Monday, January 26, 2009

All that is gold does not glitter

Retrieverman is mad.

Retrieverman thinks that anyone else who loves the golden retriever breed should be mad, too.

You betcha.

My first dog was a proper golden retriever. Sassy, lithe and athletic, and would have chewed off her own foot before she bit anyone. Shannon was born in 1974; pre-Liberty. Ante-deluge.

I've been saying it for years.

You got a Rottweiler that is biting people, you got a training problem.

You got a golden retriever that is biting people, you got a genetic problem.

And folks, we have got ourselves one doozy of a genetic problem.

Retrieverman postulates that breeding for "calm" goldens has caused them to become biters. I am unconvinced. Calm dogs of other breeds are not psycho biters. And the dumb blond show dogs he dislikes are not, to my eye, "calm." Lumbering, yes. Squinty-eyed, sure. But being too fat and hairy and possibly hypothyroid to enjoy life is not the same as "calm."

Here's a theory I heard from a veterinarian about ten years ago. She bred golden retrievers herself. No, I do not remember her name. Dammit.

She told me that in the highly competitive golden retriever show ring, certain things were rewarded consistently:

Up on its toes.

Every dog in every ring was the first three, to the point where they were effectively identical. What she meant by the last was, judges were selecting dogs that were "on" -- stiff and alert, head and tail up, projecting what passes for "charisma" in the pageant world.

What that meant in terms of the dogs that were beating the competition was that -- they were dogs that wanted to beat the competition. Into a bloody screaming ragdoll. They were dogs who were highly aroused and on edge in the presence of people and other dogs.

Select rigorously for "winners" who are pissed off just looking at a stranger or another dog, make more just like 'em, continue for ten or fifteen generations, what you gonna get?

Last time I checked, the golden retriever standard for temperament did not read: Stiff, tense, and snarky towards humans and dogs; resource-guarding, dominance aggression, and psychotic attacks on neighborhood children are highly desirable characteristics.

But a quick review of my files for the last five years or so reveals something really extraordinary.

Well over half of the purebred golden retrievers I've worked with in recent years, privately or in class, come to me with a serious aggression problem.

I've handled a couple of pups, one of which was alarmingly lethargic, and one nice adolescent who needed manners. A young male who seemed to have both cognitive and affective deficits, but was certainly nonviolent. Oh, and there was the "golden retriever" puppy that I did a single consult for, much of which consisted of trying to convince the owner that the puppymiller had, indeed, sold her a husky. (Pointy erect ears - - check. Red-and-white plush fur -- check. Mask -- check. Curly tail -- check. This is not a hard call, ma'am.)

The only breed with a higher proportion of genuinely aggressive individuals in my training practice (I exclude breeds with an n<3) style="font-style: italic;">in my entire career, have been biters. The one that didn't bite had OCD. Cocker mixes -- also biters.

I see a smaller proportion of German shepherds, Rottweilers, Jack Russell terriers, and Dobermans that are aggressive. Much smaller.

I have never worked with an aggressive "pit bull." And I'm known as a pit-friendly trainer, so I see a fair number of them. Mostly for destructive chewing and general manners.

Back to goldens. Scariest dog I ever trained, most dangerous, longest rap sheet: golden retriever.

I've only told three clients flat out to put the dog down, that it is too dangerous to share surface space on this planet with the rest of us. This dog was the first.

Let me preface this by saying, if I encountered the same situation today, I would call CYS and report the parents. And this is the case that prompted me to use a sternly-worded contract for all aggression cases, and charge a lot more, and require the money up-front.

Anyway, this golden had a bite rap sheet into the double digits when the owners called me. He specialized in nailing neighborhood kids who came over to play with the owners' children. Owners had never been sued, and I still don't grok that. The owners' own children feared and disliked the dog. (There's your sign.)

Dog tried to kill me at the first session. Oh, did I mention he also had seizure disorder? But he had to be well-bred, objected the owner, "His breeder was a minister's wife!"

Every session, the female owner would announce, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, that the dog was "100% better than last time." Then I'd repeat my lecture to the owner about not giving the dog free access to leg o' toddler, since none of my management requirements were in place, then the dog would spend an hour thinking about how much he'd like to kill me if he could get the damned collar and leash off.

