Above: “I’m so in love with him.” Heathman with her best buddy Koning. Photos By Jamie Lee

Kelli Heathman wasn’t always a dog lover. Growing up in High Point, N.C., her parents wouldn’t allow pets in their home. It wasn’t until she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that she discovered canine companionship.


“When I moved to Las Vegas to start my career, I got my first puppy,” said Heathman. “I went to the animal shelter and saw him sitting there with these big pink lips. He was so adorable, and I knew I had to have him. I named him Alstott after Mike Alstott, who played football for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’ve been in love with dogs ever since.”


Heathman now owns three dogs – two akitas named Lola and Oakley and a Belgian malinois known as Koning. To say they are pampered is an understatement.


“They live with us inside our home. We don’t have doggy doors, so if we go on day trips they have a custom-built climate-controlled dog house for them to stay in when they are outside,” she said. “They have a special diet. I just switched Koning to a raw diet, which has done wonders for his coat. All of them get groomed regularly, and they get baths every 30 days, like clockwork.”

Pets have become more important to their owners as they move closer to the inner circle of the family. Gone are the days when pooches were kept in a chain-link pen, never to step foot inside their owners’ homes. To a certain degree they have been humanized, creating demand for grooming services, toys and other luxury pet products. According to market analysis firm Grand View Research, it is estimated that the worldwide pet grooming market stands at more than $5 billion as of 2022.


You might think Heathman is your run-of-the-mill pampering dog parent. But there’s one thing that sets her apart from most others. She and Koning are zealous competitors in the arena of protection sports.


Protection sports are exercises and methodologies that challenge dogs in the categories of obedience and – as the name might suggest – protection of their handlers. Maybe you’ve seen police dogs being trained to attack and take down hypothetical perpetrators wrapped in padded body gear. That image provides a rough idea of what protection sports are all about. The underlying principles are discipline and control.


Heathman became interested in protection sports after seeing it demonstrated by her akitas’ behavioral trainer, Calvin Wilbon of 1st Mind K9 in Little Rock. He has been training German shepherds and Belgian malinois for personal protection and law enforcement since 2014.

Kelli Heathman

Adding a Belgian malinois to her family of akitas created a formidable canine collection.

“After seeing what Calvin was doing with those dogs, I started looking into protection sports and became fascinated with it,” said Heathman. “I would find myself up at one or two o’clock in the morning watching YouTube videos to learn more.”


She was particularly interested in the Belgian malinois breed, which is known for its intelligence, agility and speed. Historically, they were used by Belgian shepherds to herd livestock, often being mistaken for German shepherds due to a somewhat similar appearance. The malinois is slimmer in stature with a coat of short hair but like its German counterpart, the breed is commonly used as an assistance dog, for law enforcement and in search and rescue operations. They are increasingly popular police dogs.


“If you look at the intelligence and athleticism of this breed you’ll realize how amazing the malinois is,” said Heathman. “I kind of got obsessed with them.”


Wilbon told her that he had two malinois puppies coming to the U.S. from the Netherlands. She agreed to take one if she could have a male, and if the puppy could live and train with Wilbon before joining her two akitas at home. He agreed, and Heathman’s journey into the world of protection sports began.


She named the young pup Koning – which is the Dutch term for king – and has been training for protection sports with him since he arrived four years ago. The duo will compete in two days of trials hosted by the Protection Sports Association in early September. Training is ongoing and conducted in short bursts.


“When I’m not traveling for work, I train with Koning twice a day,” said Heathman. “It’s no more than ten minutes at a time, however, because you want to keep their interest level high. And because we are entering competitions, I also train with Calvin multiple times each week.”


Obedience is a major component of protection sports. Training dogs to ignore distractions and abide by their handlers’ commands is a key evaluation during competition. There are multiple levels of obedience: Level One involves the decoy, dressed in a bite suit for protection, sitting in a chair while the handler gives commands to the dog.


In Level Two, the decoys walk or jog around the handler while talking. In Level Three the decoy is running and agitates the dog while the dog listens for commands to heel, stay, jump or climb, as directed by its handler.


“Obedience is important because you need to control your dog, on or off a trial field,” said Heathman. “One of the most important commands is the attention heel, which is him by my side, on my left, with his head looking up into my armpit. It takes a year or year and a half to train a dog to be obedient before it’s ready to compete.”


The protection portion of the competition involves commands for the dogs to perform controlled bites on assumed perpetrators. These are not random bites, but bites made to specific body parts – usually a forearm or leg – with extreme precision.


“When they start them off as a puppy they use a small bite wedge,” said Heathman. “They focus on keeping to the middle of the bite wedge and to have a full mouth bite. When you go into trial, there’s a point system for each scenario that is performed by the handler and the dog, part of which is how full of a grip it has with its bite.”

