Golden retrievers are handsome, intelligent, trainable and easy to handle, so why aren’t they more popular in the shooting field, wonders David Tomlinson

One of the mysteries of the gundog world is why golden retrievers are a comparative rarity in the shooting field, especially compared with the ubiquitous Labrador. Fashion undoubtedly has a great deal to do with this, because a good golden, trained to the highest standard, is every bit a match for even the best of Labradors.

Though annual registrations of Labradors far outnumber those for golden retrievers, there are always more goldens at Crufts than Labradors. This is hardly surprising, for the golden is the showiest of animals, handsome, well proportioned and a stunning colour. Sadly, recent years have seen pale lemon, even almost-white dogs dominate in the show ring; fortunately, working-bred animals invariably retain that wonderful shade of burnished gold.

Golden retrievers – relaxed and easy to handle

It is easy to be rude about the pale show-bred goldens, but I’ve seen several working very satisfactorily. They may not have the pace and style of their working-bred cousins, but it is clear that even several generations of breeding for the show ring aren’t sufficient to eradicate their working instincts. They have retained their brains and they invariably have soft mouths: the dogs I have watched have all been remarkably relaxed and easy to handle.

The golden retriever is a relatively new breed — it wasn’t until 1920 that the Kennel Club finally allowed a separate register for what it termed as retrievers (golden). Until then they had been registered as retrievers (golden or yellow), causing confusion with yellow Labradors. 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 in competitions. The retriever championship was won by a golden for the first time in 1937. This was a three-year-old dog called Haulstone Larry, handled to victory by Mrs J. Eccles.

Since then three other dogs have repeated the feat, in 1954, 1982 and most recently 2006. The 1954 winner was June Atkinson with her home-bred dog FTCh Mazurka of Wynford. Mrs Atkinson remains the doyenne of golden retriever handlers, having qualified dogs for the championship on 36 occasions, a total only bettered by the two Johns (Halstead and Halsted).

The last time a golden won the championship was at Ampton, where the competition returns to next month. The winner then 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.

Golden retrievers in mud

One disadvantage of the golden retriever is its long, lustrous coat – which is far from ideal on muddy shoots

Why is the Labrador the shooting dog of choice?

I’ve asked a number of friends why the Labrador, rather than the golden retriever, is the shooting dog of choice. One suggested that it is less expensive to buy a well-bred Labrador than it is a golden, and that there are not that many working-bred goldens available. Health-wise, there’s not a lot to choose between the two, and the latest report from the Kennel Club/British Small Animal Veterinary Association shows that cancer is the major killer for both. The average lifespan is similar, with most reaching 11 or 12 years old.

One disadvantage of the golden retriever is its long, lustrous coat, which requires much more attention than that of a Labrador. Goldens also moult profusely, leaving numerous blond hairs behind as a reminder of their presence. They are not the ideal breed for working on muddy shoots.

Goldens are placid and trainable

As working dogs, they have a reputation for being as straightforward to train as Labradors and a lot easier than spaniels. They have long been used as guide dogs, a reflection of both their placid nature and trainability, though according to the Guide Dogs website: “Historically, the golden retriever crossed with the Labrador has produced the most successful guide dog of all, combining many of the great traits of both breeds.”

Golden retriever enthusiasts will assure you that goldens work differently from Labradors, frequently using air scent, leading to a notably higher head carriage. This can be their downfall in trials where some judges, apparently unaware of this trait, give the dog a lower mark for not getting its nose down and not appearing to hunt properly. Whether they hunt with heads up or heads down, the golden retrievers I have watched have all impressed with their bird-finding ability.

Graham Cox is one of the golden retriever’s biggest fans: he is a longstanding member of the Kennel Club’s field trials sub-committee, and has worked goldens for many years, making up two FTChs. He believes that if you “build an effective relationship with a golden, you will have a game-finder beyond compare. Not for nothing did John Halstead, four-time winner of the retriever championship, often say ‘You don’t want a golden behind you!’”

On both occasions when Graham made-up his dogs to FTCh, they were competing in stakes where all the other dogs were Labradors, giving him the glow of satisfaction of beating the dominant breed at its own game.

I will give the last word to a friend who has an ongoing love a air with golden retrievers: “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.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

A great golden retriever enthusiast and story teller

One of the first people I interviewed when I started writing this column was Michael Twist, a golden retriever enthusiast for more than 40 years. He both showed and worked his retrievers, as dogs from his Bryanstown Kennels were genuine dual-purpose animals. His greatest success was with a dog called Bryanstown Gale Warning, a champion in the show ring and good enough as a shooting dog to be placed fourth in the Irish Retriever Championship in 1970.

Michael was not only a notable dog handler, he was also a real countryman with tremendous knowledge of the land. He was a great story teller, too, writing a delightful trilogy of reminiscences: The Spacious Days, Hallowed Acres and The Glory Days. These three books tell of Michael’s childhood growing up at Burnham, in south Buckinghamshire, and of his time as estate manager on the Roundhill estate in the Vale of Aylesbury during World War II.

His employer at Roundhill was Colonel Devereux, a Joint-Master of the Old Berkshire hunt, giving young Michael plenty of opportunity to ride and even whip-in to the hounds. There’s not much about dogs in The Glory Days, but there is plenty about people, farming, horses and even fifth columnists. It is all written with a dry sense of humour and makes a great read.

Equally recommended is his The Complete Guide to the Golden Retriever, first published as a hardback in 1988. Though parts are now inevitably dated, there’s lots of good stuff for anyone with an interest in working gundogs in general and golden retrievers in particular. You can buy it on Amazon. Michael died in 2006 at the age of 87.

Training a golden retriever isn’t really any different from training a Labrador, but if you want a book where the emphasis is on training goldens, turn to Training the Working Retriever by Anthea Lawrence. It is full of common sense and Anthea’s training methods are based on kindness and co-operation, with the emphasis on producing dogs with good manners, able to cope with anything they encounter both on and off the shooting field.

It was Anthea who told me that most serious golden retriever people hate the abbreviation goldies for their breed; I’ve never used it since.

Goldens at Butterknowle Fell

The Golden Retriever Club of Northumberland held a golden retriever working test at Butterknowle Fell by kind permission of the…