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Jacque Lynn Schultz, Director Special Projects, ASPCA

Great Britain is credited for the creation of 4 of the 5 breeds of retrievers: the Curly-coat, Flat-coat, Golden and Labrador. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is an American design from dogs most likely brought from England and mated with local dogs that excelled at water fowl retrieval. While each breed has its unique qualities most obviously seen by their different coat types; skull and ear shape, size, tail carriage and overall outline are quite similar. All of them love water and are superb at retrieving downed birds wherever they fall. While one breed may have more setter in its background (Flat-coats) and others more spaniel (Curly-coats and Goldens), they all have a common ancestor in the Canadian dog called the St. John’s or Lesser Newfoundland – the dog some claim is an early version of the Labrador.

The St. John’s Newfoundland was employed by the cod fisherman of the area to retrieve fish-filled nets, hauling them in by their cork floats. After British sailors watched these dependable dogs work the cold waters, they brought representatives back to England to breed to local gundogs. The Curly-coated Retriever was established as a breed in the early 1800s while the others became registered breeds by the end of that century.

The following are brief descriptions of the breeds, their temperaments, and common health problems:

CHESAPEAKE BAY RETRIEVER – This powerful dog weighs 55-80 lbs. Its coarse, thick, water-resistant coat ranges in color from dead grass (dull straw colored) to dark brown. Chessies are considered to be relentless workers with a will of steel. This breed is much tougher than the other retrievers and they are best when in a home where the owner is an experienced leader. They are very loyal to their families and most get on fine with the children of the family. Progressive retinal atrophy, entropian, and hip dysplasia are health disorders seen in the breed.

CURLY-COATED RETRIEVER – This is a strong, athletic working dog that weighs in at 65-85 lbs. The crisp water-resistant coat in black or liver may have resulted from matings to the poodle or, more likely, the Irish Water Spaniel. Like the Chessie, the Curly-coat is very much a working dog. They are sober, independent and somewhat wary of strangers. The Curly-coat has the strongest guarding instincts in the retriever family. Health problems seen in the breed are Cushing’s syndrome, low thyroid, bilateral alopecia, juvenile osteoparesis and the inability to metabolize calcium.

FLAT-COATED RETRIEVER – This handsome, out-going retriever weighs between 60-80 lbs. and appears lighter in bone than the others. The shiny, medium-length coat in black or liver protects the dog from both cold and rough ground cover. At one point in time, the Flat-coat was the most popular working retriever, but he was bypassed by the Golden and Labrador to the point of near-extinction by the end of WW II. The breed’s fans toast its versatility, strength, and substance combined in an elegant package. The Flat-coat is both out-going and a devoted family dog. Health problems known to the breed are glaucoma, histeosarcoma, and luxating patellas.

GOLDEN RETRIEVER – The smallest of the retrievers (55-75 lbs.), the Golden was once known as the yellow Flat-coated Retriever. The flowing coat can range in color from a pale, nearly white blonde to a fiery reddish gold. Today’s Goldens are responsive, people-loving dogs that are often easy to train and extremely affectionate. Due to their current popularity (#2 in the AKC rankings), some decidedly un-Golden behaviors are beginning to appear such as inter-dog aggression; and temperament extremes ranging from severely submissive and groveling to demanding and bossy are evident in some poorly bred dogs. Health problems known to the breed are hip and elbow dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) and cataracts, hot spots, allergies, hypothyroidism, subvalvular aortic stenosis (SAS), and osteosarcoma.

LABRADOR RETRIEVER – This popular breed (#1 in AKC registrations for the last several years) weighs in at 55-80 lbs. of muscle right down to their “otter” tail. The short, dense coat comes in chocolate, yellow or black. This breed is tremendously versatile and can be seen strutting its stuff in the show ring, leading the blind, searching through rubble for disaster survivors, sniffing out bombs or fire accelerants, retrieving fowl and playing with the kids. Their loyalty and affable dependability keep them high on the list of desirable family dogs. Like Goldens, their popularity has resulted in some dogs that do not display the usual Lab virtues. These dogs may be hard-mouthed and possessive aggressive, stubborn and pushy or hyper-active. Hip, shoulder and elbow dysplasia; osteochondrosis, bilaterial cataracts; dwarfism; PRA; hypothyroidism; and copper toxicosis are health problems seen in this breed.

With the tremendous popularity of Labs and Goldens, shelters are stocked with both purebreds and retriever mixes. The mixes would generally be in the 40 – 80 lb. weight range and have a medium short water-resistant coat. Those with Golden or Flat-coat genes might display a longer, wavier coat and some feathering on the neck, chest, tail and backs of the legs. The colors would be yellow, reddish golden, liver or black with perhaps a smattering of white on the chest. The retriever mix has a relatively broad skull and medium-sized ears that lay close to the head. The tail is strong and generally is carried level with the back or lower.




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While not every mix is identical, the average retriever mix would most likely be a moderate- to high-energy dog that is social with other dogs and delights in child’s play – if the child can withstand the dog’s physical nature. He or she would be relatively pain- and sound-insensitive, so the hustle and bustle of an active family home would be easily tolerated. As with all retrievers, he would love a good long game of fetch. When adolescent (6-18 months of age) or younger, careful supervision and a commitment to exercise to prevent destructive chewing is necessary. Last but not least, if the dog truly has retriever genes, he won’t be able to pass up a body of water – no matter how small or muddy – without wanting to take a dip. Blame it on the Call of the Cod!

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