April 24, 2023
The American Kennel Club (AKC) recently announced a shift that sent shockwaves through the dog community; after 31 straight years of being the most popular dog breed in the United States, the Labrador retriever was replaced by 20 pounds of French Bulldog. Frenchies don’t strike me as the dog to swim against the 1.5 knot current in 38-degree water to fetch a winged Canada goose. I’ve been wrong about lots of things before, but in this case, I’ll double down on the Lab.
It’s easy to see why Labs have been—and still are—so popular. They’re intelligent, adaptable, biddable, and willing to please. They come in different sizes and several colors so everyone can be happy. Labs are great for both upland and waterfowl hunting, and for field trial and hunt test programs. If you want to throw a ball, then a Lab is your buddy. He’ll wear your arm out before he calls it quits.
Origins of Gamekeeper Kennels
Developed in the United Kingdom between the 1500’s and the 1600’s, the Labrador retriever breed quickly became the fisherman’s friend. If a cod fell off of an angler’s hook, the dogs jumped overboard and fetched up the catch. Admiralty Records of the British Navy show that 250 British vessels fished off Newfoundland in 1605, and it’s likely that quite a number of these dogs accompanied that fleet. How a British dog that arrived in Newfoundland got a handle from the country of Labrador is anyone’s guess.
Another British Invasion. If the Beatles and Rolling Stones were part of the first British Invasion, then the introduction of British gun dogs like Labs and cockers might be the next. One of the British Lab breeders is Bill Gibson, the Director of Gun Dog Operations at Mossy Oak’s Gamekeeper Kennels in West Point, Mississippi. The lifelong Lab breeder, trainer, waterfowler, and upland bird hunter wasn’t looking to launch a new kennel during his retirement, “but here we are,” Gibson said. “And in a way, dogs have caused my life to come full circle. You see, I was born and raised here in West Point, trained my first Lab in the early 1960s, and then had to leave to serve in the United States Navy. Following my discharge, I spent 23 years as a Federal employee, with most of my time serving as a Special Agent in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, DC. As my career was winding down, I took a job as the Assistant Police Chief in Tupelo, which mostly people know as Elvis Presley’s birthplace. Around that time, I met Mike Stewart who ran campus security at Ole Miss University. We became friends, and I helped him after he bought Wildrose Kennels.
Mossy Oak Gamekeeper Kennels
Gamekeeper Kennels fell into place when Gibson moved back to West Point. “My final career in law enforcement was running my hometown’s police department,” he said. “I figured I’d wind down my career where I grew up and then ease into retirement by breeding and training Labs.”
Gibson has been a fan of British Labs for a long time, now and he appreciates their slightly smaller size. He also adds that as a sporting breed, they’re very focused, hardworking, and intense when they’re at work. When they’re not at work they are calm and relaxed and a pleasure to be around.
Gibson bought a house and some land in West Point and set about creating his retirement kennel. He wanted to create a boutique breeding program and not become a puppy mill or a high-volume training operation. “My cornerstones were impeccable breeding of the highest quality performance field trial lines and focused training,” he said. “I got to work with my many contacts in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and arrived at fountainhead dogs to launch my program. It was an exciting time for me.”
The Puppy That Changed It All
Gibson’s neighbor liked dogs and he’d swing by on occasion to watch a training session or two and see how certain dogs were progressing in their training. But then, everything changed. Gibson had a litter on the ground back in 2013. “They were all several weeks old, just knocking around a bit,” he said. “As it turned out, one pup kept running up to my neighbor. He’d sniff him, wag his tail, and look up at him. The pup kept it up for about an hour or so, and my neighbor just laughed and gave in. He bought the pup to add to his string of upland and waterfowl dogs. Most folks know my neighbor, Toxey Haas. He’s the founder and owner of Mossy Oak.”
Retirement would elude Gibson once again, and in 2015, he and Haas launched Gamekeeper Kennels. “It’s common knowledge that Toxey loves to hunt,” Gibson said. “He’s a dog man, too. He loves waterfowling, he’s passionate about our British Labs, and he demands quality. That has made launching the kennel a whole lot of fun.”
To achieve high quality standards, Gamekeeper Kennels only breeds to proven, tested champions. Gibson shared that every sire and dam has a verified pedigree that is full of The Kennel Club field trial champions. They only whelp 8 or maybe 9 litters per year, and never above that. Initially, every dog is health checked and genetically tested to ensure they’re clear of three main issues.
The first test is for Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) which checks to determine if a pup will experience a loss of vision as an adult. The second test, Centronuclear myopathy (CNM), ensures that pups won’t exhibit stunted growth, weakness, or muscle atrophy later on as an adult. The third test is Exercise Induced Collapse (EIC). This is a fitness test to show that dogs are capable of running and training regularly and at elevated athletic levels without issue. Every pup has to pass all three tests initially and an additional seven tests later on in order to earn a Mossy Oak registration.
Primed to Perform
For training, Gibson favors a low-force method. “Low-force training is a reward-based system that is the same as positive training,” he said. “Because the genetics in our dogs are so strong, we favor more natural training techniques. We don’t do any type of compulsion training and don’t use e-collars or anything like that. Good breeding produces dogs that listen, learn, and are ready for any challenge.”
There are four progressive levels in his training program. The first level focuses on basic obedience. In one month, Gibson trains puppies to heel on a lead, sit on a whistle, stay on command, and recall. Puppies can make single retrieves on land and in the water and are steady until sent. They’re introduced to gunfire and deliver to hand. The second level takes up to three months. Puppies walk off lead, sit and stay for longer time frames, and are whistle trained for recall. They’ll be introduced to blind retrieves and double marks at short, 50-yard distances. Level three increases time and distances, and pups also learn basic hand signals. Lastly, all marks, trailing memories, and blind retrieves are run at over 100-yard distances, and all other commands are reinforced. At the end of the Gamekeeper Kennels’ training program Gibson and his crew will deliver a finished hunting dog to their owners.
With their own dogs and puppies, Gamekeepers Kennels typically has around two dozen of their own British Labs in training. They may take in another 15 or so customer pups or older dogs, but they always focus on quality instead of quantity. Training grounds include two tree lines and a big pond. Seasonal burning and planting with a variety of natural grasses also adds diversity to hold their attention, according to Gibson.
It's warm all year ‘round in Mississippi, but in the summer it’s really hot. Every day, Gibson is out sweating though drills and training exercises and building ‘a hunter’s best friend for life.’
“I’ve had a lot of different experiences in my life, but Gamekeeper Kennels is tough to beat. Tyler Cofield has joined us as a training assistant. He’s 31-years old, and with him we’ve got one eye on the present and the other one on the future. Building a business with Toxey and the dogs has been really rewarding. We get a lot of positive and complimentary notes from our customers. Each one is special because it means that we’ve done something really right.”
For More Information:
Visit Gamekeeper Kennels at 6015 Highway 45 Alt South in West Point, Mississippi.
Kennel Master Bill Gibson can be reached at 662-617-4769 at Training Assistant Tyler Cofield is at 727-313-4647.
Check out Gamekeeper Kennels online at https://www.mossyoak.com/brands/gamekeeper-kennels