The puppy looked up at Dudley Majoribanks from the floor of a cobbler’s shop in southern England. The year was 1865, and the puppy had a feathery coat of gold and a wise expression. Majoribanks asked the cobbler about the dog and discovered that this one yellow pup in a litter of black Wavy Coated Retrievers had been payment for a debt. Majoribanks saw something in the dog, so he purchased him from the cobbler, named him Nous (which means “wisdom” in Greek) and took him home to Scotland.
Majoribanks, who later gained the title Lord Tweedmouth, kept large kennels of hunting dogs, but he wanted something particular from this new yellow dog. In an age when black retrievers were the favorite, he wanted to create a unique hunting dog specifically to work over the rough terrain and in the harsh climate of the Scottish Highlands. And he preferred gold.
At the time, there was no dog called a Golden Retriever, but Wavy Coated Retrievers were popular hunters all over the British Isles. In 1868 and again in 1871, Lord Tweedmouth bred Nous to a female Tweed Water Spaniel named Belle. Extinct today, the Tweed Water Spaniel was a hearty and hard-working breed with a strong instinct for water retrieving and a weatherproof coat. Four beautiful, yellow girls came out of these two mating: Crocus, Cowslip, Primrose and Ada.
Fortunately for those interested in the precise pedigrees of their Golden Retrievers, Lord Tweedmouth kept exacting records of all breedings, which included other Wavy Coated Retrievers, Tweed Water Spaniels and an Irish Setter (or “Red Setter”). No matter what combinations Lord Tweedmouth tried in order to tweak the breed, he always chose the yellow puppies (and occasionally black ones with admirable traits) to establish his new breed. Some people also believe other breeds may have contributed to the Golden we know today, including a small Newfoundland and a Bloodhound.
Lord Tweedmouth’s very last entry noted a mating between a second Nous (a descendent of the original) and a female named Queenie, resulting in two golden female puppies named Prim and Rose. If you could look back far enough into the pedigrees of most Golden Retrievers today, you should find one of these two Golden girls. And so the Golden Retriever — even though the breed still didn’t have that name — was born.
But First, the Mighty Hunter
The Golden Retriever is a much newer breed than some other retrievers, not to mention other sporting dogs like pointers, setters and spaniels. To understand the impetus for the Golden Retriever, it helps to understand why sporting dogs were developed in the first place.
Why hang out with a dog? Sure, dogs are great companions, foot warmers and exercise buddies, but in centuries past, when humans first started keeping canine company, the reasons were a little more urgent and had everything to do with securing a good meal. From the beginning of this powerful alliance between humans and canines came the specialized hunting dog.
Long before supermarkets, drive-thrus and pizza delivery, finding food was a trickier task. Humans spent much of their days looking for food to feed themselves and their families, and although some of this food came from plants, humans also hunted for their meals. The invention of the gun certainly made hunting easier, but even before the invention of the rifle, humans hunted beside dogs.
Although we can only speculate how this began, maybe early humans fed scraps to the tamest wolves or wild dogs. Maybe the dogs then followed these human food providers. When a hunt ensued, if the dog helped out by cornering the beasts or flushing the birds, that dog probably enjoyed a few scraps for his trouble. Maybe the dogs who did the best job at helping became the most valuable, and the early humans sought out the pups from those dogs, further encouraging the development of those skills in each generation.
Those dogs probably developed an intuitive bond with humans and understood how to help them in different ways, from pointing out where birds were hiding to bringing back the fallen birds. They most likely thrived as human companions and were rewarded with more food, shelter and protection.
But what does all this early history have to do with the Golden Retriever? This kind of human/dog relationship happened all over the world, and dogs developed differently in different places depending on the beasts to be hunted, the weather conditions and the local terrain. Pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers all came out of man’s need to hunt, but before the 1800s, dogs didn’t go by exact breed names and were bred primarily for a specific jobs. The Golden Retriever, and other retrievers, too, came about because of a specific desire amongst the upper classes.
Throughout the Middles Ages, the Renaissance and the Victorian era all over the British Isles, the aristocrats hunted birds for sport. Many of these landed gentry enjoyed the shooting part, but these privileged classes weren’t about to go slogging through the mud and bramble to find the birds they brought down. Enter the retriever: the aristocrat’s hunting dog. Those dogs with the most skill at following directions, finding the downed bird quickly and bringing it back without mauling it, became highly prized. The upper classes prided themselves on their kennels and whose hunting dogs had the most skill.
Throughout the 19th century, many people bred flat-coated and wavy-coated retrievers, sometimes including Labrador Retrievers, to help in their hunting pursuits. Lord Tweedmouth happened to develop his retrievers in Scotland, but the secret didn’t stay in Scotland for long.
