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Kayla Kozak | Kei-Rin American Water Spaniels & English Setters

Kayla Kozak

Interview with Kayla Kozak, Breeder of Kei-Rin American Water Spaniels & English Setters

  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you live? How many years in dogs? How many years as a breeder? What is your kennel name?
  2. What is your “process” for selecting show puppies? Performance puppies?
  3. In your opinion, is your breed in good condition overall? Any trends that warrant concern?
  4. As a Preservation Breeder, can you share your thoughts on the sport today? How’s the judging these days? What do you think about the number of shows?
  5. In your opinion, is social media good for the sport? Is it harmful?
  6. What are the biggest challenges facing the dog show community as a whole today and how can these be addressed?
  7. What are some of the positive changes you’ve seen in the sport over the past decade?

1. My mother, Pam, and I breed American Water Spaniels and English Setters under the kennel name Kei-Rin in Northern Wisconsin. The AWS were bred by my grandparents and great-grandparents, since the 1930s, and when my mom married my dad and wanted to start breeding and showing dogs that could also hunt grouse, they were the obvious choice. Setters came into the picture years later when I wanted a flashy breed for Junior Showmanship. So, my journey in dogs began as a toddler in the whelping box, “helping” my mom with litters from an early age. Before I was five, my mom let me start taking dogs in the show ring. My breeding program has been inherited from my mother and we continue to work together to this day on all decisions.

2. I’ve always tried to avoid picking puppies before eight weeks; however, as the years of experience accumulate you realize you can start making informed decisions many weeks earlier. There is something to be said for the personality dynamics of a litter—there will always be standouts and wallflowers. But we have also seen wallflowers turn into Best in Show winners once they leave the nest, so we try to keep an open mind. We stack pups as early as five weeks and watch them move and interact with us and their littermates from the second they start crawling around. Does someone have a lot of drive for the bird wing? Is someone extra keen on getting our attention? And is someone too stubborn or dominant for a first-time home, etc.? These are all questions we are constantly asking so that we can match a show home with the best structure and the performance home with the best drive. We have never used a formal process, just a lot of observing!

3. Focusing on the American Water Spaniel, breeders of the 1980s and ‘90s worked tirelessly to improve temperaments and health, and we have made great strides in improving the breed. However, we’ve watched the breed get bigger and leggier over the past 20 years, which is a concern of mine. I do not want to see my breed morph to be competitive against larger retrievers in field events. These are dogs that should fit in your canoe or kayak and be able to get through thick underbrush with ease. Some of my best hunting dogs were petite bitches, so the theory that bigger is better is simply misplaced. Twenty years ago, we never saw a yellow eye, and now this disqualification is showing up much more frequently. Unfortunately for us breeders who are working hard to preserve our breed type, we simply do not have many active breeders and even fewer who are in pursuit of correct conformation. When it comes to the Setters, I might be tougher on them because of the larger gene pool. We did a great job of improving fronts but then lost our rears. Movement seems to be all over the board as well. I am not worried about any trends, per se, but I think, as a whole, we can do better as breeders if we focus on finding the right stud for our bitch instead of defaulting to the popular stud of the moment.

4. As a breeder, I know I cannot enter every dog every weekend. I have to be strategic about when I start a dog or I would go broke. Naturally, this means there are more dogs in the breeding pool than seen at shows, but if our only avenue to see these potential stud dogs is at shows, and the majority of us cannot afford to campaign every dog we have, it gets harder and harder to find the right stud dog for my bitch. Thank goodness for social media in this regard! Of course, we’ve seen entries drop as the number of shows skyrocketed. I remember watching Open Classes that were 20-plus deep in Setters in the ‘90s, and now every major takes a concerted effort to build. We’ve always had to work together to make majors in AWS, so allowing championship points for all Group placements should be beneficial for these rare breeds. But as much as we all harp on the number of shows every weekend, the smaller shows sometimes make it easier to win at a higher level, so I won’t complain too much! Competing in the Sporting Group in the Midwest is always challenging because the quality is so deep, so having a lot of shows to attend can make it more fun for the hobbyist looking to win their first Best in Show. As someone who has been showing for well over 30 years, I am always amazed by how many judges I do not know on any given panel. But new is not always bad, and I’ve seen firsthand the dedication many judges give to learning the breeds they are responsible for. I don’t think the judging is any better or worse than it has always been—at the end of the days these are just human beings we are seeking an opinion from.

5. It is nice to be able to connect with judges and handlers as our peers, which was not always possible before social media. Whether its sharing a relatable travel disaster, finding a stud dog, posting an ad for kennel help wanted, or learning a new stripping technique, I would say social media has provided more benefit to our community than harm.

6. It’s not just the dog show community facing this challenge, but we must find ways to transition from the old guard to the new. I am active in several clubs, and I am purposefully inactive in several others, and what I see consistently is resistance from the older generation to work with the new generation. Fear of change is always the culprit, in my experience. This often comes from a good place—wanting to ensure the success for generations to come. But what I hear time and time again from people around my same age is that they refuse to get “sucked into the drama,” so they sit on the sidelines. Community involvement is dwindling in many areas of society beyond dog shows, but that doesn’t give us a free pass. Maybe we need to incentivize clubs to encourage the younger generation to take on roles—our own version of the YP40 groups we see in Corporate America. (Young Professionals Under 40, for those of you blessed to not be involved in the corporate world.) Another obvious challenge to the sport is local regulations against breeders. Very few breeders are in a position to keep multiple offspring from litters to ensure they chose the right one to carry on, sometimes because of financial restrictions but also sometimes because of dog limits. Breeders are the backbone of the sport.

7. I think the NOHS has given owner-handlers a platform to shine and a reason to seek improvement and growth. Love it or hate it, I think it’s been a net-positive. I have seen a lot more success in rare breeds in the Group rings; the recognition from judges at that level only helps to encourage participation. Thanks to social media, our sport has been able to rally around victims and support one another more than ever before. There is also, finally, awareness around predatory behavior that has plagued the sport for decades.