Choosing the Perfect Golden Retriever for your Family

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Golden Retrievers" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM

Purchasing or Rescuing?

So, you have carefully weighed the pros and cons of sharing your life with a Golden Retriever and are ready for the commitment. The first decision you need to make is whether you are going to buy a puppy from a breeder, or a rescue from a shelter, in which case the dog will usually be an adult.

If you plan to show your dog, the second option will almost always not be open to you, because show dogs require fully papered dogs with accredited Kennel Club breeding. It is very rare for a dog with this kind of pedigree to end up in a shelter, and if it did, due perhaps to an owner handing in a dog that they could no longer care for due to a change in circumstances, then the shelter will often withhold any paperwork to protect the anonymity of the previous owner. This gives the dog a fresh start. If your showing aspirations are simply local, fun shows, then an absence of pedigree papers will be no problem, but if you had hoped to participate in Kennel Club conformation shows, these will not be open to you. In addition, shelters usually neuter dogs that pass through their care in their best interests for a settled life going forward. Neutered dogs may not participate in AKC shows, although in the UK you may apply for a “Permission to Show” letter from the Kennel Club for your neutered dog.

Show dogs also require specific training and socialization at an early age, which is covered in Chapter 15. If your rescue dog does not have this background, he may not feel comfortable in the ring, and nothing matters more when you adopt a rescue dog than to help him adjust to his new life within his comfort zone and put the past behind him.

Golden retriever playful
Photo Courtesy – Brandon Short

If you plan to work your dog, again, you may find your best bet is to choose a dog carefully from specific working bloodlines. These dogs may have higher energy levels than their domestic counterparts. You will also have the opportunity to train your dog as a puppy. On the other hand, a dog from working stock that has proven too much of a handful in a family home may well end up in a shelter. In these cases, you may find a suitable dog in a shelter that will be much happier with the working life you are offering him. However, you will probably have more training to do if the dog is already an adult. But by nature, the Golden Retriever is intelligent and wants to please, so turning such a dog around will be less of a challenge than with certain other breeds.

There is no denying that rescuing a dog brings its own sense of reward. In transforming the life of an unwanted dog, you are doing something really positive. Also, if you would prefer to skip the puppy stage, you may be lucky enough to find a dog with basic training in place. Adopting may also suit an older person who may be looking ahead to the not too distant future when their mobility may not continue to keep pace with the needs of a Golden Retriever. Sharing a dog’s twilight years is a special time. Older dogs may even come with some financial support from the rescue organization, as it is acknowledged that veterinary costs will be heavier in this chapter of their lives.

If you choose to buy a puppy, remember that a Golden Retriever is expected to live for 10-12 years, so you need to acknowledge how your life may change over this period. You will, however, have the pleasure of sharing your dog’s entire lifetime with him, and he will truly become a part of the family.

Researching the Establishment

Whether you choose to purchase or rescue your Golden Retriever, you have two valuable resources available to you in finding your canine companion. These is the Kennel Club in your country, and your country’s Golden Retriever Club. In following up on approved establishments, whether they are breeders or shelters, you may be confident that the dog you choose will have the best chance of being healthy, and you will know you are not unwittingly supporting rogue organizations.

The most insidious trap that the prospective owner may fall into is purchasing from a puppy mill. It is common knowledge that puppy farming is inhumane, that dogs are kept in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, and that weaknesses are allowed to perpetuate in the stock to the extent that such dogs may end up suffering or even need to be euthanized not long after purchase by their unsuspecting owners.

Golden retriever outdoor
Photo Courtesy – Brandon Short

Most prospective buyers think they would never be so unaware as to purchase from a puppy mill. However, such establishments are almost always fronted by a clean and tidy room in a house where the puppy is shown to the buyer. If either of the parents are brought out, they may not even be the true parent of the puppy. The puppy will also be unpapered if the breeder is not approved by the Kennel Club, which should be an indicator that the dogs are not being bred from stock conforming to the breed standard. Paperwork may not seem important if you do not intend to show your dog, but Golden Retrievers are prone to many genetic health issues that responsible breeding will eliminate from the line. However cute a puppy from an unregistered breeder may look, if he is harboring genetic defects you will be guaranteed heartbreak later on, and you will be supporting reckless breeding by buying from an establishment that does not have the dog’s interests at heart.

