Everything You Need to Know About the Golden Retriever

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Golden Retriever dog

During the nineteenth century, there was an ongoing quest among the British gentry for the perfect hunting dog. As a result, most of today’s retrievers and many other hunting dogs have their roots in these early efforts.


Many attempted this goal by acquiring and breeding good hunting dogs, using outcrosses to other breeds in an effort to bring in other desirable qualities. Sometimes this worked, more often it did not. That the exact origins of several of the retriever breeds are unclear is due to the somewhat haphazard or occasionally secretive methods used at the time.

The origin of the Golden Retriever, in contrast, lies in the careful work of one man, Sir Dudley Marjoribanks (later the first Lord Tweedmouth) who also set out to breed a good hunting dog.

A colorful folk tale has him buying Russian circus dogs, reportedly 100+ lbs., 30 inches at the shoulder, pale blonde and extremely intelligent as the foundation for his breed.

This fanciful story even appears in the GRCA’s Yearbook as late as 1950. However, examination of his Stud Book, covering the years from 1835 to 1890 and finally made publicly available in 1952, records no such purchase but instead details a careful line-breeding program unusual at that time and place for dogs.

In 1865, Lord Tweedmouth purchased a yellow retriever “Nous” from an unregistered litter of otherwise black Wavy-Coated Retrievers. Nous was later bred with “Belle”, a Tweed Water Spaniel, and the resulting litter produced four bitches that were instrumental to his breeding program.

One of them, “Cowslip,” he bred back to for over twenty years. Over the years, several outcrosses, to black Wavy-Coated Retrievers, an Irish Setter, and later a sandy-colored Bloodhound occurred as he sought to improve and fix his new breed.

The coat textures of the Goldens of this time reportedly varied, as did the color, which ranged from fox red to light cream.

The Wavy-Coated Retrievers were the ancestors of today’s Flat-Coat Retriever and they, in turn, were developed from crossing setters with the lesser St. John’s Water Dog of Newfoundland.

The Tweed Water Spaniel, now extinct, came from early water dogs crossed with land or field spaniels to develop Water Spaniels. These spaniels were developed in the Tweed River area and were described by contemporaries as a small liver-colored retriever (“liver” at the time signifying any shade from yellow to brown).

The Kennel Club of England accepted the first Goldens for registration in 1903. At the time, they were registered as “Flat Coats-Golden”. By 1904 the first Golden placement at a field trial was recorded.

Among the first shown in conformation were Culham Brass and Culham Copper. In 1911, they were recognized as a separate breed, at first called “Yellow or Golden Retrievers,” but within several years the “Yellow” was dropped from their name.

The first Golden in Canada seems to have been brought over by Hon. Archie Marjoribanks in 1881. The Canadian Kennel Club first recognized the breed in 1927. In 1928, Mr. M.M. Armstrong of Winnipeg took an interest in the breed and his Gilnockie kennel was started.

At his death, Gilhockie was transferred to Col. Samuel Magoffin’s kennel in Denver, Colorado, and from this he eventually imported his first Golden, Am/Can CH Speedwell Pluto.

The Golden Retriever Club of Canada was formed in 1958 with the original name of the Golden Retriever Club of Ontario. In 1960 it became the Golden Retriever Club of Canada and to this day has grown steadily.

Goldens have been in the US since about 1890, with the earliest recorded dog being Hon. Archie Marjoribanks’s “Lady” in 1894. The first AKC registered Golden was Robert Appleton’s, Lomberdale Blondin. But there was no serious interest in them until about 1930 when Magoffin’s import, CH Speedwell Pluto, captured widespread interest.

The Golden Retriever was subsequently recognized by the AKC in 1932. At that time, they were a rare breed.

In 1938, a group of Golden Retriever fanciers formed the Golden Retriever Club of America (GRCA) which is today among the largest of the parent breed clubs in the AKC, numbering over 5000 members.

Characteristics and Temperament

Golden Retriever dogDogs, in general, are pack-oriented animals. They need to interact with their pack on a regular basis to be secure.

