By: Heidi Thornton
Ten years ago, Matt, my then husband, wanted to get back into French Ringsport. In doing research he found that Malinois were the breed of choice if you wanted to be competitive on a national level. He did his due diligence and researched kennels, pedigrees and upcoming litters. He narrowed his search down to two litters, one from Mike Ellis and another on the east coast. In the end, he asked me to take a puppy and trial it. Now, I am not a competitive person, as in I feel bad if I win Monopoly. On top of that, I would be picking a puppy from the east coast litter, which meant choosing one from a video. Who does that?? I wasn’t convinced.
Matt thought I should watch videos of Wicked’s sire, Rodin, and see what I thought. So, I watched a video of Rodin competing at the ring 3 level during the guard of object. I had no idea that dogs could be taught what essentially boiled down to rules of engagement. I was hooked. Quickly, I picked a puppy out of a video and a few days later, I met him in person at SFO. I named him Wicked.
Wicked in the Ring
When I first entered French Ring, the old methodology of all compulsion was phasing out in favor of using a combination of positive reinforcement and correction. A lot of the dogs at that time went into the field with their tail level or down (not tucked) and ears back. They did their job, even enjoyed the protection component, but they didn’t seem excited about it.
Now, remember how I told you I’m not competitive? Well, it remained true while training Wicked. I am more laid back and our attitude was to have a good time. Wicked and I enjoyed ourselves. My philosophy was if you aren’t having fun, why do it? Mine and Wicked’s bond was the center of many loving jokes from friends and trainers. When Mike Ellis settled down and opened his school, our group met for a training day. Mike had music playing and was picking theme songs for each dog/handler team as it was their turn for protection. When Wicked and I were up, “Bubbly” by Colbie Caillet came on over the speakers.
Don’t think for a minute that Wicked was a huge softie. He was sharp, reactive and I was told by several people that knew his lines that he would come up the line at me. That never happened, but he was a beast in protection. With the right decoy, he would break skin through training suits and pads! He even got a standing ovation from the decoys at our first trial. We competed several times and failed spectacularly most of the time. Sometimes due to my errors, sometimes due to his. I didn’t care. We had a blast.
A Winning Attitude
Where Wicked left his mark on the sport was not by winning high in trial. It was his attitude out on the field. Every time we trained with new people or trialed, we would get comments from people and judges about how much fun Wicked and I were having. I always smiled and nodded and thought it was kind, but I didn’t really understand what they were talking about.
Of course we were having a good time. He’s my partner in crime doing what he loves-biting! Then I let a friend handle him in training one day and I saw what they meant. Wicked worked on obedience and protection with a wagging tail and smile on his face. We had formed a true partnership where I supported his love of biting and in return he would do obedience. To this day, there are people that tell me how Wicked inspired them in Ring and with their own dogs. That is something really special.
A Wicked Friendship
When Wicked was two going on three, I brought home an orphan kitten that was less than three days old. I named him Mr. Magoo. Since Magoo was a bottle baby, he had to go everywhere with me which included all of our dog training days and even a week long seminar with Mike Ellis. Due to that socialization, Magoo acts very much like a dog. As Magoo grew into a rascally young adult, he and Wicked developed a Wiley Coyote/Road Runner relationship.
Every time Wicked would trot by, Magoo would reach out through the back of the chair and tap him in his fuzzy britches. When I moved, I would hear Wicked air snap at Magoo and of course he would get in trouble. I started to realize that in all these years, Wicked had not actually bitten Magoo, so I started to watch a little closer. When Wicked air snapped the next time, I put him in a down. Magoo walked to Wicked and started rubbing all over his face. One day I was sitting on the couch and Wicked looked at me, looked at Magoo, looked at me then went for it. He did a quick muzzle punch and when I told him to go into his kennel he trotted right over to his crate and gave me a look that said, “Worth it!”.
