The heart of a retriever

Retrievers are very special indeed.  I love Flat-Coated Retrievers and Golden Retrievers.  Others will swear by their Labrador Retrievers.  You must know that they are all very similar, but we’ll focus on the golden.  I’ll start with what inspired me to write this blog.


I grew up with many dogs, one of them a golden.  She was wild and fun until the day she passed.  Something that struck me about her that I didn’t know about the breed at the time was how loyal she was.  I grew up with herding dogs mostly.  They can be stand off-ish, especially on a farm, which is where I grew up.  I thought that was loyalty.  Other dogs/breeds can be tolerant of new people, but not overly enthusiastic.  They save that for their family.  I also thought this was loyalty.  What I learned from our family golden, then later confirmed it when I learned more about the breed, is that they are incredibly loyal to their loved ones, they just happen to love everyone else as well.  When they are worked with and trained, they are VERY in-tune with their family and will protect them from danger, alert them if necessary and they feed heavily off of our emotions.  They tend to be one of the more emotionally in-tune retrievers with their human.  That makes sense.  They are wonderful service animals and with the right training and instincts, the’ll save your kid from falling in the pool or running into traffic.  They enjoy it if someone else pets them, but also won’t leave their owner for long.  I always sensed this natural instinct with our golden.  She loved everyone, but still wanted to be by us, with us, etc.  I almost thought it was because she wanted to keep an eye on my baby brother all the time.  It’s all very interesting to me.  We might go to the fair with her or someone would come over and she’d be thrilled to meet you…now I’m going to stick with this little boy who needs me.  She’d also plow that little boy over, knock him down and grab his shirt, but i’ll talk about that part of their behavior later, haha.  Suffice it to say that she really stood out among the working breeds I was used to growing up around.  She was different.


Fast forward to my life now training dogs in the city.  My family came to visit me last summer.  We just happen to have a golden here training and two staying with us for boarding that we had previously trained.  My dad was perplexed by this.  “How can anyone have a golden retriever in the house?” he said as he shook his head.  I said, “What do you mean?  They are great family dogs.”  He said, “I know that, they are just bred to have so much endless energy…constantly happy and have to be moving all the time.”  He went on to tell me these dogs are bred to run miles a day retrieving, swimming and still be wiggly and ready to do and learn more.  They are not naturally dogs that work all day and are calm indoors, they often remain excitable and impulsive indoors.  He’d rather have a Rottweiler or something like the pit he grew up with where they’d be happy to play and walk as well as crash calmly on the couch or on the floor with you.  I was thrown off for a moment.  I’m the dog trainer, so how come I hadn’t been thinking like this?  As we talked I realized how I’d FORGOTTEN about that aspect of their temperament.  15 years away from farm life and my perspective had shifted because I’m so used to seeing overly happy, wild and out of control excited golden’s inside and outside in the city.  I’m just focused on teaching them to settle that I’m not giving them the credit they deserve.  It matters because it affects your conversations with your self about you dog and what they need. Bottom line, he was right.  No wonder I get lots of retrievers to train.  They are bred to endlessly have things in their mouth, find fun things to do and are higher energy dogs.  How did I forget what they were bred for…hunting, retrieving and swimming.  Now, all of a sudden, many of my clients problems with their retrievers made even more sense than before.  Of course I know what they are meant to do, but having that image of what they are bred for day in and day out back on the farm really reminded me to not just write them off as an overly happy family dogs that get into trouble.  They are serious working dogs and bred to love everything.  That gives them a very high tolerance for things in life, making them great service animals.  


What really sealed the deal in my memory of that conversation with him is him petting one of the golden’s.  This sweet and very well trained golden was smacking everything with her tail while spinning and trying not to jump up because she isn’t supposed to.  The brief petting got her so excited she took some time to lay down and settle.  She still took some time to be able to watch everyone else in the house moving around calmly, without being at the center of it all.  That was a feat that was very difficult to train her to be able to do, like most of the golden’s we see.  Then we had a dog aggressive Rottweiler that was also dragging his owner around when he saw a bird or squirrel to a very serous level of intensity.  When he was out with all of us, he got a pat and a belly rub from my dad.  Barely moved other than to show his belly, then back to sleep while we all carried on playing games loudly into the night.  It’s like you swap one set of issues, depending on the breed, for another.  it was a great reminder for me.  I’ll never write a golden off as an easy family dog again.  They are just different.


To get back to our family golden retriever, when she was around 2 and definitely her most wild, we thought she needed even more exercise then ball and running around the yard.  We didn’t hunt and we didn’t want her swimming every day in our small pond, so I started biking with her.  Teaching her to do that wasn’t hard.  They are very tolerant and take to new things well.  She didn’t think it was a big deal and was happy to run along side of me.  She was also happy to drag me into the ditch to chase a frog, shadow, or neighbor that yelled hello.  As I mentioned before with my brother, plowing him over, we thought that is just the way she is, it’s the breed, she’ll settle eventually.  We didn’t know at the time how to teach her not to do that consistently.  On the farm we trained for basic obedience and whatever that dog’s instincts were on the farm, we worked with.  If I only knew then what I knew now, my little brother wouldn’t have had to wait till he was older and bigger to be around her, haha.  She never did settle.  Many retrievers don’t, they just have shorter bursts of crazy happiness.  


Now don’t get me wrong, I know not all golden’s are like this.  ALL breeds vary plenty in temperament and energy level.  I’ve met many calm and even lazy retrievers.  I know they exist, but they are not the norm.  I know they can have serious behavioral issues.  We’ve had some that are not good with kids or dogs.  Many we come across have anxiety and it is interesting because it is often masked as more happiness.  When they are anxious they become overly jittery, needy and sometimes just seem overly excited when it’s anxiety.  Teaching retrievers how to be calm is so important and goes against what their breed instinct is telling them to do sometimes, but it is crucial.  If you don’t, you can end up with a very pushy and anxious dog that barks at everything that moves.  The high energy and excitement level is what can make them frustrating, but also what makes them such wonderful dogs.  At their core they are dogs and can have a wide range of behavior and instincts.  With that being said, hopefully this shows you how special they are and why you should respect them for who they are and know what you might be in for.  That way, your lifestyle matches the breed (breed mix) you are getting to the best of your ability.  Just know that you aren’t just getting a potentially great family dog, you are getting a high energy working dog.  They often need just as much slow and structured mental work as exercise.


Retriever specifics:


Bred to be tolerant of the elements like weather and noise.  This makes them great service dogs.


Bred to love to train and learn new things with their favorite humans.  This makes learning fun tricks and tasks easy for them.


Bred to have endless energy and loves to chase after things that move or land somewhere (like a ball or bird).  This makes them fun, but challenging dogs inside even with the appropriate amount of exercise.  Teaching them to not always be involved in their surroundings is very difficult and can cause built up frustration if not trained to be able to exist and observe rather than interact and feed off of. 


Bred to hold things in their mouths, often softly.  This is why we often don’t have to teach retrievers to retrieve, because it’s instinctual.


They are bred to bring back birds that have been hunted and not ruin them, so they hold it softly in their mouths.  This is a huge challenge from the puppy stage till they are 2-3 and adolescents.  They will get ahold of anything they can and play and chew all day.  You have to take great care in teaching what they can and can’t grab onto if you want them inside and be prepared to kennel train them when you are not home through those exuberant years.


Hopefully this has shown you what a wonderful sporting breed retrievers are.  I certainly make sure I look at them with the love and respect they deserve.  They are a very special choice out of all the dog breeds to choose from. 


-Bethany Wilson  


Photo courtesy of Peyton's family ❤️

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