With a charming, eager-to-please personality and looks to match, the golden retriever has plenty to offer. Yet its skyrocketing popularity is the reason golden retrievers have become victims of their own demand. It's also why those in search of a hard-working golden need to be very careful when choosing a pup for hunting purposes.
A Rich History
Among the many reasons for the golden retriever's popularity is the rich history of the breed, which, according to the American Kennel Club, dates back to the early 1800s. Europe is responsible for a good number of our current sporting breeds including goldens, which came into being in England and Scotland well over 200 years ago. During that time, a medium-sized sporting breed was an asset for obtaining food both in the waterfowl and upland gamebird worlds. Throughout the 1800s the breed became even more desirable, and in 1925 it was recognized by the AKC.
Goldens soon became one of the go-to breeds for many hunters and folks looking to run a dog in an obedience or field trial. They also started showing up in television shows, as well as print and television advertisements, and one needs only look at a single golden to understand why. Very few breeds are as photogenic or as easy to work with as goldens, which contributed further to their popularity.
This also led to division in the breed, with an ever-increasing portion of the litters born each year to less stringent standards. Show dogs with their long flowing coats became much more common and they were bred to field-bred dogs as well as other show dogs.
It has been a couple of decades since the breed hit its high-water mark and since then we've witnessed a decline in the health and hunting-drive of the breed overall.
That's not to say that excellent pedigrees don't exist, because they do. They just aren't as easy to locate as a run-of-the-mill, mystery-bred golden. If there is one person that understands this more than most, it's Jackie Mertens. Mertens has owned and operated Topbrass Retrievers since 1968 and is undoubtedly one of the most respected names in the world of golden retrievers.
Every once in a while, I get to meet someone who was put on this earth to work with dogs, and Mertens fits that category. From her schoolgirl days, Mertens knew she'd work with animals, and as soon as she could she got her first golden. The dog, a male, turned out to be a less-than-stellar obedience dog so she moved on to a female that she purchased and picked up in Colorado.
That dog, Ch. Goldenloe's Bronze Lustre, produced Valentine Torch of Topbrass WC, who would become the foundation upon which Mertens would build her reputation. Mertens recalls, however, that she almost lost Torch before it all started.
"Torch had a lot of desire, she was fearless, and she was a good producer — and she did it all on three legs after getting caught in a fox trap," Mertens recalls. "For three weeks we searched for her, and when we finally found her she was 25 pounds lighter and destined to lose her leg. She had survived by eating snow and pawing up any plants she could reach."
This testament-to-will-and-survival golden would go on to produce several litters for Mertens, but it wasn't until she started running a dog named NAFC FC Topbrass Cotton in field trials that Topbrass was suddenly on everyone's radar because of Cotton's winning ways. Since then, Mertens has been at the forefront of field-bred goldens, and when someone wants a great housedog, a great hunter — or both — they go to her.
And it's all about the breeding.
FIELD-BRED VS. SHOW-BRED
When I asked Mertens what a prospective buyer should look for in a golden pedigree, she had plenty to say. "I can't tell you how many hunters I see with goldens that sport the six-inch coats the show dogs have," she notes. "A field bred golden, a dog that has been bred for generations to hunt, will have a shorter coat. They look a bit different and they will exhibit the right drive and retrieving desire.
"All goldens can make good house pets, which is important, but if you want a really stellar hunter, you should look to a field-bred dog. Now, I hear people say all of the time that their dog was the best ever, but they are comparing it to maybe a few other dogs they've owned. To have the best chance of getting a truly good hunting dog, it's field-bred or nothing.
"And, of course, you need to look at the health. There are so many issues that can come up with poor breeding, that it's a process to ensure a healthy litter these days. For us that means looking at all health clearances like hips and elbows, of course, but other things. We use a canine ophthalmologist for eye clearances, a canine cardiologist for heart clearances, and also conduct a litany of DNA tests to ensure proper breeding."
In this writer's opinion, truer words have never been spoken. Having gone through the heartbreak of losing a golden to kidney failure when she was only six years old, I am particularly sensitive to proper health clearances. All breeds can suffer unfortunate medical issues, but goldens are exceptionally prone to them given the amount of unchecked breeding.
