Friday, March 20, 2020 - by Mitch Talley, Whitfield County Director of Communications
During these trying times as America struggles to deal with the coronavirus, maybe it’s appropriate that “man’s best friend” was there to offer a helping paw to help us forget the chaos, even if only briefly.
Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office drug dog Eddy and six of his leading counterparts from across the nation did their best to put our minds at ease temporarily as they competed Wednesday night in the Grand Finale for the title of “America’s Top Dog” on the A&E network.
After winning their regular season competition that aired in Episode Six, K9 Eddy and his handler, Deputy Todd Thompson, were invited back for the Grand Finale, with a $25,000 grand prize on the line. They had actually traveled to Los Angeles for a few days last summer for the filming, but the timing seemed just right this week for America to finally get a chance to watch the show and get a momentary escape from the harsh realities of COVID-19 with an inspiring visit from seven furry friends.
“You look at this coronavirus and people are afraid and we’re in an uncertain time,” Thompson said, “but I really feel like Wednesday night my family and I were able to sit down in our house and watch a TV show and had 90 minutes where we didn’t think about tomorrow, 90 minutes where we didn’t think about what restaurant was gonna shut down, 90 minutes where we weren’t thinking about the pandemic and the mass chaos that’s going on in the community.”
Though Eddy ultimately didn’t claim the title of America’s Top Dog, he did give it his best shot, setting a new course record in the first round known as the K-9 Combine, where teams faced obstacles designed to replicate real-life police work.
As show reporter Jamie Little explained, “Starting off on Car Slalom, our teams will need to fly not just in and out of four vehicles but also over one vehicle. Then it’s the daunting Fire Escape where they need to trigger three ladders with a rope tug to ascend the building. After they hurdle three-foot and four-foot walls on High Jump, they must quickly scale a stack of six barrels, then stay steady across Shaky Rope Bridge and drive into Splashdown for a final sprint to the finish line.”
Listen to commentators Curt Menefee and Nick Little describe the action.
Curt: “And they’re off! Eddy ran right over the first car.”
Nick: “Man, they are flying through this Car Slalom.”
Curt: “15 seconds to get through the slalom.”
Nick: “Wow, that is a new course record! Last time Eddy struggled with the first level of Fire Escape.”
Curt: “Not this time, up to Level 2.”
Nick: “But now he’s not biting and he appears distracted.”
Todd: “Eddy, here, here, here.”
Nick: “Great job, Deputy Thompson, getting him refocused.”
Curt: “One more ladder to go to get to the top level of the Fire Escape.”
Nick: “Wow, look at them go. They came back and conquered this after struggling last time. They are flying down our Fire Escape.”
Curt: “Well, he’s 6-foot-5 so that helps! Fifty-two seconds, and the High Jump could break our season record.”
Nick: “Wow, these guys are bringing it as Eddy clears the first wall. Beautiful jumps on the three- and four-foot wall. Let’s see how they do on our barrels.”
Curt: “Like they weren’t even there.”
Nick: “Man, this team is moving.”
Curt: “On to the 30-foot Rope Bridge. Eddy races across 16 seconds ahead of qualifying and on track to break the K9 Combine record!”
Nick: “And he goes, nice beautiful jump right there by Eddy (into the water).”
Curt: “They’re on track to break the K9 Combine record set by Team Kai at 1 minute, 32.42 seconds.”
Nick: “He’s going to easily do it right here, Curt.”
Curt: “The best time we’ve ever seen here! And they set a new K9 Combine course record with a time of 1 minute, 29.71 seconds.”
The record didn’t last long unfortunately as the eventual overall Top Dog – Team Kai – smashed it moments later with a sensational time of 1:10.71.
Still, Team Eddy came in second to advance easily to the next round, The Boneyard, with Kai and three other competitors (Team Mattis – 1:34.47, Team Django – 1:45.99, and Team Rony – 1:48.29).
During the 10-show regular season, 50 dogs ran the K-9 Combine, with only four finishing the course in less than two minutes. In the finale, however, six of the seven competitors accomplished the feat, and one of them, Team Falco, was still eliminated with a time of 1:53.57.
