As befits such a glamorous breed, with its flowing, butter-coloured coat and plume-like tail, the golden retriever was once believed to have originated from a troupe of Russian circus dogs.

In the late 1800s, when they were known as yellow retrievers, a Scottish nobleman, Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks (later Baron Tweedmouth), was apparently so impressed by the intelligence, good looks and docility of the eight Caucasian sheepdogs, ranging in hue from cream to light biscuit, he saw performing in a travelling show in Brighton that he bought them all.

On returning to his Inverness-shire estate of Guisachan, he mated one with his Tweed water spaniel, Belle, who duly produced a litter of four yellow puppies named Cowslip, Crocus, Primrose and Ada.

However, the 6th Earl of Ilchester’s article Origin of the Yellow Retriever (Country Life, 1952) dismissed this tale. From studying Lord Tweedmouth’s studbook and notes, Lord Ilchester deduced that the Baron had bought the puppies’ sire, Nous, a yellow, wavy-coated retriever, from a cobbler in Brighton, who had acquired the dog as a puppy from Lord Chichester. ‘The belief a Russian dog originated the strain is not borne out by dates,’ he wrote.

Yet Lord Ilchester was resolute that one part of the story was correct, that ‘Nous was yellow, and he was the first’. And his lordship should know, as Lord Tweedmouth gave the puppy Ada to his father, the 5th Earl of Ilchester.

‘Golden retrievers are very much a part of my life,’ says Charlotte Townshend, great-granddaughter
of the 5th Earl and chatelaine of the family seat at Melbury House, Dorset. ‘We don’t have one at the moment, but I was brought up with them. They’re very amenable, loving, family and sporting dogs.’

Ada is buried in the grounds and the 11 golden retrievers that pick up on the estate’s shoot at Abbotsbury reflect the family’s long standing link with the breed. ‘They’re very biddable there must be something in their genes that enables us to train them so well,’ adds Mrs Townshend.
‘The working line is very intelligent, there’s no doubt about that,’ concurs one of the shoot’s stalwart pickers-up, Lord ‘Jimmy’ Zouche.

‘If they’re trained properly, goldens are extremely obedient and not wilful like spaniels.’ Advocates of the breed for nearly 30 years, Lord and Lady Zouche share their home at Charlton Adam in Somerset with four goldens: Humphrey, Bella, Lily and Bundle. With the birth of Bundle’s litter in March, the Zouches are on the seventh generation of their line. ‘I’ve only ever worked golden retrievers,’ says Lord Zouche, 71. ‘You get used to a dog like you get used to a make of car.’

For him, their most appealing trait is their placid, affectionate nature. ‘They have a wonderful, gentle personality. Spaniels are probably the most faithful dogs, but goldies come a good second. If I had to sum them up in three words, I’d say friendship, loyalty and love.’

Although Lord Zouche used to shoot a lot, he now gets more pleasure from taking his team of goldies picking-up and recalls a memorable day when his son, William, then 13, was on a boys’ day on a shoot beside Sherborne Golf Club in Dorset. ‘My son, who was shooting with his .410, got a left and a right at two pheasants, but both had an engine on fire and were going down, very hard hit,’ he recalls. ‘I usually just send two dogs, but, on this occasion, I said “Go on, all of you”. About 15 minutes later, three dogs came back one with one of the pheasants, another with another pheasant and the third with a golf ball!’

Fellow picker-up Robert Atkinson, an accomplished field trialler, is equally enamoured with golden retrievers thanks to a childhood surrounded by his mother’s dogs. Respected worldwide as the doyenne of working goldens, the late June Atkinson won the Retriever Championship with Mazurka of Wynford in 1954 and established the influential Holway line of dogs.

‘My sister and I often joke that, as children, we were very tempted to move into one of the kennels, as there were more dogs in the house—my mother even allowed them upstairs,’ admits Mr Atkinson.

Renowned for her laidback approach to training, Mrs Atkinson preferred her dogs to enjoy their work rather than being pushed too hard and her son can remember being encouraged to throw tennis balls for Mazurka. ‘I couldn’t get him to give the ball when I was about four or five, so I used to tread on his feet to get him to open his mouth,’ he recalls.

In line with tradition, Mr Atkinson’s six goldens Villa, Purdey, Cider (the sire of Lord Zouche’s litter), Fennel, Basil and Rosemary live in the farmhouse at Holway in Cattistock, Dorset. Mr Atkinson also maintained family honour by winning the 1982 Retriever Championship with Little Marston Chorus of Holway one of just eight goldens to do so since its inception in 1909.

‘My dogs are very much pets as well as working dogs,’ he says. ‘They’re so easy to have about and when you have small children, it’s important that they’re 100% trustworthy.’ The Atkinsons’ kitchen has various places where the dogs can sleep under the work surfaces, but they do like attent-
ion. ‘Cider follows me about all the day and gets very upset if, after tea, I haven’t given him something to retrieve,’ he says. ‘Golden retrievers love to please and their main attract-
ion is that they become so devoted and attentive.’

That goldies like to watch your every move resonates with Lord Zouche. ‘One day, I got back to the game cart to find that Humphrey was missing,’ he recalls. ‘I was about to hop into my four-wheel drive to get him, when I said to Bundle “Oh God, we’ve lost Humphrey” and pointed to where he was. She shot off like an arrow from a bow and brought him straight back she must have sensed my concern and decided to do something about it.’

* This article was first published in Country Life, July 16 2014