Dogs Vom Paladin Malinois

RIP Sangio, man’s best friend

Written by his owner, Anton Ferreira

Sangio is the sire of Ch. Oaktreegardens Anushka of vom Paladin, and therefore grandfather of our latest litter.

The story of Sangio is not that long really, relative to, say, the age of the planet. Just nine years and four months. That’s how long he lived, in physical terms.

In physical terms? Well, yes, because I refuse to believe he has completely, totally died. He is still with us. He must be, in some form, or there would be no point.

Let’s start with his full name: Sangiovese de la Domaine des Trois Pignons of Skilpadstasie. What this grandiose name means is that someone, somewhere, thought Sangio was going to set the doggy beauty world of Crufts on fire one day, and needed a suitable name. Domaine des Trois Pignons is the name of the breeders’ kennel, Skilpadstasie is a small farm in the Cederberg.

He was a pure-bred Belgian Malinois, conceived in France, born in America, died in Africa.

His mother, Malice – we have to stop right there to explain her name. It sounds like “malice” as in malice aforethought. The kind of aggravating factor that spells the difference between mere life in jail and a lethal injection aftera nasty, emotional court case. An appropriate name for a Malinois, some would say.

However this malice is the French malice, pronounced ma-lease,with the stress on the second syllable. It sounds quite different to the English mah-lis. For all I know, it might mean exactly the same. But I like to think that in French it’s a quaint Continental variation of Alice. Which is as pleasant an innocent girl’s name as you could care to imagine. Think Alice in Wonderland.

Anyway, Malice’s owners were French/French Canadienne, living in Colorado, who wanted to breed her. But being French, they didn’t believe there were any male dogs in all of America who were worthy of impregnating Malice. Who had herself been imported from France.

“They are so ugly,” said Malice’s French owner, Christophe, explaining the problem with American dogs.

So Christophe took Malice to Bordeaux and set up a one-night stand with a dashing French Malinois. Malice got pregnant and Christophe returned with her to Boulder, Colorado.

Which is where, a few months later, I first met Sangio, eight weeks old, one of five remaining puppies in the litter. My wife and I were living in Tacoma Park, Md., at the time, and flew out to pick him up.

At that age, all puppies are equally adorable. We could have picked any one of the five, but we wanted a male, because we already had a bitch, Shumba the Zulu dog, and the conventional wisdom is that if you’re introducing a new dog to an existing human/canine pack, it’s better if the new guy is of the other gender. Otherwise they try to kill each other.

Shumba tried to kill Sangio anyway, despite him being a sweet young male, but that is a separate story.

Christophe and his wife Dawn had already earmarked Sangio for us. They named him, by the way. There’s a convention in dog breeding circles whereby all dogs born in a given year have names beginning with the same letter, in this case S. And then all dogs in a litter will be named according to a theme – in this case, wine. There was Sangiovese, Syrah, Salice, Shiraz, Sauvignon, etc.

I was okay with that, because wine is my favourite beverage.

Sangio ended up with a range of names, all of which he recognized perfectly. There was Sangio, spoken sternly, which indicated he was engaged in an inappropriate activity and should stop forthwith. There was Sanji, pronounced in a high-pitched, happy, sing-song way, Saaaan-gee. This I used when he was roaming out of sight and I wanted him to come running. Running was in fact the only way he ever came.

There was the monosyllabic Sanj, uttered with urgency, when I needed his immediate attention.

Then there was the range of baby names – Noodle, Sanji Noodle, Mr Nibbles, Mr Naughty Nibbles, Silly Noodle, etc etc – that I used, for example, when he grabbed my sleeve and chewed it affectionately. He knew humans didn’t take well to having their actual flesh chewed affectionately, so he chewed instead on the cloth around the flesh. He did this a lot, without ever creating a hole in any of my shirts. I’ve no idea how he managed this trick.

I spent a lot of time with him when he was growing up. With a Malinois, this is not negotiable. They are not spaniels, they are not Labradors, they are not those cute Chinese Shar-peis. They are a breed unto themselves. They are like Border collies, except more active and possessed of a great deal more energy. And way, way brighter, of course.

These are dogs whose genes were programmed for sheep herding duty in the ancient, rough countryside of Belgium in the days when that boggy land was roamed by marauding bands of Goths and Huns. As long as guarding sheep and chasing Goths kept them busy, they were fine. But then Belgium became largely paved over with cities, shopping malls and French fry kiosks, and there was no more room for sheep.

The Goths took to smoking too much marijuana and collapsed on the floor, inert.

Scores of Malinois owners were left with hyper-active dogs with no sheep to chase, and no harmless outlet for their energy.

And a Malinois with no harmless outlet for its energy is a bit of a liability.

So Belgian Malinois owners devised a special activity for their dogs, called ring sport, which at its most simple consisted of putting a dog in a ring with a man in a padded suit and a stick and seeing how many times the dog could bite him.

The dogs loved it.

The dogs that were good at it were bred with other dogs that were good at it. So the Malinois became selectively bred to be an expert speed biter of humans.

This is a very useful trait in many circumstances. But living in Tacoma Park, with scores of free-range toddlers stumbling about the streets like so many sweet bunny rabbits, their parents poised with multi-million dollar lawsuits, I needed to keep Sangio out of trouble. So I filled his daily schedule with training – heel, down, sit, stay, come, the usual. Then there was Schutzhund, a quaint German variation of the let’s-bite-humans-in-protective-gear game. But the most fun was agility, the canine obstacle course sport.

