THE GOLDEN RETRIEVER AS A WORKING GUNDOG
Graham Cox looks at what makes Goldens distinctive

  Robert Atkinson with the 1982 Retriever Champion FT Ch Little Marston Chorus of Holway 
The competitive record of the labrador doesn't simply speak for itself. It shouts and stamps its feet. Nor is the record a matter of recent provenance. Once the labrador came seriously onto the scene the speed with which, colossus like, it came to bestride the world of working retrievers, was nothing short of remarkable.
The first trial for retrievers in 1899, won by the Flatcoated Retriever 'Painter' was in fact a mixed stake with two Clumbers, one Irish Spaniel and one Field Spaniel competing alongside a Curly Coated retriever and five Flatcoats. So there was no labrador represented. A decade and more on, in the last full season before the Great War, some 14 field trial meetings were held and, of the 247 dogs which entered, no fewer than 179 were labradors. Succeeding years simply accentuated the pattern as curly coats departed the competitive scene and flatcoats receeded.

 
Golden Retrievers were initially registered as flatcoats and defined, at that stage, only by colour. Registered by the Kennel Club as a seperate variety under the title 'Golden or Yellow Retrievers' in 1911, the following year saw the breed secure its first field trial award when Capt. H.F.H. Hardy took second place in the Gamekeepers' National Association Open Stakes at Netherby. In more recent years only Golden Retrievers have managed, on occasion, to mount a serious challenge to labrador dominance at the highest levels of competition. Just three times during the post-war period has a golden won the international Gundog League's Retriever Championship. In each of the other 51 years the name of a labrador - invariably a black labrador - has been inscribed on the Glen Kidston Challenge Cup.
So the public record overwhelmingly endorses the assessment offered by Colonel Hawker when, in 1830, he found himself lamenting the dearth of the dogs he considered 'by far the best for any kind of shooting'. It wasn't until the last decade of that century that the name labrador became common usage, but enthusiasts would soon have no doubt that Hawker's extravagent claim that the breed was 'without living equal in the canine race' had been substantially vindicated.


Other breeds, of course, had their committed advocates. One hundred years on from Hawker's paean to the labrador, Captain Hardy published his book Good Gun Dogs and in it he explained why he had kept goldens for more years than any other breed of gun dog. It was not just a matter of sentiment. "I do like them best of all", he emphasised: but he accounted for that liking in very practical terms. "I find them easy to train and to manage, good trackers of wounded game, and excellent at water work."

 
Left to Right; FT Champions Holway Jollity; Holway Chanter; Holway Gem; and Holway Gaiety
 
At little later the Rev. E.N. Needham-Davies, contributing a chapter on the breed to a book entitled Gun Dogs; Their Training, Working & Managment and conscious that his article would be read in a comparative sense with the articles on other varieties of the retriever family, drew attention to similair qualities. Being a younger breed the Goldens, he felt, had not been crossed as had happened with some other varieties. So, whereas some Field Trial work showed dogs to be very reliant on the whistle the Golden had not lost his ancestors' hunting traits. "Fast and sure", he wrote, "is excellent, they are two gundog virtues but the greater of these is sureness. The Golden, broadly speaking, is sure". with "a nose second to none, he holds his line and carries it". Too much pace, he added, and he may drop it.

 "Tiptop" as water-dogs, they could also generally be relied upon to be bold in cover: though he was careful to add that generalities can be dangerous. Where he was unequivocal was in extolling the virtue of what we would now call biddability. The Golden, he said, "is a nice dog to teach. He is kind and willing to learn", adding "I would say that he was on the whole easier to break than the other varieties". This from a man who "had, bred, trained and used Curlies, Flats and Labradors."

Generalities are, indeed, problematic. Even this one, So, although we may restrict our attention to working bred dogs we soon become aware that the force of different bloodlines may be such that variations within the breeds can be as significant as differences between them. As ever there is no substitute for knowing your stock and moderating the training process accordingly. But there certainly are popular suppositions about goldens and the most prevalent is the truism that goldens are slower to develop than labradors: puppyish and playful for longer with everything which that implies for progress.

