Russ and Barb Felt were relatively new to golden retriever ownership when they decided it would be fun to take their dog to a hunt test. Russ, who’d given Barb their first golden retriever for a New Year’s gift, went to sign the paperwork, leaving Barb with a baby on her back. In one hand she held her 2-year-old’s hand, the other hand the leash attached to their golden retriever.
It was a somewhat chaotic scene. There were all variety of dogs on the ground and birds in the air, and the constant echo of gunshots. She recalls seeing a Chesapeake retriever pulling around its owner, a big man himself, the pooch overcome by the excitement of the situation.
“It was this crazy environment, but my dog’s tail was just wagging,” said Barb, who along with Russ, owns Rolling Oaks Goldens in Litchfield, Minn. “(The dog was thinking) this is going to be so much fun
. But the dog was listening to me and not overreacting. And when Russ came back from signing us up, I said, ‘This is why I love goldens.’ They are just so in love with their owners. And they live to please.”
Indeed, golden retrievers have an innate ability to pull double duty as family friendly pets that are exceptionally good with kids and adults alike, and eager-to-please, fully capable hunting partners that will do what their owners request of them. The latter fact is sometimes lost or overlooked due to the breed’s beautiful coat, affectionate nature and easy temperament. “I’m on my seventh golden and each and every one of them was my hunting partner,” said Mark Standinger, who helped found the Sibley County, Minn., chapter of Pheasants Forever. “I believe they love their masters more than themselves, and that they would do anything we ask of them.”
Golden retriever lineage
The earliest records of golden retrievers are from 1850 to 1890 and originate near Inverness, Scotland, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC), which lists golden retrievers as the third-most popular dog breed in the country. Golden retrievers resulted from a mix of water spaniel and retriever and was created to be a versatile breed for wildfowl hunters that could retrieve game on land and in the water. The first golden retriever registration with the AKC was in 1925. While all of today’s golden retrievers are the same breed and exhibit the same general outward appearance and sport coats that range along a spectrum from light to dark gold and even red, there are three unique subtypes: English goldens, American goldens and Canadian goldens.
English goldens tend to be lighter in color, and they have large, muscular bodies. American goldens tend to have darker colors and are lankier and less muscled than the English type. However, it’s not uncommon for breeders in America to import dogs from overseas to take advantage of that subtype’s qualities. Canadian goldens have a thin, dark coat, and generally are taller than dogs from the American and English subtypes.
While golden retrievers have enjoyed some level of popularity in America for decades, they popularity hit a new pinnacle in the 1980s and 1990s, when they could be seen as all-American dogs in a number of television shows and movies. However, those years “were really hard on the breed,” Felt said. Standards declined and some people gave little thought to the dogs they were breeding. They weren’t testing for hip or elbow dysplasia, for example, and in-breeding was taking place at alarming and ultimately problematic levels. “We were getting away from the true golden retriever temperament,” Felt said. By the late 1990s, the golden retriever world began to turn around, in part, she says, because potential dog buyers themselves began asking tough questions of breeders and demanded to see health clearances.
Over the years, the reasons people have been attracted to the golden retriever breed – whether the individual dogs are big or small (females generally weigh between 50 and 60 pounds, and male range between about 65 and 80 pounds), or have dark coats or light coats – have remained largely the same: Golden retrievers have good personalities and are versatile dogs. Those traits endear them to a wide variety of people.
“They know when they need to settle down and be still,” Felt said. “But when you get the gun and put the vest on and grab the whistle, they are this whole new dog.”
From the home to the pheasant field
Thanks to their love of water, their innate propensity for retrieving, and their multi-layered coat – their undercoat is soft and keeps them warm when the temperature is low, or cool when the temperature is high, and their topcoat is water-resistant – golden retrievers are popular among waterfowl hunters. They’re also patient dogs that can handle being still in a blind. But they are equally at home and adept in vast fields of grass and among standing stalks of corn, following their noses and working in front of shotgun-toting pheasant hunters.
“The main reason that I like them for pheasant hunting is their pace,” said Tony Peterson, of Andover, Minn., who has hunted for years over his own and friends’ golden retrievers. “I like flushers, but I don’t like flushers that are going 5,000 miles per hour. Golden retrievers work in that magic 20- to 25-yard range. Once a dog gets too far out, you’re out of luck.”
