Archive for the ‘golden retriever history’ Category

featherquest Rocky with grouse

This is Featherquest Rocky retrieving a grouse in either Massachusetts or Maine.

He was bred by Rachel Page Elliot, who was one of the first people to introduce golden retrievers to New England.

She was also one of the driving forces in the golden retriever breed in North America, and all the dog show people know about her work on canine gait and structure, which is called Dog Steps (1973).

This image comes from From Hoofbeats to Dogsteps: A Life of Listening to and Learning from Animals, her memoir of her life raising golden retrievers and Connemara ponies, as well as her research into canine gait.

This dog is only nine months old. Most likely, the dog flushed the grouse, for this particular species is unlike the various grouse species of the British Isles. It is usually solitary and is only found in the densest of thickets. The notion that one could drive them the like the British do red grouse is simple folly. To hunt one of these birds, most people use pointers or setters of some sort, but those who use a flushing dog use one that ranges in really close.

That’s because these birds will hunker down and won’t move until the very last second, and they are so well camouflaged that you can’t see them until you’re very close.

Some dogs are very keen about flushing them. My first golden retriever would always flush one if she could find it.

Miley has flushed only one and that was on accident.

I should note that one can tell this is a ruffed grouse by the banding on the tail feathers. In most of the Eastern US, the ruffed grouse is the only species of grouse one can find.

In my part of the country, it is the only native game bird that still exists in decent numbers. Wild turkeys, which are much more common, are actually considered “big game” by my state’s DNR, and they are regulated in much the same way that white-tailed deer and black bears are– very strict bag limits and a requirement that they be checked in at an official game checking station (which is usually a convenience store or gas station!).

The bobwhite quail that thrived during West Virginia’s agrarian age now exists only in very small relict populations. I’ve never seen a wild-born bobwhite quail here, and the only wild ones I’ve ever seen were coming out of a cornfield in eastern North Carolina.

My grandpa told me that the last ones he ever shot were in a sweet corn patch behind his parents’ house in the late 1970’s.

The late 70’s and early 80’s  were years of harsh winters for most of the Eastern US, and when the fur market collapsed at about that same, raccoon and fox numbers shot up.

And there simply weren’t enough cornfields and old brushy pastures to hold the bobwhites.

A few years ago, my uncle tried to stock bobwhites on my grandpa’s property. He bought 96 of them from a breeder in Georgia. He turned them out, and we soon were surrounded by singing little birds that weren’t much larger than pigeons but tamer than virtually any domestic chicken.

The local foxes, feral cats, and hawks were very appreciative of this fine repast!

Ruffed grouse, though, are hardy survivors.

Natural selections has forced them to become very good at hiding in this mesopredator-infested world.

The decline of the bobwhite and its empire of fields has been met by the rise of the brushy redoubts of the thunder chicken.

They live like little avian outlaws, largely undetected until someone goes out in pursuit of them with a dog and shotgun.









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Golden Retriever Edwin Megargee 1942

This painting is by the well-known dog artist and dog fancier Edwin Megargee, and it appeared in his book that was simply called Dogs (1942).

In the 1940’s, golden retrievers were quite uncommon in the United States. The only ones that existed were hunting dogs that were largely derived from the darker-colored, more lightly built stock that was common in the UK during the 1920’s and 1930’s. For most of their history in the United States,  this is what most Americans would associate with golden retrievers– lithe, wiry, fox-colored retrievers.

In 1942, the received wisdom is that the golden retriever was an off-shoot of some Russian dog crossed with a bloodhound, as Megargee’s text clearly explains:

Megargee text golden retriever

Of course, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the Russian story was finally debunked. The golden retriever is just an offshoot of the wavy-coated/flat-coated retriever type.

Also of interest is that Megargee mentions that the dog can e used as a “combined setter and retriever.”  Many golden retrievers do point, and some people have trained them for them for this purpose.

Of course, most golden retrievers are used as combination “duck dogs” and flushers. There has never been the strong separation between retriever work and spaniel work in North America as there has been in the UK.

Our hunting culture is more egalitarian, and our waterfowl seasons are more strictly regulated.  It’s always been a bit of a tradition in America to keep a retriever for waterfowl but also use it as a spaniel in pursuit of other birds. That way, you don’t have to buy and keep two dogs. One dog can do both tasks.