If you are rescuing a Golden Retriever from a shelter, you will find that there are several rescue organizations that exclusively cater to Labradors and Retrievers. In choosing to adopt from one of these, you will know that the establishment understands the breed, and during the time the dog has been at the rescue center, their specific needs will have been met in the most appropriate way, and any health issues addressed. Retrievers are usually fostered out during their time in rescue. This is less unsettling for the dog than spending time in kennels, and allows the rescue to assess the dog in the home environment, as well as how it reacts with children, cats, and other everyday stimuli. You should expect to pay a rehoming fee when adopting a rescue dog. This partly covers the costs of neutering, worming, vaccinating, and microchipping the dog as well as any veterinary care, accommodation, travel, and feed costs. In practice, your dog’s care may have greatly exceeded this amount, and in view of the purchase cost of a pedigree dog, the rehoming fee should never be considered excessive.

On the other hand, rescue organizations can be set up by anyone, and less salubrious shelters may exist where the unfortunate dog is not assessed properly, his health needs are not addressed and may even deteriorate, and he is unlikely to be neutered, wormed, or even vaccinated. Be aware that bringing an unvaccinated rescue dog into your home may be a risk if you have other dogs. Even if you don’t, losing your new rescue dog to parvovirus, which is a particular risk in puppies, is heartbreaking. While some dogs need rescuing from unscrupulous rescue organizations, there is the unfortunate aspect that such well-meaning intentions are effectively encouraging such practices to exist.

Inquire About the Parents

If you are purchasing a puppy, you will probably have viewed the litter and possibly reserved your favorite while they were still with the mother before weaning. The breeder will have been able to inform you all about the mother, her bloodlines, and her own personal health. However, the breeder may not own the sire. You may be able to make an arrangement to see him; otherwise, you will need to check out his pedigree. With both parents, research the bloodlines. Are the puppies from working stock or predominantly companion animals? Are there any past show champions in the pedigree that you can find out about? Be cautious of excessive inbreeding, where the same names crop up multiple times, especially on both parents’ pedigrees. These may indicate a higher predisposition to genetic diseases. The breeder will be able to show you certification of the hip and elbow scores for both parents, which are especially important for Golden Retrievers, but what do these mean?

Hip scores:

A hip score is a measure of evidence of hip dysplasia. This is an inherited abnormal development of the hip causing instability and laxity in the joint, and the dog will be in great pain as it gets older. Hip dysplasia will not be evident in the puppy so you need to refer to the parents’ hip scores to know if he is genetically predisposed to inherit the condition.

Scores range from 0 to 106, and the lower the score the better. Breeding Golden Retrievers should score below the breed median of 11.

Elbow scores:

Golden Retrievers are also susceptible to elbow dysplasia, which presents in the same way as hip dysplasia but in the forelimb and leads to osteoarthritis of the elbow joint.

An elbow score only ranges from 0-3, with 0 being clear, and 3 being badly affected. Although the two elbows may register different scores, only one number is given on the certificate, and this is the worst of the two scores. You will be looking for a score of zero in both parents to be sure your dog is not at risk of inherited elbow dysplasia.

Genetic testing:

Golden retriever sleeping
Photo Courtesy – Brandon Short

Genetic testing for inherited disorders is a recent development in dog breeding, but it has the advantage that dogs that are carriers of certain disorders without displaying symptoms themselves may be prevented from perpetuating their genes, or only mated to dogs that present as clear. An apparently unaffected dog and bitch that both carry a recessive gene will produce offspring that suffer from the disorder. Disorders that affect Golden Retrievers that may be screened for by genetic testing include ICT-A (Ichthyosis), which is an excessively scaly skin disorder, and PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy), which causes blindness.

At this stage, not all Golden Retriever breeders will have carried out genetic testing on their adult dogs, but for those that have, if the results are clear it will give you the added reassurance that no nasty surprises are around the corner for your dog in later life.

Looking at the Puppy

So, the exciting time has come to visit the litter of puppies from which you will be choosing your new companion. This may be when the pups are around 5-7 weeks of age and not yet weaned. With a Golden Retriever, you may find it very hard to differentiate between these pale, wriggling furballs, as the breed does not generally have distinctive markings. However, even at this stage there are things to look out for.

