Golden Retrievers: Why Are They Always So Hungry?


As a Golden Retriever owner, you may have noticed that your dog always seems hungry. Then, shortly, as in seconds, after eating, he goes off searching for more food.

It seems no matter how much food your Golden gets, he will never turn down more.

Your perpetual food-obsessed Golden Retriever may have you wondering; why are Golden Retrievers always so hungry? 

A Golden Retriever’s high hunger may be due to multifactorial causes, including biology, dog-owner relationships, and other environmental factors. However, at this time, the exact cause of why Golden Retrievers are always so hungry is unknown. 

It’s quite well known that Golden Retrievers are very intelligent, friendly, loyal, eager to please, and highly trainable. It’s these traits that make them so popular as both family and service dogs. 

It’s equally well known among the Golden Retriever community that their Golden Retrievers can be significantly food-driven and prone to weight gain.

However, it is rare to find a Golden Retriever who is a picky eater or too skinny or underweight. No quite the opposite. Most Golden Retrievers will quite literally eat everything and anything put in front of them. 

Aside from possible medical issues being a cause, there doesn’t seem to be a black and white or straightforward answer to what drives this food obsession in Golden Retrievers.

Instead, there appears to be an interplay of both genetics and environmental factors.

Is There a Biological Reason? 

Maybe. Maybe not. 

Researchers recently found that a gene variant in Labrador Retrievers may be at the root of why retrievers are always so hungry. The findings were published in the journal Cell Metabolism

Researchers in the UK recruited adult Labrador Retrievers to participate in the study. All the labs recruited were healthy, although they ranged from overweight to not.

The researchers collected samples of drool from a selection of 33 dogs. Next, scientists sequenced the DNA for candidate genes related to obesity from the samples collected. 

Researchers found that one gene variant called pro-opiomelanocortin or POMC was present in about 23 percent of the Labrador Retrievers.

In addition, POMC variants have shown a past relationship in other studies between appetite and satiety or feeling full. 

A Labrador in the study could have one, two, or no variants of this POMC gene. The consequence is that the more variants a dog had, the more food motivated it was. 

Researchers concluded; “the deletion in POMC is a significant modifier of weight and appetite in Labrador retrievers and FCRs and may influence other behavioral traits.” 

Researches also found that gene deletion was more common in Labrador Retrievers working as assistance dogs.

“Temperament and “trainability” are the main drivers for the selection of assistance dogs, and “positive reinforcement” with food reward is a mainstay of puppy training. We, therefore, hypothesize that dogs carrying the POMC deletion may be more likely to be selected as assistance dogs.”

Do Golden Retrievers Possess This POMC Deletion? 

Like the Flat-Coat Retriever, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers share a common ancestor, the St. John’s Waterdog

The St. John’s water dog, or Lesser Newfoundland, is an extinct dog breed originally from Newfoundland, Canada. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the breed was exported to England.

The St. John’s water dog was then bred with other dogs to create the Flat-Coat, Curly-Coated, Golden, Labrador, and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. 

However, it appears the Golden Retriever, although a cousin to the Labrador and Flat-Coat Retriever, does not possess the POMC variant deletion.

Researchers noted “that this POMC variant was not found in any other breed other than the Flat Coat Retriever (FCR), a cousin of the Lab.” 

Researchers did add that the FCR does have a higher POMC deletion than the Lab and the FCR is not prone to obesity. However, obesity has not previously been studied in this breed. 

So a Golden Retriever’s Food Obsession Is Not Rooted in Biology?

Well, not necessarily.

As noted, researchers theorized that Labrador Retrievers might make good therapy and service dogs because of POMC mutation.

The mutation makes Labs more food motivated and reward-based, and combined with a good temperament; it meant they were excellent candidates for training service dogs. 

Makes sense. 

But that is equally true of Golden Retrievers. Golden Retrievers also make excellent service dogs, are food motivated, and are highly trainable

And yes, Golden Retrievers are very much prone to obesity. In fact, data collected by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that a whopping 63% of Golden Retrievers were overweight.  

It seems that both the Lab and Golden Retriever (genetic cousins) are food motivated, prone to weight gain, and make good therapy dogs.

Yet, one has a gene deletion variant, and the other doesn’t? So, if the gene drives the Lab’s behavior and not the Golden Retriever’s, then what is? 

Then there is the issue of the FCR. As noted previously, the Flat Coat Retriever, a cousin of both the Lab and Golden, actually possesses more gene deletions than the Lab but is less prone to obesity.

So why does this breed not have the same level of obesity while possessing similar food motivation? 

At this stage, it’s safe to say that the POMC deletion may play a part in food-obsessed dogs, but further research is needed.

For food-driven dogs without the POMC mutation (like the Golden Retriever), there may very well be other genes involved in hunger and food drive that have not yet be identified.