Under Heathman’s expert command, Koning goes through his daily exercises.

As with obedience challenges, each higher level of protection exercises involves more complex situations with escalating distraction scenarios. To reach the highest level of achievement, both dog and handler must be highly-practiced, deeply disciplined and possess nerves of steel. The greatest achievement possible is entry into the PSA 3 club, which requires a minimum of 75 percent of available points in all obedience and protection scenarios at two separate trials. Points must be obtained while off-leash and under surprise or unplanned conditions.


Most people involved with protection sports are dog trainers. “There are very few of us that are handlers and not trainers,” said Heathman. “To be successful you need to be willing to put the time into it. You have to have a passion for it, because if you only do it halfway, you won’t get the outcome you’re looking for. You’ll get frustrated with the dog and frustrated with yourself. And you will have spent a lot of money for nothing. This sport is not cheap.”


Heathman said she is grateful for Wilbon’s partnership because she is busy with a career of her own. She has more than 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, with roles in both primary and specialty care. Her career journey has resulted in positions with increasing responsibility, and she loves her work.


“Once I graduated from college I wanted to move out of state and see more of the United States,” she said. “Lo and behold, I ended up in Las Vegas, where I began my pharmaceutical career as a sales rep. The journey since that time has been incredible. I’ve taken job promotions, I’ve moved around laterally and I’ve taken a step back, all to gain different experiences in order to round out my skill set so that I could eventually lead teams of my own.”


Heathman currently works for BeiGene, a global firm that focuses on products and services that cater to oncology patients across the planet. Her focus is more business administration-related than sales these days, with most of her work centered around contractual agreements and other back-office operations. She manages the western half of the U.S. territory and directs a team of six. Heathman relishes her role as team leader.


“I try to provide them with strategic guidance of where we need to be as a team, and then allow them to go execute the business,” she said. “I’m there to provide support and be their partner. If you asked, I think they would tell you that I’m a servant leader. I feel my purpose is to motivate and inspire them so they can do their best work.”


Heathman’s responsibilities often require overnight travel. She’s fortunate to have a supportive husband – Dr. Monty Heathman – who provides care for her dogs while she is away.


“He’s a dentist with a local practice, so he’s home every night.” she said. “If I was single, it would be difficult. They would be in daycare a lot. When it’s absolutely necessary to board them, I do have a place I trust. I lived in Maumelle when I moved to Arkansas in 2009 and I discovered Arkansas Pet Resort. They really know my dogs and they provide the best care for them, so I’ve been using them ever since.”


Participating in protection sports takes commitment measured in both time and money. But the same is true with pet ownership in general. Heathman said people should not make the decision to adopt a pet without proper forethought. Bringing an animal into the family is a life-changing experience.


“A lot of times people will get a dog because they think it’s cute,” she said. “But they don’t realize the time it takes to care for one. You should do your homework before you get a pet because it should be with you for life. If you give up on it and it goes to a shelter, it can be a death sentence for that animal.”


Heathman suggested doing research on breeds before choosing a dog. Certain breeds require more exercise than others. Busy professionals who don’t want to invest in daycare won’t do well with dogs like hers. Akitas and malinois are working dogs that need plenty of activity and loads of attention. If they are neglected, their behavior can turn destructive, which can and often does result in frustration and regret.


She is also a proponent of crate training, which makes housebreaking easier and provides the dog with a safe and comfortable place to seek refuge. “I leave the door open and Koning goes and sits in it on his own,” she said. “Never use a crate as punishment. It should be a happy place for your dog.”


And if someone is interested in the ultra-competitive world of protection sports, choosing a qualified trainer should be at the top of the to-do list. Having an expert by your side will lead to a more productive and satisfying experience.


“There are some really sad trainers out there,” said Heathman. “Here, too, you have to do your homework and try to understand what it takes to train a dog. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Ask prospective trainers how long they’ve been training and what their credentials are. Ask about their training philosophy and learn about their training techniques. Find someone that is the best fit for you and your dog and what you’re trying to accomplish.”


She seemingly hit the trainer jackpot with Wilbon. Not only has he proved himself to be a highly capable trainer, but he is the one who matched her with Koning in the first place. It has proven to be a relationship that transcends the typical handler-dog connection.


“The best part of this experience has been the bond I’ve developed with my dog,” said Heathman. “He is the sweetest, most loving dog I’ve ever owned. When it’s time to train I can tell he loves it and that he looks forward to time with Mommy. And I get to spend time with him. I’ve never felt anything like this before. I’m so in love with him.”


READ ALSO: Summer Cocktails