Meet Gayle Watkins, breeder of over 100 titled Golden Retrievers that have excelled in multiple sports and co-founder of Avidog International.
A Gold-level AKC Breeder of Merit, Gayle Watkins of Highlands, North Carolina, puts the “purpose” in multi-purpose dogs: Her Gaylan’s Golden Retrievers have earned more than 140 American and Canadian conformation, obedience, tracking, Rally and agility championships, as well as Master Hunter titles. Dozens of others have logged similar achievements in search and rescue, hunting, nosework, barn hunt, dock-diving and more. Virtually all of these titleholders – a whopping 95 percent – were owner-trained and handled.
Here, Gayle talks about her unexpected path from horses to dogs, how she breeds for longevity, and why a calm Golden Retriever is basically an oxymoron.
As soon as I graduated from college, I started looking for a broodmare to start my horse–breeding program. I had planned to breed combined-training (multipurpose) horses since I was in grade school. I was an Army second lieutenant, and at the time, I couldn’t see why that would keep me from breeding horses, although I sure can today. Alas, the banks didn’t come through, so I could not get a loan for the lovely mare I had found. I was crushed.
Thankfully, my then-boyfriend, now husband, Andy, suggested we consider a dog. We were stationed at Fort Ord in California at the time, so went to the Del Monte Kennel Club show. There I saw a beautiful gold dog, Am/Can Ch. & OTCH Sunstreak of Culynwood, UDT, WCX, OS, OBHF, and his owner Suzi Bluford, still a well-regarded obedience and Rally judge.
Streaker and Suzi’s amazing performance inspired me to find out more about Golden Retrievers to see if they met our needs for a dog that could travel the world with us, live easily in Army quarters, and be obedient, pleasant companions. I knew from the start that I wanted to breed multi-purpose dogs, so I wanted a healthy breed that could breed and raise pups easily.
We purchased our first bitch and, as you probably guessed, bred her to Streaker. That litter produced our first champion, our first obedience Utility dog and our first search-and-rescue dog.
Say No to Whoa
My ideal Golden Retriever remains that handsome, multi-talented sporting dog that embodies athleticism, intelligence, eagerness, and biddability. Words like “calm” do not occur in the Golden Retriever standard. As a result, I do not think they are the perfect pet.
On Her Merits
The basic standards of the AKC’s Breeder of Merit program replicated the standards we’ve used for our breeding program since the outset. More interesting to me was to honor our owners by applying for the upper-level titles of Gold and Platinum. We breed specifically for handsome, working Golden Retrievers, so the majority of our dogs thrive on training and competition. Most of them love to compete in more than one venture, and many of our owners willingly tackle all kinds of activities. Striving to reach the highest level of any dog sport as an amateur, often a novice, is an accomplishment in itself. As a result of their efforts, we became Gold Breeders of Merit and hopefully soon will reach the Platinum level.
We undoubtedly have the most amazing owners I could imagine. Gaylan’s teams, from novice to champion, have earned us three consecutive AKC Breeder of the Year awards – in Rally, then agility, and most recently tracking. Although our name is on the awards, they belong to every Gaylan’s owner.
Stay a While
The foundation of every decision we make is longevity; we simply do not accept that Golden Retrievers should live only 10 years. We use four tools as we seek longevity: bitch lines with longevity, older sires, high genetic diversity, and outcrosses.
After longevity, we cannot and do not prioritize our remaining goals, as each is equally important to us. In every litter, we seek to produce good-tempered, nice-looking, excellent working Goldens with lifetime soundness and health.
Recently, I’ve been purchasing frozen semen from older dogs who lived long and healthy lives and did not suffer from the many ailments facing Goldens. I have a lot of information on these dogs, their puppies, and descendants, so I can make breeding decisions with more complete information than I can with a younger dog.
Our goal is to be the breeder that we always wanted in our lives. We try to offer support throughout their dog’s life, from puppy pick-up to saying goodbye. I also have a tremendous commitment to the dogs we have produced. Their happiness is as important to me, and possibly a bit more, as their owner’s.
Our rearing program focuses on making each puppy as healthy and mentally stable as possible. Then we put a tremendous amount of time and energy into evaluating our puppies and matching them to the right owner. From my experience, a good match not only results in satisfied owners but healthier, happier, longer-lived dogs as well.
We offer what I think is a very generous warranty on all of our puppies. We cover inherited hip, elbow, heart and eye diseases for life, and cancer and epilepsy until six years of age. Naturally, we’ll take a Gaylan’s dog back at any time in their life if the owner cannot keep it.
We have an active private Facebook community, where we cheer each other on, offer support when problems arise, and cry with each other when one of the dogs passes.
We are at a great time in terms of research into canine cognition and development. For many years, there was no funding available, but through the efforts of researchers like the Coppingers, James Serpell, Brian Hare and more, we have a growing body of research available to help us tweak our puppy rearing.
Today, I have the honor of teaching this research and how we can use it through Avidog University. There, I get to work with breeders from around the world and in all breeds to test and evaluate what we can do to keep making our puppies better and better.
Over the last ten years, many breeders have focused on broadly developing their puppies. I’m thrilled to see Adventure Boxes and stimulating puppy pens in breeders’ homes around the world. But many breeders think more socialization is better without considering the stage of development the pup is in or the possible downsides of those experiences. Breeders need to intimately understand the stages of canine development so they can tailor their socialization plan to their pups’ age.
Peace of mind
Many breeders still fear diseases, especially parvo, so much that they isolate their puppies in an attempt to keep them safe. Early isolation can have long-term, even lifetime, detrimental effects on pups. We are lucky to have an inexpensive tool called a vaccine nomograph that can help us keep our puppies safe while we give them beneficial socialization experiences from a very early age. Nomographs are available to all breeders through the CAVIDS lab at the University of Wisconsin.
According to the standard, Goldens should be intelligent, eager, alert, and self-confident dogs with an innate friendliness. They can also be highly intuitive creatures that know what people need and are often willing to give it.
Through much of my time in dogs, I did pet-assisted therapy at Veteran’s Administration hospitals. Most of my dogs enjoyed therapy work until I tried it with 6-year-old Sparky, a search-and-rescue and hunting dog. Rather than focusing on the patients, she went from window to window to watch the squirrels outside.
My team leader suggested I go to a nearby juvenile detention center, which wanted to establish a therapy-dog program. When I arrived at that intimidating facility with lots of fences and wire, I nearly turned around and headed home. The director took us out to the basketball court, where the young men were clustered in unfriendly looking groups.
I wasn’t sure what to do, but my therapy-dog dropout had it figured out. She grabbed her tennis ball, dropped it in front of one very large teenager, and backed up. He kicked the ball away in disgust. She tore after it with glee and dropped it back in front of him. He kicked again, trying to get rid of her, and she flew after the ball.
Within minutes, all the boys had gathered around, and she spent the next hour playing a joyful game of fetch with them. We became a regular fixture at the detention facility, and although I never felt completely comfortable, Sparky had a tremendously beneficial impact on many of the young men there. Her intuition, self-confidence, and energy proved to be a gateway to reach them.