FT Ch Treunair Cala
 

As a generalisation that is on track, but it doesn't say enough. What matters is that temperament develops more slowly than raw intelligence. You have, therefore, to resist the temptation to race ahead: a temptation which is ever present because of the speed which working goldens typically learn things. More to the point, I think, is a less generally acknowledged characteristic which is every bit as relevant to the strategy you adopt. The shortest way of expressing it is via June Atkinson's warning "you must never lose your temper with a golden" and the best way of elaborating the point is to draw on the wisdom of the man who, for over thirty years, was responsible for the breeding, rearing and training programmes of the Guide Dogs For The Blind Association.
Derek Freeman's Barking Up The Right Tree published in 1991 presents fascinating insights from an organisation which has had its best success rates with Golden Retriever and Labrador first-crosses. Of goldens he writes that willingness sometimes dries up and that this used to be termed 'stubborness'. That isn't, he says, a fair description. "A better term is 'lack of generosity'. Golden Retrievers are intelligent, they know what life is about and as individuals soon get to know what they can get away with. It is a breed which is easily offended and when their generosity or willingness is withdrawn, it can sometimes be difficult to restore".
 
Daphne Philpott receiving a Diploma of Merit from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Gained at the 1987 Retriever Championship with Abnalls Evita of Standerwick, whose dam Standerwick Roberta of Abnalls was also running.
 That is incredibly perceptive. Goldens need to have their sensitivity respected and they assuredly do not need to have their intelligence patronised by people confusing a different pace of maturing with innate ability. Those are two very different things even if you can only realise the potential of the one by taking full account of the other. Appreciate these points and much else falls into place. Goldens are gregarious and take less readily to kennel regimes. Above all they relate. They want to be with humans.
It is possible to let goldens be 'wild' as puppies and still get them back 'in hand'. By contrast, and this is the assessment I have heard from massively experienced and successful trainers, you would in all probability lose a labrador if you let it go. A labrador is more than happy to be independent whereas the golden wishes to be with a human. It is always dangerous to treat the best cases as if they were the generality, but there are guns who have 'lost' labradors and had it suggested that they try a golden and it works.
 By the same token these considerations, taken together, go a long way to accounting for the fact that when it comes to labrador enthusiasts fancying 'having a go' at training a golden it seems to be a case of 'many are called but few are chosen'. Janet Webb and Nigel Mann come to mind, but then one struggles. Keith Erlandson's first trial bred dog was a golden who proved, by his account, 'unbelievably easy' to train and in his assessment of the breed a quarter century ago he wrote "A good golden is second to none and at the risk of sounding controversial I believe a top specimen can actually be superior to the very best Labrador but I will admit that such dogs are very thin on the ground." It would be hard to avoid going along with that assessment: though as of now one would have to concede that at the very highest levels of field trial competition 'very thin' is looking even thinner.
 Working goldens are an important part of a very broadly based pyramid of working gundogs who make their contribution to the sport of shooting in ways too numerous to spell out. Field trial competition is, or should be, normal work in the field carried to a higher state of perfection. Trials dogs are at the apex of that broadly based pyramid because trials constitute the only public and accountable examination of the quality of a dog's work. At the very highest level, the IGL Championship, the minimal golden presence has not enjoyed any distinction of late and it is now almost two decades since the most recent of the breed's three victories was achieved.  Daphne Philpott accepts a retrieve from Abnalls Evita of Standerwick, watched by Judge (on left) Roy Taylor of Ardyle fame, in the 1987 Retriever Championship on the Sandringham Estate

 It would be quite wrong to draw pessimistic conclusions however. Look at less exalted levels of competition and the picture is one of commitment and enthusiasm. Participation rates can often tell us more than success rates which, for all kinds of reasons, can be more variable. Over the past three seasons the number of Goldens running in Open. All Aged and Novice stakes have remained broadly consistent, with the 1997-8 season clearly the most successful in that eight Open wins were almost matched by seven in All Aged Stakes and five Novice wins were also recorded.


A fuller account of the working record of the breed, with particular attention to the dogs who achieved their working titles, can be found in the books of Champions, the fourth one of which covering the period 1996-1999 was published recently. Volume one, which covered the period from 1946 to 1985 is now something of a collector's item, but Volumes two, covering 1915-1939 and 1986-1990, and three dealing with the years 1991-1995 and, of course, the most recent, are still readily available. In 1994, meanwhile, Albert Titterington and Michael Gaffney published The Golden Retriever in Ireland which deals comprehensively with the working side of the breed in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.


Good goldens may be harder to find than amongst the more numerous retriever breeds, but the testimony of those who have enjoyed success with them proves time and time again that when they are good they have something special about them. If good goldens are like gold-dust, perhaps that's only to be expected. What is for certain is that to achieve success with them you have to have a feel for what makes the breed distinctive. Develope is effectively and the response can be absolutely splendid.
GRAHAM COX