Goldens, in particular, have been bred through the years to make an excellent companion for people – whether it is to sit quietly in a duck blind until it is time to retrieve or as a service dog or in any other capacity.

Because of this, they, even more so than some other breeds, need to interact with their people. Goldens are particularly forgiving dogs and will allow you to make many mistakes while still wanting nothing more than to please and be acknowledged for it with a scratch behind the ear.

As a testament to their desire to please, the first three dogs to obtain Obedience Trial Championships were Golden Retrievers.

Because Goldens are such people-oriented dogs, it’s important that they live WITH their owners. A Golden relegated to the backyard while his family is in the house is an unhappy Golden.

It is imperative that your Golden be regularly included in family activities. Once fully grown, they are a robust dog and will enjoy many activities with you such as walking, hiking, jogging, hunting, etc.

As is common with the retriever breeds, this is a breed slow to fully mature both mentally and physically. At a year of age, they will have their full height, but their full weight will be another year or two in coming.

Mentally, they remain puppies for a long time (up to two or three years of age) and many retain a very playful and clownish personality for most of their lives.

Because of their kindly and easy going nature, Goldens are a popular breed. Many people, in hoping to cash in on this popularity, breed Goldens without regard to their temperament or other good attributes.

You should be very selective in picking out a puppy from a breeder. Your best sources for Goldens are from a breed rescue organization that carefully screens its dogs, or from a reputable breeder who is dedicated to the overall improvement of the breed.

The choice you make now will be one you live with for the next decade, so choose carefully.

Medical Problems

Hip Dysplasia

The term hip dysplasia means poor development of the hip joint and describes an inherited developmental disease in young dogs of many different breeds. Unsound hip joints are a common problem in many breeds, and hip dysplasia can be a serious problem in any dog that is to be trained for a demanding activity.

Hip dysplasia may be diagnosed by x-ray between six months and one year of age, but this is not entirely reliable, and dogs intended for breeding should be x-rayed when fully mature. Two years of age is considered to be the minimum age for accurate determination of sound hips.

The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals is an organization with trained veterinarians that examine thousands of xrays and grade the hips they see. Dogs that are past a minimum age and have good hips are certified Fair, Good, or Excellent; hips that show signs of arthrosis and hip dysplasia do not get certified.

Needless to say, both parents of the puppy you are considering should have OFA certification. The more OFA numbers in the pedigree (including littermates of the parents, grandparents, and previous offspring of either parent), the better off your puppy are.

However, as the inheritance of hip dysplasia involves multiple genes, breeding only OFA certified dogs only lessens the chances of HD in the puppies, not eliminates.

Dogs not intended for breeding but who will be active in obedience, agility, hunting, etc. should be screened between 6-12 months of age. This way if there is a problem that shows up this early, you have several options for corrective surgery that are best done at this age.

And if your pup shows no signs of hip dysplasia at this point, you can more comfortably continue with your planned activities without worrying that you are making a problem worse down the line.

If your puppy has a persistent, unexplainable limp, he should be xrayed to determine if hip dysplasia or something else is the cause. On the other hand, Goldens and other retriever breeds often seem to have high pain thresholds and do not show signs of pain.

An x-ray does not always show you how your dog feels, as many dysplastic Goldens are completely asymptomatic, especially when younger. Others that do display symptoms can often be helped with either medicinal or surgical intervention to alleviate the pain.

Eye Disease

Some Goldens carry genes for Central Progressive Retinal Atrophy (CPRA) which is a progressive deterioration of the light-receptive area (retina) of the eye and may result in complete blindness at a young age.

Hereditary cataracts are also common eye problems in the Golden Retriever. Examination by a Board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist is necessary to determine if the cataract is of concern from a genetic standpoint. If there are any questions, the dog should not be bred.

Golden Retrievers used for breeding stock should be examined annually until at least eight years of age or longer, as hereditary eye problems can develop at varying ages.

Dogs that have undergone examination by a Board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist and found to be free of hereditary eye disease can be registered with the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF).

Note that not all forms of cataracts disqualify a dog from getting a CERF number; you should ask to see a copy of the paperwork the vet filled out (the original is sent to CERF).

