Skip to main content

Golden Retriever: Breed Profile

While the golden retriever can look pretty and perform well in the field, those seeking a golden should do their research.

Golden Retriever: Breed Profile
Pat Quinn's Stoney (BISS GCh HRCH U-CD Springcreek Everlore All Time HI CDX RN MH CWX VCX DDHF).

The old proverb, "Handsome is as handsome does," suggests that how you act or perform is more important than how you look. This wisdom, unfortunately, has been lost on a significant segment of the purebred sporting dog world.

It is a sad fact that for way too many fanciers of sporting dogs, looks have trumped performance. With several breeds, dogs coming from the "show side" are very pretty animals but leave much to be desired in the field, while those dogs on the "field side" bear little resemblance to anything outlined in the breed's standard.

In some breeds, the "split" between the two types is such a chasm that people firmly anchored on each side of the divide are so polarized they barely speak to the opposition.

But it is possible to have a hunting dog that is both "handsome" and "field worthy," although there are stubborn individuals who refuse to concede a good show dog cannot also be an accomplished hunter, or vice versa. But some firmly believe it is possible to have both beauty and brains and that life is too short to hunt with an ugly dog. They achieve senior or master hunter status with their show champions, and, more importantly, their dogs can actually hunt.

While golden retrievers certainly qualify as a "split" breed, finding a dog that not only conforms to the physical standard but also can be a good hunting dog is not as great a challenge as it would be with, for example, Labradors or English springer spaniels.

"Thankfully there is a large population within the breed of moderate, good-looking dogs that are highly trainable, of sound body and mind and very capable of doing a day's work," says Anney Doucette. "More and more breeders are leaning toward this type of dog and getting away from the extremes on either end of the spectrum." Doucette's dog, Fisher, is a conformation champion and a master hunter that also has high level titles in obedience and rally.

"Form follows function. I firmly believe that a golden retriever can go from the field to obedience to the show ring and be competitive in all," says Susan Lynch, whose dog Manny is a conformation champion, a master hunter that also has a field trial placement and has been the highest scoring dog in an obedience trial.

"There are many breeders who compete in multiple activities and do well. The Golden Retriever Club of America also has a pair of non-competitive programs that support the working ability, structure and type of the breed. The working certificate  (WC) and working certificate excellence (WCX) programs are designed to test a dog's natural marking ability."

Jeanne von Barby's Leica
Jeanne von Barby's Leica (BIS BISS Ch Elysian's Lil Leica Reprint UD TD MH WCX DDHF SDHF OD

Affable Breed

Goldens rank third in popularity with the American public for good reason. These retrievers are very versatile with a nice temperament, willing to do almost anything their owners want to do, including the task for which the breed was originally developed - retrieving gamebirds. In this endeavor, one of the great pluses of the golden retriever is their nose.

"Goldens have excellent noses," says Pat Quinn, who owns Stoney with Paul Kartes and Robin Dalton. In addition to having a master hunter title, a hunting retriever championship, an advanced obedience title

and a rally title, Stoney is a grand champion in the show ring. "But their nose can be a downfall for young dogs or for hunters that only go out a few times a year," Quinn adds. "They tend to get caught up in old scent until they gain some experience in the field.

"They are durable workers and problem solvers. If a bird is hard to locate, they don't just push down cover and randomly look for the bird. They tend to figure out where they have been, where they are going and the most likely places where the bird would be. While they aren't always as flashy as a Labrador, they are steady and willing workers in the field.

"You have to take the time to teach goldens what you want and offer enough repetition to firmly establish what you want in the dog's mind. They need to be trained in such a way that they are not afraid to make a mistake. They will work harder for you if they are not worried about making mistakes. If you apply too much negative pressure, they might shut down," says Quinn.

A major positive of golden retrievers is their intense desire to please. "They are happy to sit in freezing conditions for hours on end, filthy, wet and covered in burrs as long as you are sitting there with them," says Pat Kopko, whose dog Jagger is an AKC, UKC and international show champion, a hunting retriever champion, a master hunter and also has a number of obedience, rally and agility titles.

"Retrieving birds is fun for them but retrieving birds with their owner is priceless. They are methodical rather than maniacal. They have great drive and great enthusiasm as well as great bird sense. They have a lot of desire but they think before they run, even if it is only for a split second, and they tend to take the most efficient route to a bird and back.