In late 19th-century England, dog shows and field trials were popular pursuits and everybody wanted to find the next great show or performance dog. It didn’t take long for sporting-dog enthusiasts to catch wind of the “new” golden version of the flat or wavy-coated retriever. For show purposes, this new retriever was at first grouped together with these other retrievers as a separate color variety. In 1904, England’s Kennel Club officially recognized this variation.
In 1908, the Golden Retriever appeared at one of the most famous dog exhibition events in Europe, called the Crystal Palace Dog Show, under the name “Flat Coat (Golden).” In 1913, the Kennel Club decided the breed was indeed unique and called it the “Golden or Yellow Retriever.” This long-winded name soon changed to Golden Retriever, and in 1920, the Golden Retriever finally achieved his current moniker.
One of the most influential Britons to promote the Golden Retriever was a man named Lord Harcourt, who based his Culham Kennels on two dogs: Culham Brass and Culham Rossa. Both of these Golden Retrievers were descended from Lord Tweedmouth’s dogs, Prim and Rose. Some say Lord Harcourt was the first to coin the term “Golden Retriever” in the hopes of officially securing the name and unique breed status for his dogs because of his interest in dog shows.
In 1913, a grandson of Lord Harcourt’s Brass and Rossa became the first Golden Retriever to achieve a championship title in a benched dog show in England. This dog, named Noranby Campfire, was just one of many Noranby dogs that were highly prized and influential in Europe throughout the 1950s. Today, the Golden Retriever remains one of the most popular breeds in England. But the United Kingdom obviously isn’t the only country to adore the Golden Retriever.
America Goes for the Gold
Lord Tweedmouth’s golden canine creation came to America in the late 19th century in the company of Lord Tweedmouth’s son, the Honorable Archie Majoribanks, who lived on a Texas ranch with a Golden Retriever named Lady. A rare breed at the time, few Americans knew about Goldens, but that began to change in the 1920s, when a trend for all things British drove Americans to take more notice.
In 1925, Robert Appleton of Long Island registered the first Golden Retrievers with the American Kennel Club, two dogs named Lomberdale Blondin and Dan Hill Judy. In 1939, fanciers primarily living in Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest formed the Golden Retriever Club of America.
When Word War II swept across Europe, many breeders, fearing for their dogs, sent them to the United States for protection, and American breeders benefited, producing many wonderful Golden Retrievers. The center of the Golden Retriever fancy remained in the Midwest for many years, but Canada also developed a fondness for the Golden. The first Golden Retriever ever to win Best in Show at a dog show in the United States was Speedwell Pluto, an English import belonging to Col. Samuel Magoffin of Vancouver.
Pluto also was a talented hunting dog, and Magoffin had Midwestern ties, as well. His brother-in-law, Ralph Boalt of Minnesota, imported many Golden Retrievers from England, resulting in some of the most famous and accomplished field and show champions in America during the 1940s.
The Midwest has always been a hunter’s paradise, so it’s no wonder Golden Retrievers excelled there. The first Golden Retriever in America to compete in organized field trials was a dog named Rip, a puppy from two English imports. Around this time, most Golden Retrievers were hunting dogs, but the more people got to know the beautiful, soft-coated, friendly-faced and trainable Golden Retriever, the more the breed excelled in the show ring.
Some breeders worked to produce dogs that could best compete in dog shows, while others worked to refine the breed’s hunting skills. Although many Golden Retrievers today can do well in both areas, many lines have diverged so that show and field lines barely resemble each other. Show dogs tend to be larger with a thicker coat, while field dogs tend to be smaller and more athletic with a thinner coat better suited to tearing through brush or bog. Casual weekend hunters enjoyed their Golden companions, and others chose to compete with their dogs in field trials.
But that’s not all the Golden can do. Fans of competitive obedience quickly realized that any dog this trainable would excel in competition, and sure enough, the Golden Retriever shot straight to the top. In 1977, the AKC established a new title in competitive obedience to mark the very highest level of achievement, the Obedience Trial Champion. The first three dogs to achieve this title were Golden Retrievers, and more Golden Retrievers have achieved the OTCH to this day than any other breed.
Goldens also have distinguished themselves in other dog sports like agility and flyball. Many work as therapy dogs in hospitals and nursing homes, using their affectionate and intuitive personalities to brighten people’s days. Goldens have become some of the most accomplished guide dogs for the sight-impaired, hearing dogs for the hearing-impaired and assistance dogs for the mobility-impaired. Golden Retrievers, no matter their jobs, also make loving and active family pets. Goldens really can do it all.
The Golden has come a long way from his beginnings in the Scottish Highlands, yet in many ways, the breed has hardly changed. Still beautiful, highly trainable and sporting a beautiful, feathery coat, the Golden Retriever has made his mark. Would that very first Golden, waiting humbly for discovery in that tiny English cobbler’s shop, be proud? Maybe somewhere, Nous is wagging his tail.