The breeder should be able to show you the paperwork on both parents for eye examinations. It’s important to verify that the dogs are being examined annually and not just once. If the breeder has older dogs, ask if they are still being examined as well.


Seizure disorders may arise from a variety of environmental factors including viral infections, other diseases, and trauma. While an isolated seizure does not necessarily constitute a problem, dogs subject to recurring seizures should not be bred.

Veterinarians can prescribe medication to control recurring seizures, however, medication is not always completely effective. Epilepsy generally does not affect a dog’s health or longevity, but all such dogs should be immediately neutered and not used for breeding stock: if it’s hereditary, you don’t want to pass it along to the pups’; if not, pregnancy increases the risk of a seizure, endangering both her and the pups’ lives.

Subvalvular Aortic Stenosis (SAS)

SAS, a hereditary heart disease, is known to occur in the Golden Retriever breed. There is no registry for screenings for SAS, however, breeders have begun to have their dogs screened by Board-Certified Veterinary Cardiologists, and OFA is setting up a Heart Registry program as of mid-1996.

The usual screening is auscultation (listening to the heart with a stethescope). If there is any suspicion in the cardiologist’s mind, an echocardiogram is run to rule out any problems. The typical proof that a breeder has had their breeding stock screened for SAS is a letter signed by a Board-Certified Veterinary Cardiologist indicating that the animal is, in their opinion, free from SAS.


Hypothyroidism is characterized by atrophy or malfunction of the thyroid gland. Clinical symptoms include obesity, lethargy, and/or coat problems. Affected animals may also have various reproductive problems including irregular or absent heat cycle and lack of fertility in both male and female.

Diagnosis of hypothyroidism is by laboratory tests measuring levels of T3 and T4 (produced by the thyroid gland) in the blood. Treatment consists of daily administration of oral thyroid supplement.

When treated successfully the prognosis is excellent and the dog’s lifespan is normal. Lifelong thyroid supplementation may be required.

Many clinically normal, healthy Goldens may test slightly under the accepted range of “normal” T3 and T4 levels and it is quite possible that the normal values for this breed may be slightly lower than the values used for the general canine population.

There are some dogs that will have epileptic attacks when hypothyroid and stop seizuring when put on thyroid. While there is a link, the hypothyroid condition does not cause epilepsy, and the dog should still be monitored for epilepsy.


Skin allergies are very common in Golden Retrievers and the offending allergens are numerous – a flea bite, airborne pollen, dust, mold, food. Symptoms can range from constant biting, licking and scratching to constant, chronic ear infections.

In many cases, diet can play a large role in the allergic dog. If you suspect you have an allergic animal, consult with a canine allergist to determine the actual extent of the problem.

Allergies coupled with low thyroid levels are commonly seen and it is often worth testing for the other if you see the one in your dog.


Because of the Golden’s coat, you must regularly groom your dog. Such grooming will also help reduce the amount of overall shedding and prevent painful mats from occurring.

You should be sure to start grooming in puppyhood even when it’s not strictly necessary so that he quickly learns to enjoy the process and not to put up a fuss.

If you groom regularly, about once a week or two, the whole procedure will take about 1/2 hour. Brush a little daily while your dog is shedding and that will help control the amount shedded. Also if your Golden picks up burrs and other nasties while outside, take a few moments right away after you return to comb them out.

Start with a thorough brushing. Use a pin brush on the featherings, chest, ears, and tail. Use a slicker on the rest of the body. After brushing, you can use a comb to remove the more loose coat.

Use this opportunity to check for fleas, ticks, and incipient skin problems. Goldens seem to be especially prone to hot spots. Inspect and clean ears at this time too, and trim your dog’s nails.

If you plan to bathe your Golden, brush him thoroughly first: wet tangles only become tighter and painful. Always use a shampoo formulated for dogs since shampoos for humans will dry the skin out.

Goldens are double coated breeds and should not be bathed often to avoid losing the undercoat. In many cases, you can simply wash the legs and undersides if they are dirty, wait for the dirt to dry and brush it out, or (after brushing) rinse the dog off with plain water and no shampoo. A properly textured and maintained coat should clean up easily.

