Picture being cuddled by golden retrievers as part of your job — sounds pretty good, right? Lauren Genkinger founded Adopt a Golden Atlanta in 2003, which has become the largest rescue group on the East Coast dedicated to finding homes for golden retrievers from across the country, and now the world. In fact, AGA rescued and flew more than 150 abandoned golden retrievers from Istanbul, Turkey, back to the United States (and continues to do so in additional rescue trips) as part of their Turkey Dogs project. While Lauren was growing AGA and getting knee deep in golden fur, she worked hard as the owner of ad agency, TG Madison (which she eventually sold, but is still the agency’s executive director). Let’s get to know this University of Florida grad a bit better and find out how exactly awesome it is to be surrounded by the world’s cutest, furriest clients.
Why did you start Adopt a Golden Atlanta? What is it about the breed that draws you in?
I have never met a golden retriever that I didn’t love. They are the sweetest and most unconditionally loyal companions on the face of this earth. Once you have one (or two or three or four) of them in your life and you meet a golden who has been abandoned or mistreated, it is very easy to devote your life to saving them from the evils of the world. I had a friend who had to give up her golden due to a terrible situation, and neither she nor I had had any experience with rescue organizations. She was badly mistreated and made to feel worse than she already did, so I vowed to learn as much as I could so I could start my own rescue and do it the right way. I have always believed it is not just about the dogs but it is about the people who have to surrender a golden and the people who want to adopt and share their lives with a golden. We have to have enough compassion for both people and the dogs. Thirteen years later, AGA is now the largest rescue in the Southeast dedicated to rehoming homeless golden retrievers and ranks in the top five rescues in the country based on the number of dogs saved.
Last year, AGA brought more than 100 abandoned golden retrievers from Istanbul, Turkey, to Atlanta in the largest rescue effort of golden retrievers internationally. Why undertake such a large-scale, near impossible rescue project? What should people know about your “Turkey dogs?”
When I heard of the plight of the golden retriever in Turkey it was heartbreaking. These dogs are in need because the novelty of having a golden retriever in Istanbul as a status symbol wore off, and they were abandoned and now live in crowded shelters, the forests or on the streets. The lucky ones were in the open-air shelters for many years — no hope for adoption, no people loving on them. If you know goldens, they MUST be with people to be happy. I became incensed and then obsessed with getting them to America. It took months to find a way to do it and then more time to plan every aspect. We plan to bring over another 200 this year, and I have been able to get 31 other golden retriever rescues here in the U.S. and Canada to join Operation Turkey Dog to hopefully bring over more this year. We estimate it will take over five years to get all of them, but if we can continue to raise money for this mission, we won’t stop until the last homeless golden retriever in Turkey is living in America.
How did you end up in Atlanta? What was the hardest thing to adjust to upon moving here?
I moved here from Minneapolis in 1978 for a job at Atlanta’s hottest ad agency. I had grown up in Florida, so getting back to warmer weather was of great importance — playing tennis indoors and golf on a frozen tundra was not appealing. I had to adjust to Atlanta having no sidewalks and driving everywhere. When I opened up my own agency, I made sure I lived only 10 minutes from work. I still haven’t adjusted to the traffic.
Currently, you have three golden retrievers. Any other animals residing in your home?
No, I only have goldens — they range from 3 to 7 years. I just lost my 15-year-old boy.
What’s something about you that would surprise your friends to learn?
I have a fear of heights — escalators and bridges freak me out. And, although not fear-based, I hate to travel.
What are some of the challenges of running a successful nonprofit, especially one involving animals?
To be a successful rescue, you have to realize it is a business — not a hobby or something to do when you have some spare time. Having protocols and policies helps curtail the emotional ups and downs. But the biggest challenge is we have no paid employees — we have nearly 500 active volunteers. These people give us countless hours of their time. But they are only tied to us when they feel that they are making a difference in these dogs’ lives. Everyone has a meaningful job, whether it is in the field or behind a computer. I can’t give raises or bonuses; I can only thank them, and it is a challenge to find the time to do that the right way.
Where’s the best place in Atlanta to take your dog? Best place to dine with Fido?
Any place where a dog can swim! Dining? Lucky’s Burger & Brew, named after a great golden retriever.
You are a Gator through and through, and now live in Dawg Nation. Is that why you do so much work with dogs?
I must admit that UGA has a much better mascot than Florida, but when it comes to winning, “Go Gators!”
You’re an “ad man” and owned your own ad agency for almost 30 years before selling it. What is your favorite tag line you’ve ever heard? What campaign made you wince in embarrassment?
I have always loved Nike’s “Just Do It” line. I just identify with it. I was mortified with last year’s Go Daddy ad slated for the Super Bowl but yanked at the last minute. It featured a golden retriever puppy being sold online and shipped to an unknown buyer. Clearly, it was developed by people who have no knowledge of puppy mills and no inkling how an ad like that could have set our progress back decades.
What should prospective owners know before officially adopting a dog, golden or not?
Owning a dog can be expensive — a minimum of $1,000 per year just to keep a golden healthy. It pays to get pet insurance. Training is the best investment you can make in your dog. And, finally, don’t be selfish. If you are working long hours and can’t spend time with your dog except on the weekend, wait until your life can accommodate a dog. They are not happy alone. And as far as breeds, do your research before falling in love: size, shedding, temperament, behaviors, genetic health issues all need to be understood before adopting.
Where’s your favorite place in Atlanta to clear your head (with or without the dogs)?
Sitting at my pool, watching my dogs and their friends swim.
Atlantans really love their dogs. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever heard when it comes to doting parents and their “fur babies?”
I don’t like to judge people if they do things I wouldn’t do as long as it is not hurting a dog. Owning big dogs is a bit different — we don’t dress them up or paint nails or feed them people food for the most part. People tend to get dogs who fit their personality and lifestyle. However, sky diving with your dog is beyond crazy to me, but remember, I am scared of heights.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Listen, think and then speak.
What are three things you can’t live without excluding faith, family and friends?
A TV, a phone and a golden retriever
Our thanks to Lauren Genkinger and her three goldens, Holden, Ben and Annie, for spending some time answering our questions (and letting us throw a few tennis balls around the house).
And as always, thank you to CatMax Photography for the woof-derful photos!