All British retrievers trace back to the same source—the Canadian water dogs imported in large numbers in the early 1800s, variously called Newfoundland or St. John’s dogs. The shorthaired version of this cold-hardy, water-loving working breed evolved into the modern Labrador Retriever. However, a furrier type was also known and imported. This was called the Wavy-Coated Retriever, now known as the Flat-Coated Retriever.
Retrievers under any name were valued by the British aristocracy of the early 1800s as indispensable hunting partners. The advent of reliable long-range guns had created a demand for a dog that could run long distances to pick up fallen birds, particularly where bodies of water were involved.
One early breeder of gundogs was Sir Dudley Majoribanks, the first Baron of Tweedmouth, who lived just north of the Scottish border with Britain. As early as the mid-1800s, he was carefully breeding retrievers with excellent working ability, but he had different tastes than most in his day. Lord Tweedmouth preferred a stronger, more robust dog than was the fad, and he also liked a biddable retriever that would focus on its master.
But this was not all. Even though black was the most popular color in Lord Tweedmouth’s time, he loved dogs with shining golden coats. Accordingly, he bought a yellow Wavy-Coated Retriever named Nous in 1865 from a cobbler who had received the dog in payment of a debt.
Today, Nous would be virtually indistinguishable from a registered Golden Retriever. Besides his wavy, golden hair, he had the powerful physique that Lord Tweedmouth sought. In 1868, he bred Nous to Belle, a representative of a curly-coated breed known as the Tweed Water Spaniel, which is now extinct. Their four puppies (Crocus, Cowslip, Primrose, and Ada) were all a perfect golden color.
Lord Tweedmouth evidently liked the results of this cross, as for several more generations, he linebred to both Nous and Belle. When outside blood was needed, he introduced another Tweed Water Spaniel, a few more black Wavy-Coated Retrievers, and an Irish Setter. He bred for good working ability, but the primary criterion for future breeding stock out of each new litter was color.
Legends persist that other breeds were involved, such as the Bloodhound and some type of Russian sheepdog purchased at a traveling circus. These may very well be myths. However, we will probably never know for certain, as Lord Tweedmouth did give some of his dogs to friends and family, and few of them kept records as meticulously as Majoribanks himself.
The golden descendants of Nous probably first appeared in the United States with the two youngest sons of Lord Tweedmouth in the late 1800s. One of the boys was sent to the baron’s expansive Rocking Chair Ranche in Texas, while the other was given a smaller ranch in what is now North Dakota.
The breed evidently caught on among hunters in short order, although at first it was merely considered a variation on the Flat-Coated Retriever. The American Kennel Club first recognized the Golden Retriever as a breed in its own right in 1925.
The Golden Retriever remained relatively uncommon across the country until the 1930s, as it was kept solely for hunting purposes. After 1930, however, the breed was adopted as a favorite pet and showdog, a status it has retained ever since. Today, the Golden Retriever is the third most popular dog in America.
The Golden Retriever’s biddable nature makes him a versatile dog. He is first and foremost the perfect pet, loving nothing better than to shower his family with affection and maybe earn a reward with a few tricks. He can also make a good watchdog, although scaring away intruders is not his strong suit. Few breeds make better therapy dogs, or better assistance partners.
Nearly always represented in dog sports of all kinds, the Golden Retriever can be trained for anything from agility to tracking to flyball. The obedience ring is where this breed really shines, however.
The Golden Retriever is still suitable for hunting and field trialing. He willingly retrieves both waterfowl and upland game birds.
The breed has a keen nose that can be put to good use in many tasks typically associated with “tougher” dogs. For example, Golden Retrievers regularly work in search and rescue, and they have been quite successful at drug and explosive detection.
No breed loves people more than the Golden Retriever does. He wins friends wherever he goes through his sweet nature and his perpetually wagging tail. Although he never meets a man he doesn’t like, he is a loyal dog who loves to spend quality time with his own family. Most Golden Retrievers are happiest indoors, where they can join in any activity taking place.
The Golden Retriever is ideally suited to homes with children, as he can tolerate the roughest antics with grace and is always ready for a game, particularly a game of fetch. Likewise, he is reliable in the company of dogs, cats, and most other pets.
Although he will be rambunctious as a youngster, the Golden Retriever is not at all wilful, and will readily learn not to destroy personal property if provided with sufficient exercise. Channel his energy into learning manners, tricks, and games involving retrieving. He loves to please his people and will soak up all that you can teach him.
Note that the Golden Retriever has no sense of boundaries and will roam. A fence is in order if he will be spending time outdoors.
When hunting, the Golden Retriever is a fast, eager worker. He is famous both for his readiness to enter water and his ability to hold game firmly but so gently that no damage is done.
Note that there are four variations on the basic theme:
- Field bloodlines: These dogs tend to be smaller, darker, and more athletic. They have boundless energy, perfect for hunting but not so great for loafing on the couch. They tend to take themselves a little more seriously, although still impeccably sweet. They are capable of moving with great precision.
- American show bloodlines: Retrievers of this type tend to be bigger and fluffier with a hallmark golden coat. They overflow with goofiness and enthusiasm, making them a little clumsy but extremely lovable.
- English bloodlines: True imported English Golden Retrievers are built short and stocky with a cream-colored coat that closely approaches white. Some breeders feel this type is the most laid-back and mellow, but individual personalities vary widely.
- Backyard bloodlines: Unfortunately, this is the kind bred by those looking for a fast buck. They are often sold as “rare white Golden Retrievers.” Backyard-bred Golden Retrievers are extremely rambunctious and can be hard to live with. Most cases of biting come from these bloodlines.
Golden Retrievers are built tough, but most of them do not recognize their own limits. Avoid overworking your dog, especially in hot weather, as he will likely keep going until he collapses. Also, gentle exercise is in order for all puppies under two years of age. Their bones are not fully developed until that time, and jumping or roughhousing on hard surfaces can cause permanent damage.
Note that the appetite of the Golden Retriever tends to outrun his calorie needs. Don’t give in to that soft, pleading expression if you want to keep your pet svelte!
Inherited health problems can occur in all bloodlines, but are particularly common in show and backyard dogs. The most common difficulties in the Golden Retriever include:
- Ectropion (where the eyelid turns outward).
- Entropion (where the eyelid turns inward).
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Ear infections.
- Elbow dysplasia.
- Hip dysplasia.
- Allergy-induced hot spots (particularly allergic reactions to flea bites).
- Cancer in many forms.
- Suitability for first-time dog owners.
- Exceptional suitability for families with children or other pets.
- Impeccable temperament.
- Need for plenty of attention.
- Exercise requirements.
- Seasonal shedding.
- Susceptibility to obesity.