Canine Kleptomania: Why Golden Retrievers Steal Things


Soon after getting our Golden Retriever puppy, I noticed he liked to steal things. Yes, our adorable puppy quickly became an accomplished thief, be it shoes, socks, underwear, blankets, hats, or even paper. 

I attributed the behavior to just being a puppy, but his aptitude for stealing did not diminish as we approached his first birthday. In fact, to this day, he has become an accomplished canine kleptomaniac. So, of course, this behavior got me wondering; why do Golden Retrievers like to steal things? 

Golden Retrievers like to steal things because they possess strong instincts to retrieve and carry objects. Hunters bred Golden Retrievers in the mid-19th century to recover downed waterfowl by softly using their mouths. Taking objects and carrying them in their mouth satisfies this innate drive.

Yes, Golden Retriever thievery is an interesting topic. 

This article will explore answers to commonly asked questions on Golden Retriever kleptomania, including why they have are fond of stealing socks, carrying things in their mouth (which they often steal), and bringing objects to you (which they often steal).  

Spoiler alert: All of these behaviors are rooted in instinct. 

Golden Retrievers: The Art of Stealing Things 

The first thing I noticed was our Golden Retriever liked to steal anything and everything. If it’s not nailed down and he can carry it, then it’s open game for his thievery. So, much like a crow, he would take things and then have a pile of “treasures.” 

Bailey as a puppy with his haul of retrieved “treasures.”

And, this makes sense if we think about it. Golden Retrievers were bred to retrieve downed waterfowl for hunters. A prerequisite of that “retrieving” behavior was carrying the waterfowl softly in their mouths and not damaging the bird by leaving teeth marks. 

So, Golden Retrievers are predisposed to taking and carrying things. It’s in their genes.

We see similar behavior patterns in Shelties or Border Collies, which often instinctually herd small children, other pets, or adults. These herding dogs express behaviors that they were bred for, and even if there are no sheep to herd, they’ll engage in that behavior on anything they can herd in the environment. 

I can attest to being herded or having my ankles nipped many a time by our late Sheltie and two Collies. 

Similarly, the Golden Retriever is just expressing its predisposition to retrieve and carry things and in the absence of any downed waterfowl, that might be a hat, sock, or a furry slipper. 

While all behaviors seem to be rooted in an innate drive to retrieve and carry, I have noticed that stealing has different purposes. For example, for our pup Bailey, it often is a play-oriented behavior. Often he will steal things to try and entice me to engage in a game of chase. 

Other times Bailey brings me things when greeting me (like waking me up in the morning, for example), while other times, he takes his treasures to cuddle with (like socks and underwear), and yet other times, he just carries his toys around with him.

So, let’s look at the most intriguing of these next – the Golden Retriever’s affinity for stealing socks. 

Why Do Golden Retrievers Like To Steal Socks?

A typical target for Golden Retrievers is socks and sometimes even underwear or other articles of clothing. The breed seems to have a definite fondness for these objects and can often be found digging through the hamper or scouring the laundry room floor to retrieve these favorites objects. 

So, exactly why do Golden Retrievers like to steal socks? 

Golden Retrievers steal socks because they have retained their strong instinct to carry things from past breeding as hunting companions. In addition, socks are soft to chew on, easy to hold, and contain your scent. Stealing socks can also be a means to elicit attention and to engage owners in play.

As we discussed before, Golden Retrievers were bred to carry things in their mouths. Specifically, downed ducks and pheasants. And somewhere in the far reaches of that instinctual predisposition, the furry socky may remind a Golden Retriever of that behavior.

But, with socks, it seems to be for reasons beyond that. I suspect it has to do with the texture combined with having our scent all over them. 

Socks are a perfect object for Goldens to carry. Their texture is soft, making them pleasant to chew on, especially as puppies. In addition, socks are easy to carry and run with.

Often our Golden Retriever will steal a sock only to run with it, toss it about in the air, catch it and then shake it. Sometimes, he’ll try to entice us to chase him in a game of chase.