"In addition to their temperament, drive and intelligence, you also get their incredible nose and their desire to please and be praised for a job well done. They retrieve as much for you as for their own enjoyment. They are extremely biddable and very efficient hunters."

Drama Queens

Despite the breed's many attributes, golden retrievers are not perfect, say the breed's proponents. "Their coat can be a problem. They've been known to pick up a burr or two," says Jeanne von Barby. "A lot of hunters will cut the feathering way back before hunting season to prevent the dog from picking up half the field. But if a golden has the correct coat, it will shed out dirt easily and prevent rain and snow from penetrating to the skin. It should also have the texture to resist the burrs and matts or tangles.

"I have also had dogs that did not handle a lot of repetition very well," von Barby continues. "They seemed to think that they understand it and that they needn't continue to do the same thing over and over. I also don't think goldens handle the e-collar pressure as well as, say, Labs. Unfortunately I've seen many handlers increase the e-collar pressure on the dog until the dog absolutely freezes and shuts down.

"I can't emphasize enough the need to correctly teach each and every step of collar training so the dog understands why it is being applied and how to 'turn it off.' Sometimes they are trying so hard to do the right thing that they just try everything they can think of instead of paying attention to the handler. Then you have to stop, take a deep breath, let them collect themselves and start over.

"One other thing is that goldens can very easily think themselves into trouble. They are enormously eager to please but they do have to know what their owner/handler wants and how to go about doing it." Von Barby's four goldens, Leica, Jiffy, Wrigley and Minnie, are all conformation champions and have master hunter titles along with advanced obedience, rally and tracking titles.

There are some other things that need to be taken into consideration when training a golden retriever. Some of them may have issues with big water marks and many dogs in the breed are drama kings/queens when it comes to force training. "You typically see issues with goldens on big water marks and many that are not fully trained and put through a complete force program will refuse water at some point in their lives," says Doucette. "In my opinion, water force is an essential element in training a golden retriever.

"Two things make or break a golden in the field: its breeding and its trainer. If the dog does not have intelligence, trainability and a work ethic in its makeup, a good trainer can only bring the dog along so far. On the other hand, if the dog is saddled with a lazy, inconsistent or wimpy trainer or a trainer that is a bully, all the talent in the world will be wasted.

"What I frequently see with novice golden trainers is that they skip over the basic foundation training—obedience, manners, collar conditioning, force-fetch—and then expect the dog to naturally 'know' how to do advanced field concepts. There is also the issue that many goldens are drama queens/kings when it comes to force training which causes their owners to back off when what they really need to do is work through it.

"Having said that, goldens thrive on praise and positive feedback from their trainer. A good trainer must be both creative and consistent in their application of force, reward, correction, praise, pressure and motivation. It is a delicate balance because goldens are more sensitive to training mistakes than a Labrador would be. It's important to never say, 'I can't do XYZ because I have a golden retriever.'

"A good dog is a good dog, a well-trained dog is a well-trained dog and there is nothing a golden can't do based on their breed alone," Doucette concludes.

Setting Standards

In a split breed, someone looking for a dog that meets both the standard for the breed and has the capability of being a good field dog frequently has to be persistent and do a fair amount of research. "For people who want a good field dog, I look for intense birdiness, testing with birds and evaluating the reaction," says von Barby.

"I look for responsiveness with the pup's littermates and with humans. I like to see a certain amount of independence and a puppy that shows it can think things through. I also like one that is forgiving of the pressure during puppy training."

"I like good eye contact," says Lynch. "When I'm looking at a litter, I want a puppy to seek me out and try to get my attention. I like pups that carry things in their mouths and have a decent amount of energy but aren't crazy. A silly puppy that tosses toys, shakes them and play bows tells me it has some play drive and dogs with play drive are generally easy to motivate.

"It's really important to ask a lot of questions of the pup's breeder. Do they hunt with their dogs? Do they compete in hunt tests or field trials? How are their dogs around other dogs? Kids? You should also expect them to ask you a lot of questions about what you are looking for in a pup," Lynch concludes.

"Pedigree is extremely important," Kopko adds. "Relatives with natural hunt talent are a must since some golden lines have had their hunting/prey desire diminished. Most like to retrieve but not a lot of them will pick up ducks simply because they love them. Good hunt puppies must show bold tendencies and not be fearful."

