Man's Best Friend: Turning Hunting Dogs into Lifelong Companions
Words by Charlotte Brakmann
The first time Michael Barnes noticed a Boykin Spaniel was not in the swamps of Mississippi or in South Carolina running retrieval drills with a duck clamped between its jaws – the natural habitat for this breed of hunting dogs – but on Toomer’s Corner in downtown Auburn, Alabama.
It was the spaniel’s honest and dark brown eyes and energetic demeanor during this chance encounter that attracted Michael to the mid-sized dog and would launch his unexpected career as a dog breeder.
Michael was not a hunter. He was a college student recovering from heartbreak after his junior year. He knew that a dog would be a healthy distraction, and he immediately started researching what kind of dog should be his because unlike many dog-lovers, he didn’t grow up with a furry companion.
While looking to buy his dog, Waylon, Michael noticed how oftentimes Boykin breeders were snooty and unwelcoming to people who were simply looking for a good pet rather than a hunting dog. Four years later, Michael started Valley Way Kennels and is breeding Boykin Spaniels that are first and foremost companions to their owners, just like Waylon is for him.
Valley Way is a full-service Boykin Spaniel breeder and training facility, training the dogs to adapt to sporting lifestyles from Waterfowling to Upland Hunting, but most of all to be a family dog. Michael is known for his commitment to being more than simply an excellent breeder. The Valley Way Experience goes beyond their “puppy pick-up day” and carries with the owners into their day to day life as they train their companions. It is an experience that once you buy into it, you never want to leave.
The “Puppy Pick-up Day” is an event that establishes and fosters the family atmosphere that Michael continues throughout the dog and owners lives together. Michael’s father, who owns a Barbeque joint in Huntsville, caters lunch for the families. In addition, a photographer is on site to take pictures of the families for those first moments when they pick out their puppies. With excitement brimming on each owner’s face, the connection between the dog and family is captured and becomes solidified as the day goes on and they bond with their owners.
William Detwiler is a proud owner of the first pick in a recent litter at Valley Way. He drove from Charleston, South Carolina, where Boykin Spaniels are the state dog, to retrieve his best friend, Huck. William is in a group message with all of the other families that have dogs from the litter, and they share pictures and training tips every day.
“Picking up Huck from Valley Way is the most memorable and fun day of my life,” William said.
The beauty of Boykin Spaniels is that they are equal parts performance and companion dogs. During the day, they may pick up a hundred birds while hunting, but they will share their pillow with you at night. Their ability to adapt themselves to home life as well as the hunt is something that is drawing more and more families to the Boykin Spaniel.
“This is a ride that I never could have envisioned for myself, but it is an unexplainable joy to not only do something I love but to get to share it with others and pass along incredible companions to others as well,” Michael said.
Michael’s passion was born out of his own desire to have something meaningful in his life and has produced not only an endeavor that he never expected but also a means to share his love for this breed and their ability to bring help and joy from deer blinds to the family room. His journey to breeding Boykin Spaniels is just as unexpected as the dogs themselves. Just as Boykins can endure the elements and adapt to all environments and activities, this business in breeding has been as adventurous and fun as it has been enriching.
“There are definitely more downs than ups when it comes to dog training. I have thrown my hat on the ground out of frustration more times than I can count but it’s about getting in the dogs head and understanding how each dog views a situation in their eyes and figure out how to use their natural drive to achieve a task that is not natural.” Michael explained. “The first time you see a dog figure it out is what keeps me picking my hat off the ground.”