Her name was Maggie, the first golden retriever that Marissa Hendrix had and the one she lovingly describes as having "doomed" her to this life.
Hendrix is founder and president of the Natural State Golden Retriever Club, where she uses her expertise breeding and showing golden retrievers to educate people about the particular needs and care of this breed -- no matter what role they hope or imagine the dog will take on.
"They're versatile," Hendrix says while petting her golden retriever Raye as she talks. "They can be service or therapy dogs, family companions, hunting companions. Originally, they were bred to be a gentleman's hunting dog, a companion who could do work in the field. Now they've kind of molded into life as companions and friends alike."
Natural State Golden Retriever Club is a nonprofit organization that formed in May 2021 and is the first club of its kind in Arkansas. While it has an office at the Center for Nonprofits in Rogers for workshops and meetings, it serves the entire state and some surrounding areas. In October, it will be fully licensed with the American Kennel Club, then it will be eligible to apply for full approval and recognition through the Golden Retriever Club of America. To meet its final requirement, the club plans to host an A match at the Hot Springs dog show. An A match is an AKC conformation dog show that is mostly for practice for the dogs and exhibitors since winners are not awarded any AKC points toward a title.
Hendrix says its members plan to host the first golden retriever Specialty for the state in 2023.
"Her goal for the club is to be totally inclusive," says Betsy Reithemeyer, who turned to Hendrix to be matched with a few golden retrievers and found a good friend. "She shows and breeds and has the highest standards you can have with breeders to associate with. The support group she's built is wonderful; it's for the health and well being of the breed and to support families loving those dogs."
Reithemeyer appreciates the collegiality of the group, saying that it's welcoming to people like she and her husband, who have no intention of breeding or showing their dogs, but keep them as cherished pets and companions.
"The people are open and welcoming and supportive," she says. "It's a group that I've so loved getting to know that really celebrates each other's victories."
The reputation of Hendrix's golden retrievers preceded her, too. At a Dallas Specialty Show in March 2021, Dr. Christopher Johnson and wife Melissa were excited to meet her because they had seen some of her golden retrievers in Northwest Arkansas.
"We were immediately struck by Marissa's passion for the breed, her warmth and her enthusiasm," Chris Johnson says. "We enjoyed that visit so much that we said, 'We wish we had a Golden Retriever Club in Arkansas.'"
Hendrix told them on the spot that she wanted the same thing too and thought it was entirely possible.
"It seemed like an enormous challenge to us ... but Marissa knew the people to contact to get started," he says.
Within less than two months, she had contacted the American Kennel Club, Golden Retriever Club of America, drafted the initial bylaws, and then circled back around to the Johnsons, saying they were ready to have their first organizational meeting. It would double as the club's first fun match to meet AKC requirements for an official club.
"She was dynamic, charismatic and brought a diverse group of people together that day, inspiring all of us to work to serve the breed of dogs we love," Johnson says. "It was clear from her leadership skills at the match and meeting that we had a president."
Hendrix's ability to unite them in a shared love of golden retrievers was what bound them all together.
"Marissa's newly founded club will benefit all by promoting responsible ownership for the breed by making sure everyone is concentrating on improving quality within the breed and not just quantity," Russellville veterinarians Drs. Dale and Jeana Kaufman say by email. "She's a very good client who takes responsibility to help build knowledge and educate people on the value of golden retrievers."
That extends beyond educating the public to providing even the Kaufmans with new information and connections. They say she's always quick to update them on conditions specific to golden retrievers and match them with professionals who are working to identify or avoid certain genetic problems with the breed.
"Marissa's and our goals are simple," the Kaufmans' email says. "Put a healthy puppy in a healthy family and watch the relationship grow."
Hendrix hopes that going forward the club will be able to establish a golden retriever rescue agency, since anyone interested in finding their dog that way has to travel to Oklahoma, Missouri or Tennessee.
A ROCKY START
Hendrix didn't know from the beginning that she would breed golden retrievers. At first she dreamed of the perfect horse. While studying biochemistry at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville she worked three part-time jobs to finance her self-described horse obsession, as a certified nursing assistant at Butterfield Trail Village, a lifeguard who gave swimming lessons and a waitress at Marketplace Grill. She was still an undergraduate student when she decided to import a Friesian horse and took out a loan for the purchase.