Goldens with the proper coat texture should not have problems with matting if they are regularly groomed. However, a coat that is softer and silkier than the desired standard will mat easily: some owners have reported the overnight appearance of mats.

Smaller mats may be picked out with a metal comb if the dog is patient enough. Larger mats will need to be removed. Don’t use scissors as it is too easy to injure the dog if he moves at the wrong time.

Commercially available are mat breakers (check the mail order catalogs) which can safely cut through mats and make them easy to remove. Places to look for mats include behind the ear, along the feathering, especially in the rear, and the tail.

For dogs with persistent problems, you may need to brush the problem areas more frequently, or even trim them to some extent. It may help to find a groomer you like and trust and ask them for advice. Since mats grow larger and tighten the trapped fur, they are eventually painful to your dog.

They also serve as an excellent area for fleas and skin irritations to start, so keeping your dog mat-free is important.

Tips: Using a flea comb is a good way to check for fleas on your dog, remove undercoats, keep tabs on the skin’s condition and minimize mats, all in one! If you get your puppy from a breeder, ask the breeder to demonstrate grooming techniques (most good ones will insist on doing so anyway).

Also read: Everything to know about how to groom a Golden Retriever

Frequently Asked Questions

How much do they shed?

Goldens shed a lot. They have an abundance of coat as well as feathering and they will produce a more or less constant amount of hair in your house. Some of this can be alleviated with a regular and thorough brushing, but if you have an aversion to dog hair in your house, a Golden will not be a good choice.

Are they good with kids?

Most Goldens are wonderful with kids, especially when they have been regularly exposed to well-behaved children as puppies. However, they are large and excitable and may easily knock children over if they jump up to lick their faces or propel a toddler along with a solid whack of their tails.

Never leave very young children and dogs together unattended. Just as the dog could easily accidentally hurt the children, so could they hurt him by poking him in the eyes or ears or pulling his tail.

How much exercise do they need?

They are a sporting breed and as such need plenty of exercise. They will benefit best from regular periods of high-intensity activity once they are fully grown. This includes a quick session of fetching, romping with other dogs, running along the beach and so on.

You do need to be careful with puppies under 18 months or so; while they need exercise, it must not be forced or sustained. For example, you cannot take them jogging or biking with you until they are fully grown, or you will damage their joints

How about swimming?

Most Goldens love to swim, and it’s an excellent exercise for them, even when young. Introduce them to water and let them explore on their own. If they are unsure about the water, you might get in and swim out a bit to encourage them, but let them take their own time.

Younger puppies might be more standoffish to water than they would be in another month or two; that’s normal. Never toss a dog into water that doesn’t want to go in! Sometimes a water crazy older dog is perfect to have along to help teach your dog to appreciate swimming.

You might also try tossing in a toy for him to get, but be prepared to go out and retrieve it yourself if he doesn’t!

If you have a swimming pool, just remember that the dog hair in the pool will mean you need to clean the pool more frequently if your dog goes in it a lot. Be sure that your dog knows how to get out of the swimming pool; it’s not a good idea to leave him unattended with access to the pool.

Do they bark a lot?

Not typically, but they can if they are bored.

How do they do in hot weather?

As long as they have access to shade, free moving air, and water, they will do just fine in the heat. Don’t exercise them in the heat of the day, and be sure you have water with you when you do exercise them later.

They’re supposed to be good in the obedience ring, aren’t they?

Goldens are typically very eager to please their owners. This translates into their being both relatively easy to train for obedience and to having a good attitude in the ring. While not all Goldens make good competitive obedience dogs, you will see many of them in the obedience ring.

Are they any good as hunting dogs? In field trials?

Goldens do not do as well as Labradors in the field trials which are, in all fairness, biased toward the sort of work the Labrador was bred to do. But many Goldens make excellent hunters in real hunting situations.

Is there a split in hunting and show lines? What should I look for?

There is something of a split between show, field, and even obedience lines. As with any sport that becomes highly competitive, the specialization intensifies. With Goldens, that means the show dogs will have more coat and bone and be more laid back.

