Let me give you an idea of how well I understand dogs. I am a cat lover. I like a pet that is good company and at times amusing, but generally needs little attention. In fact I know so little about dogs that I chose to wear a dark dress and high heels to visit Serena. Jeremy, the photographer and a ‘dad’ to the canine grandchild of one of our enthusiastic hosts, is laughing because my dress is now a furry shade of yellow. I have a dog with his front legs wrapped around my neck and eleven of his friends trying to get acquainted too. As welcomes go, I have never had a friendlier one.
Serena is the antithesis of her dogs. She is quiet, graceful and measured in her actions. Originally from Florence in Italy she spent most of her early life travelling. She met her husband in Brazil. She sailed a boat around the world for 9 years (with no dog, just a cat) and after living everywhere from the UK to Tenerife she settled in Spain.
Some of Serena’s dogs have been national champions for Portugal, Gibraltar and have won Crufts in their category on more than one occasion. So how did she get into the world of show dogs and dog breeding? ‘I have always loved Golden Retrievers. How could you not?’ she tells me, looking down at twelve of them asleep on her kitchen floor. ‘But while living in Tenerife I couldn’t find a local breeder. I wanted one that had a clean history and wouldn’t have any health problems down the line. In the end I had to get my dog from the UK, and that’s why when we settled on the Costa del Sol in 1997 I decided that I would fill that gap in the market.’
Along with her husband they built their beautiful home on land they bought and have since raised generation after generation of award-winning dogs.
I’m reticent to reveal my utter ignorance when it comes to man’s best friend, but I ask her anyway – What’s the difference between a Labrador and a Golden Retriever? ‘Well Golden Retrievers come from the same family as their cousins, but have longer curlier hair and only come in one colour.’ You guessed it, gold – although this can range any shade of gold or cream,neither red nor mahogany
‘Golden Retrievers are more laid back than the energetic Labrador,’ she explains. ‘They were originally bred to stand patiently beside hunters and wait until they had to retrieve the prey. In theory they should be calm around loud noises and enjoy splashing about in the water.’
As a person who has never had the pleasure of owning a dog (my two children are hard enough work, but at least I no longer have to pick up their pooh), I ask why she has customers on waiting lists around the world for one of her dogs, when there are so many puppies out there needing a good home.
‘My clients understand the importance of a thoroughbred. This breed of dog, when inbred, is prone to hip displacement and eye problems. When they are bred incorrectly they can also display uncharacteristically aggressive behaviour, which you don’t get with thoroughbreds.’
While Serena talks, one of her dogs stands obediently as she shows me his straight back, clean ears and symmetrical head. ‘It may cost more to get a properly bred dog, but when you know they will remain happy and healthy all their life it will save you a lot in vet’s bills and worry. We are so thorough we even take swabs of their gums to check by the DNA if they are carriers of eyes disease before they are used for breeding, and make sure we use the bitches that have a normal number of puppies, seven or eight. Not too many and not too little.’
Serena shows me around her home and it’s clear that as much as the dogs are loved, fussed over and part of the family – they have their own areas and the ‘grown ups’ have theirs. In fact I am amazed by how clean and fur-free her beautiful home is. We walk to the bottom of the garden, past an aviary of birds (which has had recent issues with local snakes trying to move in), to a building that houses the puppies. Dogs, when in packs, tend to go into season together so sometimes the kennels can house two litters at once. Needless to say I’m sorely disappointed there’s none in there today.
Inside there is a grooming salon and everything the little ones need for a perfect start in life…they even have their own CD player where they are played classical music! When it’s time for Serena’s clients to choose their pup they are heavily vetted, in fact it’s Serena who chooses the right puppy for them after a strict interview and an agonising wait. And they are urged, should circumstances change and they can no longer look after their dog, to bring it back. Serena’s dogs will never be strays. Each dog gets its own pet passports, chip and vaccine before travelling to its new home with its adopted parents.
She explains all of this to me as she plays catch with ten of the dogs. The youngest, a six month old that got to stay with her, is staring on forlornly from the confines of the kennel. He is too young to join in as excessive exercise is bad for their hips in the first year. The eldest dog sits under the tree too looking on at the others frantically chasing the ball.
‘You want to see something really fun?’ she asks, as the sun begins to set, casting a golden glow over her garden. We head for her swimming pool and it’s a battle to keep the dogs behind the garden fence until we are ready. They know what’s coming and they can’t wait. This is more than can be said for the poor stray cat asleep on the garden table, who upon seeing them all charge through the gate races up a tree with a yelp. But they aren’t interested in cats, they only have eyes for the pool and throw themselves into the water with pure abandonment. It’s a joy to watch, and hilarious, in fact it’s nearly enough to make you want to have your own twelve-strong pack of dogs to play with every day.
We bid Serena farewell and walk out the large gates to the car. There’s a tiny sausage dog next door going crazy, yapping and throwing himself at the metal fence at us. But there’s no fuss from our new furry friends watching us behind the gate…they are far too chilled and well bred for such behaviour!
Please check out the Slideshow above and Serena’s beautiful website.