Golden Retriever Behavior and Temperament: Dr. Jo de Klerk, DVM

Golden Retriever Behavior and Temperament: Dr. Jo de Klerk, DVM

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

Golden Retriever Temperament

The characteristic that defines the Golden Retriever above all else is its friendly, loyal, sunny, and biddable temperament. This is down to the long history of careful, selective breeding, and the stringent adherence to the breed standards. In producing an instantly recognizable appearance, selective breeding should also produce a certain uniformity of temperament, and broadly speaking this is the case. You can expect a Golden Retriever to be gentle, loyal, happy, and safe around adults, children, and other animals. However, anomalies of temperament can occur, and it is important to acknowledge these.

Firstly, you may reasonably assume that a litter of puppies will be genetically predisposed to the temperament of the parents. In the ideal breeding situation, both parents will be proven to be of excellent temperament, conforming to the breed standard:

Temperament: Friendly, reliable, and trustworthy. Quarrelsomeness or hostility towards other dogs or people in normal situations, or an unwarranted show of timidity or nervousness, is not in keeping with Golden Retriever character. (AKC Breed Standard 1990)

Temperament: Kindly, friendly and confident. (British Kennel Club 1994)

Golden Retriever dam and pup
Photo Courtesy – Linda Walkowiak

Anomalies in temperament may occur when two Golden Retrievers are mated that are not of similar temperaments, in which case the puppies may inherit either parent’s character traits. Or occasionally, genetics are just unpredictable, and for no clear reason, an atypical temperament may occur in a random pup from the litter. It is important that dogs inheriting a temperament that does not conform to the breed standard should not be bred, in order to preserve the hallmark biddable temperament of the Golden Retriever.

Temperament may also be affected by unfortunate experiences in the early life of a dog. Cruelty or just poor training may result in behavioral issues that may or may not be overcome later in more experienced hands.

It is also important to be aware that despite the Golden Retriever’s well-deserved reputation as the perfect family dog, a veterinary survey in the 1990s listed the breed among the top ten of dogs that bite. This is certainly not a typical breed characteristic but indicates that careful research should be done by the prospective owner into the pedigree of the dog they intend to bring into their home, especially if they have young children. Equally, early training and socialization are paramount, as Goldens that bite are most likely to have suffered a poor experience in the critical first few months of life.

Trainability

Golden Retrievers are renowned for their exceptional intelligence and eagerness to please. This makes them very trainable, to the extent that they are commonly used as assistance dogs and in search and rescue. They were of course originally bred as working dogs, so from their very origins were expected to learn and respond to commands. Naturally, this doesn’t mean your Golden Retriever is born knowing how to sit, stay, and heel, or that toileting should take place outdoors. Teaching these things is all part of the bonding process with your new dog. But you may have high expectations for your Golden Retriever, and enjoy the rewards of training a dog that is quick to learn, and adaptable to life within its human pack.

Some basic commands will be discussed in Chapter 6, but your Golden Retriever is capable of learning at a very high level, which is one of the attributes of the breed that makes them almost human.

Separation Anxiety

The very fact that your Golden Retriever is so bonded to his humans means that the breed is especially susceptible to separation anxiety, as he cannot bear to be away from the people that are his world. However, your Golden Retriever is a large breed dog when fully grown, inclined to molt and drool and fill any confined space he may find himself in. Therefore, he is not portable like smaller breeds and there will be occasions he has to stay at home. It is important to condition your dog to this necessary requirement from an early age, so he knows you will be coming back, and he feels comfortable and safe alone in his home environment.

Of course, if you have the space, you may consider another dog as a companion for your Golden, but this is a luxury not all will be able to accommodate. Your intelligent Golden Retriever may also not consider the other dog any substitute for his human.

The following symptoms may be displayed by your dog if he is experiencing separation anxiety:

  • Excessive drooling
  • Pacing
  • Barking
  • Whining
  • Scratching at doors
  • Destroying objects such as toys or furniture

Apart from the upsetting aspect of your dog experiencing distress, the destructive elements can lead to self-trauma, particularly the claws, paws, and mouth. Consequently, separation anxiety is something you need to address if it affects your dog.

Golden Retriever puppy
Photo Courtesy – Lori Reuter

Neither punishment nor positive reward are suitable methods to reduce anxiety in your dog, as both will worsen it. However, there are some good tips which will help to gradually teach your dog that separation is not the end of the world.

