MARYVILLE, Tenn. -- For six years Matt Thompson and Kopper were law enforcement partners. Every day man and dog had each other's back.
Today their bond is stronger than ever as Thompson helps the aging canine fight an incurable disease. Thompson, 37, is a corporal with the Blount County Sheriff's Department K-9 unit. The Belgian Malinois Kopper was a canine workaholic who best liked sniffing out narcotics. But he'd do anything Thompson told him without fear or hesitation.
Kopper saved Thompson's life within their first six months together. Years later, Thompson is doing all he can to save Kopper's.
Retired from duty two years, Kopper's still alert at 14. His once-black muzzle is old-dog gray. His back legs wobble slightly. At 60 pounds he's slightly lighter than his working weight. His quiet cough is infrequent.
Scars are visible on his shaved neck from surgery on his paralyzed larynx. The hair on his legs hasn't grown back after being shaved for the intensive care IVs he needed at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. A stretchy dog T-shirt hides the feeding tube that goes into his stomach to keep him alive.
UT veterinary specialists diagnosed Kopper first with laryngeal paralysis and in April performed surgery to open his airway. Weeks later, when Kopper got pneumonia that no one thought he'd survive, X-rays found another problem. Kopper had developed megaesophagus; his floppy esophagus couldn't push food toward his stomach.
To survive, Kopper needs the feeding tube. Three times a day the golden-haired dog that loved food and liked snatching pizza is fed a blended mix of canned dog food, Ensure and water through the tube.
But the dog still sits at the front door ready to go to work when Thompson puts on his uniform. He stills chases balls, visits neighbors, rambles the yard, plays with other dogs and takes car rides. When Thompson's home, Kopper doesn't leave his side. He's not ready to die. "His quality of life is good," Thompson said.
"If you love Matt, you love Kopper," says Thompson's girlfriend Heather Shamblin. A nurse practitioner with Smoky Mountain Gastroenterology, Shamblin suggested putting the feeding tube in Kopper's side. She feeds him; it takes 15 minutes each time to syringe the blended food through the tube.
For Thompson caring for Kopper is about duty to a fellow officer and help for a beloved friend. "I feel like it's my job to give back to him what he gave to me," he says. "He's a pet (now) but he served a purpose during his life."
Kopper tested Thompson the day they became partners.
It was 2006. Thompson, with the department since 1999, had been selected for the K-9 unit. Kopper was a veteran with a tough dog reputation. He'd begun police work in January 2003; his previous handler had left the department.
Officers were slightly wary of the 6-year-old canine's dominant personality, concerned he might bite someone who wasn't his handler. Thompson was advised to ease into the partnership and get Kopper to eat from his hand.
Then the dog jumped on Thompson and put his front paws on the man's shoulders. "He was trying to show his dominance," Thompson says. "They told me, 'You can't let him do that.' But I didn't want to make him mad and knock him off me. But he came down, ate and the rest was history.
"I think he kind of tested me to see what I was made of and if I was going to be someone that would have his back. He knew I would and I wouldn't back down from him. We were a good match."
Kopper lived with Thompson night and day. He was always ready to work. When Thompson put on his uniform, Kopper spun in excited circles. "I took pride in how good a team Kopper and I were, that we were the best we could be in our job. It's a blessing for me to be able to say I get to do this and I still do it," Thompson says.
To ease wear on Kopper's joints Thompson lifted his partner in and out of the patrol car. He put an orthopedic dog bed across the rear metal seat. Veterinary checkups confirmed his care kept Kopper work-ready for two extra years.
But Kopper wasn't a dog that rested. If the car was moving he was standing alert to a potential threat. Not long after they became partners, Kopper saved Thompson's life.
It was a weekend, probably a Saturday. A call came of a house being robbed. Thompson and Kopper were the closest to the scene. As they got there Thompson saw a man running from the back of the building. Jumping from the car he ordered the man to get on the ground. He was about to cuff the suspect when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a second man running toward him.
"The guy on the ground wasn't secure. And I've got a threat coming at me. Then I see this second guy just stop. I look over my shoulder and I see like a blur come past me." The blur was his dog.
"Kopper is flying by me; he's heading right toward this guy. When the guy sees the dog he's about 20 yards from us. As soon as he sees the dog he drops to the ground." Knowing neither man would move with the threat of a dog bite, Thompson called Kopper to his side and they waited for more officers.