So, to the Golden Retriever, socks are nice soft toys and fun

But equally as frequent, our Golden will lay with the sock. He may softly chew on it, but he never rips or tears it apart. Instead, he mouths it and then lays on it or cuddles with it. Again, I think this has to do with their soft texture and because of their smell. 

Your socks are full of your sweat and odor. So your socks are an extension of you in a way. Your Golden Retrieve smells you on the socks, and it is comforting. I witnessed a similar behavior with Bailey when we brought him home as a puppy.

The breeder gave us a small towel with his mother’s scent on it. He would often play with it like a sock, running and tossing it about, but he also cuddled with it and never tore it apart. 

So, I think it’s safe to say that texture and scent are the main drivers when it comes to stealing socks, in addition to their instinct, of course. 

Next, we look at why Golden Retrievers bring you things. Often it’s things they have stolen or taken. It’s not to chew on or play with but rather to bring to you. 

Bailey laying on a stolen sock.

Why Do Golden Retriever Bring You Things? 

Often I find that our Golden Retriever will bring things to me (often those are things he has stolen). However, on these occasions, it is not to elicit a game of chase of fetch or to chew on the item or play with it.

So, if it is not for those reasons, then why do Golden Retrievers bring you things? 

Golden Retrievers were bred to retrieve waterfowl for their sportsmen owners. But, with no waterfowl to retrieve, the Golden Retriever will instead express that behavior by bringing objects in its environment to you. So, your dog is just expressing its genetic predisposition to retrieve and return things to you.

Now, I’m not saying that other dogs don’t bring things to their owners. It’s just that Golden Retrievers (and retrievers in general) are more mouthy than other dog breeds and more inclined to carry and bring things to their owners. Just like herding dogs are more “herdie” than other dog breeds.  

And, often, Golden Retrievers will bring you things just for the sake of bringing you things.

For example, I read a story where a Golden Retriever would bring baby bunnies and chicks to its owner unharmed (Goldens have soft mouths), albeit covered in dog spit. 

Often a Golden Retriever will bring you things as part of a greeting. Our Golden Retriever especially likes to do this in the morning when he jumps on the bed to wake us up or when we come home after being away. We call his gifts “prizes,” and he seems to bring us these as part of being happy to see us. 

So bringing you things is your Golden Retrievers doing what Golden Retrievers do…getting stuff and bringing it to you! Wait, isn’t that the very definition of retrieving!!

Why Do Golden Retrievers Carry Toys? 

Closely related to bringing things is carrying things. Goldens will often carry objects around, and more often than not, it’s their toys. They often do not play with the toys or bring them to you, but instead, they just carry them around. 

So, exactly why do Golden Retrieves carry toys? 

When carrying toys or other objects, Golden Retrievers mimic an instinctual behavior that they were bred to do long ago. Golden retrievers were selectively bred to bring downed game birds back to the hunter, and holding toys in their mouth and carrying them is them practicing this behavior. 

So, in other words, the toys of the Golden Retriever may serve as makeshift waterfowl. Often toys are soft, furry, and plush and feel similar to a bird. However, it may not be just limited to toys. Usually, socks are carried around or anything that may be readily available. 

So, it’s not uncommon for a Golden Retriever to pick up an object that is readily available, such as a TV remote or shoe, to satisfy the carrying desire. In other words, a Golden Retriever will often take (steal) things if a toy is not available. 

No, your Golden Retriever is not intentionally trying to be a brat, nor is he technically stealing. Instead, the carrying behavior is comforting to the dog because it’s a behavior that harkens back to a day when these dogs accompanied hunters to retriever pheasants and mallard ducks. 

However, when just carrying things around, I find it’s usually a prized toy and, more often than not, a stuffed toy.

Our Golden Retriever Bailey often takes stuff around the house and will carry it with him, even when he needs to go potty. He packs the toy along with him, holding it in his mouth while he does his business, and then brings it back indoors again. 

Other times Bailey will carry the toy outside and just lay with it or walk around. But the toy never leaves his mouth.

Carry things seem to be something Golden Retrievers do naturally, and it makes them feel good or comforting to them. 

How Do I Stop My Golden Retriever From Stealing Things?