Another golden retriever expert I asked to weigh in on this issue is Theresa Bilava, who operates Platte River Retrievers with her son Nick. She started with goldens as a child and has been raising and breeding them for 22 years. Having over two decades of experience devoted to the breed has given Bilava a unique perspective on the current state of the golden retriever, and she was more than willing to offer advice to anyone looking for a pup. Like Mertens, Bilava makes sure all of her Platte River dogs are health checked in all manners.
"People like goldens, that's no secret," she says. "But it also led to pets being bred to pets, and nobody was looking at the potential genetic problems. Now people think they can pick up any golden puppy and it will hunt, but that's not the case. With us, we're breeding for athletes, not models. Our dogs are field-bred, and quite frankly, a lot of the people that contact me about getting a dog don't even know what a field-bred dog is.
"We breed for drive and athleticism for a couple of reasons. We want dogs that want to play the game and that will have the right temperament. All of our dogs will be companion dogs, and some will be used for agility or therapy, but many of them end up being upland and waterfowl hunters as well. As long as they are well-bred they'll become people-pleasers that will take to training and look to make you happy."
TRAINING & HUNTING
Bilava spent some time explaining the training that goes into molding a golden into a capable hunter, and quite a few times she mentioned not being heavy handed. "Goldens can be sent off to a professional, of course, but they are also perfect for the amateur trainer provided you take the time to research proper obedience and hunting training methods — and I can't stress obedience enough," she says.
"A well-bred golden will be smart, and they'll do whatever they can to not disappoint you, but you've got to handle them somewhat gently. They aren't wired the same as a Lab that might be able to run the same drill 100 times in a row. They are different, and have to be trained differently."
Bilava's son, Nick, has also been working with goldens for over two decades and is as diehard of a hunter as you're likely to run across. When I asked him why he chose to hunt with goldens he responded by saying, "The golden is a gentleman's dog. He will give you 110 percent if you are fair to him. And he can turn it on and turn it off, which is something other breeds struggle with. When a good golden is asked to hunt, he'll give you his all. When the hunt is over, he'll transition back into that lovable housedog.
"They are excellent at upland hunting, and can be great waterfowl dogs, but any hunter looking for a golden to hunt ducks and geese needs to do some homework. They need to be introduced to water properly, and if you do it wrong it's like pushing a rope — it doesn't work. Goldens will work for you, but if you lose your cool they'll shut down. It has to be fun for them, and you've got to work with their intelligence by keeping it interesting and positive. They respond to teaching, not pressure."
Nick Bilava has spent plenty of time hunting South Dakota roosters for himself and for clients while he was guiding, but his dogs can do much more than hunt ringnecks.
"One of the main reasons I like goldens is because they aren't specialists. They can hunt anything and handle any new hunting situation provided you've got them prepared. I hunt doves with my dogs, ducks, everything. They can do it all, and will, if you ask them with respect."
I can attest to Nick's words having trained a golden to be a pheasant hunter. When my pheasant opportunities disappeared with the loss of habitat, we switched gears to ruffed grouse, doves and eventually ducks. And just for fun, I threw in shed antler hunting to see how she'd do. As long as my golden got to retrieve something for me and earn a little praise, everything was just fine. This willingness to please is without question one of the greatest reasons to own this breed.
There are good goldens are out there; they just require a little research to find. For the hunter looking to have a rock star in the field and a good-looking house pet all in one dog, they are the ideal choice provided they come from a breeding program that has focused on health concerns and strong hunting instincts.
Picking A Golden Puppy
When shopping for that perfect golden pup, here are some things that prospective owners should be mindful of.
Prepare to spend anywhere from $800 to upwards of $3000 for a field-bred golden retriever puppy. That's the going rate, and it is worth it for the peace of mind you'll have from getting a truly high-quality, healthy pup. Your job doesn't end with research and writing a check, however.
After that, it's a matter of being honest with your breeder and allowing him or her to pick the right dog for you. Jackie Mertens stressed this by saying, "I don't let people pick their puppy. I pick it for them. Some people don't like this, but I've already spent seven weeks with the puppies and have watched how they act, and interact, so I know their personalities well.
"I ask prospective buyers lots of questions about their plans with the dog and their home life, and then place the right dog in their hands. Too many people want to pick their own puppy, and they often take the first dog to run up to them but that is often a bad deal because that puppy might be the most dominant in the litter. It's better to put your faith in the pedigree and the breeder to match you up with the best bet out of a litter."
Take her word for it and let your chosen breeder set up you right. You won't regret it.