"Tjiskie was a breathtaking horse," she says. "She was a dream horse. I decided that I wanted to try an embryo transfer out of her and have another Belgium horse carry her foal."
But once the foal was born, it died within 24 hours while Hendrix was sleeping nearby in the barn. She was crushed, but there were no obvious reasons that it happened. The rest of the samples from the project were unusable by that point, and she was out of funding.
She tried to focus on enjoying her dream horse, but her mind kept going back to her growing up years with her family dog, Maggie. Marissa could do anything with that dog. At first that meant playing make-believe together, in which Maggie was a pretend horse that young Marissa would train to go in circles.
"They're just your friend," Hendrix says. "You snuggle them and have that ability to make all those things better. They're gifted in that way."
While still a college student, Hendrix flew out to California, got her first golden retriever of her own and brought her back as a carry-on. Before she knew much about the process, Marissa asked to use a breeder's male golden retriever so she could keep a puppy from the resulting litter. She asked about the male's health clearances, which the breeder said were great, so Hendrix didn't verify for herself.
When the 13 puppies were born, the dog was unable to nurse them, so Marissa bottle fed them every two hours, all morning and all night and in between her college courses. They all survived, but Hendrix was exhausted.
Later, she would learn through the American Kennel Club that the male used to create that first litter wasn't up to standard on health clearances. Again, Hendrix felt dejected. She spayed the puppy that she had kept. It ended her hope to have pedigree from her first dog, but she believed it was for the best.
Hendrix found another female golden retriever with a pedigree she liked and started over, putting a deposit on a litter. But when the puppies were born, the breeder said she lost her reservation and had sold her puppy to someone else by mistake. Rather than go through that heart wrenching process again, Hendrix traced the pedigree to the source, someone with a dog in a different country. She used a translator program to communicate with the breeder, who then agreed to sell her a golden retriever.
At the same time someone offered to buy Tjiskie, her Friesian horse, and now she needed the money to import her new dog. She cried as she made the decision, then wired the money and held her breath.
As a result, Nikki (Yudita) became Marissa's foundation golden retriever -- she's now three generations from her initial pedigree. Her breeder had done all the right health screenings and because of that, she would have a very healthy line of dogs.
A HOUSE FULL OF DOGS
Hendrix, her husband and daughter Emma currently care for several dogs, a daily task that she describes as similar to taking care of a pack of toddlers. She gets up as soon as the first animal (or her daughter) wakes, and she goes to sleep after the last one closes its eyes. They all live on 20 acres in the Russellville area, where the dogs have plenty of fun running around. Their family is in the process of building a kennel, where they hope to have workshops and grooming seminars for the club one day. They also recently built a technical pond, where they will be able to train dogs to retrieve in water. Dock diving, swimming, field work and other retrievals all play into the dogs' natural instincts, Hendrix says.
Being a breeder and now community educator is a big responsibility on top of the physical one. When Golden puppies are born, she and her husband sleep next to the box for the first two weeks, since their needs are so great early on. They play storm sounds to desensitize them, walk them through programs to become more adaptable and confident and perform temperament testing.
"We interview each family" who is looking to add a golden retriever to their lives, Hendrix says. Each one signs a seven page contract stating that they will spay or neuter at a certain age, they'll make the dog an inside companion and should anything happen, they'll return the dog to her.
"We're here for the lifetime of their dogs," she says. "This person is someone I'm going to be in contact with for the next decade plus. It's a huge commitment, taking on all those stages ... A lot can happen, but we're there for everything."
Marissa and her family often miss Christmas celebrations, birthdays, weddings and other life events because the dogs come first, and they take the weight of that responsibility very seriously. Daughter Emma learned to walk by pulling up on the back of a golden retriever around the house, and now at 7 years old, she knows how to do much of the care involved, even teaching puppies to swim.
"We received a huge surprise when I got pregnant with Emma; she is the gift of a lifetime," Hendrix says. "I'm so proud of her heart and the person she's becoming. She's officially the best puppy snuggler here."