In the 1940’s, golden retrievers were holding their own with Labradors in retriever trials.

But the golden retriever is a very pretty dog, and it wasn’t long before it became consumed by the pet market and the show ring.

And as a result, working strains of golden retriever are quite a bit less common than working strains of Labrador.

This type of golden retriever still exists, but it’s most common in North America, where, for whatever reason, we’ve been able to hold onto it. Many European working golden retriever strains now include outcrosses to American or Canadian imports.

Most European breeds bred in North America wind up degenerating rapidly. There are no German shepherd breeders importing North American GSD’s to cross with their dogs. I know of no British border collie breeders who are importing American stock to improve their lines.

But you very often see working golden retrievers in Europe with American and Canadian ancestors.

It’s not just with dogs that Europeans shun American-bred domestic animals. The only European-derived domestic animal breed I know of other than the America working golden retriever that has been in demand to improve native European strains is the Vermont strain of the Merino.

This says a lot about American priorities in animal breeding.

Just as Hollywood and much of our new media is a sensationalized distortion of reality, maybe our entire culture is nothing more than a sensationalized distortion of Western civilization.

Maybe that’s why we’re in so much trouble. We can’t even breed domestic animals right!




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Startled Grouse-Golden retriever Owen Gromme

This scene makes me quite nostalgic.

I had a dog that looked just like this one who loved to flush ruffed grouse. If there was a grouse in the woods, she’d find it!

Americans have no real problem with using retrievers as spaniels. In fact, because our hunting culture is much more egalitarian than that of the UK, it would make sense that Americans would prefer to have a dog capable of doing multiple tasks.

After all, waterfowl hunting in the United States is very strictly regulated by federal law, and the limits and seasons are quite finite.

Why own a dog that only hunts those birds?

All of these retriever breeds are very easy to train dogs, so we’ve usually let them moonlight as spaniels (and other things, including coonhounds!)

In fact, golden retrievers in particular are often used solely as flushing dogs in parts of the Midwest, where their prowess in hunting grouse and pheasant and very high trainability makes some people prefer them over traditional spaniels.


 According to The Art Barbarians website, where you can see a much higher resolution image of this painting:

This flushing Rough [sic] Grouse And Golden Retriever was painted by and released as a signed and numbered Artwork on sale by Owen Gromme. Born in 1896 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Owen Gromme went to work at the age of 21 as a taxidermist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. After World War I, Gromme worked at the Milwaukee County Museum as a taxidermist, collector, photographer, movie editor, background painter, botanist, geologist, sculptor, and finally curator of birds and mammals. He retired in 1965 to devote full time to his painting. He first gained acclaim in 1945 when he won the Federal Duck Stamp competition. In 1963 Gromme completed to world acclaim a volume of scientific paintings called “Birds of Wisconsin,” He is referred to as the “Dean of American Wildlife Artists.” Owen Gromme died on October 29, 1991, at the age of 95.

Wisconsin and Minnesota were early bastians of the golden retriever in the United States, and a lot of working line dogs can be found in those two states today.



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I know of only one case in the history of the modern dog fancy in which a fanciful story of a dog breed origin was rejected.

And that is with the golden retriever.

For first half the twentieth century, golden retrievers were said to have the following origin:

The Golden Retriever is a descendant of an old breed of dogs known as trackers, which are native to Asiatic Russia. Russian trackers are huge dogs measuring about 30 inches at the shoulder and often weighing 100 pounds. The breed serves man in a variety of ways in its homeland, among which, it is reported, is to guard isolated flocks of sheep in winter with great steadfastness and courage. According to the American Kennel Club, the circumstances leading to the development of the Golden Retriever breed primarily from tracker stock are as related below.

In 1860, Sir Dudley Marjoribanks watched the performance of a troupe of Russian tracker dogs at a circus in Brighton, England. He was impressed by the intelligence shown by these dogs and, reasoning that this could be put to good use in the field, he purchased the entire troupe of eight dogs and took them to his seat in the Guischan deer forest in Scotland. Here they were bred without out-crossing for 10 years, but there was no game in Scotland suitable to their size, and in about 1870 plans were abandoned to establish the breed in its original form.

