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   The Truth About The Golden Retriever

December 13, 2002- December 21, 2002



Golden Retriever
Gordy the Golden Retriever is an original piece of work by Canadian cartoonist Ron Leishman.

Order a Golden Retriever t-shirt with Gordy in full color on the back. Check it out.

Do you remember how popularity was the Holy Grail when we were in school? If you are reading this article, it is highly unlikely that you ever found your way into the group that never had to wonder who they would sit with at lunch.

Like me, you were probably in the library hunkered down with a well-read copy of The Black Stallion or Beautiful Joe. (Remember that awful story of a dog that had his ears chopped off? What was that author thinking of when he wrote that books for kids!) My eyes were swollen for three years from repetitive sobbing over that sad tale. No wonder no one asked me to the dances.

The reality is, all of us are better off for not peaking socially at thirteen. We were really quite lucky. It has given us something to look forward to in our lives when we have finally gotten past the pain of rejection, somewhere around that 55th birthday.

The Golden Retriever, however, has not been so lucky. This is a breed that made it into the "in crowd." For more than twenty years, this breed has been popular. Sadly, popularity is even worse for dogs than it is for adolescents. It means that too many dogs get bred by people who do not have the breed's best interests at heart. As a result, the individual dogs become less healthy and less able to do their original job.



In this article, I am going to show how, from the very beginning in the 19th century, the Golden Retriever was put on the fast track to popularity by three historical events that led to it being seen worldwide as the "perfect family dog." Then, because it is my moral responsibility, I am going to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that is it not the perfect dog. This will, of course, require me to write many things that will annoy Golden Retriever lovers. But trust me. It is for your breed's own good. This will not be an easy assignment because the Golden is really a swell animal, but I will do my best to convince pet owners around the world that the Basenji, the Chow, or the Chihuahua is really a better bet.

The Fast Track to Popularity: Historical Event #1

The story begins in the latter half of the nineteenth century with a hunter named Sir Dudley Marjoriebanks. Going through school with a name like Dudley Marjoriebanks must have been hell, but that is another story. At some point, Dudley got a title: Lord Tweedmouth. My word. Fortunately, for Lord Tweedmouth, he had bigger things to think about than sounding silly. In fact, he had three very distinct thoughts:

  1. He was tired of wading in to collect his ducks from the icy Scottish water.

  2. He wanted a dog that would retrieve and deliver them to hand.

  3. As a man with a clear sense of style, he wanted the dog to be yellow. Not brown. Not red. Yellow.

It is easy to understand why he was sick of damp, puckery feet, and why, being a Lord and all, he wanted good retrieving service. The yellow thing seems a bit weird, but then I am an unlikely critic having been born without the gene for decorating and design.


Lord Tweedmouth, clearly a linear sequential dude, set out to create his dream dog. He kicked off the effort by crossing a Tweed Water Spaniel (one too many Tweed things, apparently, since this breed no longer with us) to a Wavy-Coated Retriever (later to become the Flat-Coat Retriever) who happened to be yellow in a breed that was typically black. Leave it to our color-obsessed Lord to have found her.

The breeding completed, the Lord Tweedmouth paced and crossed his fingers. In 63 days, four yellow pups popped out. There were several rounds of Schnapps to celebrate. Apparently while still under the influence, the pups were named Cowslip, Crocus, Primrose, and Ada after three flowers and Lord Tweedmouth's maiden aunt.

Cowslip, the best of the four, became the heart of the breeding program. In subsequent litters, the addition of Irish Setter, Bloodhound, and yellow Lab continued to improve a great experiment over the years. Our royal Lord kept a detailed diary of his breeding program. Here is what one can read about his efforts:

In the end, whether consciously or unconsciously, Lord Tweedmouth had created more than a good dog. He had created the perfect valet: a talented, cooperative, and stunningly handsome servant. When asked, our lovely Lord stated that the dog's only flaw was his inability to stand up on his hind legs and serve a dry martini after a day in the field.


The Fast Track to Popularity: Historical Event #2

If things had gone as they should, this new breed would have been named the Tweedmouth Very Yellow Retriever. This is a lumpy, unattractive name that could have kept the breed safely obscure. Few parents would have announced, "Let's go out and get a Tweedmouth for the children."

