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Golden Retrievers – Primarily Hunting Dogs

golden retriever running on a field


NOTE: Judges are strongly encouraged to spend time with a mentor in the field to observe Golden Retrievers doing the type of work for which the breed was intended. This may include field trials, hunting tests, and the Golden Retriever Club of America Working Certificate tests as well as actual hunting situations.



In the state of Oregon, from September 29 – October 9, 2022, a showcase was held to celebrate the talents and training of Master Hunter retrievers of all breeds. The AKC Master National is an annual gathering of dogs and handlers from every corner of North America.

This year, the entry included 39 Golden Retrievers. To say that this was an elite group of 39 Goldens is understating the skills displayed during the grueling series of tests over a ten-day period. Watching these dogs perform the historic job of retrieving through water both deep enough to swim and shallow enough to require lunging through mud, and through brush and grass so high that the dogs disappear from view, emphasizes one of the most important phrases in the Golden Retriever standard: “Primarily a hunting dog, he should be shown in hard working condition.”

For those who are not familiar with this aspect of our sport, a brief explanation is appropriate so that you can begin to visualize the task of a hard-working retriever. At the Master level, retrievers are required to successfully complete the following:

  • Multiple marks on land and in water (most often three birds thrown in succession up to 150 yards from the dog, which the dog must remember and pick up one at a time, ideally without assistance from the handler);
  • Blind retrieves (birds planted without the dog seeing them, requiring the handler to direct the dog to the bird through whistles, voice, and hand signals);
  • Honors (after running a test, an honoring dog must stay in place off-leash while the next dog is beginning its test).
Golden Retriever hunting
Diagram of typical Master level retriever hunting test.

Valuing dogs that are capable of this level of work is a key purpose stated in the Golden Retriever Club of America Bylaws: “To recognize that the Golden Retriever is a gun dog and to encourage… the appearance, soundness, temperament, natural ability and personality” necessary for that role. To that end, there is a growing interest among Golden breeders and exhibitors to pursue this ideal. At the annual Golden Retriever National Specialty, one of the most coveted awards is the Triathlon, given to dogs that place or qualify in three areas of competition. The Gundog Sweepstakes, for dogs that have earned Junior Hunter titles or higher, shows an increase in entries each year. The GRCA also celebrates dogs that have achieved at high levels in both conformation and field with the Dual Dog Hall of Fame.

Golden Retriever hunting
A mallard duck may weigh up to four pounds, requiring strong jaw, neck, and shoulder muscles.

The first paragraph of the Golden Retriever standard ends with these words: “Any departure from the described ideal shall be considered faulty to the degree to which it interferes with the breed’s purpose or is contrary to breed character.”

The purpose of the Golden is to recover upland game and waterfowl, in terrain and weather that is not forgiving. Duck season is in the autumn and winter, and hunters will share stories regarding how cold and wet a duck blind is before dawn as you wait for the first birds to arrive. Pheasant season is in the autumn, in cut cornfields or endless tallgrass prairie. Dove season begins in summer, when dogs that are not fit would quickly tire in the heat and dry conditions.

What, then, is meant by “hard working condition?” These words convey more than just hard muscle tone, though that is very important. Working condition is multi-faceted. Let’s explore several of these aspects.


Working Muscle Tone

Pluis Davern, one of the sport’s most accomplished handlers and trainers in both field and conformation with Sporting breeds, once said at a banquet after judging, “Thank you for showing me dogs that were fit, not fat.” Fitness is a key word when considering hard working condition. Well-developed muscles are most easily felt in two places when examining a Golden Retriever: the loin and the thighs (both upper and lower).

When examining a Golden, feel the width and muscle of the loin. Not only should the loin be short (no more than one-third of the total length of the dog’s body from withers to hip), but the standard calls for it to be wide and deep, with very little tuck-up. The loin should be nearly as broad as the hindquarters, and should feel hard and firm, not flabby or soft.

The standard notes that hindquarters should be broad and strongly muscled. When checking for working condition in the hindquarters, a physical check of the upper thigh should yield rock-hard muscle—your thumb and fingers should not sink in but should meet resistance. A glance at the second (lower) thigh should show a bulge of muscle just below the stifle, indicating strong muscle development to support all joints and bones of the rear legs.


Working Movement

The Golden Retriever standard describes the gait of the breed thus: “When trotting, gait is free, smooth, powerful and well-coordinated.” Note that speed is not mentioned in the breed standard. The proper retriever gait is a methodical, effective, ground-covering stride, allowing a dog to work for hours over uneven and harsh ground. The fewer steps required to move a given distance, the more efficient the retriever. A dog in hard, working condition, with muscular and cardiovascular fitness, will appear to glide around the ring, lifting its feet barely off the ground and with a level, quiet back.