In his haste to stop the first burglar, Thompson had left his car door open. He'd also left open the cage door inside the cruiser that separates the dog's back seat from the front. That was something he didn't usually do. Two open doors helped Kopper do his duty.
"He saved my life; there's no doubt in my mind. Had I not had him there, who knows what would have happened," Thompson says. "From that point on we had a special bond."
Many times the dog's presence kept the deputy from harm. If Kopper in the car noticed someone get aggressive toward his partner, his "dad," he barked and moved to rock the car. "It's amazing how a police dog de-escalates a situation," says Thompson. "I know the dog is going to be there and he's going to fight until he takes his last breath."
Kopper retired in May 2012. He'd put in a decade riding in patrol cars, searching buildings, tracking suspects, sniffing for drugs. "I knew I didn't want to work him up until the day he died," Thompson says. "He deserved for his service to come home and retire and lie on the couch."
There was no doubt he'd stay with Thompson and Shamblin. Eventually the deputy got another Belgian Malinois partner called Frodo. It was pretty heartbreaking the first day he left for work and left Kopper at the front door. He kept Kopper's name stenciled on his patrol car's back side panel. It'll be there till the car's replaced. "People ask me all the time, even the chief, 'When are you going to change that?' And I say, 'I'm not. That's Kopper's car.' "
Kopper began coughing a few months after he retired. Maryville veterinarian Dr. Becky Lillard referred the dog to the UT veterinary college. There specialists diagnosed Kopper with mild laryngeal paralysis. He coughed because his larynx couldn't open enough to get enough air into his lungs. He didn't need surgery but shouldn't get overactive or overheated.
Laryngeal paralysis is a progressive disease. One day this March, walking up an incline, Kopper couldn't breathe. "We thought he was going to die," Shamblin says.
Quickly the family was back at UT where veterinarians found more of his larynx was paralyzed. "I felt helpless. I had always known what plan of action to take with him. Now I didn't know what to do for him. And I wasn't going to sit back and let him suffer like that," Thompson says.
In April at UT Kopper underwent what's called tie back surgery. The operation fastened back some cartilage of his larynx to widen his airway. He immediately felt better; his old energy returned.
But the surgery brought its own issues. Since his airway couldn't close properly when Kopper ate, food or water could go in his lungs. Dogs that undergo tie-back surgery "can get pneumonia easily because any fluid or food can go straight to the lungs," says Dr. Rachel Seibert, a UT veterinary surgical resident.
About two weeks after the operation Kopper started coughing, vomiting and running a fever. Diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia he was hospitalized in the vet college's ICU. Then things got worst.
X-rays showed Kopper had developed megaesophagus. If food went in his esophagus the esophagus couldn't move it to his stomach. If food got in his lungs because of his open larynx he'd get pneumonia again. If the megaesophagus had been present earlier Siebert says doctors likely wouldn't have recommended the tieback surgery.
"Our options were if he ate he would die. Or we could opt to put him to sleep. So we didn't really have a lot of options," Shamblin says.
With Kopper in ICU, Thompson and Shamblin came home. It was Shamblin who thought of a way to save the dog. "I told Matt, 'This is the craziest thing you are ever going to hear me say. But if he were a human being I would say let's put a feeding tube in him.' "
That night the worried couple returned to ICU to check on Kopper. He'd been so sick hours earlier. "We walked around the corner and he jumped up in the crate and he was looking at us like he was saying, 'I'm here, don't count me out. I'm still here,' " Shamblin says.
Veterinarians supported Shamblin's idea; Kopper left the hospital with the feeding tube in his side. As long as infection doesn't develop the tube can nourish him for years. "He's a strong dog," says Seibert. "He's 14 now but he looks so good. Watching him and his dad you can tell they have a special bond."
Saving Kopper cost probably $8,000, maybe up to $10,000. "You lose track," Thompson says.
"To us, it was a no-brainer," says Shamblin. "Whatever it takes to get him back on his feet that is what we will do. We understand this is not a choice for everybody. But it's a choice for us because his quality of life is so good."
It's a choice of gratitude.
"He spent every day of his life willing to sacrifice it for Matt and willing to do something for this community," Shamblin says. "He's way more than a pet to us. He's our family."
It's a decision of devotion.
"If I said 'Let's go to work' right now he would go and work a whole shift with me as best he could," Thompson says. "As long as he is by my side that's all he cares about. There's no doubt in my mind Kopper would take his last breath if he could keep me alive. He's not afraid of anything."
Copyright 2014 - The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service