It can be annoying to dog owners when their Golden Retriever takes things that we do not want them to have. Maybe it’s a comfy pair of slippers, your underwear, the TV remote, or a favorite pair of socks.

So, it’s understandable that many owners may be wondering how to stop a Golden Retriever from stealing things? 

Golden Retrievers were selectively bred to take things (retrieve). So instead of trying to stop the behavior, try activities such as playing fetch, using a bumper, or canine sporting classes—this puts their retrieving instincts to work while engaging their mind and body in productive ways. 

The retrieving behavior is strong in Golden Retrievers, so it may be difficult or counterproductive to stop a behavior instilled in them long ago through breeding. Rather, it’s better to find activities that align with the instinct to stimulate the dog’s mind and body. 

  • Playing fetch is nothing more than retrieving and is the best game you can play with your Golden Retriever. It aligns perfectly with the Golden Retrievers’ nature to chase, recover and return objects. Use a ball, frisbee or anything your dog enjoys playing with.
  • Play fetch in a lake or pool. Golden Retrievers were made to retrieve downed game birds from lakes, and they love to swim and their double coats are made for the water. Playing fetch in a lake, pool, or a dock are all great ways to get your Golden doing what they were bred to do. Plus, it helps keep them cool on hot summer days.
  • How about canine sporting classes? You have the option of formal retrieving classes where a Golden can actually do what it was bred to do. But don’t discount scent work or even rally. While the latter two are not technically aligned with “retrieving,” they still stimulate the mind and body in productive ways and prevent boredom
  • Be careful of reinforcing behaviours you don’t want. Chasing your Golden Retriever when he has items is play, and it teaches them that it is fun and acceptable. Instead, only play chase with designated toys and ignore him if he has other objects (see my personal example discussed below).
  • Try using a retrieving dummy or bumper, which are floatable toys with a rope attached. These toys are designed to throw in the air to mimic a downed game bird for the dog to retrieve. Dummy’s or bumpers can be used on land or water.
That’s not a real duck. It’s a retrieving dummy.

Hold up. In addition to the activities just listed, I wrote an article on 21 good activities to keep your Golden Retriever active and engaged. If you’re interested, you can read that article here: Boredom Busters: 21 Great Activities for Your Golden Retriever.

Now, there are instances where your Golden Retriever may take something that it should not have. For example, just the other day, Bailey ran into my bedroom and returned with my reading glasses while watching TV. 

He brought them to me and wanted me to play. But, of course, chasing him would just have caused him to run, which is what he wanted (or to play fetch).

So instead, I exchanged my glasses for a piece of cardboard nearby (he loves to chew on boxes), which he gladly agreed to. 

Normally, I would have preferred to exchange the reading glasses for a high-valued toy and then chase him to teach him that a toy is fine, but other objects are not. But, unfortunately, I had to make do with what was available at the time.

And that is typically the best way to handle these instances. Don’t chase your Golden, and ignore the behavior until you can exchange one treasure for another, preferably for one that he feels is a more valued and better treasure. 

Final Thoughts

As we can clearly see from the previous discussions, Golden Retrievers often carry things around for a distinct purpose or reason. So, no, Golden Retrievers are not crafty cat burglars intent on pilfering our prized possession for their own nefarious reasons, but rather are just doing what they were bred to do. 

Sure, our Goldens may take or carry things because they want to play, be chased or it feels comforting to them. But at the core of it all, it’s instinct, or at least a good part of it is. None of my other past dogs retrieved or carried things to any degree as close to what our Golden does. 

And, so while it may seem like stealing to us, Golden Retriever’s are just doing what comes naturally to them, which is picking up things and carrying them gently in their mouth – sometimes to bring stuff to us, other times for play, and sometimes just to carry around. Our Golden Retrievers are just being Golden Retrievers. 

Honestly, I find it both joyful and amusing to watch our Golden Retriever joyfully take things in its mouth gently and prance around with his head held high and a proud look on his face. 

Even if it is my reading glasses.

By the way, just in case you were wondering, the glasses were not scratched at all – he carried them softly by the rims. 

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