And for a while, it looked like things might go that way. A number of dogs were brought to the United States in the late 1800's. A hard-core group of dog fanciers got involved and influenced the development of the modern dog in relative anonymity. Then mistake number two was made.

Someone with a way with words officially tagged the breed the Golden Retriever (1920 in Britain and 1932 in the US). The Golden Retriever! Whoever thought of this name undoubtedly had a long and successful career in marketing. Now, rather than a homely name, the breed had a lovely name that conjures up images of a precious, valuable, warm metal and a pal who delivers important objects on command. The stage for popularity was set.

The Fast Track to Popularity: Historical Event #3

Despite these two factors, the breed had a few more years of obscurity. This all changed in 1974 when President Gerald Ford got and then fell over his Golden. In unison, the public said, "What a doofus. Nice dog!"

From that moment, Ford wisely decided not to run for President again, and the secret of the Golden was out. Since that time, the Golden has proliferated like fleas on a warm spring day. In the last twenty years, they have become the second most popular breed in the United States. Take a walk in the park, look in the back of the SUV on the freeway, or turn on the television and you come face-to-face with a grinning Golden.


Conducting Field Research

In conducting my initial research on the Golden, I ran into descriptions that would have made Lord Tweedmouth proud. Writers describe this breed as:

This was bad. If I was going to get the Golden off the popularity bandwagon, I had to find some chinks in the perfection.

I decided that I'd better spend some intensive time with some typical members of the breed. I accepted a job housesitting for a couple with two Goldens, one a middle-aged gentleman and the other a slightly geriatric fellow with gray face and a creaky hind-end.

My quest for imperfection did not go well initially. The dogs, in true Golden style, welcomed me into their home with mouthfuls of favorite stuffed toys. They ate their meals with gusto despite the absence of their owners. They stood like statues for brushing, and they held up their feet patiently as I pulled on booties that the owners requested for walks. (We will not venture into the psyche of this couple here although I would like to.) We ended each day in front of the TV with one Golden lying next to me and the other draped across my lap.


By mid-week, I knew these pups. They were kind, attentive, generous, and cheerful. There was not a single moment in which one of the dogs looked at me and said, "Hmmm, maybe not." There was not a hint of gloom or a demand to do something other than what we were doing, unless it was throwing the ball. Their thoughts sounded something like this:

Sit in the courtyard and read? Fine with us. Walk around the block? Hard to go wrong with that. Take those pills? I'd be glad to just eat them out of our hand.

I was on the verge of giving up and of buying into the great "Golden Retriever is the Perfect Dog" myth when, finally, the imperfections began to emerge. The unraveling began on day six of my stay. By the end of my housesitting and after several subsequent interviews with Golden owners, I had identified a substantive list of issues that led me to believe Goldens are not only not perfect but also barely suitable as a family pet.

Why the Golden Retriever is Not the Perfect Dog

Let's look at ten reasons that a family should strongly consider another breed:

1. The Golden suffers from major separation anxiety. Because Goldens are "people" dogs, they suffer when their people need to leave them behind, even under the best of conditions in their own home with a live-in servant. The Golden gives no hint that they are stressed until they explode with a hot spot the size of a dinner plate. If unable to work up a hot spot, the Golden will resort to a bout of diarrhea or another ailment serious enough to require a trip to the vet as long as it does not require missing a meal.

The dogs I was taking care of decided to split the responsibility, with one going for the world record on the size of a hot spot and the other going for the intestinal upset of the century. Equally annoying was that fact that Goldens managed to look incredibly apologetic for the trouble they were causing with their ailments. I wish I had a photo of my charge's expression as he was creating a mess on the neighbor's lawn that would require fourteen poop bags and a hose to clean.


2. The Golden is first and foremost a retriever. This means that they will make every effort to bring you everything not nailed down. However, they never return anything to its original location so a large portion of the day must be spent gathering and redecorating. During my recent housesitting, the dogs brought me all of the following:

3. The Border Collie has "the eye", an unblinking stare that is used to get what they want. The Golden has something equally unnerving, "The Eye Shift." During The Eye Shift, the Golden darts their eyes back and forth between you and any tennis ball. This is done without any perceptible movement of their heads. The Eye Shift can be done at any angle to accommodate a ball on the floor or hidden high on a bookshelf. It is impossible to hide a ball from a Golden, and every effort to do so will be defeated. Living with the Eye Shift is like living with a non-stop tennis match. Golden Retriever owners learn to ignore it or run the risk of developing vertigo.