Sangio was very, very good at this, because his obsession was chasing balls, or Kongs, or Frisbees. And he knew that the faster he completed the agility course, the sooner I would throw a ball for him to chase.

This is what I loved about Sangio, his ability to reduce all of life’s quandaries to one simple question – what do I need to do to get the two-legged ape to throw the ball?

Unfortunately his agility career came to a premature end when he twisted an ankle while chasing a squirrel down a flight of steps.

Soon after this accident we moved to Skilpadstasie, the aforementioned farm in the Cederberg north of Cape Town, where the only limit on Sangio’s ball-chasing pursuits was the strength and endurance of my arm. It gets hot in the Cederberg, 45 degrees Centigrade in the shade. And Sangio liked to swim, so we quickly devised a new game for those long, hot summer days.

I would sit on a rock next to our swimming hole, in the shade of a pepper tree, open an ice cold beer, and throw a Frisbee into the water. Sangio would jump in, retrieve the Frisbee, bring it back to me, and wait quivering with staring eyes for me to throw it again. Sometimes he would shake himself when he climbed out of the water, sending a shower of tiny droplets in a wide arc. If the sun was behind him, the light caught the droplets and turned them into a spectacular spray of silver.

I never put it to the test, but I’m certain Sangio could have played this game for at least 48 hours non-stop; he would have been ready for his next dive into the water even as I collapsed in a heap from sleep deprivation.

It was such a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Throw the Frisbee, bask in Sangio’s joy, admire the water droplets, sip my beer, throw the Frisbee, repeat. Observe the weaver birds, listen for baboons, keep an eye out for black eagles. Mull the meaning of life.

Inevitably, after 35 minutes, or 45, I would start to feel guilty. How could I spend the whole afternoon throwing a Frisbee for my dog? Was there nothing more productive, more meaningful I should be doing? Something that would bring in some income? Some kind of work?

Next time I met someone who I wanted to impress, and he or she asked me with a raised eyebrow: So what do you do? I would only be able to answer, “I throw a Frisbee into a pond for my dog to fetch.”

Intimidated by such thoughts I would rise, hang the Frisbee in the tree, ignore Sangio’s pleading eyes, and go into the house. There I would wash the dishes or vacuum or sit in front of the computer, assuaging my guilt by bowing to the gods of duty and not having a good time.

Too late, I see my mistake.

Because Sangio is dead now, and with him those idyllic afternoons. First it was a persistent cough, that I put down to seasonal allergies. The cough didn’t go away, so we took him to Vet No. 1 who diagnosed kennel cough and prescribed antibiotics.

The cough still didn’t go away, so after a few months we took him to Vet No. 2, who diagnosed pneumonia. A new set of antibiotics.

The cough still didn’t go away, so we took him to Vet No. 3, who took X-Rays and discovered the problem was Sangio’s heart. It was swollen, or in laymen’s terms, too big. The pressure on his lungs was making him cough.

A new set of pills, not antibiotics this time. The antibiotics had been a waste of time. The new pills, the vet warned us, would not cure the problem. They would just postpone the final day of reckoning.

Sangio’s cough went away and he continued to chase his ball with as much enthusiasm as ever. He was fine, I told myself. He had a ravenous appetite, bright eyes, healthy tongue, loads of energy.

Meanwhile I took a job in the city, two hours away, to help pay the bills. It was too far to commute every day, so I spent five days a week in the city and weekends on the farm in the Cederberg.

When I came home from the city, Sangio ran around the car in hysterical joy, jumped up at me, licked me, nibbled me, and did everything in his power to show me that my return after five long days was the best thing that had ever happened in the history of the universe.

Unconditional, boundless love. Whether it comes from a child, a parent, a spouse or a dog, it’s the most precious thing in creation. And Sangio had an infinite depth of it.

My work week is from Tuesday to Saturday. I return to the farm on Saturday night, and leave for the city on Tuesday mornings.

Sangio knew this. On a Tuesday morning, he would see me put my bag in the car ready for the commute into the city, and he would go and lie down on his bed. He didn’t like long goodbyes.

One recent Tuesday morning, he seemed subdued. I interrupted my usual departure ritual to go to his bed, kneel next to it, and stroke his head in a farewell gesture. “See you on Saturday, Mr Noodle,” I said. He gave me a doleful look.

Shortly after I got to the city, my wife called to say Sangio was acting strangely – he had vomited up his breakfast, and was hiding under a bush. She talked about taking him to the vet.

Then at 1:56 pm she called again. I was just about to go into a news conference.

“He’s dead,” she wailed. “Sangio’s dead.”

I sat through the news conference in a daze. A government minister was announcing an inquiry into a heinous crime, but it didn’t matter. It was not important.

Sangio was dead.

I drove home, arriving after dark. I went into the courtyard where Sangio still lay on his side next to the pot plant where he had died. He looked like he was sleeping, but his tongue protruded unnaturally from his mouth.

I sank down next to him, stroking his head, hoping that my wife had made a mistake, that he was still alive. He was cold, stiff.

I wrapped a blanket around him and lifted him into a wheelbarrow, then pushed him in this hearse to the grave that had been dug.

I filled up the hole, thinking: Why do we heap dirt on the bodies of those we love?

I lay awake for hours that night, and when I finally fell asleep I dreamed of Sangio. He was full of life, tongue out, eyes bright. “Sanji, where’ve you been my boy?” I asked. “Where’ve you been?”

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