Dangerous Dogs: Are Golden Retrievers One of Them?

Golden Retrievers have a well-earned reputation as friendly, tolerant, and easy to please canine friends. The breed is not generally known for being aggressive. However, dogs are animals, and any animal can be aggressive, given the right circumstances.

Given that Golden Retriever can potentially be aggressive, it raises the question, are Golden Retrievers a dangerous dog? 

Renowned dog trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar defines a dog that inflicts a minimum Level 3 bite (a single bite with at least one to four punctures) as dangerous. Although uncommon, Golden Retrievers, like any dog, can be aggressive. Still, it is far rarer for them to be dangerous, although it is possible.

The discussion of dog aggression and especially bites can be a muddy one. No centralized reporting system, breed biases, improper breed identification, and a host of other issues make meaningful analysis difficult at best.

Another consideration in discussing dangerous dogs is that entities often label an aggressive dog as a dangerous one. They are not the same thing. Similarly, a dog can be reactive, but that is not the same as an aggressive dog. 

To discover if a Golden Retriever can be a dangerous dog, defining what constitutes a dangerous dog must first be determined.

Dr. Ian Dunbar Dog Bite Scale

Renowned veterinarian, animal behaviorist, and dog trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar developed a Bite Assessment Scale for Dog Behaviour. The tool is quite useful in determining the differences between reactive, aggressive, and dangerous dogs. It also provides a means for assessing a dog’s prognosis for rehabilitation. 

The Bite Scale

An Objective Assessment of the Severity of Dog Bites Based on Evaluation of Wound Pathology

Level 1Fearful, aggressive, or obnoxious behavior but no skin contact.Reactive dog. May escalate to aggressive.  
Level 2Teeth make contact but do not break the skin. (Skin knicks or slight bleeding from the movement of teeth possible but no vertical puncture wounds.)The dog is aggressive.
Level 3Single bite with shallow puncture wounds. Without treatment, bites may increase in severity over time. The dog is dangerous but not overly. Prognosis is fair to good.
Level 4A single bite with deep puncture wounds or lacerations. Wounds could also include bruising from prolonged contact. Dangerous dog – poor prognosis. 
Level 5Multiple bites or multiple attacks with deep Level 4 bites.Very dangerous dog – prognosis is dire.
Level 6The death of the victim and mutilation.Very dangerous dog – prognosis is dire.
Information courtesy of Dog Star Daily

The Difference Between Reactive, Aggressive, and Dangerous Dogs

Reactive Dogs

Reactive dogs are reacting to an environmental trigger or stimuli. Reactivity in a dog can lead to aggressive behavior if it escalates. 

Resource guarding, leash reactivity, and other triggers (e.g., loud children, men with hats, etc.) are but a few examples. Reactive dogs may act obnoxiously and aggressive, but the behavior does not result in the dog’s mouth making contact with the skin. 

Reactive dogs typically feel scared, threatened, or anxious. It is usually a brief emotional reaction and escalates if a specific trigger is not removed. 

For example, a dog with resource guarding issues may tense and growl when eating if a person or animal gets too close. Provided the person or animal does not persist, the behavior ceases. 

Reactive dogs would be classified as a Level 1 on the Bite Scale. 

Aggressive Dogs

Like reactive dogs, the aggressive dog will show fearful, obnoxious, or aggressive behaviors. Reactive and aggressive behaviors can include growling, snarling, lunging, and snapping. A reactive dog becomes an aggressive one when its mouth makes contact with skin but injury, if any, is superficial and minor. 

The aggression usually starts as reactive behavior but escalates when the dog feels pushed beyond its coping abilities. Often a person fails to recognize the early warning signs of reactivity before it escalates to aggression. 

“Level 1 and 2 dogs comprise over 95% of all dog “bites” and well over 80% of reported bites (tallied by the CDC). The dog is certainly not dangerous and more likely to be fearful, rambunctious, or out of control. Wonderful prognosis”

Ian Dunbar Ph.D., BVetMed, MRCVS

Dr. Dunbar’s observations are in line with the data and research from the National Canine Research Council on Medically Attended Dog Bites

  • 81% caused no injury or injury so slight it did not require medical treatment.
  • 18.99% were treated and released.
  • 0.01% were serious and required hospitalization
  • 0.000578% fatal

Dangerous Dogs

Dangerous dogs cause hard, severe bites and encompass Levels 3 to 6 on the Dunbar bite scale. Although Level 3 bites cause injury, they most often just require treatment and release and only make up a small proportion of bites. Levels 4 and 5, and mostly Level 6, are thankfully even rarer but often make the news due to their severity. 

A dangerous dog causes injury with single to multiple puncture wounds escalating all the way to severe injuries (mauling) or death. The bites are hard deep and cause lacerations. 

A second distinguishing factor for dangerous dogs is the tendency to re-offend and escalate aggression. The prognosis for rehabilitation is fair to good for Level 3 dogs, poor for Level 4, and very dire for Levels 5 and 6. 

What Could Make a Golden Retriever Aggressive and Even Bite?

Many factors can play a role in a Golden Retriever becoming aggressive. Improper socialization, physical and mental abuse, genetics, inadequate training including bite inhibition, injury, illness, pain, and protection of itself or family can all contribute and be causal. 

Aside from medical issues or genetic deficiencies, the most likely explanation is environmental factors such as physical punishment and improper socialization and training.

Proper owner management early on from puppyhood would likely mitigate most aggression issues in Golden Retrievers.

What Do the Statistics Tell Us About Golden Retrievers Being Dangerous? 