“Our teams rose to the occasion in our K-9 Combine,” Curt said, “but can they find their way through The Boneyard 2.0? We’ve added more twists, turns, and dead ends to our epic maze. The world’s toughest scent detection test just got harder! Only the top three of these five will advance to The Doghouse for the final round. This is going to be a tough one.”
As Jamie put it: “Tonight The Boneyard is more difficult than ever with even more dead ends and new wrong turns to obstruct our teams from finding four hidden items in five rooms with just four minutes on the clock. We’ve hidden a smaller amount of scented material than usual, inside everyday items in our maze of rooms. Dogs will sniff out the material. Their partners don’t know what items contain the scent and must pick up on the alert. Correct finds will get the green light. Everything else, red. Here’s where tonight’s four secret items are located. In the bedroom, the scented item is the green journal on the bedside table. In the bathroom, the teams need to find the orange sponge next to the tub. In the office, the dog should alert on a briefcase on the desk. And it’s the foam roller on the bottom row of the locker room. And in the living room, well, there is absolutely nothing. Any time spend there is a waste for our teams.”
Curt: “Up first, our Country Boys. In their first appearance, Team Eddy blew through The Boneyard like a tornado but missed sweeping all five items by a dog hair. How might the changes affect Eddy?”
Nick: “That’s always challenging from a handling perspective. Team Eddy has won other detection challenges, but the addition of a blank room and less scent on the items, this could derail even the strongest teams.”
Curt: “They’re starting off with a bathroom break. Our scent is smaller than our usual size of a quarter.”
Nick: “Deputy Thompson picks up on his first item. Good start finding something in the bathroom in just under a minute. Uh oh, they’re following the maze but it’s leading them right to our blank room, the living room. Remember, there are no scented items in here. This is basically a dead room for them, and if they spend too much time here, it’s really going to hurt their chances.”
After two incorrect alerts, Team Eddy moves on to the bedroom.
Nick: “And Deputy Thompson decides to go off leash. Right there, great read by Deputy Thompson!”
Curt: “Almost immediate success they have their second item, but remember the clock is running at four minutes, so they’re already more than halfway through. So now they begin their detailed search trying to get Item No. 3 going into the office looking for the briefcase on the desk.”
Nick: “It looks like Eddy…”
Curt: “Has a mind of his own?”
Nick: “Exactly. Maybe he’s trying to lead Deputy Thompson somewhere else. But Deputy Thompson has better ideas for Eddie right here.
Curt: “They’ve got to hustle right here. Remember, the clock is still ticking.”
Nick: “Oh, right there ( on the briefcase), beautiful aggressive response. Deputy Thompson quickly picked up on that.”
Curt: “And they find their fourth item. Can they find their fourth item and sweep here. They go into the locker room, searching for the foam roller.”
Nick: “This is where they found their fifth item in their first appearance. They were just a couple of seconds too short. Let’s see if they can redeem themselves. Deputy Thompson doing a detailed search. Great tactic, pinpointing Eddy’s nose for the win. They’re right there!”
Curt: “He’s running out of time.”
Nick: “He needs to move faster. Once again they are so close (as time expires)!”
Unfortunately, Team Eddy wound up in fourth place, missing a trip to the third round by seconds.
Team Kai became the only team to sweep The Boneyard, getting the greenlight on their fourth item with 2.7 seconds left on the clock. Had Kai not found the fourth item, Eddy would have advanced. Instead, the sweep by Kai sent Team Matthis (3:02.63) and Team Rony (3:19.46) into the finals, edging out Team Eddy (3:22.93).
In the finals, known as The Doghouse, Team Kai wound up winning the $25,000 prize with a time of 1:50.13, beating out Team Mattis’ time of 1:58.98.
Looking back on the overall experience, Thompson says it was “a lot of fun.”
“I have to be very, very proud and nothing more than humble with our performance,” he said. “I feel like we gave enough of a run that not only America but Whitfield County can say, you know, that boy could have won the whole thing. That’s how I feel that we done. I can’t live on what-ifs, and I think, I’m 40 years old, I’ve been pretty successful with this job – I’ve been with the sheriff’s office for 17 years, and I never in my wildest dreams imagined being the dog handler at the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, and here it is. I’m a dog handler, and we’ve done so many great things with this that it’s ‘pinch-me-is-this-for-real’ type stuff. It is for real, and it’s been a great experience.”
