Forty-five, maybe 50 golden retrievers scamper about Montague Lake, 12 miles south of Raleigh, jumping off a pier, splashing along the shore – all having a dandy time. It’s a cloudy Sunday afternoon, with a threat of rain, but no detriment to the members of the Tar Heel Golden Retriever Club, a statewide organization of golden lovers concentrated in the Triangle.
For these folks, goldens, a sporting breed, are a cherished member of their families.
“They’re almost too significant in my life,” said Patty McEwen of Cary, the club’s president. “My whole life revolves around goldens, and my husband is on board, too.”
The club, which started in 2005 with a handful of members, has grown to 60 residing from Wilmington to Statesville and ranging in age from 20 to 72.
“Most live in the Raleigh-Durham area,” McEwen said. “We’ve doubled our size in two years. We’re an AKC designated club and the only one in North Carolina at this time.”
She estimates more than 50 percent of the members are interested in conformation, obedience and agility, with the remainder concentrating on field work such as field trials and hunt tests.
“I’m proud our club is so diversified,” McEwen said. “It’s really cool. Field work is the fastest growing venue in our club. We are dedicated to keeping the sport in the breed, to preserving goldens for what they were originally bred for.”
She has put a championship conformation title on one of her goldens and is working through the three level of hunt tests.
Goldens, which consistently ranks among the top four most-popular dog breeds in America, were developed in Scotland during the 1800s for hunting. The AKC recognized the breed in 1925.
Elizabeth Bernstein, who owns a small kennel in North Raleigh, is one of the founding members of the THGRC. She recalls that 11 years ago when she moved to the Triangle no club existed. She sought other golden lovers, and in three days received 11 responses.
“I just started the ball rolling,” she said. “It takes a village to start anything.”
Bernstein, whose passion for goldens ignited 20 years ago, strives to educate others about the breed. She is a national leader in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study sponsored by the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds studies in animal health science.
“We’re reaching out to vets, breeders and golden owners to join the lifetime study,” she said. “We’re looking for answers about all the cancer and other diseases in all dogs.”
Three thousand goldens between six months and 2-years-old are needed for the study with 1,800 already enrolled.
“By gathering non-invasive samples and observational data of the lifetime of the enrolled dogs, researchers hope to identify potentially modified risk factors for the development of cancer and other diseases that affect goldens. It is estimated that about 60 percent of goldens die from cancer,” said Rhonda Hovan, a research official with Golden Retriever Club of America.
McEwen, president of the state club, believes results of the study could spill over to cancer research in humans.
Bill and Patty Pace, residents of Pinehurst, are also members of the THGRC and are involved in raising funds for the Golden Retriever Foundation and other educational and scientific study groups.
“My husband and I put on a golf tournament at the Golden Retriever National Specialty (in 2011) where all proceeds went to support the GRF,” she said. “Our first tournament brought in over $7,000. We are hoping to top that this year (in Asheville).”
Pace and her husband, both retired professional dog handlers, estimate her work has produced 200 or more titles on goldens since 1974.
“My goldens are my kids,” she said. “My husband used to tell me he did not know who I loved more, him or my goldens. He has stopped asking me that question.”
The THGRC promotes a number of activities including conformation shows, hunt tests and training events.
“The club was established to help encourage and promote quality in the breeding of our golden retrievers through public education as well as educational opportunities offered to our members,” according to the club website. “We promote competition in all sporting and other competitive events relative to the breed. Sportsman-like conduct of our members is encouraged when they are participating in any dog-related activities.”
Pace says the goldens’ popularity should cause some worry among THGRC members.
“I am concerned about where our breed is heading,” he said. “Whenever a breed becomes popular it usually has a negative effect on the breed. Hopefully our love for the breed and working with our parent club we can avoid some of this decline in temperament, health and physical soundness.”