Jonathan Watkins, wearing black cowboy boots and a black cowboy hat, is “fixin’” to drive his 18 English pointer bird dogs down to King Ranch, the near-mythological cattle empire whose South Texas acreage exceeds the size of Rhode Island, and whose history stands among some of the most colorful legends of the American West. The rest of the year, he runs the kennels he and his wife, JoDee, built just three years ago, a place for their special-needs daughter to work on their 106-acre spread in Laurens County.

“I think it’s amazing because I get to grow up learning: learning how to do bird dogs and do pet dogs,” AnneDee says, her smile full of braces. “I really like that my mom and dad had this idea to build this area for me, this place.”

On a cloudless fall day as warm as their welcome, mother and daughter stand across the counter from each other in the lodge-like headquarters of their Pet Commander Kennels.

“She’s chief excitement officer,” her mom says of AnneDee’s role among the kennels’ three full-time employees and its four workers with intellectual disabilities. The Watkinses have four children and recently took in two of JoDee’s niece’s kids.

Photography by Paul Mehaffey

AnneDee named Pet Commander Kennels after her beloved boxer, who died when she was three. After her father broke the news, she says, “I started crying until midnight.” A high-functioning 14-year-old with a rare disorder akin to Down syndrome, she works four hours a day, three days a week—when she’s not riding their bay, Peaches, or taking violin lessons.

The kennels offer boarding and grooming, along with obedience and hunt training services, and can accommodate 60 dogs, including Jonathan’s. Three months each year, he takes his dogs to Texas, where he guides hunts in the mesquite-studded 238,000-acre Norias Division of King Ranch’s 825,000 acres. The family often joins him. “We all go to Texas to help Jonathan with his dream,” JoDee says. He got the job from the guide who no longer wanted it, the man who trained him to train bird dogs.

Ronnie Smith is widely considered the leading instructor in the country. From his eponymous kennels in northern Oklahoma, he says he considers Jonathan one of his finest alumni. “There are people that come through our program, and some really shine, not only in their ability to read and train a dog, but in their integrity,” he says, “and Jonathan’s one of those guys.”

People anthropomorphize (Smith’s word) their pets, but a pointer has one job: finding and flushing out coveys. Pet Commander keeps a pigeon house with homing birds used to train for this specific reason. “We can really see a dog and love that dog for what that dog is. I think that’s what sets Jonathan apart,” Smith says.      

Photography by Paul Mehaffey

Jonathan discovered his passion for work dogs during his 13-year law-enforcement career in Virginia, where he enjoyed spending time with the Fairfax Police Department’s K-9 unit. He’d always dreamed of being a Secret Service agent—“I was supposed to be protecting the president by this point, at age 40”—but an agent suggested that if Jonathan wanted a life, he wouldn’t have one constantly on the road.

He also met JoDee, at that time, a cardiac nurse. They married 15 years ago. In 2014, they settled on these verdant pastures, ultimately renovating an 1893 farmhouse on property coincidentally just a quarter-mile from his boyhood home.

“You know people send their dogs for Jonathan to train from all over the country? And we’re in this little Gray Court, South Carolina,” says Anna Cruse, who lives in the Five Forks area and drives the 30 miles each way, twice a day, to the farm.

She fell in love with the place, the people, and Jonathan’s three-month-long training regimen. Later this fall, she hopes to take Ruger, her German shorthaired, to hunt tests, which measure a dog against itself, and perhaps to field trials, where dogs compete against other dogs.

Of the kennels’ owners, she says: “They’re just so welcoming to everybody that comes through the door and, you know, they try to get to know these people. They certainly know the dogs that just come for day care or come in for obedience or bird-dog training.”

Kennedy White, who joined the kennels two and a half years ago as an obedience trainer, echoes others’ sentiments about life on the farm. “They are my people, I mean, they are like my family,” the 23-year-old says, confiding that she’s found a safe place far from her troubled childhood; she’s planning to get married here soon. “This is where I want my two daughters to be able to grow up and hang out and be at work. If everything goes to plan, this kennel is probably my forever home.”

Asked about her special-needs coworkers, she says, “You learn a whole lot from them. They’re always happy, they’re always smiling, everything is positive to them.”

Cruse, who, in turn, exudes her affection for Kennedy, adds about the Watkinses: “They’re so unconditionally accepting, and that can be a life-changing influence on anybody.”

For more information, visit petcommanderkennels.com.