The breed dates back to 1868 and a litter of puppies bred by the first Baron Tweedmouth. An anniversary trial showed how the dogs are faring today
What are considered the first golden retriever pups were born 150 years ago, and enthusiasts marked the occassion with an anniversary trial. David Tomlinson joined the celebrations, while considering how golden retrievers are faring today.
Dogs don’t have to be from working stock to be successful in the field. Read in praise of show-bred gundogs, as David Tomlinson joined show-bred golden retrievers on the moors and found them to be impressive workers.
Is the golden retriever a lost gundog? This was a question posed to me by a friend, who remarked that they were popular when he started shooting 40 years ago but, in recent years, he’s hardly seen one in the shooting field. Most of those he has encountered have been show-bred individuals that were “very white, very big, and quite dim”. He added, “they have a reputation – well deserved – for uncertain temperament. A friend summarily shot his after it attacked his two-year-old child.”
That’s a pretty damning indictment of one of the most handsome of all the gundog breeds, but is it fair? I’m not sure that it is, and I speak from some experience. Some years ago I wrote an article lamenting the fact that most of the so-called golden retrievers that I had seen at Crufts that year weren’t golden at all, and suggested that the majority would probably bolt at the sound of a gun.
These comments didn’t go down well with a number of exhibitors, and I was sent numerous photographs of show-bred yellows (sorry, goldens) working in the shooting field. I was even challenged to get out and see some of these dogs in action. As a result, I joined one of my critics, Angie Cooper (now secretary of the Golden Retriever Club UK), for a day picking-up grouse on the North Yorkshire moors. She was accompanied by a dozen goldens, of which eight were bred from show lines, one was pure working and three of mixed show/working stock.
It was easy to tell the working from the show dogs by their lighter build. Show goldens are not only bigger and heavier but almost invariably have paler coats, too. If you see a dog that’s a burnished golden then it’s almost certainly a working-bred animal. I was amused to discover that goldens like to be as dark as possible and when Cooper’s dogs are out on the moor they never fail to wallow in any water they can find, and the muddier it is the happier they are.
When it came to working, well, I couldn’t really tell the difference. All the dogs, regardless of their breeding, worked with equal enthusiasm. Perhaps the working-bred dogs were a little quicker or sharper on the whistle but if they were I didn’t notice. These were dogs that performed impressively throughout a long day, and they would have been an asset on any shoot. This is, of course, a reflection of the fact that they had been well trained but also proof that they hadn’t lost their working ability.
Quite how many show-bred goldens get the chance to work is debatable, but I suspect that it’s more proportionately than is the case with labradors. Though the golden may be our second most popular breed of retriever, just 7,846 puppies were registered with the Kennel Club last year, compared with more than 35,000 labradors. When it comes to the show ring, the golden is the most popular breed of all, invariably outnumbering labradors.
What is strange is why we don’t see more golden retrievers in the shooting field, as a good golden, trained to the highest standard, is every bit a match for even the best labrador. They first ran in field trials in 1910 or 1911 but it was to be a number of years before they began to make their mark. It wasn’t until 1937 that one won the IGL retriever championship for the first time. This was a three-year-old dog called Haulstone Larry, handled by Mrs J Eccles. Since then, three others have repeated the feat, in 1954, 1982 and 2006. The 1954 winner was June
Atkinson with her home-bred dog FTCh Mazurka of Wynford. Atkinson remains the doyenne of the breed, having qualified dogs for the championship on 36 occasions, a total only bettered by the two Johns (Halstead and Halsted). Atkinson’s famous Holway kennel is continued by her son, Robert.
The 2006 IGL winner was FTCh Marcus May Be of Wadesmill, owned by Max Wright and handled by his son, Andrew. In recent years, three or four goldens have usually qualified for the championship but in a competition so heavily dominated by labradors the odds are long against a golden win.
Quite why the labrador is so much more popular as a shooting dog is something of a mystery. It’s certainly less expensive to buy a well-bred labrador than it is a golden, while the fact that there are not many working-bred goldens available is also a drawback. One disadvantage of the golden retriever is the long, lustrous coat, which requires far more attention than that of a labrador. Goldens also moult profusely, leaving numerous blond hairs behind them. They are not the ideal breed for working on muddy shoots. When it comes to health, there’s not a lot to choose between the two breeds, with cancer the major killer for both. The average length of life is similar, with most reaching 11 or 12.