My final CTJ conversation with the client, which was also when I fired her, was over the phone. It went something like this:

Me: Your dog has not improved one bit with training. You don't seem to be willing to do any homework or change a single thing about the way you manage him. He's a very dangerous animal, and you have two young children over whom you also have no control. You need to put this dog down.

Client: Don't you know of a farm in the countr ...

Me: No. You are not hearing me. This is a very dangerous animal. He is escalating his attacks. In my opinion he is not neurologically normal. I know that your vet has told you exactly the same thing I am telling you. This dog is not safe to have around people, period.

Client: You don't think he'd bite my kids, do you? (This sentence verbatim. Exactly what she said.)

Me: (What I should have said) You delusional self-absorbed hateful bitch! It's fine for this psycho dog that you refuse to control to chomp down on other people's kids as long as yours are unperforated?! What the hell is wrong with you? Did the same bad nanny drop you and the dog on your heads?

Me: (What I actually said, more or less) Yes. Yes he is going to bite your kids. And he will bite them much more badly than he's bitten all the other kids, and your husband, and his other victims. Your kids are going to be bitten, and they already know it.

What happened was this.

The owners never spoke to me again, and never spoke to the vet (who had told them exactly the same thing after exhausting the medical angles) again.

They moved away. But, as it turned out, not very far.

About a year later, I was meeting with a new client who had a rather challenging Samoyed puppy, one that was getting pushy and dominant at quite a young age.

As I outlined the responsibilities that come with having such a mentally powerful dog, I mentioned the moral and legal liability in a neighborhood such as hers, which was crawling with free-range children.

And the client started telling me about the family that had moved into the neighborhood that year, and their dog had bolted out the front door and bitten a kid who was playing in the street, unprovoked.

This time, the parents of the victim reported the bite, and called the police, got a lawyer, and generally raised a stink.

And while the dog's owners were objecting that the dog was perfectly fine, and had never done anything like this before, and was a golden retriever for chrissakes...

I interupted her story. Named the dog. Yes -- that was the dog's name -- how did you know? Named the former client -- yes, that's them.

"Which of their kids did he bite?"

The boy. Didn't bite him. Mauled him. Then they killed the dog. Never made the papers. After all, everyone knows that golden retrievers are great family dogs.

(FWIW, the owner of the Sammy was a great client, did a wonderful job with her pup, and he's long since grown into a dignified, lovely companion.)

Now this is a great story of owner enabling and denial. But the fact is, owner neglect did not make this dog dangerous; it just supplied him with a bottomless bucket of tender juicy white meat while he indulged his abominable genetics with aberrant experience.

And this is not, by any means, the only one.

Here's a modest proposal to fix this before it becomes -- as I suspect the American cocker already is -- unfixable:

• Any golden retriever that lifts a hostile lip at a human being loses its gonads. Every. Single. Time.
• Any golden retriever that starts fights with other dogs loses its gonads. Every. Single. Time.
• No golden retriever gets to use its gonads before age four (bitches) or six (dogs).

No exceptions. Don't care if the cur won Westminster. Don't care if it's a field trial champion, either. No swimming in the gene pool for mean goldens. Problem solved.


  1. I've never bred a dog under the age of three. I had never seen a golden retriever snarl until recently.

    Breeding for cocky dogs does has its affect. I don't know if you've seen Temple Grandin's work on brain chemistry, but she's the one who thinks that breeding for calmness will destroy the temeperament of golden and Labrador retrievers. It seems the brain chemistry of both breeds (in their original form) is a bit weird. They are low fear, low aggression, and high pain tolerance. You add one more characteristic and the chemistry winds up out of whack. (That's not to say that there aren't field line goldens that nasty buggers.)

    I've noticed though that a lot of these dogs that have aggression issues are European line goldens (the "white" ones). I was reading studies of aggression in European goldens ten years ago, when aggression was relatively rare in the breed here. I figured as soon as the European golden became a fad here that we'd see the same thing. Boy, was I right.

    If golden retrievers are ruined, I'm moving onto their close cousin, which isn't being bred by fools, the flat-coated retriever. If you want to know what a golden retriever once was, just imagine a flat-coat in tawny.