Golden Retriever hunting
Broad, strongly muscled upper and lower thighs provide strength and stability in a working retriever. ©Marcia Schlehr

A dog with a loin of proper length, depth, and muscle tone will carry the back level and strong, with no rolling or bouncing. The adage of a cup of water not spilling when placed on the loin of a properly built and conditioned dog applies.

The Golden Retriever standard describes the gait of the breed thus: “When trotting, gait is free, smooth, powerful and well-coordinated.” Note that speed is not mentioned in the breed standard. The proper retriever gait is a methodical, effective, ground-covering stride, allowing a dog to work for hours over uneven and harsh ground. The fewer steps required to move a given distance, the more efficient the retriever.

The fit retriever will not show evidence of exhaustion or distress after moving (within weather condition limits, of course). Exaggerated reach and drive, high action of the legs, and excessive speed are not indicative of the sound endurance gait required of a hunting retriever.

Golden Retriever hunting
Proper movement is free, smooth, powerful, and well-coordinated.


Working Coat

Hard, working condition applies to coat quality as well. When the Golden was being developed in the Scottish Highlands, not far from the North Sea and along a latitude line with Stockholm and Oslo, cold and ice were present much of the year. The use of now-extinct Tweed Water Spaniels in the breed’s creation was purposeful. After swimming, these water dogs gave their coats a shake and were soon dry. This is an attribute that was noted and cherished, aiding in the development of the desired Golden Retriever coat.

Dogs with correct coats in good condition still display this crucial trait; one good shake after delivering the bird, and they are dry at the skin with outer coat just damp to the touch. Undercoat, though its abundance will be climate-dependent, must be present to indicate this protection from water.

Golden Retriever hunting
The Golden Retriever coat must be moderate in length; firm and protective; and never open, silky, or soft.

Goldens with proper coat of moderate length, wrapping the body like a jacket rather than standing off through the effects of nature or grooming, can do their work efficiently. Coat in working condition is “dense and water-repellent,” resistant to thistles and burrs. The outer coat is “firm and resilient, neither coarse nor silky, lying close to body.” For these reasons, “excessive length, open coats, and limp, soft coats are very undesirable.” Coat in working condition will assure that the retriever will not be hindered in doing its job.


Working Temperament

Finally, a word on working condition as it applies to Golden Retriever temperament. This is a breed that was originally hunted in groups, not only with other retrievers but sometimes with pointers, setters, or spaniels. An equable temperament was a necessity, not a luxury. Any Golden that shows evidence of aggression toward other dogs; shyness or unwarranted fear; or a dull, cloddy, vacant presence that is the antithesis of the required “eager, alert, and self-confident” personality should not be rewarded. Golden Retrievers in hard working condition are sound of mind as well as body, and no compromise should be accepted.

Golden Retriever hunting
Reliable and trustworthy with humans and other dogs.

A note on the word eager: this does not indicate frantic. Remember that the purpose of the breed at its origin and in the highest levels of sport today, working with other dogs and many human hunters, requires stability and the willingness to honor another dog at work. An eager dog in the ring will smile, wag its tail, and show joy as it gaits or watches its handler; but is calm and in control while waiting its turn. Goldens do not need to “show ears” or continuously grab for bait during the stack. They are reliable and trustworthy, not on edge.

Golden Retriever hunting
Every Golden is a PhD: Primarily a Hunting Dog.


Final Thoughts

Consider the reasoning for the characteristics described above. Golden Retrievers in their country of origin, and today in their work both in practical hunting and in sport, must do the following, so eloquently captured by accomplished field trainer and Golden expert Glenda Brown (excerpt reprinted from SHOWSIGHT magazine, 2017). We leave you with Glenda’s words:

When Goldens were developed, they were expected to have the courage to bust through dense, harsh, wiry heather and bracken to retrieve their game. They had to willingly swim across swift, icy streams or rivers to retrieve those pheasants that had set their wings and flown a considerable distance before going down. Goldens had to have the stamina and athletic ability to cover steep and rocky terrain for long days spent in driving, cold rain, snow flurries and harsh winds. They needed the trainability to work with their handler as a team and not go into business for themselves. They needed the temperament to hunt with other dogs without the fear of fights developing.

Goldens needed a strong work ethic and the drive and desire to pursue their game under the most adverse conditions. A good hunting dog is what can turn a miserable hunting day into a success. They hear ducks coming in long before the hunter sees or hears them. Goldens use their abilities to prevent dead birds or cripples being left in the field. They are marvelous companions while you are waiting and are great to have curl up against your cold feet and keep them warm. Even old Golden Retriever dogs eagerly await the start of hunting season. They love it. They live for it.



Golden Retriever Dog Breed Magazine

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Read and learn more about the friendly Golden Retriever dog breed with articles and information in our Golden Retriever Dog Breed Magazine.


Golden Retriever Breed Magazine - Showsight