The Changing Role of Retrievers

Chesapeake Bay RetrieverChesapeake Bay Retriever

This brief outline is of how the Retrievers' original job of retrieving shot game, has been transformed into a sporting activity. Today, their docile temperament also makes them ideal to fill the role of assisting 'special needs' people in modern society.

The Traditional Role of Retrieving

Weimaraner (Longhair) with dummyWeimaraner (Longhair) with dummy

Once guns came into general use for shooting wild game and birds for food, retrieving dogs were developed to find and retrieve shot game and deliver it into the hand of the shooter. These dogs are called Retrievers. Today, where laws permit shooting, Retrievers are still used for this purpose.

But they are also used in a sporting activity using dummies to test a dog's instinct to perform retrieving activities in competitive situations. These activities are called 'Retrieving Trials' which include activities from Beginners through to Novice, Restricted and all age Retrievers.

Retrieving Trials for Gundogs are tests of basic obedience as well as basic retrieving skills with the dog working off lead. This provides the opportunity for sport, competition and a means by which a dog can earn Retrieving Trial titles.

Chesapeake Bay RetrieverChesapeake Bay Retriever

During a Retrieving Trial, the dog has to stay with the handler unless otherwise instructed by the judge. When the dummy or dummies are thrown (or cast) to be retrieved, on the handler's command, the dog is sent to find and retrieve the specified dummy required and deliver it gently into the handler's hand. Some classes require this to be repeated in multiple retrieves.

Two factors determine the different classes of Retrieving Trials:

1. Whether the retrieves are single or multiple and
2. The distance and terrain over which the dog is required to retrieve.


Retrieving Trails are conducted on both land and in or through water. Based on this and the above two factors, the classes are graded according to their degree of difficulty. This determines the relative merits of the dog under conditions which emulate, as closely as possible, those which could be found while hunting. These Trials also bring the ability of each dog within an equal scope, so an assessment may be made.

Classes are judged by qualified Retrieving Trial Judges who must apply the current rules of all tests according to that particular countries' Kennel Club. A dog may earn a different title according to what level they pass. Novices firstly take part in basic Retrieving Ability Tests. As the dog and handler gain more experience, they may compete at more difficult levels. Ultimately they may compete in a number of Retrieving Trials where, in Australia the dog may earn the ultimate title of Retrieving Trial Champion.

The Modern Role of Assistance Dogs

Golden RetrieverGolden Retriever

Today, Retrievers, particularly Labradors and Golden Retrievers, are commonly used as Assistance Dogs. These include not only 'Seeing Eye' dogs for the blind, but also assisting people with physical and/or mental disabilities. Retrievers have the extremely docile temperament which lends itself to be taught to respond to 'special needs' people, giving them the opportunity to live more independently.

There are many roles for trained Assistance Dogs. Some are taught to perform specific tasks like taking off a person's socks or jacket. These dogs can also open or shut doors or drawers, take clothes out of a washing machine, pick items up off the floor, fetch the phone when it is ringing, turn on especially designed light switches, or pushing the button at pedestrian lights.

PTSD dog 'Jimmy'PTSD dog 'Jimmy'

But teaching a dog triggers of recognising when a mental episode is about to happen, is quite different. This requires specialised training. In this mental capacity, dogs are trained successfully to calm autistic children, people with dementia and those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With the love and placid nature typical of a Labrador, the dog is taught how to calm these people down, so getting them through these tough episodes.

From the 1990's, organisations like 'Assistance Dogs Australia' have trained dogs to make a difference in the lives of people with these types of disabilities. Similar to 'Guide Dogs for the Blind' programmes for potential assistance dogs are run. 'Puppy Educators' take a baby puppy until 12 - 18 months of age. During this time the pup is socialised in a somewhat 'normal' environment, often with a family and children.

Welsh Springer SpanielWelsh Springer Spaniel

Another successful two-way programme is running in Australia with inmates of prisoners completing their sentence behind bars. This gives suitable inmates a purpose for being pro-active in full knowledge that their 'charge' which they would have to give back, will make a difference in some disabled person's life. Once returned to 'Assistance Dogs Australia', the pup's temperament is assessed, and their training is focused on the future assistance of a particular person.

Additionally, another organisation called 'mindDog' deals with dogs already owned, often since puppyhood, by people with a mental health disorders. 'mindDog' trains psychiatric assistance dogs to assist people whose lives are often severely compromised by anxiety and fear. With their trained 'mindDog' these people can travel on public transport, access public places and take part in social activities which have been previously been closed off to them. 'mindDog' tests the dog for suitability, oversees their training, tests, and certifies that dog as an assistance dog. 'mindDog' operates under the Australian Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 which guarantees public access for all dogs trained as assistance dogs.

References and Further Reading

Hot off the Press! Jane has just published a book 'Gundogs Unveiled'. Information on our sister website:

I would like to acknowledge the help and assistance of the following who have had input into this page:

Barry Kavanagh, ANKC Approved All Stake Retrieving Trial Judge - Retrieving Trials

Rob Atkins, PTSD sufferer for help and advice about the training and work of Assistance Dogs