The field dogs generally have less coat, more drive and be intense “birdy” (interested in birds) with good noses. The obedience dogs often have less coat and a high drive but may or may not be birdy.

You should consider carefully the differences between the different lines when picking your own dog out so that there are no surprises. Looking at the parents and any of their previous offspring is a good approach.

But no matter which lines you are interested in, you should try to find the puppies that are well balanced with correct structure and confirmation as the base.

Whether you are interested in pet, show, hunting, etc., will determine other characteristics that you want. But an unsound dog does not make a good show dog, hunting dog, obedience dog, or pet!

Do males or females make better pets (what are the differences)?

Besides the physical differences, personal preference is probably the only big one here. Many people think that the males are slightly more “teddy-bear like” than the females. Neither should show any type of aggression (including dog aggression).

If left unaltered, females will sometimes show a change in personality when they are coming into heat and when they are in heat. Most often, they seem to become a bit more clingy. During this time, they may not tolerate males sniffing around them or they may be extremely interested in males.

If a male is left intact and used for breeding purposes and there are another intact male and a bitch in heat, the males might show some competitive aggression. However, neutered males and females will mostly differ in size (the females will be smaller) and their individual personalities.

Both males and females are good with children. For your best predictor of personality, be sure to ask about and try to meet and interact with the puppy’s sire and dam. There are tests that can be done to help determine the puppy’s dominance, independence, and abilities.

Be sure to ask your breeder about these. Also, socializing the puppy and general obedience training are always important.

What genetic screenings should you look for when puppy hunting?

The “big three” in Goldens are OFA, CERF, and SAS. The parents of the puppies you are considering should be cleared for at least these three. (For further information on these and other problems, see the Medical Problems section.)

Other things breeders should or may take into consideration in their breeding stock include Von Willebrand’s, epilepsy, allergies, skin disorders. You should ask your breeder about these.

Why does your two Goldens look so different?

The Golden is supposed to be a mid-to-large size dog, suitable for sitting in a duck blind all day with, as well as small enough to be able to haul over the side of a boat all wet (after a retrieve).

The standard has a range of acceptable sizes, for females, it is 21 1/2-22 1/2 inches at the shoulder, for males it is 23-24 inches at the shoulder, with an inch allowance either way.

So, just in size, if you have a small female (which could be 20 1/2 inches, about 45 pounds) and a large male (which could be 25 inches, about 95 pounds) there is a BIG difference. Now, if you add variations in coat, which may come from the “type” of breeding, you can get quite a physical difference.

Through the years, breeders have bred for different qualities. Some breeders are interested purely in physical appearance for show purposes. Since “big and hairy” looks stunning in the show ring and wins, these breeders have bred for those characteristics. Other breeders have bred only for field ability.

Since the smaller (and often darker colored) dogs have been the ones that are faster and flashier in the field, these breeders have tended to breed for those characteristics. There are other types, as well, but these are the most common.

Just because a dog is of the “conformation” type does NOT mean that it cannot work in the field, just as being of the “field” type does NOT mean that that dog cannot win in the show ring.

When do they grow up?

Physically, Goldens are completely mature by 2 years of age. Mentally, well, that depends on the individual, but usually not before 3 years of age. Even though Goldens are physically mature by 2, you may notice changes in them well past that time. 

Remember, by nature Goldens are fun-loving and happy-go-lucky, so their perceived maturity may be less because of it.

Read my ultimate guide to Golden Retriever growth chart if you want to track your dog’s weight gain.

What are hot spots?

They look like open, oozing sores about the size of a quarter or larger on the dog. Treatment involves keeping the sore clean and dry until it heals. Shaving the area promotes air circulation; both Sulfodene and witch hazel have been recommended as astringent cleaners.

You should avoid ointments and other topical applications which would keep the area moist.

Hot spots are often caused by allergies. This can be allergies to fleas (most common), allergies to food, or hormonal (including thyroid, adrenal, and even testosterone levels) imbalances.

Goldens, especially those with allergies, seem to be subsceptible to hot spots. A book that is often recommended in helping to deal with allergies is Dr. Plechner’s Pet Allergies.

Further reading: Golden Retriever mixes

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