It has been suggested that the golden retriever’s good looks have been its downfall as its popularity has led to unscrupulous breeders producing puppies purely for profit, neglecting such important aspects as temperament, let alone working ability. Golden-retriever rage syndrome is a fact but is rare, and it should never be forgotten that the breed is one of the most versatile, excelling in such disciplines as medical sniffer dogs (cancer), PAT dogs, Help the Heroes assistance dogs, Canine Partners, 9/11 Rescue Dogs, Mountain Rescue Search Dogs and Guide Dogs for the Blind (the later favours a golden crossed with a labrador, “producing the most successful guide dog of all, combining many of the great traits of both breeds”). Such is the breed’s success it’s all too easy to forget that this was a dog originally bred to be a tough, working gundog.
As with so many gundogs developed in the 19th century, its history and origins are far from clear. For many years it was believed that the ancestors of the breed were a troupe of dogs from a travelling Russian circus. According to an article published in The Field in 1912, Dudley Marjoribanks (later first Baron Tweedmouth) “saw them in a circus in Brighton in the year 1858, where they were shown by their Russian owner. They were such splendid creatures that Mr Marjoribanks determined to posses himself of them, and he bought the lot, transferring them to his deer forest in Inverness. They were found to possess the required qualification of retrieving and tracking.”
It’s a great romantic story but these days largely discounted. However, there’s no doubt that Lord Tweedmouth was the founding father of the breed, mating his dog Nous, a wavy-coated retriever (that did apparently come from Brighton) with Belle, a Tweed water spaniel. Four yellow puppies were born, called Crocus, Cowslip, Primrose and Ada. He kept two of them, gave one to his son and presented the fourth, Ada, to the fifth Earl of Ilchester, who went on to create the Ilchester line of golden retrievers.
Nous and Belle’s puppies were born 150 years ago, in 1868, and it is this date that golden-retriever enthusiasts recognise as the start of the breed. And it explains why hundreds of golden retrievers, plus their owners, gathered on the Ilchester Estates in May this year to celebrate the anniversary. They were guests of The Hon Mrs Charlotte Townshend, the great-granddaughter of the fifth Earl. Ada’s grave can be seen in the grounds of Melbury House and many of the participants in the celebrations went to pay homage to it.
Gwen Knox, the field trial secretary of the Golden Retriever Club UK, told me that the idea for the anniversary party came from the Golden Retriever Club’s Centenary celebrations in 2013, which featured a one-day international open-standard test. “I was well aware that many overseas competitors love running against the UK competitors but weren’t able to get into their official country teams. So for this year’s 150th Breed Anniversary we decided to organise a two-day event to make it worthwhile travelling, and to incorporate all classes from puppy, novice, open to veteran.” Anyone who wanted to compete was welcome. The response was terrific: there were 167 entries, half of which were from overseas, including, France, Germany, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, while one enthusiast travelled from Arizona (without a dog) to spectate.
Anja Heuer from Germany won the Open Test with her bitch Duckflight Eye on Gadwall. Just two weeks before, Heuer had won the Skinner’s World Cup with the same bitch, though on this occasion she had had to beat some of the best labradors in the country, a reminder that the best golden retrievers can compete with, and even outperform, labradors. Fittingly, the sire of Heuer’s bitch was Robert Atkinson’s FTCh Holway Cider. On the Saturday evening, participants enjoyed a party at Holway Farm, which belongs to the Atkinson family.
The Golden Retriever Club was founded in 1911, with the breed registered by the Kennel Club two years later as Retrievers (Golden or Yellow). There’s more than a touch or irony in the fact that the word yellow was dropped in 1920, as these days there are probably more yellow or pale-cream golden retrievers than there are genuine golden ones. I think that there are few dogs more handsome than a genuine golden golden retriever but fashion and the demands of the pet industry have led to dogs being bred that are almost white, looking like small polar bears. When you have a dog with such wonderful colouring as a golden retriever, why change it? Incidentally, the breed standard allows any shade of gold or cream, with a few white hairs on the chest permissible. It says nothing about white all over.
However, fashions change and I’m optimistic that golden retrievers will become gold once again. I will give the last word to a friend who has owned, and worked, goldens for all his life. “It’s difficult to explain why I like them so much, but whether seeing a working golden chasing down a runner or even something as simple as one just walking to heel, there is an elegance and style that you just don’t get with other breeds.” His is a persuasive argument, while I hate to think what Lord Tweedmouth would have made of the white ones.