Though Team Eddy didn’t win the overall title, Thompson says he’s learned in life that winning isn’t everything.
“And if you do lose or you do struggle or you do fail in life, I’ve watched people to see how they react to those losses, stumbles, failures in life, and if you keep your head up and keep a positive attitude and you keep moving forward, that speaks volumes of the character who you really are. Nobody likes a sore loser, and I’ve tried to be equally as good of a winner and equally as good of a loser.”
Looking back at The Boneyard, where their journey came to an end, Thompson says there is very real pressure during the competition.
“I tried to be clear-headed about that maze,” he said, “but it was a lot trickier with more dead ends. You could get confused, and you don’t have any idea when that time clock’s gonna run out. Then when you run down a dead-end hallway, it messes with your psyche a little bit and puts more stress on you. You’re really your own worst enemy, and unfortunately you’ve got a dog with you.
“That’s why I chose to take Eddy off leash because I wanted to get as much of that stress from me away from him as I possibly could. I didn’t want to accidentally jerk him around on a leash and maybe accidentally jerk him off of something that he was gonna alert or indicate on. That’s why I decided to go off leash to give him a little bit more freedom because Eddy feeds off me so much, whether I’m about to chase a car, whether I’m about to pull a vehicle over that I think could cause us some problems, he very much so feeds off of me. And in that Boneyard, he was very much feeding off of me. I imagine he was probably thinking, ‘Todd, what is your problem?’”
Ironically, had Team Eddy managed to make it to the third round, Thompson believes they could have been in the running for the title, especially since all three competitors struggled to cross the 10-foot-long, 10-inch-wide plank.
“When we went back out to LA for the finale, we didn’t get to practice the course,” Thompson explained, “but we did get to expose our dogs to just a couple of the changes that were made. One of them was the blue barrels, and one of them was that plank that all the dogs had trouble walking across. Now we only got to expose the dog for maybe two minutes, not enough time to get the dog proficient but enough time to expose the dog to something new. In our session, Eddy didn’t want to go across it the first time. The second time he didn’t really want to go across it. The third time he started getting proficient with it, and in no time, I had him running back and forth across it. I overheard some people saying that if we made it into the third round, we’re probably gonna win.”
In the end, it didn’t matter, but Thompson still feels Eddy is a winner.
“I’m tickled, I’m thrilled, I’m extremely proud of our performance,” he said. “I don’t look at (Wednesday night) as a loss. I think the show showed everybody in a good light, made all of us look like winners, and I think it came at such a great time when there’s so much trouble going on in the world.”
While there’s talk of Team Eddy making another appearance on the show in season two, Thompson says he’s just glad to have been part of the initial season, especially since he was able to dedicate the competition to a co-worker near and dear to his heart, the late Lt. Fran Rice who died from cancer shortly after the show was filmed.
“(The producers) seemed to give a little bit more time to me and my story about the lieutenant,” Thompson said. “I thought that was good not only for Lt. Rice and his family and the community but also the nation because who doesn’t know somebody like I said on TV who hasn’t been touched by cancer? It was my little gesture to do for him in his honor, and I had his son send me a simple text after the show: ‘Thank you.’ That means a lot to me, and a lot of people in this town still remember Fran gratefully. He changed a lot of people’s lives. He was a good man to me, so I think the show was just a win for all of us.”
As for Eddy, he watched the show lying on the couch with the Thompson family, oblivious to his celebrity status.
“I can’t help but look at him different. I’ve always enjoyed dogs, but he is just very, very special to me. He’s 5 years old, and I know he’s not gonna be around forever, and that’s gonna be hard on me. A dog is a man’s best friend, a dog never backtalks, a dog’ll love on you when you’re having a bad day, and a dog’ll give you compassion when you need it the most. I spend more time with Eddy than I do any human being. I’m blessed to have him – feel like he’s a one in a million dog.”