    Breeding for cocky dogs does have an effect. I think this may be a result of several factors that have bred away from the low fear, low aggression, high pain tolerance, and high trainability dog we once had.

  2. I'm afraid my experience of flat-out nasty goldens goes back more than ten years, and is not at all limited to the very light-colored ones. I've seen it in show dogs (not just show lines, but actual dogs being strung up in the ring, at golden retriever specialties no less) and BYB "let's sell golden puppies" type breeding.

    I have not seen it in a real field dog, but I don't get to see very many of those. (Cause/effect?)

    Yes, I was absolutely gobsmacked when I first saw one. Now I'm just jaded.

    Anyway, in Labradors, I have not seen much aggression in the phlegmatic, fat "English" Labs. It's been almost entirely among super high-energy, long-legged, badly-built,oversized backyard-bred Labradorks. And the other weird thing is (and other trainers have reported the same thing) that these aggressive retrievers are much more intelligent than other Labs. Like scary smart. But they use their powers for evil rather than good.

    Most of the Labs have been more dominant-type aggressive, while the goldens have been straight-up McNasty with various and unpredictable triggers -- much more like cockers.

  3. I see a huge difference between the aggressive labs and aggressive goldens I see too.

    The labs with aggression problems (and I see a lot of those) tend to be hyperactive, overtly pushy and seem to feel compelled - no driven - to put everything in their mouths. Pacing, whining, bumping into things, chewing things up and with a near complete lack of self control. Stupid and hyper and not sure what to do with it.

    The goldens I see with aggression problems (and like H, I seem to be a magnet for them) don't tend to be as hyper and they're pushy in a much subtler way. Edging you away from a resource with presence instead of body-slamming you. And their aggression seems to be more, well -- calculated.

    I suspect that different processes are at work in the two breeds, at least in most cases.

  4. I've seen this very same sort of aggression in English Labs, but it's much less common. Grandin argues that Labs should be affected, too. Sometimes it's hard to follow what she's saying about either breed, because I suppose she has a harder time telling them apart. I think it would be nice to have some empirical tests on breed type and these issues. The only thing I've seen is a decades old study on German long-hairs, in which working gun dogs were much better in disposition than show-bred ones (and this is from a breed that doesn't have an institutionalized divide between show and working lines.)

    BTW,with the first dog I ever had with the lazy temperament, I had its thyroid checked out. It was normal. She was slightly more aggressive with other dogs than normal.

    The aggression problem in goldens is not at an epidemic level.

    As for the intelligence issue: that's exactly what I'm seeing. Smart demon dogs.

    I refuse to own another golden that doesn't come from working lines or from very close working lines (2 generations). I just flat-out refuse. I have read of field dogs becoming aggressive.

    A lot of goldendoodles also develope these issues. Have you seen this?

    Where I live the main lines are field dogs, and the vast majority of these dogs are fine. However, when the "white" ones showed up, you could tell a real difference. The white ones are almost like an entirely different breed of dog.

  5. It sounds as though a neurological or other disorder is being passed around in GRs what a shock!

    I remember when I was young, the story was the red ones were snappy, the golden ones were OK. They didn't have the nearly white ones back then. Being a kid, I wasn't sure if this was true or not but it matched my obervations.

    Don't forget Goldens are sold by media as a 'friendly' breed and a 'family' breed, rightly or wrongly, so they are often acquired by novices. These people buy into the 'brand' of GR (or whatever breed they've chosen) and seem to forget that they are dogs, not wind-up toys. Novices are poor at spotting escalation by a dog although in your story, that wasn't the case.

    The field GRs look the way I remember GRs. The show ones are strange to me (as are the show Labs).

    A study in Germany of a line of GRs with aggression issues compared with a control group did not reveal a genetic component although obviously more research is needed. I don't pretend to understand the ins and outs of genetic research.

    Evaluation of the Serotonergic Genes htr1A, htr1B, htr2A,
    and slc6A4 in Aggressive Behavior of Golden Retriever Dogs
    L. van den Berg et al.

    If you want the paper, Heather, I'll shoot it to you.

