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Hero Health Dogs

Golden retrievers are helping all dogs lead healthier lives.

October 2022

by Margaret Buranen, Contributing Writer

Three thousand golden retrievers are participating in one of the largest animal health studies ever conducted. The study includes golden retrievers that live in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. The dogs are known as “hero dogs.”

Tom Williams and Merlin shop at a home improvement store.

These golden retrievers, their owners and veterinarians are enrolled in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (GRLS). It is conducted by the prestigious Morris Animal Foundation, which funds studies to improve the health of domestic and wild animals.

Beautiful, gentle golden retrievers are great with children and generally get along well with other pets. These traits make them among the most popular dog breeds in the U.S.

Sadly, for reasons the study hopes to discover, goldens are more likely to develop cancer than any other breed of dog. When the GRLS began in 2012, owners of more than 3,000 golden retrievers across the U.S. enrolled their pets.

Goldens are more likely to develop cancer than any other breed of dog.

Ten years later, more than one-third of the dogs have died, and three-quarters of those were cancer-related. Since cancer is the second cause of death for all canine breeds, the study’s findings should improve the health and longevity of all dogs.

Dr. Kelly Diehl, senior director of science and communications adviser at the Morris Animal Foundation, says that it has been “a pleasant surprise to see the dedication of the dogs’ owners and vets, doing the [lab and data collection] work for 10 years.”

She likes to compare the study’s potential benefits to concentric circles, like those made when a stone is dropped into a pond. “The innermost circle is the golden retrievers it will help. The next circle out represents all breeds of dogs. Then the next circle is for other animals it will help. The last circle is the people it may also help.”


The GRLS is funded by the Morris Animal Foundation of Denver, Colo. Dr. Mark Morris Sr. started the foundation in 1948. Diehl says that people “are surprised to learn that we’ve been around that long and that we are one of the largest funders of animal health studies in the world. We fund globally.”

The study dogs will be followed through their lifetimes. The dogs’ owners and veterinarians commit significant time to collecting and recording health information on the dogs for veterinary science researchers.

Rappahannock Electric Cooperative member Fran Williams of Ruther Glen, Va., says the time required is “totally worth it.”

The dogs’ owners fill out an annual detailed questionnaire. It covers the foods and treats the dog eats, where it walks and sleeps, other household pets, use of lawn chemicals and more.

“The innermost circle is the golden retrievers it will help. The next circle out represents all breeds of dogs.”Dr. Kelly Diehl

The dogs’ veterinarians answer questions about their patients and perform extensive physical exams. They also submit nail and hair clippings, blood samples and lab results.

Williams learned about the study from a Facebook group for golden retriever owners. After reading about the study, she enrolled her dog Merlin, now 10 years old.

Merlin, the second purebred golden she and her husband Tom have owned, “has been perfect from day one,” she says.

He gave his owners a scare when he was diagnosed with cancer 28 months ago. Even worse, the cancer was a tumor growing in his abdomen, not one on his skin that could be removed easily.

Williams says that the cancer was confirmed by three different veterinary labs and Merlin’s prognosis was grim: three to six more months. But perhaps Merlin benefitted from some of the magic associated with his name.


A veterinary oncologist in Richmond treated Merlin. He had surgery to remove the tumor, followed by intravenous chemotherapy. The oncologist sent samples of the tumor and lab results to the MAF researchers and Merlin recovered.

“Now he’s known online as ‘Miracle Merlin,’” Williams says. “He goes shopping with me to Home Depot and PetSmart. He enjoys greeting people and seeing his friends there.”

As for Williams and her husband Tom, “Every day with Merlin is an unexpected gift.”


Data from the study have already revealed some insights for keeping dogs healthier. Comparing ages at which golden retrievers were spayed or neutered, a researcher found that the younger the dog, the greater the increase in nontraumatic leg injuries. These injuries were usually ligament tears suffered from running or slipping while playing.

Diehl says the owner of any large breed puppy would be wise to discuss with the vet the wisdom of delaying any surgery until the dog is closer to a year old.

Rappahannock Electric Cooperative member Beth Shoemaker of Berryville, Va., learned about the GRLS from her dog’s previous veterinarian. She promptly enrolled Mason, the fifth golden retriever she has owned.

Shoemaker likes goldens because of “their disposition around people and because they’re easy to train.”

Mason was “the smartest golden retriever I’ve had. He brought the newspaper in every morning,” she says.

Mason responded to praise for mastering this trick by bringing in the neighbors’ newspapers, too. For a few mornings, Shoemaker had to put him in the house and return their newspapers until she could teach him to stop with just their newspaper.

Mason got a clean bill of health at his extensive annual checkup in 2021. But in October, he became suddenly ill and was rushed to the vet. Tests showed that a rapidly growing malignant tumor had burst and he could not be saved. Shoemaker and her husband George were devastated by the loss of their beloved dog.

Late this spring, the Shoemakers decided they were ready to love another golden retriever. In July, 10-week-old puppy Bourbon joined their household.

Shoemaker says that the study “is wonderful. There is extra work involved, but it was worthwhile having Mason in it.”

The biobank of lab samples the vets take from their golden retriever patients will be available for researchers for years to come. It is located at the Thermo Fisher lab in Maryland. “There are decades worth of research questions the samples can be used for,” Diehl explains.

For more information about this study and other MAF programs, visit morrisanimalfoundation.org.