"It's really important for prospective owners to have a clear picture of the golden they hope to acquire," Quinn says. "More and more breeders are looking to produce multi-purpose dogs that not only meet the physical requirements of the breed standard but also have the talent, stamina and versatility to work in the field, in obedience and in agility.

"The bottom line is that a person seeking a golden that's both pretty and can do whatever job they want the dog to do needs to do some research."

Golden Retriever
Pat Kopko's Jagger (AKC/UKC/Int'l Ch HRCH UH U-CD Deauquest Midknight Rambler CDX GN RAE3 MH OA OAJ NAP NJP OF NFP WCX VCX DDHF).


In the beginning, Airedales were hunting dogs. The working class people in the West Riding of Yorkshire, who developed the breed, needed a dog that could scent game, had the size to be able to tackle larger animals and could be taught to retrieve. The answer to this need turned out to be the Airedale.

Click here to read more.

Braque Francais

In the days before France became known as the cradle of artists and the center of the fashion world, it was a superb upland hunting destination. The hills of the French countryside were planted with a variety of agricultural crops and the forests and mountains were teeming with wildlife. Grouse, pheasants and partridge were common in the farmlands and wild birds were a staple food for many rural families.

At the same time, pointing dogs were becoming more popular in Europe and a select group of French breeders set out to develop a breed that had the athleticism necessary to hunt hard all day and the instinct to point and retrieve birds. Using Spanish pointers and various European hounds as their root stock, these breeders began to develop dogs that embodied all of the qualities they desired.

The result of their efforts was the Braque Francais. The Braque became known for its keen determination and overwhelming desire to please its master. Careful breeding resulted in a dog that could be relied upon to obey commands in the field and hunt hard all day long, a dog that had intense prey drive and could also serve as a family companion, playing with the children, yet acting as a watchdog in the dark of night.

Click here to read more.

Curly-Coated Retriever

With textured curls and a sleek frame, the curly-coated retriever often triggers double-takes from onlookers. At a distance, the curly-coated retriever is often mistakenly identified as a Labrador because the curly shares the Lab's conformation and passion for finding, flushing and fetching gamebirds. But surprisingly, the curly was not descended from the Lab. Rather, the curly is thought to have been bred from the English water spaniel, the St. John's Newfoundland, the retrieving setter and the poodle, according to the American Kennel Club.

Up close, the curly is much different from a Labrador: Its coat is made up of short, stiff hairs tightly wound into ringlets covering the main body, the top of the head and the ears.

Click here to read more.

Flat-Coated Retriever

Once upon a time, when English gamekeepers reigned supreme on the estates of the nobility, they needed a dog that could find and retrieve birds that might have been missed after a driven shoot. But their mortal enemies, poachers, also needed a dog to find and retrieve birds€¦only in their case, in the middle of the night. In both instances, for the law-abiding and lawbreaker alike, the flat-coated retriever was often the dog of choice.

For whichever task they were assigned, the dog needed to have an outstanding nose, be exceedingly biddable, and when they were working for the poachers, be fast and agile enough to escape the bull mastiffs the gamekeepers employed to patrol the estate during the hours of darkness. These traits, still present in the breed today, are a not-so-well-kept secret for this relatively rare retriever breed, which has achieved the highest levels of success in all of the AKC's dog sports except for retriever field trials. Flat-coats were in 90th place in 2011 on the American Kennel Club's 'popularity list ' of the 173 breeds recognized by the AKC.

Click here to read more.

French Brittany

'Some French Brittanys can be drama queens when training pressure is applied, ' notes Jim Keller from Keller Gun Dog Kennels near Lincoln, Neb. 'By 'drama queen' I mean this breed sometimes tends to overreact with a lot of emotional outbursts when specific behavior is required of them.

'For example, when being taught to force fetch, some French Brittanys will squeal and squirm in an effort to get the trainer to leave them alone. And some trainers will back way off and let the dog have its way, ' Keller says.

Click here to read more.

Portugese Pointer

Ralph Fedele told me his first choice was a whippet, not a Portuguese pointer. He'd been a bird hunter in a previous life, before children. He now wanted a small dog with short hair — less mess in the house — that was good with kids. Then his wife got into the act.

