A SMALL pack of black labradors bounded towards me as I approached Balrion at Weathertop.
The dogs were enclosed in a grassy, shaded spot on a hillside within a five-mile drive of both Mold and Holywell.
If it hadn’t been for the fence I might have been licked to death, which wouldn’t be a bad way to go.
The dogs all looked glossy, well-fed and, crucially, very happy.
After covering a great many stories around animal neglect, it was a relief to encounter a place where the animals are so clearly cared for.
There is a reason for this: John Crook, 81, and his wife, Saudjie, share more than 70 years of labrador breeding experience and their animals represent a lifetime of expertise and affection.
John, a former microbiologist and frozen food specialist who holds an OBE, originally ran Balrion with his late wife Glenda, who died in 1997.
Nowadays, John and Saudjie do it for the love of it – the proposed changes to dog breeding licensing in Wales will not affect them as they do not produce enough litters to qualify as commercial breeders.
Even so, it is clearly more than a hobby.
Their sun room was decorated with labrador memorabilia, the ashes of their beloved former champions sit in urns on the windowsill and they even met through a competition in California, where John awarded Saudjie’s dog Moira third prize.
John said: “I became a labrador breeder through a series of accidents. My then wife Glenda wanted a dog and the only thing she asked for was that it be black.
“I started looking for a black spaniel but came home with a labrador. Sadly he died aged five of leukaemia. He left such a hole in our lives we bought two more and it went from there.”
Saudjie, who hails from California, has dived enthusiastically into Welsh culture, carding and knitting woollen pew covers for Cilcain church and taking part in the Cilcain Show.
She said: “I was in a pet shop and I picked up a book and there was this picture of a labrador, and I just thought: wow. How do you get a dog like that?”
The answer, it turns out, is highly technical – and it also ties in to animal welfare.
DOG charity Four Pours last week launched a website at www.carodog.eu designed to fight illegal international trading in pedigree dogs, some sold online to unwitting buyers.
A charity spokesman explained how the puppies, born in “puppy mills” across Eastern Europe and Ireland, are often separated from their mothers at the young age of three to four weeks, to be transported for sale across Europe with fake documents.
He said: “When they arrive at their destinations, many puppies are already been afflicted by fatal diseases. Many of them may not survive the first weeks of their life.”
A good breeder, on the other hand, will breed for quality and health rather than profit.
John and Saudjie carefully select their studs and bitches – both have judged competitions and have a keen eye for form, type and coat quality.
Saudjie said: “You do hear horror stories about puppy mills.
“There is a problem endemic to the labrador breed called dysplasia, which affects their hips and elbows. I’ve seen animals bred so badly that by the age of two they can’t walk any more.
“So we have our dogs x-rayed to make sure they aren’t displaying symptoms before they breed, as well as running Optigen (genetic) tests.
“Apparently, even with puppies born to two parents rated at a low likelihood of developing dysplasia, one in 13 could still develop the condition.
“There are no guarantees, but careful breeding can minimise the risk.”
As well as breeding, both Saudjie and John have exhibited their animals to great acclaim, several becoming champions and siring champions in turn.
Other pups bred at Balrion Weathertops (an amalgamation of John and Saudjie’s breeding centres) are destined to become house pets.
Among them are Tonker and Hobson, members of the jet black pack that greeted me on arrival.
John took me on a tour of the dog runs: “We feed them once a day. First thing in the mornings they are let out of the runs into the paddock to play and run around, and there’s a shelter if it’s raining. We have a routine.
“It’s the same story in the evening. We make sure they get plenty of exercise. In the winter they move into the kennels.”
The couple shared a few tips for avoiding unscrupulous breeders.
Saudjie said: “Never order a dog unless you have seen where they have come from. If you want a pedigree, then I’d advise you to contact the local Kennel Club representatives, who will have a list of approved breeders.
“Even then you should probably go and see where they come from and what conditions they have been raised in.”
Another important element of selecting a puppy – find out, if possible, to see what traits are likely to be passed on from their parents.
John said: “You have to breed for temperament as well. If a labrador doesn’t have a good temperament then they can be more dangerous than a rottweiler because people expect them to be nice.”
John is keeping an eye on the Welsh Government consultation.
He said: “If anything I don’t think the requirements go far enough. They are saying that a bitch should be 12-months-old before she breeds. Personally I think that’s far too young. We don’t breed until they are at least two-years-old.
“They also want to limit breeders to six litters per bitch. We only ever breed three litters throughout their lifetime.”
John said: “We’re lucky we are in a position financially where we can breed because we want to and not for commercial reasons. It’s a family enterprise. My children have had a go at handling (skilfully presenting a dog in a show ring).”
“We work to pay for the dogs, not the other way round,” Saudjie quipped.