The Golden Retriever is a powerfully built dog with a rich, golden-colored coat. Fine retrievers and agreeable companions, dogs of this breed are gaining in popularity in Illinois and the Middle West.

At this time the Russian trackers were crossed with Bloodhounds. There is no record of crosses with other breeds, and only one generation of Bloodhound crosses is reported, but the descendants appear, on the basis of photographic records and notes, to have soon developed into the present Golden Retriever type, whose characters included smaller size than the tracker, as well as intensification of scenting ability, refinement, and a slight darkening of the color of the coat.

–Ralph Yeater, “Bird Dogs in Sport and Conservation” (1948).

The dog in called the Russian tracker is actually some sort of ovtcharka, perhaps a Central Asian or a Caucasian. (Tracker may be an English corruption of the word  “ovtcharka.”)

These dogs are not bird dogs.

They never have been.

They are about as unlike a golden retriever as another dog can be, but for some odd reason, people thought that this breed was an ancestor of the golden retriever. Golden retrievers are very social dogs. Ovtcharkas are very bonded to their families and flocks. Golden retrievers have been bred for pretty high prey drive. Ovtcharkas have been bred to have less prey drive.  Golden retrievers have been bred to be agreeable with other dogs, including strange ones. Ovtcharkas have been bred to kill strange dogs that come too near their flocks.

Crossing a bloodhound with an ovtcharka will not magically create a golden retriever. It will not make the ovtcharka smaller or darken the coat.

All you will get a is an ovtcharka/bloodhound cross, which might be nice if you want a sheep dog than can track down missing sheep.

Despite the real problems with this story fitting what we already know about golden retrievers and those particular breeds of dog, people readily believed that story.

It was only rejected when the true story was revealed:

However the true history of the breed was first published by Lord Ilchester in 1952 in an article in the Country Life entitled “The Origin of the Yellow Retriever”. This was based on over ten years of research by Mrs Stonex and in 1959 she and Lord Ilchester put their findings to the Kennel Club.

In 1960 the Crufts catalogue carried the true origins of the breed as approved by the Kennel Club:

“Description of the Golden Retriever

‘The origin of the Golden Retriever is less obscure than most of the Retriever varieties, as the breed was definitely started by the first Lord Tweedmouth last century, as shown in his carefully kept private stud book and notes, first brought to light by his great-nephew, the Earl of Ilchester, in 1952.

In 1868 Lord Tweedmouth mated a yellow Wavy-Coated retriever (Nous) he had bought from a cobbler in Brighton (bred by Lord Chichester) to a Tweed Water Spaniel (Belle) from Ladykirk on the Tweed. These Tweed Water-Spaniels, rare except in the Border Country, are described by authorities of the time as like a small Retriever, liver-coloured and curly-coated. Lord Tweedmouth methodically line-bred down from this mating between 1868 and 1890, using another Tweed Water-Spaniel, and outcrosses of two black Retrievers, an Irish Setter and a sandy coloured Bloodhound. (It is now known that one of the most influential Kennels in the first part of the century which lies behind all present day Golden Retrievers was founded on stock bred by Lord Tweedmouth.)”

From this description it can be seen that all Golden Retrievers go back to the yellow retriever Nous who himself was obviously the produce of Flat – coated Retrievers. Many canine authorities of the day including Rawdon Lee in his Modern Dogs (1893) referred to brown retrievers including pale chocolate coloured dogs being bred from black parents.

In the pedigree of Prim and Rose, the last two yellow retrievers recorded in Lord Tweedsmouth’s records, one can see the influence of both the Flat-coated Retriever and the Tweed Water Spaniel in the development of the Golden Retriever.


Lord Ilchester was Lord Tweedmouth’s nephew, and he knew the dogs when he was young boy.

I am still very skeptical that bloodhound was ever used in the cross because there have never been any smooth-coated golden retrievers. Smooth coats in dog breed are almost always dominant over long coats, and they certainly are when golden retrievers are bred to scenthounds.

Bloodhounds are very unlike golden retrievers in that they are not particularly disposed to take direction, and golden retrievers are notoriously easy dogs to train. The mention of the bloodhound in them may be nothing more than a bit of lore from the old implausible Russian tracker story that filtered into the actual historiography.