'My wife said, 'Look at this dog I just happened to come across on the internet,' ' Fedele recalls. 'I looked at the pictures and said, 'That's the dog. Let's call this guy and get that dog.' My wife, just completely coincidentally, is Portuguese, although she had no prior experience with the dogs. '

Click here to read more.

Standard Poodle

From the Middle Ages, Europeans have always considered the standard poodle a hunting dog. According to Canadian breed historian Emily Cain, Europeans categorized it as a spaniel. However, the French breed name, caniche, comes from chien canard, or 'duck dog, ' so they have also classified it a retriever.

Click here to read more.

Irish Red and White Setter

If you ask the owner of an Irish Red and White Setter what makes these dogs special, almost uniformly the answer is, 'They are natural pointers. ' Many say their dogs have earned a junior hunter title with absolutely no training at all and never having had any exposure to birds prior to the time they started running in the tests.

Click here to read more.

German Shorthaired Pointer

German shorthaired pointers have been particularly popular in the U.S. with gamebird hunters looking for a do-it-all versatile gun dog. There are approximately 10,000 German shorthairs annually registered with the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club. Likewise, shorthairs are the dominant breed in NAVHDA and have produced top scores in Natural Ability, Utility, and Versatile Champion testing for the past several decades.

German shorthaired pointers are also one of the main dog breeds in many kinds of field trials and a variety of hunting contests. And all across North America, shorthairs are the common pointing breed for the average gamebird hunter just about anywhere there are gamebirds to be hunted.

Click here to read more.

Irish Water Spaniel

'Beannaithe ' (Blessed) is how the old Gaelic hunters in Ireland viewed the Shannon spaniel that later became known as the Irish water spaniel. Developed to retrieve waterfowl and upland game, the breed proved to be so versatile it could do just about anything except dance Irish jigs and reels. But there are those who contend that given proper instruction and the appropriate music, an IWS could probably master these intricate step dances, also.

Click here to read more.

Llewellin Setter

There's no sight more classic than a pair of gun dogs working a gamebird with one dog pointing and the other backing.

The canines in this case were two Llewellin setters on a South Dakota pheasant hunt last fall. The two dogs stood frozen with heads and tails high in a picture-perfect pose. As one of the hunters walked in to flush the pointed bird, two hens and one rooster rocketed out of the prairie grass. One well-placed shot brought down the long-tailed ringneck and one dog ran out, picked up and brought it in.

Click here to read more.

English Springer Spaniel

Leave the open country birds and serious waterfowling for the dogs that are bred for that kind of stuff, the pointing and retrieving breeds. Spaniels really shine for small-water ducking and thick-cover upland birds — bobwhite quail, woodcock, ruffed grouse€¦and, oh yes, pheasants.

If ever a dog was created to hunt pheasants, it is the springer spaniel. I simply can't understand why the breed isn't more popular, given the vast number of rooster hunters in the U.S., but there you go. The really good ones — and I had one like that — can be almost wizard-like in the way they approach the game.

Click here to read more.

American Water Spaniel

Developed by 19th-century market hunters in the Upper Midwest, the American water spaniel has always been a dual-purpose dog, equally talented for waterfowl and upland gamebird hunting. From the beginning and continuing to this day, AWS owners have been determined to maintain the breed's dual résumé. Ironically, that determination has prevented them from displaying the AWS' versatility in the field events of the American Kennel Club (AKC).

These events come in three distinct formats: one for pointing breeds, one for retrievers and one for spaniels. Thus, for a breed to participate, it must not only be AKC-recognized as a Sporting Group breed, but must also be grouped in one and only one of AKC's three classifications: pointing breed, retriever or spaniel. AKC doesn't allow dual classifications.

Click here to read more.


The Weimaraner, from the beginning of its breed history more than 100 years ago, has been known as the 'Gray Ghost ' — a good nickname for a gun dog with a silvery coat and somewhat spooky-looking yellow-amber eyes. Originally developed in Germany at the court of Weimar (hence its name), the Weimaraner was successfully bred to be a versatile hunter of upland gamebirds, waterfowl, predators, and big game.

Click here to read more.

To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now
Dog jumping out of phone with Gun Dog website in the background
Make the Jump to Gun Dog Premium

Gun Dog Premium is the go-to choice for sporting dog owners and upland hunting enthusiasts. Go Premium to recieve the follwing benefits:

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account

Go Premium

and get everything Gun Dog has to offer.

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account