Darling Nikki

The Tega Cay Police Department's bloodhound, Nikki, walks around the office grounds recently with handler and partner Pvt. 1st Class Shane Bell. With Nikki, the department totals 18 officers.
The Tega Cay Police Department's bloodhound, Nikki, walks around the office grounds recently with handler and partner Pvt. 1st Class Shane Bell. With Nikki, the department totals 18 officers.

TEGA CAY -- Nikki -- her eyes soulful, her disposition even -- has made grown men weep when they parted with her.

Heads turn when she passes. Children lavish her with hugs and kisses.

But women won't allow her on the furniture.

That's because Nikki is an 80-pound bloodhound and an officer in the Tega Cay Police Department.

"I've had her in the house a couple of times, but she's pretty big and slobbery, pretty messy on the furniture," said Pvt. 1st Class Shane Bell, Nikki's handler and partner. "My wife likes her, but she likes her outside."

Bell is Nikki's third partner since Tega Cay Mayor Bob Runde swore her in several years ago. It might seem unusual for a small-town department to have its own bloodhound. With Nikki, the department totals 18 officers.

Capt. Dave Nelson points out that the department in the residential, recreational community is surprisingly diverse. It owns boats and operates a marine patrol. The bicycle patrol winds its way up, down and around Tega Cay hills, too.

"Crime tracking is certainly important," Nelson said, "but in all honesty, our purpose in getting Nikki was to find lost children and people with Alzheimer's who have wandered away from home."

And Nikki has done that. For one, she found a lost child three houses down a street by smelling a pillowcase. She was fast on the scent of a lost elderly person when everyone else was heading in the opposite direction.

"She was smarter than us that day," Bell boasted. "You can't always go by what witnesses tell you. You have to trust Nikki."

It was probably one of those occasions when Nikki was slipped a T-bone steak. It happens, admits Bell, with whose family Nikki lives when not on duty. Her daily diet is Spartan: two 8-ounce cups of dry dog food to maintain her girlish figure. Usually, hot dog slices are her special treat, hold the relish.

Duke Snodgrass, founder of 832 K-9's Deputy Dogs, donated Nikki to the department. Her first partner was Officer Sam Blankenship. They worked together for two years until Blankenship moved to the Fort Mill Police Department, where he is that department's bloodhound handler.

Nikki went into mourning. Officer Vince Holland, her new partner, earned her loyalty by tossing a ball and offering the occasional hot dog and rawhide bone.

"Officer Blankenship actually broke down and cried when he said goodbye to her," recalls Holland, who was Nikki's partner for about 18 months until a promotion to sergeant.

That's when Nikki and Bell became a team. Nikki was a little more mature about the separation this time, but it was hard on Holland and his family.

"It was sad because my kids were attached to her, and me, too, to a certain point because she was my partner," Holland said. "But I know she's with a really good person. Our families hang out together, so the kids still get to play with her."

Nikki takes regular bloodhound seminars at Kings Mountain State Park. That's where she and Blankenship get to catch up.

While Nikki will pick up the scent of anything from a squirrel to a discarded fast-food wrapper on a casual walk, she becomes serious when she dons her work harness. She knows it is what she was bred, born and trained to do.

She's sociable, too. "We've been blessed with Nikki's personality," Nelson said.

When Nikki emerges from her bath, clad in her colorful patriotic scarf, it might mean a trip to a school or to one of Tega Cay's many concerts in the park or other community events.

Dispatchers request her presence when they're lonely. Despite her constant frown, Nikki always boosts spirits.

"If we save one child or return one person to their home, Nikki was worth it," Nelson said.

As for Nikki, even when she's in the doghouse, it's a great life.