The Irish setter in the cross is also somewhat misleading. The original record said “red setter,” which most likely meant red Gordon setter, which were quite common in region around Inverness at the time Lord Tweedmouth began breeding his dogs.

The golden retriever’s origins are with the wavy/flat-coated retriever, which is derived from the St. John’s water dog, an import from Newfoundland. Labrador retrievers are derived from the same stock, and for a time it was not unusual for smooth and long-coated pups to be born in retriever litters, even when they were being standardized into wavy-coated retrievers.

Why were people so willing to believe the nonsense about golden retrievers being ovtcharka/bloodhounds?

Well, for one thing, this story gave legitimacy to separating the color variety from the wavy/flat-coated retriever type.

Yellow and red dogs had a very hard time winning prizes at dog shows, so there was a pressure for them to leave.

However, if the dogs were nothing more than a color variety of the flat-coated retriever, then there would be no good reason to split the breed.

At the time flat-coated retrievers were the most common retriever in the UK. Almost all of them were black. Black was the color that every British gentleman wanted in his retrievers.

And that was the color that won at shows. It didn’t matter if the dog happened to have been a flat-coat or a curly-coat. Black dogs won over the other colors.

But if you have this story that claims that the golden retriever has some sort of exotic origin, then you have legitimacy in your move to split the variety from the black dogs.

Golden retrievers actually got the better deal out of the split than their black relatives, who often appeared in the same litters with them.

Flat-coated retrievers became quite rare during the Interwar years, but golden retrievers became more and more popular, particularly after the Second World War.

What amazes me most about this entire story, though, is how quickly the official golden retriever organizations accepted the true story and began dropping the Russian origins nonsense.

With so many other breeds, you can show the documentation about the actual origins, and they will simply deny it all.

Chinese crested dogs are from China. Dalmatians are from Croatia.

No evidence for either origin story exists.

But people want to believe it.












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Red and white retriever

This painting is by Edward Armfield (1817 – 1896), and the bird it is retrieving is a gray partridge, which in North America has the unfortunate name of “Hungarian partridge,” even though it is almost always called the “English partridge” in the United Kingdom. (Some Americans call it a “Hun,” a term that, as German-America, find pretty offensive. We don’t turn Belgian babies into soap!)

The dog looks to be of St. John’s water dog extraction. It has the robust build of that breed, and like many that were imported into the UK during the early nineteenth century, it has feathering.

Of course, the dog likely isn’t of “pure breeding.”

Through much of the nineteenth century, retrievers were the gentry’s equivalent of the poacher’s lurcher. Each shooting nobleman bred retrievers by crossing different types of dog. As we’ve seen, this tradition heavily conflicted with the British dog fancy that came later, which demanded that every retriever be a black dog.

This dog is particularly interesting because it’s red and white. It doesn’t appear to be a liver and white dog at all. The red coloration is the same that appears on golden retrievers and Irish setters. However, it’s also a particolor, which is unlike any golden retriever living today.

But if this dog had been bred to solid black dogs, the recessive red coloration would be carried, and the chances are good that one of its descendants would have been a solid red or gold dog.

I don’t know any specifics about this retriever. I don’t know its name or where it lived. All I know is that it’s a British retriever from the early to middle nineteenth century. If anyone knows any more details, please pass them along.

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labrador and golden retriever

The internet is a place where people go to fight with strangers.

And because one can make one’s online identity virtually anonymous, one suddenly realizes that one has license to be as crazy and vindictive as possible.

The people who do this as a hobby are known as trolls, but even accounting for those people, the internet is still a decent place to have a discussion about issues that one normally wouldn’t discuss with others.

But there are some debates that I find tedious.

One that wears me out is the debate about which predator will best another in a hypothetical fight to the death. People even make Youtube videos about this crap, where they post things like clips of Sir David Attenborough claiming that Amur tigers eat brown bears or footage of a crocodile eating a bull shark (albeit a small one).

In that same vein, another debate that wears me out is the old golden retriever vs. Labrador debate.

I shouldn’t dignify this schism by calling it a “debate.”

It’s really a game of one-upmanship that involves people bringing up anecdotes and other good examples of what might be called confirmation bias.

