Michael Faulkner, executive director of the Tappahannock Regional Free Clinic, has walked many paths in his life, from the roads less traveled in remote towns like Bandung, Indonesia, to bustling streets in major cities like Washington, D.C., New York, London and Paris. One constant remains throughout his many endeavors — whichever byway he chooses to tread, canine companions walk by his side.
Faulkner is a man of many and varied talents: organizational expert; successful businessman; accomplished dog breeder, handler and show judge; award-winning writer; skilled portraiture and conceptual artist; as well as a wizard with fine wine and cuisine. He is enthusiastic and adventurous in his many passions; however his heart remains firmly in the world of dogs.
This fall, he will be judging the Sporting Group finals at the Philadelphia Kennel Club’s 2015 National Dog Show Presented by Purina. The show will air on NBC over the Thanksgiving holiday. In February, he will judge herding breeds at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York.
Faulkner, a native of upstate New York, was immersed in the world of purebred dogs from an early age. His first experiences came from helping his father, an engineer, and his mother, a florist, run their part-time kennel and breeding establishment. His aunt was also an active breeder of Collies. Faulkner traveled extensively with his family to shows all over the world. As a youngster, he was active in Junior Showmanship and soon acquired his first Golden Retriever, thus starting a lifelong love of the breed. His biggest influence and teacher in the study of dogs was Peggy Grayson, sporting dog specialist, judge and author. “She was my dog mother and mentor,” Faulkner said. He often visited Ms. Grayson at her home in Hereford, England, near the Welsh border. “She took me under her wing.” Through her guidance he learned about gun dog breeds including Spaniels, Setters, Pointers and Retrievers.
After high school, Faulkner faced a crossroads: to continue his education or make his way in the world of canine competition. He chose to pursue his education and attended Alfred University, in Alfred, New York, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and later a Master of Science degree in education. Simultaneously, he maintained a thriving breeding program and continued to show his Golden Retrievers, Field Spaniels, Springer Spaniels and Pointers. He also worked as an educator in art and entrepreneurship, in which he has a post-graduate certification from George Washington University.
During this time he met the late David White, also an educator, a man who became his partner in life and in business. Their paths first crossed at a competition in Stone Mountain, Georgia, when a Field Spaniel Faulkner was handling for his mother won Best of Breed and went on to defeat White’s Springer Spaniel in Sporting Group finals.
White and Faulkner established Woodspoint Farm, near Lexington, Kentucky, turning it into a global operation in support of purchasing, conditioning and marketing top show dogs. For more than a decade, the team dominated the Sporting Group competitions, completing championships in all the sporting breeds, along with numerous group and Best in Show winners in all seven groups. “We built a mini empire,” said Faulkner. “We did very well.”
“Very well” is an understatement. Faulkner has owned, bred and exhibited nine multiple Best in Show-winning golden retrievers and has finished more than 250 Golden Retriever champions, while also campaigning numerous multiple Best in Show-winning dogs of other breeds. That included handling one of the top-winning female Golden Retrievers of all time, BIS/BISS/CH Brandymist QB Gal (Meg), to a group second place in 1995 and a group third place in 1994 at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. He also handled Meg to Best in Show wins at the Detroit Kennel Club and Louisville Kennel Club dog shows in 1994, outperforming more than 11,000 dogs.
In 1995, his partner, White, died of brain cancer, at which point Faulkner sold Woodspoint and retired from showing dogs.
He couldn’t stay away long, so he took a new path in the world of dogs and began his judging career. Considering Faulkner’s vast experience and reputation, The American Kennel Club awarded him the honor of judging the entire Sporting Group. At age 34, he became the youngest person ever to adjudicate for Westminster Kennel Club at the group competition level. Currently he is approved to judge Best in Show, as well as breeds in the Toy, Sporting, Herding, Working and Hound groups. He has judged shows all over the world and has presided five times at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club.
“Judging dog shows is a privilege,” Faulkner said. “It requires a rich personal history in the sport, exposure to multiple breeds and a natural talent to understand balance, shape, form and function on a two-dimensional level, and apply it through an artistic eye to a three-dimensional form.”