It also seems very reasonable that other environmental factors are in play. Like many genetic traits, these environmental factors may impact if, and how much, a genetic trait expresses itself and to what degree. 

What About Evolution?

Some experts surmise that dogs have evolved a specific set of genetic traits passed down from their wolf ancestors.

That friendly wolves hung around humans and then evolved genetically and hormonally to exploit an evolutionary advantage to obtain food.

When the human ancestors provided the friendly wolves with food, it was gobbled up before any other wolf could get to it. 

Scarcity of food and feast and famine are common amongst wolves. As a result, they may not eat every day or for long periods.

So when they finally eat, it’s feast time, and they rapidly eat food before any competing wolf can. The reasoning was these feast-driven traits were passed down to dogs. 

Of course, dogs have not been wolves for a very long time – ten thousand plus years, so it’s hard to reconcile this ancient wolf trait with today’s dogs.

Especially when considering scarcity is not an issue for today’s domesticated dogs.

Equally perplexing is why these ancestral traits show themselves more in some dog breeds than others. Or what fast eating has to do with always being hungry. 

What Other Reasons Can We Consider?

Factors that drive behavior are cannot usually just be explained by a genetic or biological cause alone. That is because living things do not live in a vacuum but rather in a complex environment with an interplay of many factors and influences.

When it comes to dogs, the environment must play a part, as no other living being has been assimilated into the human environment as much as the dog. Dog live with us, eat with us, and sleep with us. Dogs accompany us on vacation, to the market, and pretty much go wherever we go.

So it’s not unreasonable to assume the human environment may be playing a role in the food drive of the Golden Retriever.

Dog-Owner Relationships

Dogs affect how we interact and behave with them, and we, in turn, affect their behaviors as well.

We have a relationship with our Golden Retrievers, and just like human families, food is often a big part of that relationship. 

For example, a Golden Retriever puppy may not show an overly extreme high food drive until an owner feeds him from the table on occasion.

Or our Golden puppies get rewarded with food because we can’t seem to resist those sad, wanting eyes.

Golden Retrievers quickly learn that food often drops from the counter during food preparation.

So they become adept at scouring the floor, the countertops, and tables or waiting underfoot for food morsels to fall from the heavens.  

So, what could easily be seen as always being hungry is simply a response to the opportunity we provide. If there’s a chocolate cake on the table, most people will probably have a piece if they have the chance to. 

Similarly, suppose a Golden Retriever has access to tasty human food, which most do. In that case, your Golden will seek it out, especially if we’ve previously allowed it or taught the behavior.

After all, if it smells and tastes good to us humans, it will taste good to a Golden Retriever as well, maybe even better. 

Compounding the issue is we also give our dogs food for good behavior, for love, and because they’re adorable.

Just like some families show love with food, we do as well with our canine children.

Golden Retrievers understand that we control the food, that our food is delicious, and consequently, they have learned how to get it from us. 

Food is such a big part of our lives; is it any wonder it’s such a big part of their lives too?

Food is so entrenched in our interactions with our Golden Retrievers that I’m sure it’s a factor in why they seek it so much. 

We Teach Them  

Golden Retrievers are also highly intelligent and easy to train. According to Canine Researcher Stanley Coren, Golden Retrievers fall within the highest tier of smart dogs.

Goldens can learn a command in five repetitions and obey 95% of the time. 

Maybe we need to consider that it’s not the high food motivation of Golden Retrievers that makes them easily trainable.

But instead, it’s their high intelligence that drives the food motivation.

After all, a Golden Retriever will rapidly learn that a specific behavior means a food reward, which in turn may contribute to and reinforce their food-obsessed behavior as well.  

Put another way; the Golden Retriever may have learned to be food motivated because it’s given food repeatedly for the actions we want. As a result, the dog gets a reward in both tasty foods and for pleasing us. 

Suppose parents were to give their children high-value foods to reward behavior such as doing homework and chores.

Is it unreasonable to assume that the children might crave and seek high-value foods since it’s a basis for desirable behaviors?

Not to mention that such high-value foods taste good, and those high-value foods may also trigger the expression of a food-driven genetic trait. 

Humans use food to alleviate boredom, stress, and anxiety. We may need to consider that we teach our Goldens to do this to some degree also, especially considering how tuned in they are with our emotions.

Final Thoughts

It would be nice to ask our Golden Retriever why they are so hungry all the time. But, unfortunately, we can’t.

And while science does offer some interesting theories, including the role of POMC, it does not give us a definite cause.

So, more research is needed, and hopefully, this future research will shed light on the why. 

Instead, we’re left with an unsatisfying answer of we really don’t know. We have to accept that it’s just the way they are.

And the reality is we may never know for sure why Golden Retrievers are always so hungry and food-obsessed.  

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