Losing a 'tremendous' officer, family member
For Loudon County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Michael Watkins and his four-legged partner Denero, it's a father-son kind of relationship that has blossomed over countless hours of training, patrolling and everyday life together.
Even cancer can't tear them apart.
The two have been partners for almost six years, sniffing out drug stashes, locating wanted suspects and staying by each other's side in the toughest brawl. But Denero's pancreatic cancer is back after it was surgically removed last year.
Because Denero, a Belgian malinois, is almost 10 years old, surgery is no longer a viable option. He will retire when the sheriff's office deems he is no longer fit for duty.
"I'm sure, it's a tradition for me, and I know it will be for Cpl. Watkins, the day he retires he'll probably get a big, fat, juicy steak. He's definitely earned it," LCSO Lt. Paul Curtis said.
Denero's nearing fate is a tribulation for his partner and family. Watkins' wife and fellow officers stepped in to tell the distraught handler and his partner's story.
"He loves to play. He wants to make you happy and that's what we've had. We've had six years of being happy with him," Watkins' wife Kelli said as she looked away and wiped a tear. "We wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, but there never will be one that will be as great as he was and is."
"We tell people he is our other child. He is our four-legged, furry child," Kelli said with a laugh. "And he's treated that way. He has a certain section of the couch he sleeps on. I have a pair of UGG house shoes I got several years ago for Christmas and they are the furry kind. He has loved them and wanted them so bad, so bad."
With a big, motherly smile, Kelli assures Denero will have those shoes when he retires.
There's no doubt Kelli believes Denero is a great police dog, but an even better family dog. When the couple's son Bryson was two years old, he had his tonsils removed, but one night proved to be a long one for young Bryson. Sensing trouble, Denero refused to eat and wouldn't leave the door to the toddler's nursery.
"Finally, Michael went in to check to see what was going on, and his whole crib was full of blood," Kelli said. Bryson lost the scabs from surgery and ended up at Children's Hospital via ambulance.
Kelli credits Denero with saving Bryson. Now boy and dog are "two peas in a pod."
"He goes to the mailbox and Denero's right behind him. ... When something happens it will crush him. He thinks he will get better, and they are going to be able to play. That's the hard part is knowing that his brother's going to be gone, because he tells people that's his brother," she said.
Curtis, who oversees the K-9 division and selects the LCSO dogs, said Denero's greatest asset has always been catching criminals.
"Year before last, I think it was, we had a guy who was really jacked up on some drugs and he was fighting two other officers. When Cpl. Watkins and Denero showed up then the guy was like, 'I'm ready to fight the dog.' ... Cpl. Watkins sent Denero to get the guy under control. He got him under control really, really quick," Curtis said. "He's a tremendous, tremendous dog."
At a 2009 national police K-9 competition, Denero topped the others in criminal apprehension and finished fourth overall.
"They've had a tremendous career," Curtis said. "A lot of good apprehensions of bad people, tracking people down, especially lately here in the last few months he's just had tremendous, tremendous success tracking people down who are running from crimes that need to be apprehended for the benefit of the public."
Because of the cancer and Denero's age, the K-9 is strictly doing detection work.
"Unfortunately, the medicine controlling the cancer also aggravates arthritis," Curtis said.
Though Denero means serious business when he goes to work, he has quirks that can't help but bring a smile to his handler's face.
"Obviously, Denero is very social. All things considered equal he'd rather come up to you and play with you than to bite you," Curtis said. "Cpl. Watkins lets him carry his toy around if we're all sitting in a room. He'll come up to you, and he'll jump on you wanting you to play with the toy but he's growling at the same time like, 'I'm going to eat you.' He's not being vicious. He's just having fun."
Denero was born in Europe, moved to a Miami vendor and then was selected by Curtis to be Watkins' partner. After a couple years on the force, Watkins began attending K-9 unit training and was later paired with a 4-year-old Denero, his first K-9 partner.
"It's like one of his children. ... When he goes to work Denero goes with him. When he is home, Denero is with him," Curtis said. "As a handler you inevitably spend more time with your four-legged partner than you do your own family, so that becomes a very, very tight bond. Then as you get into situations (where) that dog has saved your butt in a fight or done something spectacular, then obviously it just gets that much tighter."
Though another dog has been selected to take Denero's place alongside Watkins, the coming days will be difficult around the Watkins home and the sheriff's office.
"We're losing a tremendous, tremendous officer, if you will, in Denero," Curtis said. "He may work six more weeks, he may six more months. We don't know. That's going to depend on him, but we know it's not too far down the road. Here you're kind of paying for all the great days you've had. Fortunately, we have more good ones than we have bad ones, but these are hard times."