    There's also some research into low omega-3 fatty acids as a possible cause for idiopathic aggression.

    I suspect it's a combination of heritable reactivity and intensity coupled with mismanagement that's creating the problem. There's some evidence that neutering increases reactivity, territoriality and nuisance barking as well.

    Incidentally, based on hospital records, the GR is the number 3 biter in Canada.

    Popularity is always a curse for a breed.

  6. Just to clarify - the GR was the no. 3 biter in the last year for which we have the data, 1996. Sadly out of date, CHIRRP is not keeping stats by 'breed' anymore.

    Canada Safety Council consistently lists the Lab as the lead biter in the country. It's no coincidence that it's also the most popular type.

  7. Thanks for reassuring me that I'm not going crazy. Ever since I got Chandler and have been out and about with him, I've been seeing more and more goldens of questionable temperament.

    For me, it really culminated in two separate obedience classes. One person's male golden decided to guard another dog's mat in the first class, and in the succeeding class, that dog's (supposedly more submissive) sister decided to guard another dog's owner and had a puppy upside down and screaming before she was grabbed and scruffed.

    The rest of what you say is making me very glad that the two goldens that sometimes charge out of their yard on our walking route seem to deflate when they get close.

  8. The first dog I was ever bitten by was a golden (the neighbors' fieldbred birddog, who was sweet as could be as long as her prey drive didn't kick in, and LIVED to chase kids on bikes, cars, joggers, and anything else that moved, and upon catching it, try and drag it back to her porch.), and I've really never cared for the breed since - until I met a really good one in 2007. Some clients wanted help finding one after golden rescue turned them down (they traveled too much for GRR's taste- a real shame, since they've always taken their dogs with them on travel- perks of a private plane.) Breeder has a lot of dogs excelling in obedience AND breed, and hunts with her dogs on weekends. Clients couldn't be any happier, and I will admit that I was tempted, for like 3 minutes, to consider a golden for my next obedience dog. (Came to my senses quickly, I would miss my pointy-brained herding dogs. :P)

    I *do* see a lot of nasty goldens- but almost none of them are coming from show breeders, so I'm not that LOCALLY, at least, the problem isn't more crappy breeding in general.

  9. Well, I compete in agility and some of the fit, "field type" athletic golden colored Goldens are pretty snarky towards other dogs (though not to people as far as I've observed).

    So I don't think it's just the show type Goldens that have non-traditional temperaments...


  10. Temperament issues are not limited to the light colored European goldens, and I really don't buy the belief that this strain is exacerbating temperament issues either (as Heather notes in her comment, it started well before their rise in popularity). There's a well-known line of obedience goldens that relies very heavily on field lines that is rumored to have aggression problems. I have no idea if this is true or not. I also know of an excellent and well-known field kennel that deliberately bred to a dog with many European dogs in the pedigree FOR its good temperament (in addition to fabulous field ability), with good results.

    All this goes to say that temperament issues in the breed are much more complex than just saying that "the influx of white European dogs are to blame." My own personal experience with GRs of European type is that they are very soft (kid-glove soft), but resilient, and extremely biddable--and this is supposed to be typical. Anything even remotely reminiscent of aggression is not on the radar screen.

    My own feeling is that the problem has much more to do with breeding for cocky dogs to parade around the show ring.

  11. I had a GR growing up, we got her from the pound when she was 5 or so. It is interesting to read that I am not the only one with an anti-golden retriever. she hated kids, dogs, crowds, water (she would lay down in the water, but, no swimming).

    We never let her off leash, we would crate her when people would come over, and never let her play with other dogs (except for one that she adored).

    We ended up having to PTS when she was 9 b/c of cancer.

  12. I've been noticing goldens with "iffy" issues since forever [and the plural of anecdote is data, right?].

    At a Chris Zink seminar years ago the sport-dog vet talked about one of the reasons she quit showing her goldens in the breed ring: in order to win, dogs needed straighter and straighter shoulders. "A golden with good shoulder conformation doesn't carry his head high as he's trotting around the ring: his head and neck are more level with the topline. The dog is trotting around with his head down, thinking, I'm bored, I hate this, wish I were home. The dog with straight shoulders is also thinking, I'm bored, I hate this, wish I were home -- but the bad shoulders force him to carry his head up, and sure enough, the judge will say: Here's our winner! He's loving it! He knows he's special, and he wants that blue ribbon!"