When you leave your dog alone, don’t make a big fuss saying goodbye. This will set his adrenaline racing. By ensuring you don’t do this, he will remain in his usual calm state. Likewise, as you return to the house, initially ignore him. Greeting him and making a fuss will reinforce his anxiety. When he has calmed down after a few minutes, you can calmly say hello.

Before you leave the house, many owners find it effective to give a long-lasting stuffed toy such as a Kong®. You can stuff it with wet dog food, pâté, or peanut butter (although check it is not one which contains xylitol as an ingredient). By having something to chew and lick, not only does this distract him, but it releases endorphins, the body’s natural relaxants.

In between times, you can practice leaving so that your dog gradually stops associating it with being alone for a long time. Start with just performing your leaving routine, but not actually going anywhere. Once this doesn’t trigger any anxiety, progress to leaving the room, but only staying on the other side of the door for a few seconds. Remember not to make a fuss over him when you come back, even if he was good. You can gradually increase the time you leave him to a few minutes. Once you’ve reached the hour milestone without triggering his anxiety, you shouldn’t have any issues leaving for a whole morning or afternoon.

Finally, there are some natural products on the market which are designed to help your pet stay calm. These may be obtained from your vet, or as non-prescription products from a pet store:

  • Pheromones: “Dog appeasing pheromone” or “DAP” is released by the mother to help calm puppies for the first 5 days after birth. DAP has been manufactured into several types of products including a plug-in diffuser, a spray, and a collar.
  • Casein: Naturally occurring in the mothers’ milk, casein helps relax puppies, and when ingested by adult dogs, brings back the feeling of being comforted by their mother. This is available both in a tablet form, and a dry dog biscuit.
  • L-tryptophan: This increases serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a naturally occurring chemical which stimulates happy feelings. However, it takes a few weeks to build up to levels which make a significant difference, so don’t expect to see an immediate change. It is available both in a tablet form, and a dry dog biscuit.

If you have tried all of the above and your vet has ruled out any health issues, the next step would be to consult a dog behaviorist. The benefit of this is that they can witness exactly what is going on in your own home and give personalized advice to suit your specific situation.

Chewing

Chewing is a natural behavior. It has the positive benefit of entertaining and educating your dog, cleaning his teeth, and alleviating pain. For a young puppy with teeth coming through, chewing helps with the discomfort, just as with a human baby. It is wrong therefore to punish chewing as a misbehavior issue; the owner must rather redirect it so that it causes minimum destruction to their home and belongings.

Golden Retriever mom
Photo Courtesy – Marnie Harrell

Apart from alleviating the pain of teething, puppies are more inclined to chew indiscriminately than adult dogs because they are exploring their new world, easily bored, possibly anxious while they adjust to their new life, and they have not been trained to know what is and is not acceptable to chew on. Therefore, when bringing a puppy into the home, you must expect that things left within its reach may get destroyed, as puppies have sharp teeth from a very young age. The most sensible thing to do is to place all important or dangerous objects out of the puppy’s reach. If you have young children, separating the child’s toys from the puppy’s may present a challenge, and at this stage of your dog’s development, you may consider separating the child and the dog along with their belongings by using a playpen for either the dog or the child. Be aware that children’s soft toys often have hard eyes that may be pulled out and ingested by the dog, which could cause a serious obstruction, so these should never be left where the dog might find them.

Now is the time to adopt that resolution of tidying things away in the house, especially things with harmful batteries such as the TV remote. Your kitchen trash can is also fair game for your puppy, so install it behind a cupboard door, on a worktop, or in a utility room out of bounds. Stair gates in the home can also keep your puppy contained without the barrier of a closed door.

Training your puppy to feel comfortable in a crate can be an asset, as if you have to leave your dog for a while, you will know he is not destroying the house in your absence. You can even encourage positive chewing by giving him a stuffed Kong® or deer antler to chew in his crate. If he does not have a permitted chew he may set to work on the bars or mesh of the crate itself.

Remember your Golden Retriever’s innate desire to please you. If you catch him in the act of chewing something inappropriate, use a stern word and remove the object. Then immediately give him a permitted chew. He will in time recognize approved chews by their scent. Praise him when his chewing is directed appropriately, and the lesson will soon be learned.

