The Birth of the Golden Retriever

It probably comes as no surprise that the Golden Retriever is one of the most popular breeds in America. However, it may be a surprise for some to learn that these Golden beauties didn’t exist until fairly recently.
Since dogs first became domesticated, humans have learned that by breeding dogs with desirable traits, the likelihood of creating dogs with those traits is increased. By classical Roman time, dog breeding had reached the point that most of the modern dog families were clearly established. Retrievers, however, were not among the established families at that time.
The reason for not having Retrievers back then is easy to understand. As most people know, the trademark ability of the retriever is to bring back birds that hunters can’t easily reach. Until the introduction of guns, birds were usually caught by falcons or by throwing large nets over them. Only when hunters began shooting birds down with guns were they confronted with the problem of getting the birds, which may have fallen too far ahead or into deep water.
With the first muzzle-loading firearms, bird dogs that traditionally were used only to find and point out game also began to be trained to retrieve it. The breech-loading shotgun entered the scene in the mid-1800s, raising the requirements for retrieving. In the past, hunting with a muzzle-loader may have produced ten shot birds in a day.

The ease and accuracy of the newer guns made it simpler to shoot birds in flight, therefore making them more likely to fall in inaccessible places. Bird shooting soon became the new fashionable pastime of the rich.

Popular shooting parties that were part picnic and part fashion show were often held. The wealthier estates tried to outdo each other in terms of extravagant house parties, game, and dogs. The pressure was on the kennelmen of the estates to create and perfect a dog that would stay close until the shooting stopped, find dropped birds, and return them to the hunter without damage.

Around 1840, even greater attention was directed at developing a unique kind of retriever. This special dog would be a good swimmer, very obedient, strong, have a good nose and a soft mouth, and have less interest in wandering around to hunt on its own.

Existing dogs were usually interested in picking up birds, but could not be counted on to return them in good condition, nor were most of them capable of retrieving birds that had fallen in water. While Water spaniels were more skilled in water, the key ingredient came from a type of dog known at the time as the Lesser Newfoundland, a breed developed in Newfoundland as an all-around fisherman’s helper.

This was a dog that could carry items in its mouth through strong seas and at the command of the fisherman. Some hunters had already discovered that those same qualities made them outstanding water retrievers for birds. The first of these dogs, later to become known as Labrador Retrievers, came to Britain in the early 1800s. Crosses of Water Spaniels with smaller varieties of Newfoundlands were proving to produce the best retrievers known at that time, but they still weren’t Golden Retrievers.


The elements for a perfect bird-retrieving dog were there. Now all that was needed was an expert to combine them, the proper conditions to test them, and the resources with which to refine them. This expert was Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, who later became known as the first Lord Tweedmouth. Marjoribanks, who owned the Guisachan estate in the Scottish highlands near the Tweed River, was a sportsman, dog lover, and serious breeder of many fine animals.

Among his dogs were spaniels and retrievers, but the most significant addition came from an accidental encounter with a golden-coated retriever owned by a cobbler. Because the cobbler had no use for this dog (named Nous), he sold him to Marjoribanks, who in 1868 bred him to one of his Tweed Water Spaniels named Belle. From this union came four yellow retrievers named Crocus, Cowslip, Primrose, and Ada. These four became the foundation of the Golden Retriever.

Marjoribanks, along with some family members who were also dedicated sportsmen, eventually created a distinctive line of exceptional retrievers. These dogs were not only attractive and talented, but because they were owned by prominent families, they were seen and eventually acquired by other wealthy sportsmen as they visited each other’s estates for shooting parties.

While Lord Tweedmouth was close to his dogs, he did allow a few to leave in order to influence retrievers elsewhere. In addition, his family was well connected, and several family members maintained their own kennels that continued Lord Tweedmouth’s lines. Lord Tweedmouth maintained detailed records of his dogs, but his records ended in 1890. The last two dogs mentioned were named Prim and Rose. His descendant did not keep records, so most of the breed’s history during the following two decades have been been lost. 

Please note: This article is part of a collection of dog-related content that we purchased the rights to. Opinions expressed may or may not agree with those espoused by Master Dog Trainer Adam G. Katz. When in doubt, please refer to the advice given in Adam’s dog training bookThis article is provided for your enjoyment, only. It’s relevance to real world working dog training may be limited.