Not much. 

Organizations that keep such statistics show the Golden Retriever as one of the least aggressive dog breeds.

However, most reputable organizations, such as the CDC, have stopped accumulating statistics by breed. Those organizations have determined that breed-specific statistics unfairly bias a dog breed while discounting an individual dog’s history, temperament, and circumstances. 

For example, a dog selected to fight or raised in horrible conditions may be seen as aggressive and dangerous. The “breed” is singled out without considering the environment and treatment that the individual dog endured.  

Compounding the issue further is that entities may assign a mixed breed dog to one specific breed unfairly. For example, a 60% Poodle and 40% German Shepherd could be unjustly classified as a German Shepherd dog bite. The bias toward German Shepards is that they’re a more aggressive breed. 

Or a group of dogs is involved in a dog attack with only one or a few dogs biting. However, all dogs are considered part of the attack, even those that did not bite, and the non-offenders are labeled as dangerous by association.

Many entities such as municipalities, police, animal control, etc., may consider knicks or superficial injuries as bites.

Suppose a knick or minor wound that requires no treatment, as in 81% of reported cases, is classified as a bite. In that case, it could be considered a dangerous dog when, in fact, it was nothing more than Level 1 or 2 aggressive behavior. Yes, it’s a cause for concern and a training intervention, but it is not a dangerous dog. 

R. Scott Nolen discusses the issues with breed-specific legislation in his article “The dangerous dog debate. Breed bans are popular, but do they make the public safer?

In the article, Nolen points out that the CDC stopped collecting breed data after 1998 due to the challenges of collecting meaningful data. Julie Gilchrist, a pediatrician and an epidemiologist with the CDC, explained the challenges of dog bite statistics. 

“There are enormous difficulties in collecting dog bite data…No centralized reporting system for dog bites exists, and incidents are typically related to a number of entities, such as the police, veterinarians, animal control, and emergency rooms, making meaningful analysis nearly impossible. Moreover, a pet dog that bites an owner or family member might go unreported if the injury isn’t serious.”

Are There Any Scientific Studies on Golden Retrievers and Aggression?

Yes. Many studies show that the Golden Retriever is the least aggressive or one of the least aggressive dog breeds and most show no aggression at all.

In one study [1] comparing golden retrievers and dogs affected by breed-specific legislation regarding aggressive behavior, the authors found 98.57% of Golden Retrievers showed no aggression when tested in various situations, including dog-human testing.

Although 95% of other breeds tested also showed no aggression and no significant difference was found between the groups, the study still validates the low aggressiveness and good temperament associated with Golden Retrievers.

In fact, a far more critical takeaway from that research study is that an individual dog’s history and behavior are more important than a specific breed in determining aggression.

Furthermore, that study is also consistent with other studies showing the Golden Retriever as not being an aggressive dog breed.

This is not the face of a dangerous dog.

For example, a study by Taiwanese researchers on factors associated with aggressive responses in pet dogs [2] found that Golden Retrievers scored the lowest on all three aggression subscales in any of the breeds studied.

A 2008 study comparing breed differences in canine aggression [3] found that five breeds, including the Golden Retriever, were the least likely to show aggression towards humans and other dogs.

Final Thoughts

Aggression does not always equate to dangerous. 

Furthermore, many types of aggression include territorial, protective, defensive, resource, mating, and arousal aggression, to name but a few. Many of these types of aggressive behaviors can be context-specific. They are not always reflective of a dangerous dog or breed. 

For example, a dog protecting a child against an intruder may bite, but would that dog be correctly classified as aggressive or, worst yet, dangerous? If a human father physically defended that same child from an intruder, it would probably be considered normal, if not heroic, behavior. 

Context does matter. 

All dogs, regardless of breed, can be aggressive and bite. Factors like genetics, lack of socialization, abuse, neglect, and injury or illness may contribute to a dog becoming aggressive and biting. 

In terms of Golden Retrievers, it comes down to “are” and “can” questions.

Are Golden Retrievers as a breed a dangerous dog? No. Any available statistical evidence, however weak, and multiple studies on Golden Retrievers demonstrate the Golden Retriever as a whole would not be classified as dangerous. 

Can an individual Golden Retriever bite a person? The answer is yes. They are animals. Any animal in the right circumstance can become aggressive and escalate to biting at a level 3 or beyond. For Golden Retrievers, it is rare, but it can happen. In that context of a bite, that individual Golden Retriever would be considered a dangerous dog. 

Golden Retriever owners can take heart that aggression and biting in the breed are rare, especially considering their popularity and large numbers. Those looking to get a Golden Retriever should be mindful of getting one from a respected breeder to ensure a better chance of good temperament and genetic predisposition. 

However, proper owner management is necessary for all dogs, including the Golden Retriever.

Socializing a Golden Retriever properly, using positive reward-based training, and lots of love and attention will help ensure your Golden becomes a friendly, reliable, and trustworthy companion that shows no aggression in normal situations.

Sources and Data

  1. Is there a difference? Comparison of golden retrievers and dogs affected by breed-specific legislation regarding aggressive behavior Stefanie Ott, E. Schalke, A. M. V. Gaertner, H. Hackbarth  Psychology Journal of Veterinary Behavior-clinical Applications and Research 2008
  2. Factors associated with aggressive responses in pet dogs Yuying Hsu *, Liching SunDepartment of Life Science, National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei 116, Taiwan 2010
  3. Breed differences in canine aggression Applied Animal Behaviour Science 114(3-4):441-460 2008

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