It all started for Kathy Whipple in the early 1990s. She bought her first golden retriever, named Cosmo, and from there, it’s all multiplied.
Walking up to Tamarack Goldens at Whipple’s Eagle home, it’s not unusual to see as many as six pups lounging in the front yard. The dogs all resemble one another, but it’s possible to tell them apart: Joy, the current matriarch, sports more gray on her muzzle and around her brown eyes. Five-year-old Butter is transfixed by a tennis ball. Rico, the only male, is built a bit sturdier than the rest, with a thick mane of fur and a big head. Groovy’s coat looks just a hint more red in the sun. Fuzz and Jelly, the youngest of the pack at 3 years and 19 months old, respectively, are traveling to dog shows across the country, like they do every week.
They’re all related, offspring (or grandpups) of 11-year-old Joy, who is content to lay in the sun on Whipple’s back deck while the younger dogs tussle for tennis balls. The dogs even resemble Whipple a bit. Like them, she’s blonde and athletic, with a warm personality.
Unlike her goldens, though, Whipple’s no fan of the spotlight. But she’s become one of the more well-known names in golden retriever circles thanks to her dogs’ showing success, capped off by recent accolades at last week’s Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York City.
Westminster is the Preakness of dog shows, one of the biggest shows in the country that draws the cream of the crop from each of more than 200 breeds. Dogs can only compete at Westminster if they’ve already been named a champion at another American Kennel Club show. The show ranks right up there with the National Dog Show and the Eukanuba.
The entrants are judged not against each other, but against their breed’s standard — a set of rules and specifications that spell out what the ideal dog should look like. Judges narrow the competition in each breed, picking a best of breed that advances to the next level of competition, the group (hound, toy, sporting, non-sporting, herding, working and terrier). Dogs win first through fourth place in their group, and the group winners then compete for best in show.
Young Fuzz took home an award of merit for best bitch — not an easy task in a pool of 11 female dogs and more than 60 breed entrants. What’s more, Fuzz wasn’t the only dog from Whipple’s kennel to earn a Westminster nod.
Mystic, one of Fuzz’s littermates, competed and didn’t receive an award. Both are Groovy’s puppies from a 2013 litter, and two dogs from Groovy’s 2014 litter were also at Westminster. Gideon did not receive an award, but Elphie, owned by a couple in Houston, took best of breed for golden retrievers and went on to place third in the sporting group.
Whipple said Elphie’s win is notable. Males dogs are much more likely to win than females. A golden retriever has never taken best in show in Westminster’s 140 years.
“Most of the time, we’re happy for the winner,” Whipple said. “But of course, we want to win.”
Whipple doesn’t handle the dogs in the show ring. She said she hires the best handlers for that. Instead, she gets to stay behind the scenes.
“I usually am the biggest cheerleader,” she said with a laugh.
Her favorite show moment came in 2011, when Groovy (who has competed at Westminster three times, earning her own award of merit) won the top spot at the Golden Retriever Club of America show, essentially naming her the best golden around.
Show dogs give off an air of dignity in the ring, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t pets when the fancy collars come off. All six of Whipple’s dogs are grand champions, but these days, most of them are retired.
“They sit on the couch just like everybody else’s dogs,” she said.
Whipple said each day the dogs get a chance to just be retrievers. Her pack goes for daily hikes in the Foothills when weather permits, otherwise they’re fond of swimming and running the agility equipment Whipple keeps in her front yard. It’s the perfect life for a retriever.
The golden gaggle are showstoppers even outside the ring. Whipple said people always stop her to ask questions about the canines.
“ ‘Are these all yours? Are they all related?’ I need to wear a T-shirt with the answers to those questions.”
People love to learn that the dogs are family, Whipple said, though they always peg Rico as the other pups’ dad.
Of course, Rico does have his own pups — they all do. Rico, Groovy and Butter are from three of Joy’s litters. Fuzz is Groovy’s daughter, and Jelly is Butter’s daughter. Whipple said she plans to breed Fuzz this summer — she doesn’t like to produce litters unless she plans on keeping a puppy herself.
Whipple said you can tell a lot about how a dog will do in the show ring, even when they’re still small. She looks for a balanced puppy with that goofy golden retriever demeanor, though after 20 years, she said a lot of her success has been thanks to lucky choices.
As a breeder, it’s not as simple as pairing up just any dogs. Ensuring that puppies meet breed standards means balancing out “faults,” or undesirable traits, and carrying on that friendly golden temperament, all while steering clear of health issues.
“Unfortunately, the more popular a breed is, the more problems they have,” said Whipple, who tests her dogs’ hips, elbows, hearts and eyes for any abnormalities or potential problems.
Breeding is “not for faint of heart,” Whipple said. And it’s not cheap. Though puppies can go for $1,500 or more, the breeder said she’s not getting rich off of golden retrievers. Along with the cost of health testing, food, grooming and more, Whipple has shelled out money on more unusual expenditures like importing semen from Canada for the perfect pooch matchup.
So what’s her advice for anyone looking to add the perfect canine companion to their family? Do your research. Whipple said breed clubs are often a great place to start looking for breeder recommendations, and those organizations can offer pointers on what to look for in a competent breeder.
According to Whipple, there is no such thing as a perfect dog, at least in the show ring. But one thing is clear: Tamarack golden retrievers are very, very good dogs.