Exercise Requirements

Golden Retriever resting
Photo Courtesy – David A Ring

Taking on a Golden Retriever is not something to be done lightly. This is not a sedentary breed in spite of the stereotype image of a Golden flat out in front of the fire. To reach this state of relaxed bliss, your Golden Retriever will need to have done his allotted daily exercise. For an adult dog, a brisk walk of at least one hour a day is recommended, and for Goldens from working lines which have higher energy levels, this should be increased to two hours.

A lack of commitment to the exercise needs of the Golden Retriever will have an undesired result. The dog may become full of undirected energy, destructive, vocal, and obese. The Golden Retriever is a breed that loves its food, so it needs to burn off those calories. Otherwise an overweight dog will be more highly predisposed to all the weaknesses of the breed, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stress on their hip and elbow joints.

On the positive side, the quickest and most enjoyable way to get fit and healthy yourself is to take on the exercise needs of a Golden Retriever.

Hyperactivity

It is not in the nature of the Golden Retriever to be hyperactive; they are more often described as a doormat! However, certain bloodlines will be more hyperactive than others as they have been bred specifically as working dogs where this temperament is an asset in the field. If you find yourself the owner of a dog with hyperactive tendencies that persist beyond the naturally excitable puppy stage, you may wish to adopt some coping strategies.

Golden Retriever lying down
Photo Courtesy – Dylan Starer

To begin with, you need to ask yourself if you are addressing the exercise requirement of your Golden Retriever. This is a high-energy breed, developed to be inexhaustible in the field. If you find that you have underestimated the amount of exercise your dog needs, and maybe time and work are preventing you from meeting their requirement, it may be worth employing a dog walker, or taking up an active sport with your dog, such as jogging, which will increase his mileage in a given timespan, or regular flyball or agility. Both of these will also help to exhaust his busy mind. Using your dog’s natural retrieve ability by taking a ball with you to the park will also help to use up his excess energy, as will the opportunity to run and play with other dogs. It is important that strenuous exercise should only take place after the puppy reaches the age of six months so as not to damage soft growing bones and joints. Agility and flyball may be started from nine months to one year.

Hyperactivity may also result from a dysfunction in the relationship a dog has with its human. Golden Retrievers crave attention and can become very stressed if left alone for long periods. It is important to make time for your dog. They also need a firm concept of hierarchy, and to recognize their human as the pack leader. This alleviates stress in the dog. So consistent, firm, and loving training from the outset as well as a regular routine are very important factors for your dog’s mental well-being, which in turn affects his sense of calm. This understanding should help tone down unwanted hyperactivity in your Golden Retriever.

Importance of Socialization

Golden Retrievers are known to be very social dogs, both with humans and with other dogs. They have a special language with their own breed, however, so any opportunities to play with other Goldens is to be encouraged. Socialization is paramount for a happy, healthy dog. A dog whose life is clouded by fear of other dogs or humans may demonstrate fear aggression and stress-related health issues. Fortunately, this is not the natural disposition of a Golden Retriever, so unless you are adopting a traumatized dog, or have a dog from undesirable bloodlines, socialization should literally be a walk in the park with this breed.

Golden Retriever adult
Photo Courtesy – Julie & Holly Simmons

There is a “Golden Window” for socializing your dog, and this is from birth to 18 weeks, during which your puppy’s brain is busily processing all his new experiences. You should start socializing your Golden Retriever as soon as he arrives home. Initially this will be with human contact and exposure to unfamiliar noises, but as soon as his vaccinations are complete your dog may start puppy classes. To find out where these take place in your local area, consult your veterinarian. They may hold classes at the veterinary clinic itself; otherwise, they will be able to advise you of classes nearby. Puppy classes are an ideal way to start socialization at an early age. Your dog will have contact with other dogs and people that he does not know, and you will have support through this important stage, as well as an introduction to training classes which may be a part of the same program.

Above all, socialization should be fun for your dog. Being vigilant for when a situation might turn bad is important. Learn to recognize the body language of other dogs, and if a positive engagement does not happen within three seconds, the owner should walk their dog away before a confrontation occurs. Although a Golden is less vulnerable to attack than a small dog, emotional scars last longer than physical ones, so the owner should always be on their guard during these important early formative months.

Remember, your dog is also learning from your body language, so will pick up on your fear or anxiety. Stay upbeat, reward positive behavior, keep your dog focused, and enjoy your puppy’s inquisitive journey into his new world.