Last week I had the opportunity to interview Professor Witter about Chase, her 9 year old male, golden retriever. I wanted to find out whether Chase had what are considered the modern behavioral characteristics of a golden retriever. These are: a love of water, trainability, the desire to retrieve, intelligence, great scenting ability, friendly, gentle, loyal, empathetic, clownish, and good with children. Or would I find that Chase was not typical at all? Goldens are working dogs and require exercise and interaction. If they get bored, are left alone too much, or don’t get exercise, they are likely to have some dysfunctional behaviors such as chewing, digging, or barking. Bad breeding has contributed to some aggressiveness in golden retrievers. Otherwise aggressiveness usually comes from bad training, a bad experience, or abuse in puppyhood.
Geneticist Dmitri Belyaev discovered in the 1950’s, that when domesticating foxes and breeding for tameness, the foxes physical traits also changed. I wanted to discover for myself if genetics played a part in dog behavior. Professor Witter’s Chase was born on Halloween. He came from a breeder to live with her and her 16 year old daughter, together with his brother. Before COVID, Chase and his brother spent about 7-8 hours home alone. At least they had each other for company. Sadly, Chase’s brother died in March at the beginning of “lockdown”. But luckily for Chase, he has had the professor and her daughter at home with him since March. But whether it is “COVID” or because his brother died, Chase has got into the habit of waking Professor Witter up at 4.45am, much earlier than ever before. Both before and after COVID Chase gets at least 40 minute walks a day and for longer on weekends. He gets plenty of exercise and he eats good healthy food, including chicken, beef, rice, fresh fruit, vegetables, and some kibble. Chase has a good life and is well cared for.
Chase seems to be a typical golden retriever with a friendly personality. He loves to play ball, retrieve and is very affectionate. He loves children and is gentle with them. Professor Witter told me a story of one of her previous goldens who liked children almost to the point of aggression. When her daughter was born the dog thought he was the mother and would nip Professor Witter’s ankles whenever she held her baby! Chase, when he was young, was attacked by another dog so now he has become a little bit aggressive and wary when around other dogs. He sometimes growls when he meets a dog he doesn’t know. He never did this before being bitten and injured so now Professor Witter keeps him at a safe distance from other dogs. With her though, he is extremely affectionate and empathetic. Whenever she is feeling sad he comes to cuddle with her and will stay as long as she needs.
Chase, like many retrievers, is food motivated which makes for easy training but also can lead to some bad habits, which in his case are counter-surfing and sandwich-stealing. It’s that sense of smell, always leading him to the food. The professor plays a game with Chase in which she puts a treat under one of three cups. Chase has to find the cup with the treat. He can play this game really well. He always finds the cup with the treat under it, showing his intelligence as well as his great scenting ability.
Chase also has the typical golden characteristic of being clownish. He always makes the professor and her daughter laugh. With the golden retriever’s love of water, Chase likes to bob up and down in the sea. One day Chase dived straight into the sea trying to catch a flock of geese. Everyone was so scared that he was going to hurt the geese unintentionally. I would have been worried that the geese might peck and wound Chase. Geese can be vicious.
Even though I discovered that Chase is a pretty typical golden retriever — good with children, empathetic, water-loving — my interview with Professor Witter also gave me a clear sense of Chase’s own individual personality. Genetics isn’t everything. We all, both humans and animals, are also influenced by our environment and our unique vital spirit.
Adams, J. U., Ph.D. (2008). Genetics of Dog Breeding. Scitable by nature
education. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://lms.dickinson.edu/