The Essential Golden Retriever

Whether in the duck blind, field-trialing, or competing in hunt tests, this breed is more than capable of holding its own

By Dave Carty

Greg Bell enjoys reciting the virtues of golden retrievers to nonbelievers.

"I’m pretty sure I wouldn't have found that duck without my dog," Bell says, describing a bird he wing-tipped last year in Missouri.

"I'm gonna say that retrieve was 300 yards, maybe a quarter mile out," he recalls. "I hit a mallard drake and it glided and glided. Casey marked it down all the way. Finally, she disappeared into some pretty heavy cover."

Casey had to negotiate deep and shallow water as well as several obstacles on dry land, but Bell never doubted she would make it. "I've had her a long time," he says, "and I was confident she'd get it. My son was there, and he was impressed." 

His son—who owns a Lab—isn't the only one. Among the impressed are the men and women Bell competes against in trials and hunt tests, where Casey holds her own against Labs and other breeds. "They get after a duck," Bell says of goldens.

Time was, golden retrievers were given due respect as working gun dogs. But their pretty-boy good looks were also their biggest liability. It wasn't long before goldens were bred primarily for the bench or simply as pets. There is nothing wrong with either approach if you are not a hunter, but the hunting instinct in such pairings is rarely much of a consideration.

Today, those who want a golden puppy from hunting or field-trial stock have their work cut out for them. But the dogs are out there.

"You just have to look around for what you want," Bell says. "You can't just go to the newspaper and find a dog for hunting and competition. You just can't do that. That's true for all breeds, but with goldens in particular you have to find a reputable breeder. That's first. You can do that by self-knowledge—you may know a guy you've hunted with who has a great hunting female that he's breeding to a nice male—but barring that, you almost have to go by competitive titles: Amateur Field Champion (AFC), Field Champion (FC), Master Hunter (MH), Hunting Retriever Champion (HRCH), something that's recognized as a performance title." Bell also suggests looking on the Internet at Working Retriever Central, which includes links to several sites dedicated to goldens as well as listings of titled dogs.

Bell likes all kinds of retrievers, Labs included, and admits that the short-haired breeds have certain advantages ("Cockleburs are the golden's biggest drawback," he says), but long hair is not exclusive to golden retrievers. A number of working dogs, including spaniels and many pointing breeds, are long-haired animals, and even Chesapeakes can run to the wooly side. Since Bell is primarily a duck hunter, he can usually manage to avoid areas with heavy burr infestations, and he uses a four-pronged comb to remove the burrs his dogs do pick up. His dogs work remaining burrs out on their own during the ride home. Early on, Bell hunted pheasants as well, and it was there that he found that his dog's propensity to stick to the local flora was more than offset by it's keen sense of smell.

"I've said this before," Bell says, "and I'll stick by this contention, and I think everybody will agree: The golden has a better nose than the other (retrievers). One time, my cousin and his son were visiting us up at my property in northern Missouri. His son had shot at a duck and had apparently missed. So later on, we were walking back up to the house to go to breakfast, and Casey, my golden, was walking beside us.

All of a sudden, her head just snapped around and she took off back down toward the slough we'd been hunting, although at that point she was quite a ways from where we'd been, and she came back out with that duck. So, yes, I think a golden's nose is the greatest thing about them when it comes to hunting." This from a man who belongs to four different retriever clubs and competes against dogs in and around Missouri.

Bell is a people-person—he taught physics at a local community college for 15 years before getting bumped into administration. He says he works only enough now to support his dog habit. That could be why he is so in love with the breed, which, he says, he "got onto" back in 1974. Besides being working partners in the field, Bell's two goldens are his buddies at home too.

"Some dogs sit on the pro truck year around and just compete," he says. "Mine, we compete with the pros a lot, but the dogs get in the truck with me, drive up to the drive-in bank teller, where the lady sends out cookies to them in the little carrier. Then, they come in and jump on the couch with me and watch the NCAA basketball games."

But it all starts with breeding. "Some people object to the cost (for a good puppy from a top breeding), but if you get a better dog to start with, you’ll save a lot of money in the long run," Bell says. "When people take their time and buy from a good breeding ... I've just never seen a dog that wasn't pretty good to some level. It might not have been a field champion, but it made a pretty fine hunting companion."