Golden retrievers are athletic, active animals and their performance in the field reflects their strong desire to please their masters. Standinger, who figures he hunts behind his golden retriever 20 to 30 times a season, says the dog is always ready to hunt and seems to intuitively know what to do and what’s expected of it.
In terms of athleticism, “a good field-bred golden retriever is every bit as good as a good Lab,” Peterson said. “Field-bred golden retrievers are bred for brains and athleticism. We are sort of used to seeing these big, lumbering goldens with flowing coats. But the hunting line goldens are smaller, their coats are shorter, and they are built like little canine athletes.”
Additionally, golden retrievers have superb noses and are the sorts of dogs that simply won’t quit. Several years back, I was hunting as part of a several-man group that contained a mix of dog breeds, including both Labrador and golden retrievers. One of the golden retrievers flushed a big rooster from a wooded edge of a plowed field. One of my hunting partners fired at the cackling, long-tailed bird, hitting it and sending on a steep trajectory to the ground. But as one of the dogs approached – they were outside of shotgun range – the bird took to flight again and we watched as it sailed into the grove of trees somewhere up ahead. We marked the location we last saw the bird and hunted toward the spot, figuring one of the dogs would find the rooster upon our arrival. When that didn’t happen, we eventually kept going, chalking up that particular rooster as a lost cause. Perhaps forty yards later, one of the golden retrievers started to show signs of excitement, its tail wagging vigorously and an intent look on its face. That dog, a veteran of the pheasant fields, eventually located the dead rooster amid a tangle of brush. It emerged triumphantly and brought the bird to hand, basking in the accolades for a job well done and soaking up every bit of his owner’s praise.
That combination of a good nose and never-quit attitude also makes golden retrievers a good choice for those cold, late-season pheasant hunts when the birds are hunkered in heavy cover such as cattails. They’ll work closely enough to allow opportunities at shots, even among birds that have been pressured for weeks, but have no qualms about busting through the type of thick and tangled cover that would reduce most two-legged hunters to tears.
Aiming to please
Ask anyone who owns a golden retriever – regardless of whether the animal is a hunting dog or primarily a cuddly family pet – about one of the breed’s best traits, and you’re certain to hear about the dogs’ willingness to listen and desire to do what their owner asks of them. Add to that the fact that golden retrievers are relatively easy to train to be anything from hunting dogs to therapy dogs. Their intelligence helps in that regard. “A smart dog is an easy dog to train,” Peterson said.
Said Felt: “They are great water dogs and upland dogs. It just depends on your passion. It’s really up to the master to train the dog. But all in all, they are very intelligent and highly trainable.”
Golden retrievers respond best to positive and upbeat training sessions, given their temperament. Along those same lines, Felt says it’s vital to tread carefully when introducing golden retrievers to the gun, training them slowly to associate the sound with positive things and experiences, such as eating. While golden retrievers are highly adaptable dogs and can succeed in many situations, a wrong move early in their lives could forever reduce their utility as hunting dogs.
“Because they are so sensitive and are so tuned in to their environments and their humans, you need to be really careful about how you introduce the gun,” she said. “People who are in too big of a rush could ruin their dog. It takes some patience to introduce the gun, but if you do it right you’ll have a dog that loves the gun for the rest of its life. If you do it wrong, your dog could have the best nose in the world, but if it’s gun shy, it’s over.”
Words of caution
Golden retrievers are a generally healthy dog breed, no more prone to disease than other breeds. The biggest issue in them – and in the vast majority of other dog breeds – is cancer. Sad stories about good dogs succumbing to cancer are just as likely to include Labs as goldens, for example. And while their aforementioned hair makes them excellent water and late-season hunting dogs, it’s also perhaps their trait that’s talked about most often in a negative light.
“The only thing that goldens do wrong is they shed,” Felt said.
While they shed year-round, it can be especially pronounced when the seasons change from warm to cold. However, golden retriever owners can largely alleviate the shedding issue with frequent brushing. Using an undercoat rake, albeit less frequently than a regular grooming brush, can further reduce the amount of hair deposited inside the house.
One final piece of advice: Golden retrievers are not good guard dogs. While they may bark at an approaching stranger, they quickly revert to the affectionate creatures they naturally are upon contact with humans.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Read more at www.writerjoealbert.com. Follow him on Twitter @writerjoealbert
Photo credits: Main image - Diane Glassmeyer via Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA; First image – Pheasants Forever; Second image – Pixabay; Third, fourth, and fifth images - Diane Glassmeyer via Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA.