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Pure Goldens

Golden retrievers have a long history as splendid gun dogs
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  • photo by Diane Glassmeyer, DU Member
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By Gary Koehler

Several years ago, while preparing to hunt snow geese in Texas, I was somewhat surprised when the guide let loose his dogs from the back of the pickup truck. No Labs or Chesapeakes emerged. Nope. There at the cusp of dawn stood two golden retrievers. They were striking. 

These were not picture-book goldens. They had the regal look, certainly, but their coats were reddish orange rather than the more typical yellowish gold. How would they hunt in the muck and mire common to rice fields everywhere? Turns out, that was a silly question.

As the morning progressed, a mix of ducks and geese were shot. The goldens did not have an extremely heavy workout, but they proved game no matter what was in the air or on the ground. When a duck sailed long and wide after being wing-tipped, the guide sent one of the goldens to retrieve it. The dog, which had been quivering with excitement over the prospect of tracking down what may have been a lost cause for many retrievers, took off eagerly after the fallen bird. 

"You really think that dog is going to find that duck?" someone in our party muttered. 

After what seemed like an eternity, the dog, now almost completely out of sight, suddenly pivoted and then began bounding back to our layout blinds, bird in mouth. Panting and full of mud, the gallant golden dropped the green-winged teal drake at the guide's feet. 

Dudley Marjoribanks would have been proud. Marjoribanks, after all, is credited with developing the golden retriever in the late 1800s in the Highlands of Scotland. His goal at the time was to build a retriever perfectly suited to the Scottish climate, terrain, and available wild game.

The golden retriever came about like most sporting breeds, by mixing and matching. Marjoribanks acquired Nous, the only yellow pup from a litter of otherwise black wavy-coated retrievers, and added it to his Scottish estate kennel. A few years later, Nous was bred with Belle, a Tweed water spaniel, a breed now extinct. That breeding produced several yellow pups that became the foundation for a line of yellow retrievers. Their descendants were later combined with red setters, another Tweed water spaniel, and flat- and wavy-coated retrievers, with several blood hounds thrown in for good measure. Both yellow and black pups were kept to continue this line.

In the United States, the golden retriever was officially recognized in 1925 by the American Kennel Club. This came years after goldens first appeared in North America. But that is relatively ancient history. The breed's popularity has since soared. Goldens have been among the top five most popular dogs in America for at least the past 10 years, likely much longer.

The golden's natural good looks are part of its charm. But the breed is also known for its mental capacity, biddability, and calm demeanor—qualities that have endeared it to tens of thousands of devotees. 

And yes, this dog can and will hunt, both in the marsh and uplands. The golden is a tried-and-true dual-purpose gun dog that has also found work as a rescue and therapy dog. The breed has even been used to sniff out drugs and explosives.

Goldens in general do not respond well to heavy-handed training. This old axiom holds true: You demand from a Lab, negotiate with a Chessie, and ask a golden. The breed is intelligent, and it has a great nose, but it may take a refined training approach to get the most out of a pup.

When selecting a golden, make sure you are looking at pups from a hunting line, as opposed to a show dog line. There is a huge difference. Many of the golden show dogs, as gorgeous as they may be, would be less than helpful in a hunting situation. The hunting drive in the show dog lines has been diminished. Know that going in. Check the pup's background.

Fastidious housekeepers also beware. If you are not willing to live with golden hair on your furniture, you may want to reconsider. Goldens shed profusely. Those who can handle that will grow to treasure the hair-dropping culprit.

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