If our retrievers arent athletes, Webster must have redefined the word. Either that, or Ive labored my entire life under a deeply flawed understanding of what the term athlete means. Athletes, if Im not mistaken, run, jump, swim, lift, climb, and negotiate obstacles. They are expected to display speed but also stamina, strength, and flexibility. Tenacity, determination, intensity, and the courage to push to the edge of physical limitsif not beyond themare all qualities of elite athletes.

Over and above these foundational abilities, theres the matter of having the skills necessary to play the game, whether its kissing a jumper off the glass, roasting a drive down the middle of the fairway, or churning through icy slush to retrieve a greenhead that sailed way back in the cattails. A good retriever has to perform whether he sees a duck fall or not, whether the bird is stone dead or still alive and furiously intent on staying that way, and whether the hour is breaking dawn or coming dusk.

Darn right our retrievers are athletesphenomenal, world-class ones. But what makes a canine athlete great? Or, to frame it a little more precisely, what are the qualities that distinguish great retrievers from all the rest, and where do these qualities come from? Is it a matter of nature (breeding), nurture (training and experience), or some measure of both?

I put these questions to a cross section of people who have long and varied experience as retriever breeders, trainers, hunters, field trialers, and authors. Their responses were enlightening and thought provoking. Heres what they had to say.

Photo Dan Towsley


One of the most honored wildlife artists of the contemporary era, Tom Quinn has a style thats all his own in everything he does. His book The Working Retrievers is an acknowledged classic, while his dynamic black Lab Nakai Anny was inducted into the Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1995. Based on his experience, Quinn believes that great retrievers are born with exceptional athletic abilities, just like star players in professional sports.

If youve done your homework and identified a well-bred litter, one pup, perhaps more, will be what I call super coordinated. Its a gift, and it comes from who knows where, Quinn says. Its like pro athletes who can catch a ball with one hand on a dead run. And its an ingredient for a really good dog. Why? Because when theyre carrying out a task, running hard over, above, and through obstacles in order to make a retrieve, the super-coordinated dogs dont see the problem. They sail over it. Theyll go straight up a cliff; theyll leap a brush pile. They dont have to stop and think how am I going to do this? It just comes naturally.

Risky Business Ruby, a national champion that I owned for a while, had it, and it just makes the dogs job so much easier. If theyre willing students, theyll learn faster, too, because theyre not perplexed by physical challenges. Obviously, no dog can realize his potential without really good training, but Im convinced that athletic ability helps expedite the process.

I also think that exceptional marking ability is an ingredient of this. And, like super coordination, its genetic. Marking can be taught to some degree, but the trained marker is never going to match the dog who has an innate gift for it.


Some large retriever breeds can outrun the fastest humans. Athletic Labs and goldens can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour for short distances.


Many retriever breeds have double coats, consisting of a long outer coat that repels water and a shorter, softer undercoat that serves as an extra layer of insulation. This enables retrievers to withstand much colder conditions than many other breeds.

Photo Tom Magee


In addition to training gun dogs at her Rocky Mountain Training Kennel in Colorado, Erica Christensen has bred her Quartermoon line of golden retrievers for more than 40 years. Equally at home on land and in water, her goldens actively hunt in all parts of the country and have earned numerous hunt test titles as well. Throughout her career as a breeder, Christensen has observed that the best retrievers all share a strong hunting drive.

Fundamentally, I believe that exceptional retrievers are the ones closest to their wild ancestors, or most like the dogs who were the beginning of the breed, Christensen says. My goldens are great examples. Theyre on the smallish side, their coats tend to be curly, and theyre not classically beautiful. But they hunt.

Another characteristic of exceptional retrievers is they have an innate ability to find birds. On a certain stream on my hunting lease, I have watched one of my females, Reddi, jump in and pull cripples out of their hidey-holes along the cut-banks. Folks would ask how I taught her to do that, but there was no training involved; she did it instinctively.

Finally, exceptional retrievers must possess tenacityan underlying perseverance. It never occurs to them that theres a bird they cant get. These are the dogs that climb trees, dive completely underwater, and burrow into holes to retrieve birdsand yes, Ive seen my dogs do all those things.