The AKC requires judges to have bred and raised five or more litters of the breeds they judge, to have bred four or more champions, and to have 12 years’ experience as an exhibitor. Alternatively, a judge may have 15 years’ experience as a successful breeder and owner of champions in lieu of handling experience. In addition, new judges must attend the AKC’s Basic Judging Institute, an intense program which requires a combination of study, written and oral exams, as well as performance evaluation.
“I have had my hands on a lot of really good dogs,” Faulkner said. “My job is to study and evaluate breeding stock,” he added. “I truly want to know my opinions are valued, and that I make a difference in the next generation of dogs.”
While Faulkner continued to polish his credentials in canine competition, he didn’t neglect his entrepreneurial talents. In 1997, he bought a declining pet boarding kennel near Austin, Texas, and turned it into a state-of-the-art pet resort center and pet shipping business. A few successful years later, Faulkner sold the pet resort and joined the See Forever Foundation in Washington, D.C., as director of programs and events. The foundation is the governing body for Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools, with a mission to create learning communities in lower-income urban areas.
In the meantime, while attending a wedding in New York, Faulkner met Michael Rawlings, a native of Virginia’s Prince George County, an attorney and mediator with the federal government. The pair have been together for 16 years and were married in October 2014.
Faulkner and Rawlings own a Golden Retriever breeding program in Woodcrest, California, along with co-owners Michele and Michael Leon, under the Forum prefix (a play on the four M’s of the owners’ first names). Although qualified to judge numerous breeds among five of the seven AKC-recognized groups, Golden Retrievers remain Faulkner’s sentimental favorites. He recently returned from a trip to Brazil, where he helped establish a new Golden Retriever breeding program.
“I am seduced by the Golden Retriever’s natural beauty, gentle nature, loyalty, intelligence and instinctual desire to perform the duties of a gentleman’s gun dog,” he said. “In the ring, I look for a kind demeanor and expressive eyes... There is nothing more beautiful than a truly well-made Golden Retriever.”
Although the dog show world has taken him all over the globe — Asia, Europe, South America and North America, it was the quest for a simple, serene locale that brought Faulkner to Virginia’s Middle Peninsula in Essex County. After years of negotiating the demanding pace of life in D.C., another home in Charlottesville, and complicated work and travel schedules, he and Rawlings began to look for a home in
a more peaceful setting. Their requirements were as exacting as their lives and business standards have always been. They wished to find a historic property, on or near the water, convenient to a major airport. Rawlings, the Virginia native, had some ideas and headed up
the search. Their wishes were granted upon finding Holly Springs, a colonial cottage built in 1715 in Center Cross. For a time, they were weekend warriors, traveling to their cozy getaway home as their agendas permitted.
Eventually, local friends alerted Faulkner to a new career challenge — The Tappahannock Regional Free Clinic, a non-profit health center dedicated to serving the needs of local patients without insurance or the means to access quality healthcare. The facility was struggling financially and had staff and volunteer conflicts. Faulkner was appointed executive director in 2011. “I wanted to make a difference in the community that I love,” he said. So he did. He eliminated debt within the first year of his tenure and boosted volunteer retention from 30 to 90 percent. In 2014, with three employees and 74 volunteers, the clinic provided nearly 2,500 patient visits,
with $4.6 million in services, without federal funding.
Today, Faulkner and Rawlings make their home full-time at Holly Springs, along with their champion French Bulldog, Murphy French, who also serves as a therapy dog at the clinic, and Sam the rescue cat, who serves to keep Murphy French on his toes. Faulkner and Rawlings enjoy entertaining, with Faulkner indulging his love of preparing fine cuisine, with wine pairings and
One would think that dual careers, dog breeding and shows, as well as the demands of house and home would
be enough to keep him busy 24/7; however Faulkner channels creative energy like the internet channels information. He manages to find time to sit on the board of directors for Take the Lead, a non-profit organization that provides services in support of people in the dog sports who suffer from life threatening or terminal illnesses. He is also an award-winning humor writer for Dog News magazine and has written a series of children’s mystery books featuring a detective who happens to
be a Golden Retriever.
At home in Holly Springs, Faulkner has an art studio, from which he creates well-regarded dog and equine portraiture, and throws himself into his unique version of conceptual modern art, a selection of which he is compiling for a one-man show.
He walks a landscape of many paths, encompassing diverse talents, passions and enthusiasms; however, whichever road he chooses to take, one thing is certain, the tie that binds will be the
lead of a dog.