Most nights they sleep together on our bed and they both seek the other one out. Last Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend Mark went to Michigan to be his Grandma’s Valentine since she hasn’t had a Valentine’s date since her husband passed away. While he was gone, I would send pictures of the different kidlets to him. One of the days I had Wicked hold a sign that said “We miss you”. While I was getting ready to take the pic, Magoo walked up, slapped Wicked in the face (he keeps his claws in) and walked away. All of the pictures show Wicked with a beaten down look due to his being made fun of by a cat. It turns out that my Einstein of a cat was the perfect match for my brilliant Malinois.
A Wicked Diagnosis
Fast forward to a week before Christmas. I noticed that Wicked’s head was a little lopsided. His muscle was a bit smaller on one side. I had him see Dr. Kortz and we found a tumor that is pushing on a nerve which is causing the muscle atrophy. Cancer has been an unwelcome visitor many times at my house and I fear this will be a shorter visit than normal. He is visibly wasting from one week to the next, so we are on quality of life watch at this point. I am deeply saddened by this news, but am glad that I know what signs to look for so he doesn’t suffer. We are not always afforded that when making these decisions for our beloved family members.
I have decided to take him on dates to enjoy the time we have left together to the fullest. We invite you to share in this journey with us as many of you have been through this yourself. I also thought it might be nice for you to look back when you are facing this decision again in the future and know that you are not alone.
While I rage against the dying of the light, Wicked moves toward the inevitable with his usual grace and jaunt.
Checking off the Bucket List
On Friday, my roommate bought him breakfast at Starbucks. He gives their bacon egg bites five stars! Later that day he received a care package from my cousin, Ana. He grabbed the toy out of my hands and systematically removed and destroyed each of the six squeakers. After that, he blew through the bully stick in about 30 minutes. Overall, he was quite pleased.
On Saturday, we drove to my good friend Adrian, who also happens to be one of Wicked’s favorite decoys. Adrian gave him three sessions since it is likely his last time. He had a blast, but didn’t target well on his right side. By the third session, Wicked was making up the rules and thoroughly enjoying it! Sunday was a little quieter. We had dinner at Mark’s house where he was given a large rawhide (which he has not been allowed before) and cuddled up to Mark to chew on it. Overall, he had a fantastic weekend.
On Monday, we interviewed (and hired!!) a medical oncologist, otherwise known as a cancer superhero. She reviewed Wicked’s MRI and listened to his history and agrees that there isn’t really anything we can do beyond steroids. She gently told me that she thinks I have about three months with him. Three months. 12 weeks.
While not surprising, it was still hard to hear. I thought that I would like to have him biting when we let him go, but I am not sure that will be a reality. Since none of my decoy friends live close by, I thought about asking one of our beloved K9 handlers to do it for us, but I am not sure that I want someone else in the room. It is always hard when you have to make the choice to say goodbye to your pet, but this one will be particularly hard for me.
I am also in the process of moving in with Mark, which is such a happy time. I am grateful that we will live there for Wicked’s last weeks because he loves Mark so much. Naturally, I had debated putting it off until after Wicked was gone, but I think Wicked will be happier with Mark there every day. I am vacillating between all of the emotions on the rainbow of grief that we are all familiar with, from being devastated at the thought of not having my Wicked Man to being excited about moving in with Mark.
Sometimes I want the world to stop and recognize that this amazing creature will be leaving us all too soon. Sometimes I smile at a memory of him. I want to spend as much time cuddling with him since I only have weeks left. He has been by my side through so much and I have met wonderful people and created lasting friendships because of him. Friends that I am leaning on now since he will no longer be there. Wicked was with me during my divorce, buying my own house, making me feel safe living alone, Matt’s suicide, and meeting Mark. He has been through so many ups and downs with me. Maybe he thinks it is ok to go now because I have Mark.
Maybe this is just life, throwing good and bad at you to challenge you, help you grow and keep you moving. One thing is for sure: I hate cancer.