Mike Lardy is a living legend. The youngest person ever inducted into the Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame, he has won a record seven National Open Retriever Championships and trained more than 100 Field Champions. Above all else, he believes that intelligence is the number-one factor that determines how well a retriever will perform, both in the marsh and in competition.

Certainly, desire is essentialthey have to want to do the work and they have to have the courage to enter cold water and do all the things that are expected of them, whether its in field trials or hunting, Lardy says. But they also have to be really smart and know what theyre doing.

The really top-notch dogs Ive trained and handled have all been exceptionally intelligent. Field trials provide opportunities to reveal a dogs intelligence in ways that you rarely encounter in a hunting situation. Although when you do get into those difficult hunting situations, you can see the difference between the really smart dogs and the ones who arent quite as smart.


Researchers have concluded that retriever breeds are among the most intelligent dogs. Studies have revealed that especially intelligent dogs can understand the meanings of up to 250 words.

Photo Jim Thompson


The founding editor of Retriever Journal magazine and the author of several books about wingshooting and gun dogs, Steve Smith has been a prominent member of the outdoor press for more than 40 years. Smith has hunted with many talented retrievers throughout his career, but the quality that he values most in a gun dog is versatility.

Im a hunter who doesnt compete in field trials or hunt tests, but as someone who hunts both the uplands and lowlands, I need a dog with a variety of skills, Smith says. Poor dogs have some, average dogs have many, and good dogs may have all but one. There are only a very few that have all of them. Im talking range in the field, obeying the whistle on water and land, taking casts, basic obedienceyou know the list.

I think, like so much in life, the great ones are those that dont necessarily do everything perfectly; they just dont do anything really wrong. The difference may be a slight one, but its there nevertheless.

A Well-Mannered Companion

According to Mike Stewart, who trained Ducks Unlimiteds dogs, Drake and Deke, great retrievers combine an exceptional game-finding ability with a high level of compatibility with people. A dog thats outstanding at recovering birds but a nuisance in the blind isnt what I call a great dog. Barking, howling, whining, not staying put, breaking, scuffling with other dogsthats totally unacceptable, Stewart says. Your dog is your partner; he should work with you and complement the hunt, not detract from it. Thats what I mean by compatibility. You can tell me all about the ribbons your dogs won and all the fantastic retrieves hes made, but if hes a nuisance nobody will want to be in the duck blind with him.

Photo imagesonthewildside.com


A household name among Ducks Unlimited members, Mike Stewart is the proprietor of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, and the author of Sporting Dog and Retriever Training: The Wildrose Way. Specializing in British Labradors, hes been a professional trainer and breeder for more than 30 years. When it comes to performing consistently at a high level, Stewart believes there is no substitute for the experience a retriever acquires through time in the field.

Certainly the genetics have to be there. Scenting ability, love of the water, cold-hardiness, athleticism, the desire to find gameall the natural qualitiesare very important, Stewart says. The trainers job is to bring out the dogs natural ability, hone it, and make it applicable to the kind of hunting the dogs intended to do. Every dog is a combination of qualities that are intuitive and qualities that are created.

But the really great game dogs have a knowledge of birds. Theyve hunted a lot; they know what birds are going to do in a given situation. For instance, if youre hunting on a river, they know what the current is going to do. A good dog will go to the splash; a great dog will know to go beyond the splash in the direction of the current. They know what a bird will do when it falls in the brush, or when its diving. They know how to work the wind, how to efficiently chop through thin ice, and so on.

To get from good to great, a dog needs hunting experience. You cant have a game dog unless youre hunting game. You can throw all the bumpers you want in training, but a great retriever is a bird dog.


The noses of some retriever breeds have more than 200 million scent receptors, which is about 40 times the number humans have. While almost impossible to quantify, the olfactory senses of retrievers could be anywhere from 10,000 to 1 million times more sensitive than ours.


Swedish researchers identified five distinct personality traits for dogs. These include playfulness, curiosity/fearlessness, chase proneness, sociability, and aggressiveness.