Golden retriever puppy
Photo Courtesy – Brandon Short

The most obvious question you will have asked yourself is whether you wish to have a boy or a girl. If you are planning to show or breed from your dog, there will be very different expectations placed upon it, compared to whether you are simply looking for a best friend. If the Golden Retriever breed is really at the top end of the size that your home can accommodate, you may wish to select a female, as these are generally smaller than males as adults. Female dogs may also be less boisterous. If you do not intend to breed from her, however, you will need to consider having her spayed after her first season. This will also eliminate the mess of the 6-monthly season and protect her from pyometra. If you prefer a male dog, you should be prepared to train him out of instincts such as scent marking in the home should this arise, and consider getting him castrated if you do not intend to breed and do not want him chasing after receptive female dogs in the park.

The color of the litter will generally be lighter than their adult coats; however, for an indicator of their adult color you should look at the ears. These may look darker in the puppy and show the shade that the rest of his coat will reach as an adult.

You should be sure that the puppy that catches your eye is clean and does not smell. His coat should feel plush and silky with no scabs or fleas. Check his eyes and ears for discharge and feel his tummy. It should be plump but not hard. If it is distended it may indicate a worm problem.

If you are intending to show your dog, you will be looking for a puppy that shows promise of matching the breed standard, with no unusual markings. This is discussed further in Chapter 15. And if you are looking for a working dog you will want to pick out the highest energy candidate. However, if you are looking for a companion dog, you should just trust for a connection. It is one of those things you can’t really qualify—you just know that this particular puppy is destined to be a part of your life.

Considerations of a Rescue Dog

If you have decided on a rescue dog, and have been fortunate enough to find one that you connect with in need of a good home, the first thing you can expect is to be home checked. This isn’t as intimidating as it sounds, as the representative of the shelter that visits your home is not looking for dust above the door frames; he or she is simply checking that you live where you say you do, your tenancy agreement if you rent your home allows dogs, your home and garden are secure and free of dangerous objects, that your accommodation is suitable for a large breed dog, and that everyone in the family has thought about the implications of dog ownership and has a basic understanding of what it entails.

Golden retriever with owner
Photo Courtesy – Brandon Short

If you have owned dogs before, even Golden Retrievers, you should not feel patronized by a home check, as it simply indicates that the rescue is taking its duty of care seriously, and does not wish to place a dog in a situation where it may be returned to the shelter when things do not work out. Having said that, one positive aspect of adopting a rescue dog is that if the unforeseen should happen, the rescue offers full backup, and will take the dog back and find it another home. In fact, this is usually a condition that you sign up to in adopting from a shelter. You do not own the dog and do not have the right to rehome it yourself without the permission of the original rescue organization, who have committed to that dog for the rest of its life to ensure that it is never again let down by humans, and will always have the chance of loving and responsible ownership.

Before the home check, do make sure that you have made any necessary modifications to your yard boundary to ensure a large dog cannot escape. Also, if you rent your home, be sure to have your rental agreement on hand. Failure to do either of these will mean that the home checker will need to return, which will delay the adoption and you could even lose the dog you may have reserved.

If you already have dogs, you may need to participate in a “Meet and Greet” prior to the adoption, to check that your dogs are likely to get along. This is usually on neutral territory, as the new dog would be at a disadvantage in this assessment if it should take place in the home of your existing dog.

Your rescue dog may need special consideration when you bring him or her home. He may feel insecure initially in his new environment and this may manifest itself in behavioral issues that are simply a part of the transitioning process. If you have another dog, they may even fight, and you may be ready to give up on the newcomer. But with patience and common sense, these initial teething problems should be overcome. A good rescue organization will always be there to support you, as it is in everyone’s interest, not least the dog’s, for the arrangement to be a success. If problems persist, a behaviorist may be brought in to see where things could be done better. This does not mean you have failed, but is a pragmatic step to turn things around. The rescue organization may arrange and even pay for professional help should it be required.

Most adoptions, however, are trouble-free, and your new dog will soon be showering you with his appreciation for the new life you have given him. Golden Retrievers are generally a laid-back and adaptable breed, and in no time, it will seem as if he has always been a part of your family.

To read more from "The Complete Guide to Golden Retrievers" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, DVM, or purchase on Amazon, visit the link below:

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