    Oh, and remember this?

  13. Luisa, are those straight shoulders the same thing as we see in the pageant Barbie-collies with the very upright head carriage?

    And then there is the very weird head carriage of the AKC show-collie and show versions of the Belgian shepherd. They look like they are in constant pain, and they definitely do not have normal range of motion -- the axis/atlas joint is all jammed up.

    Sounds like it is another element of the "up on his toes" appearance that that vet was telling me about.

    I love watching my farm collies trot like coyotes -- heads very close to level when they are really moving.

    I'm not at all surprised that professionals are seeing a lot of variation in the specific temperaments of goldens and Labs -- with two such populous breeds, it would be shocking if we weren't. It would require a very systematic study to detect a coherent pattern in such large populations -- if there is such a pattern at all.

    I do ask for clients for breeder info and look at pedigrees whenever they are available, in every breed. This has been quite useful in some cases, as when I was getting a run of hella-neurotic border collie pups that all came from the same Petland puppymill -- in fact, came from three successive litters of full siblings.

  14. Exactly how successfully good shoulders tolerate hard work in old age was exhibited by a senior hunting bitch at a Plott Hound seminar we attended last year around the time the breed entered AKC competition. The students represented some of dogdom's most knowledgeable people, many of whom remarked that the dogs there, whatever other traits they displayed, all possessed excellent front-end construction. And, of course, they all were competent hunting animals. One judge's observation has haunted me since: "I wonder how long it will be before the American show ring takes its toll on these fronts." From Putting Up a Good Front by Patricia Trotter.

    By the same author:
    It's What's Up Front That Counts

    It's interesting to compare photos of conformation-bred border collies with photos of breed-ring champion goldens. The collies generally have forelegs under the shoulder, but some of the goldens have the foreleg more in line with the ear [comparing winning dogs stacked for their photos, with heads held high].

  15. Huh. Is that in the shoulder? Or the neck? Or the noose?

    Am I the only one who finds bitter irony in the article that bloviates about shoulder angles and the theory of proper fronts, and ends with a ominous comment about the inevitability of the show ring "ruining the front" of a functional hunting animal?

    The front? Only a pathetic reductionist could get stuck there.

    What about ruining the dog?

  16. Heather
    You are spot on!. We had the unfortunate experience of owning a "red rage" golden. When we contacted his breeder, (a well respected kennel in northern Wyoming)thinking he would definately want to know and stop breeding this line, we were sadly disappointed. His response was that his lines were without fault and it was something we had done to the dog! It goes without saying wwe put the dog down.

  17. I have had some very scarey golden's in my pet dog classes, one of which was growling at the family kids by the time the puppy was 6 months old.

    And I have seen some goldens with lovey temperment.

  18. I would like to ask you about the age recommendations: 4(bitches) 6(dogs).

    I'm wondering how common it is to see late onset bhvr problems, ie problems which were not readily evident in the temperament of the dog during puppy/youngster/adolescence period - serious problems, beyond the possible brattiness accompanying those ages.

    Are you seeing lots of cases where a dog is for ex. 'good with dogs', non resource guarding, generally compliant and willing to please and work for and with its humans & then at what is close to the dog's middle age, the bhvr changes drastically despite a good constant stream of socialization and leadership on the part of the humans?

    I'm really asking, not arguing; just wanted to make it clear :-) because if so, that really makes me want to look at adopting middle aged & senior dogs ....

  19. Just as a second thought, aside from genetics, I'd like to know how much of this behavior is also related to training practices or lack thereof. Heather, you've linked to a Tsuro article or two, so I'm going to guess you've read the ones about his experiences of then-and-now with training successes. Everyone expects Labs and GRs to be the "ultimate family dog," so of course it needs no training whatsoever (*snerk*)...but how much of the problem is the dog and how much is the one holding the leash? Especially in this age of "positive"-only training, where there is more "reconditioning" away from than "consequences" to aggressive actions, how can you tell in your training classes where the problem is?


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