IF YOU NEED ME, CALL ME
People who get golden retrievers from their family contact Hendrix for all manner of things, from the simple questions of what flea and tick preventive to use, to the more complex things like how to treat their yards now since they have a cancer-prone dog.
Reithemeyer says you can instantly sense Hendrix's passion and love for the breed, that's what makes it so easy to turn to her with questions, knowing they will be met with genuine interest and care.
"She's so open ... she knows each puppy, each personality and works hard to match the puppy with the family," Reithemeyer says. The first phone call that they had was nearly an hour long and now she knows Hendrix is always a phone call or text away, even for the weird stuff. "She's someone I can text in the middle of the night and say 'My dog is eating (its) poop, what do I do?'"
Maegan Nunley says Hendrix was a much more approachable breeder than others she contacted when she began her search. Nunley was living in Houston at the time, where many of her inquiries to reputable breeders went unanswered or were dead ends, saying they had no puppies.
"She was nice, kind and easy to talk to," Nunley says. "Being from Arkansas, I was glad to see that someone was doing things right. ... She always researches things about their health and the breed, and the decisions inform the next one, which is very admirable.
"Experienced breeders can get stuck in their ways, but Marissa tells us about her mistakes and what she learned from them. She's intelligent, honest, a down-to-earth person."
Hendrix was there for troubleshooting early on and always ready with advice for handling and grooming. Then she encouraged Nunley to try the dog sport Rally with her dog Rocket, and the pair earned their first title after some training.
The next golden retriever Nunley got from Hendrix, Evie, was a show puppy who has gone on to earn several titles. Hendrix gave Nunley her first show lead, a three foot purple and gold one that every time Evie and Nunley use it, they win.
"She's generous ... and always has my back," Nunley says.
Providing proper care for a golden retriever starts with initial health clearances, such as checking hips, elbows, having an echocardiogram done and taking the dog to an ophthalmologist, Hendrix says, but it goes far beyond that. Even those initial screens can be a challenge to some new owners, since not all specialists are nearby.
While there's an ophthalmologist in Little Rock, golden retriever owners have to drive to Dallas, Kansas City or Oklahoma for the cardiologist. After those are done, it's about learning to manage nutrition and finding things to do together that both the dog and person can have fun with, Hendrix says.
"Do things the dog enjoys," she says. "Dogs give so much to a person, there's no way to ever give enough back. That's why I fell in love with them. I didn't realize how wonderful life could be. It changed my life completely."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 6, 1984, Springdale
• FAMILY: Husband Shane Hendrix, daughter Emma Hendrix, 7
• A TYPICAL SATURDAY NIGHT FOR ME: It might include being at a dog event, but otherwise our family is usually home having a regular day with our golden retrievers.
• MY FIRST LITTER OF PUPPIES: Was stressful, challenging, yet made me realize how a puppy can affect someone's life.
• THE QUESTION DOG OWNERS ASK ME THE MOST: What type of dog food to feed. The answer to that is based on what works for the digestibility for that particular dog. You need to feed them what works for them ... and watch their weight.
• I FIND INSPIRATION FOR PUPPY NAMES IN: Everyday moments. We were putting together a puzzle and realized what a cute name that could be. Her registered name is Arkgold Amica the Missing Piece. We have a male upcoming puppy named "Ozark" because I love the Ozarks and he seemed like a natural.
• SOMETHING I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD TRY AT LEAST ONCE: Volunteer in your community in a way that interests you.
• MY FANTASY DINNER GUESTS: I would love to have dinner with the late beloved Betty White and trailblazing lady of Arkansas Alice Walton. Both inspiring woman have been loved by golden retrievers and I would love to swap dog stories.
• THE HARDEST THING I'VE EVER DONE IN TERMS OF GOLDEN RETRIEVERS IS: Working through the grieving process after a crossing of the rainbow bridge.
• MY BEST ADVICE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE GETTING A GOLDEN RETRIEVER FOR THE FIRST TIME IS: Do your research. Invest in learning about the commitment of care and needs involved in living with a golden retriever. Consider opening your home to a rescued dog or fostering as your first option. And if you decide to get a puppy from a breeder, really dive into the pedigree of the cross, because that is where you will get your predictability in your own dog.
• THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE ME: Optimistic, amiable and empathetic