Winning combination: Kindness keeps Kiki and her Marblehead human together

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A Marblehead 13-year-old walked away with nine ribbons from an American Kennel Club special dog show in Boston in the early days of summer.

Felix Regnault needed only a little over a year of dog-handling training from Swampscott resident MaryEllen Fletcher to achieve his success.

For several years, Fletcher has bred chocolate Labrador retrievers and owns a dog-food business. The duo trains and competes with Fletcher’s dogs, Sonny and Angus.

Felix Regnault, a 13-year-old Marbleheader, won nine ribbons during an American Kennel Club specialty show in June.

Then there is Kiki, the younger sister to Sonny and the daughter of Angus. The 1-1/2-year-old Lab is the beating heart of Fletcher and Felix’s relationship, an unlikely friendship kindled by Fletcher showing an unusual amount of kindness toward the Regnault family.

It all started when the family was looking to buy a dog during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They knew they wanted a Labrador retriever.

“My mom was walking around town, and she ran into a woman who had a beautiful chocolate Lab,” Felix recalled, seated in the backyard of his Old Town house, eating fish sticks and sipping a Coke. “The woman gave my mom MaryEllen’s number.”

‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen’

“Marine (Felix’s mother) called me, and we put them on a wait list,” Fletcher said. “A litter became available, and they took this little black Lab.”

She would be named Kiki, and she and Felix forged an instant connection. But after a couple of days with Kiki, a member of the household struggled with unknown allergies that popped up. The Regnault family had to decide what to do with the puppy.

“Marine called me one day and said, ‘We need to talk,’” Fletcher recalled. “I said, ‘I’m on my way.’”

She said she drove directly to the Regnaults’ house from New Hampshire. The Regnaults and Fletcher talked out options as Kiki sat on Felix’s lap outside.

“I didn’t have the heart to send her elsewhere. Felix had been with her nonstop,” Fletcher said. “We knew taking her away from him would’ve left a scar on him for the rest of his life.”

She added, “I said to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen.’”

Fletcher stepped outside to speak with Felix.

“I said, ‘We’re going to own this dog together,’” Fletcher said. “I couldn’t break this little boy’s heart.”

For over a year now, they’ve shared ownership and responsibilities.

“Felix is not just a regular kid,” Fletcher said. “We’re family through Kiki, through all the dogs.”

In fact, Felix said the relationship extends to his family members. They helped Fletcher during her successful bid for a Swampscott Select Board seat in the late winter and early spring.

Kiki lives at Fletcher’s Swampscott house – except for the occasional sleepover with Felix.

“She’s with him all the time. He helps walk her and takes care of her,” Fletcher said. “He has access to her whenever he wants.”

A mutual obsession

Kiki goes crazy when she greets Felix. The obsession is apparently mutual – even when they are apart.

“My friend who I sail with was happy for me when I got Kiki,” said Felix. “But he has since let me know that I kinda talk way too much about her.”

Fletcher and Felix train with Sonny, Angus and Kiki regularly. Felix is Kiki’s main handler, and he appreciates how Fletcher has taken him under her wing.

“MaryEllen really knows her stuff,” Felix said. “She is passionate about it, very helpful and has been a good mentor.”

The pair travels to southern New Hampshire, where they train with other members of the New England Black Duck Retrievers. Felix is the organization’s youngest member.

“He just has this innate ability to read a dog, and that’s invaluable,” Fletcher said. “The dogs relate to him so well.”

Aside from the joy Kiki brings out of him, Felix said he enjoys the problem solving that dog handling requires. He has already achieved “a junior handler” rank from the AKC.

“At the specialty in June, Felix entered 11 events,” said Fletcher. “He brought home nine ribbons.”

Felix competed in the hunt test, which simulates the conditions of a true hunt and evaluates how a dog retrieves. He also competed in what’s called “breed-ring conformation.”

While a dog show may resemble a beauty pageant, Felix said dog-show judges evaluate how best a dog conforms to the standard of their breed. He also competed in what’s called rally obedience in which judges evaluate how a dog and its handler move together through a course made up of between 10 and 20 signs.

“A good handler brings out the best in dogs,” Fletcher said. “When you see Felix and Kiki competing, you can see all the happiness coming out of her.”

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