4. When things are quiet, the Golden Retriever likes to drape in your lap or, at the very least, rest their fifty-pound head. They are big dogs and it only takes about ten minutes before your legs go numb. After watching a movie, one is reduced to crawling to bed or the kitchen or waiting until feeling returns with a painful burst of pins and needles.

5. The Golden makes a terrible watchdog. They like everyone. A Golden will try to work the Eye Shift on a burglar with some patter that sounds like this:

Hey, could you stop filling that bag for just a minute and toss the ball on that shelf for me, please, please, please. Yes, that shelf. Just follow my eyes. Right there. Right there. Yes!


6. This breed is known for their versatility. They will do their best at any type of work they are offered. Guide Dog? Sure. Agility? Can do. Obedience? How long should I stay? Hunting. My life's work. Tracking. Where shall we start? This puts great responsibility on the Golden owner to get involved in something. Goldens make their owners feel guilty or at least they should.

7. The breed has fragmented into at least two distinctly different types that look strikingly different. The lighter boned, darker colored dogs bred to work in the field look very different than their show bred relatives with their Hollywood starlet blond coats and heavier bone. If you decide on a Golden, you will have to make the tough choice of whether you want to join the camp of the beauty queens or the athletes.

8. The death of a Golden presents a serious problem, beyond the mere fact that they have died. When Goldens die, they are automatically transformed in their friends' minds from a perfect dog to sainthood. All deceased Goldens are known as Saint Somebody. This makes it very difficult to get another dog. After all, who can match up to the memory of Saint Veda?

9. This breed will sell its soul for food. Julie Cairns writes in her book, The Golden Retriever, All That Glitters that, "… gluttony is a common trait among Goldens, and many will eat as long as food is available." Now that is an understatement. A friend's Golden, Saint Hector, highlighted this trait when he unwrapped a pound and a half box of See's candies and ate every single item. Miraculously, he suffered no ill effects from the chocolate. A Golden who stumbles on an unattended dog food bag is a candidate for exploding. An increasing number of Goldens have been appearing on street corners sporting signs announcing that they will trade their services for food.

10. The truth is that the adjectives describing Goldens such as sunny and joyful are accurate. However, this is not necessarily good. The bottom line is that, like a good valet, the breed has few thoughts of its own.


I must, at this point, share my personal prejudices with you. I like both dogs and people with opinions of their own. I am amused that one of my dogs will look at me to make sure he knows my whereabouts, but when beckoned, will turn on his heel on another mission of greater importance to him. This does not mean that he is not well trained. He comes like a spitfire in the agility ring--well, most of the time-- but he has things that interest him, and things that he wants to do. After a week with the two Goldens, I was begging for a small act of disobedience.

This is not to say that the occasional Golden will not show a hint of sneakiness like Hector did with the candy. Another close friend also had a lovely field Golden who would carry all available underwear from the laundry basket to the dog bed while her owner was off at work. Surrounded by many garments, she would happily snooze the day away. One day, when caught red handed, she just opened her mouth and let the underwear fall out as if they has gotten in there by accident. However, as soon as the coast was clear, she went back to surrounding herself with the great smells of mom.

In general, however, the Golden is remarkably interested in what you would like to have done and how they can make that happen. As a result, if you like a bit of fire, an occasional flash of independence in a dog, you may find that life with the Golden induces narcolepsy.


In Conclusion

OK, you Golden owners. I can hear you hollering from here, "Hey, Goldens can be bad." That's good! That is the unified voice we need to hear. I would suggest a national ad campaign to change the perception about this breed.

Here are some ideas for ads in magazines, newspapers, and along the freeway:

If we combine this ad campaign with switching in the breed's name back to the Tweedmouth Very Yellow Retriever, we may stand a chance of convincing the world that this is not the perfect dog.


In writing this article, I have drawn heavily from The Golden Retriever, All That Glitters by Julie Cairns and Golden Retrievers for Dummies by Nona Kilgore Bauer. Both books are excellent resources if you would like to know more.


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