking for a successor to Hunter, a flat-coated retriever who was about to retire as Hanover County’s first explosives ordinance detection (EOD) dog.

With seven years of experience as a handler, Bryant knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t puppy eyes. It was drive and determination, responsiveness and understanding, and the way the dog felt at the end of a leash. Bryant went through the stock at Southern Coast K9 and then tested 18-month-old Nero. He had found something special.

“Nero just clicked with me. It was an easy pick,” says Bryant, a lieutenant with the Hanover County Fire/EMS Department near Richmond. “I ran six or seven of those dogs and when I got to Nero, I said, ‘I’m done. This is the one. Let me work him out for the rest of the week to make sure.’ And we never looked back.”

Of Bicycles and Bigwigs

They serve a special need, these furry mobile detection units, and it’s a need that has grown exponentially since the 9/11 attacks. For a time thereafter, copycat bomb threats inundated local police and rescue units. Bryant helped Hanover’s program get off the ground so authorities wouldn’t have to wait for a trained dog to arrive from another jurisdiction.

“We could respond to those calls quicker. We weren’t waiting for someone else to show up,” Bryant says. “We could get the schools back open a little quicker or we could get that store back open if there was a bomb threat.”

Make no mistake: These are not family pets. “That was ingrained in us,” Bryant says of his canine training with the Virginia State Police. “They’re a tool. They’re not a pet. They’re a tool. And I said, ‘OK, I’m buying into that. I get it.’ ”

Nero lived with the Bryant family in an outdoor compound that the county constructed for him. When the weather turned chilly, Nero stayed in Bryant’s insulated garage. Bringing him inside and playing tug of war was verboten. Most bomb-sniffing dogs are rewarded not with a fistful of chewy biscuits, but with play time — in Nero’s case, a hard rubber toy.

“When they get that odor during the search, their reward is you play with them,” Bryant explains. “So when you get home, you don’t want to do all that playing and fetching because the dog will figure it out: ‘Why do I need to work when I can go home and get to do the same thing?’ ”

As time went on, precautionary bomb sweeps became ritual to Nero. He worked the inaugurations of President Donald Trump and Governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam. He was on duty when former President George W. Bush, former First Lady Michelle Obama and other dignitaries passed through Central Virginia. In 2015, Bryant and Nero worked 10- and 12-hour shifts during the UCI Bicycle Road World Championships.

In eight years, Bryant and Nero responded to more than 250 calls. He became K-9 Captain Nero, outranking his human handler. On one call, Nero located a firearm used in an October 2018 homicide in Ashland. At his retirement in June, the Hanover Fire/EMS Department honored him, saying, “K-9 Nero and Lt. Bryant have helped to make Hanover County and the surrounding jurisdictions a safer place to learn, work, play and live.”

Dedicated employees don’t slack off because retirement looms. Same with Nero. Bryant skipped an in-service training in Lynchburg in June because Nero was wrapping up his service.

“The city of Richmond called me the day before he retired because their dog was in Lynchburg and said, ‘We have an issue at one of our middle schools where we think we have a gun on campus. Can you come down here and help us?’ Nero worked until the day he retired.”

The Cows Come Home

Bryant started thinking about a new home for Nero in March. EOD dogs slow as they enter their second decade; Nero would turn 10 on June 20. Bryant knew he couldn’t keep his sidekick. It wouldn’t be fair to the dog. He’d be working with a new canine, his three kids would be in school all day, and Nero would be in the yard by his lonesome.

Carolyn Sisk wasn’t sure if she was ready for Nero. He came to her attention through Bryant’s sister Hannah, wife of the senior pastor at the church Sisk faithfully attends. Widowed since 2007, Sisk has lived in Rappahannock County for more than 50 years and knows the joy but also the pain that accompanied with the passing of her previous dogs. In March, she met Nero for the first time. She remembers what Bryant told her: “I want somebody to love him more than I did, more than I could.”

Nero, proper, friendly and wellmannered, stole her heart.

On June 14, Bryant and his daughter dropped off Nero at Sisk’s home, and exited out of his line of sight, never to see him again. “I had decided for both of us that I just needed to make that emotional break. I don’t think it would’ve done him any good if I had just popped back into his life a couple of weeks later,” Bryant explains, adding that his sister kept him updated with pictures of Nero.

Nero couldn’t believe his good fortune. Since he’d been an outdoor dog all his life, Sisk started him in an outdoor kennel on the first Saturday they were together. At night, Nero slept in his crate in the family room. The next day, Sisk’s visiting brother went outside and brought him inside the house.

“Well, from that day on, he became an inside dog,” Sisk says. “His domain was that family room. And every morning when I would get up at 6 a.m., he’d be sitting there in the family room waiting and his tail would just hit that floor. My floor is laminate, and my sister was afraid he’d break his tail, he pounded it so hard.”

Oh, and the cows. A neighbor used Sisk’s farm for cows, and the agreeable Nero couldn’t wait to rub noses with the bovines on his daily walks.

“It was just so neat,” Sisk says. “He would look when we go out to see, ‘OK, are they in that field? What field are they in? Am I going to see them today?’ ”

Soon Sisk noticed the hot spot on a hind leg. A couple of vet trips and the diagnosis came back as cutaneous lymphoma. Nero was unbowed. When he went in for a biopsy in Luray; the office told Sisk she could pick him up around 4 p.m. She drove to nearby Front Royal and called to check in. “They said, ‘Oh, we’re trying to call you. Nero’s ready to go home.’ This was like at one o’clock. They couldn’t get over how this dog at 10 years old had come out of the anesthesia. He was just ready to go.”

A few days later, though, Nero started to fail and Sisk knew he needed to go to sleep for good. “It was like God brought him into my life at a time when I really needed a companion,” she says. “Nero was the perfect dog. I realize he was already trained for his job, but it was like he was already trained to be a companion, almost like a service dog, because I didn’t have to train him.”

Bryant took solace in the way Sisk cared for a dog who was much more than a tool. “With Carolyn, he was in the best place he could be. As much as I missed him, it’s the attention she was able to give him in the last month and a half of his life that means a lot.”

It is the circle of a dog’s life. Every pup that stands on its hind legs, every dog that fetches a flying disc, every canine that snuggles with its owner during a storm leaves a legacy and a broken heart when the run comes to an end.

“He was the most loyal, devout servant you’d ever want to meet,” says Bryant. “I kid around with my boss when I say the dog never had a sick day. But he didn’t. Even those nights when it was two or three o’clock in the morning, I came out that side door and he was waiting for me at the gate.

“Anybody that doesn’t get the opportunity to work with dogs, I feel like they are missing out on life. They’re just phenomenal companions and Nero ranks right up there, I can tell you that.”