Each camp will bring up bits and pieces of information that make their case:  golden retrievers win more obedience titles than Labradors; more Labradors are guide dogs than golden retrievers.

And then we’d get anecdotes.

If I were to make my case, I’d say that I have lived with golden retrievers that have figured out how to open doors, get tennis balls thrown when a person passes a lawn mower over it, and find missing Christmas money and an errant beanie baby.

I would say that most of the Labs I’ve known have been big lunkers of dogs that remind me more of Jethro Bodine or Homer Simpson that the dogs celebrated in duck blinds and guide dog schools throughout the country.

But that’s because the golden retrievers I’ve known have all come from working lines or were partially derived from them.

The Labs were all giant pet line dogs, most of which had no interest in retrieving or swimming.

The truth is there is no way one can make any of these claims rationally.

Both of these breeds are derived from the same stock, and both were essentially developed in their current form in the United Kingdom. They also have been heavily interbred throughout their development. They really aren’t distinct “taxa” as people might assume. Golden retrievers have a well-known outcross to a yellow Labrador, and it is well-accepted that golden retrievers were crossed into yellow Labrador lines to lengthen the coat.

Labradors in the US have undergone selective breeding for our kind of retriever trial, which, of course, means they are superior at winning this kind of trial.

But both of these breeds are capable of doing what they were bred for.

Golden retrievers are just much less likely to have been bred for it.

But a golden retriever that’s been bred for it is going to best a Labrador that has not.

And to make things even more complicated, both of these breeds are so common that it is really foolish to make broad, sweeping statements about either.

There are so many of these dogs that exist in so many different lines that have experienced so many different kinds of selection pressures that you simply cannot make generalizations about them.

Except for two:  golden retrievers tend to be a softer, more sensitive breed than Labradors, and Labradors tend to mature faster than golden retrievers.

Tendency is not the same as an absolute.

And when you ask people questions about what the best breed is you’re not going to get anything useful.

You’re going to get people who look at it from their own perspectives and experiences, which includes biases based upon anecdote and cultural mores.

You’re much better off meeting a dog as an individual.

And stay the heck away from internet forums and Yahoo! groups.

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Raccoon dogs are an invasive species in Europe.  These golden retrievers take care of business.


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Golden retrievers, like all modern retriever breeds originating in the British Isles, descend from dogs that assisted cod fishermen who fished on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.

This breed, called the St. John’s water dog, the lesser Newfoundland, the Labrador, the lesser Labrador, or (more accurately) “the true Newfoundland,” was used to haul nets, set lines, and even catch fish off of hooks.

It’s not every day that one reads of a descendant of one of these dogs doing something that its ancestors would have done on a routine basis.

But such is the case with Becky.

Becky is a golden retriever from Leiston, Suffolk, in East Anglia.

Her owner was walking her at Minsmere Sluice.

Like many golden retrievers, she enjoys swimming in the surf and fetching objects from the water.

Her owner has seen her retriever driftwood and even jellyfish from the sea, but he was quite shocked to see her haul out a five-pound cod.

Becky’s ancestors underwent intensive selective breeding once they arrived from Newfoundland.

For decades, they were selected for heightened biddability and docility.

They were largely meant to be retrievers of land-based game, such as pheasants and partridges and hares and rabbits.

But even after all that selection, there are still plenty of retrievers that would relish the chance to be fishing dogs once again.

Becky is one of these dogs.

Her breed may be “improved” and “refined,” but the truth is there are plenty of them that are still rough around the edges, still wild enough to charge into frigid water and dive among the breaking waves.

Retrievers are good dogs because they are nice and smart.

But they are still rugged animals.

In their ideal state, they are dogs without exaggeration or much evidence of artifice.

They are dogs with certain marine mammal adaptations and a penchant for carrying things in their mouths.

They must never become something else.

If they do, they will cease to be retrievers.

They might as well be stuffed animals.



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Eng. Ch. Diver of Woolley, b. 1927, son of Cubbington Diver, the dog in my gravatar.

He was bred by Mrs. Jacqueline Cottingham, and her “Woolley” dogs were the subjects of many of Reuben Ward Binks’s paintings, including this one.

He was very Mileyish, don’t you think?

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