BRAINERD, Minn.-When Duncan and Dakota were born they had no idea that their lives as golden retrievers would be so important.

Owners Vicki Foss and Sarah Marshall of the Brainerd lakes area enrolled their dogs into a national study, Morris Animal Foundation's Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, before the dogs reached the age of 2. In the study, researchers are working on identifying the factors associated with development of cancer and other major diseases in dogs. There are more than 3,000 golden retrievers in the study. According to the foundation, more than half of golden retrievers develop cancer and it is the leading cause of death in all dogs over the age of 2. The study began in 2012.

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"How often does a dog get to leave a legacy like this to be a part of something bigger," Marshall said on having her dog be a part of the study. "Opportunities like this are far and few in between and for Dakota to have this chance (to help other dogs) is a big deal. ... This will help the breed, the community and they could link this study to other breeds and help them."

Marshall and Foss, who are friends, learned about the national study for golden retrievers from Marshall's brother, who at the time was a veterinary student at the University of Minnesota. He said the university is on the forefront of finding a treatment for animals. The dogs must be age 2 or younger and be American Kennel Club certified.

Every year, Dakota and Duncan go to their local veterinary clinic and are tested. Data is collected year-round and includes everything from what they eat, what kind of bowl they eat out of, where they sleep, what type of vaccine shots they receive and what the environment around them is like, such as chemical treatments on lawns or what cleaning products are used to clean the house.

Marshall, who grew up with golden retrievers, said she's been lucky and none of her golden retrievers died from cancer. Foss was not so lucky.

"I've had other golden retrievers and two of them died of cancer," Foss said. "It is common with this breed.

"I love golden retrievers, they are like the class clown. I love their personality. I am all for rescuing dogs, I love when people rescue dogs, but I worked in a profession where my dogs were touching other people and their children and I wanted a dog who is bomb proof and golden retrievers are that. ... This is my fifth golden retriever in my adulthood. He is on year four of the study."

Foss said the study is "pretty painless" and the family is used to gathering the data needed for the study.

Duncan sees Kathy Marcussen at the Staples Veterinary Clinic and Dakota sees Deb Piepgras at Lakeland Veterinary Hospital in Baxter. The owners said the vets have been great with treating their dogs for the study.

Foss said Staples does all the tests on Duncan for free. She said the appointment usually lasts around six hours and eight vials of blood are taken. The vials are sent to the foundation and once Duncan's visit is complete he kisses Marcussen.

"Duncan is not in pain (during the tests)," Foss said. "It's just like humans, he can't eat breakfast the morning of his tests. This is the most confusing thing for him that he doesn't get breakfast on time. But his treat at the end is a cheeseburger and he knows that and gets excited."

Foss said her golden retriever Echo was not eligible for the study as Foss does not have the paperwork to prove the dog's breed. However, they do keep track of Echo, too, for the study on their own, as Echo eats and sleeps the same as Duncan does.

Foss said so far the study has not had any major revelations, but is getting closer to learning more about the connection with the dogs and cancer.

Data collected from the foundation:

• 58 percent of dogs get their teeth brushed; of them 29 dogs, or 1 percent, were diagnosed with cancer.

• 812 dogs or 27 percent of study participants like to roll in "stinky stuff" on a regular basis.

• 1,290 dogs or 42 percent eat vegetables on a regular basis.

• 68 dogs, or 2 percent, have heart murmurs.

• 6 percent of study dogs are exposed to secondhand smoke.

• Nearly one-third of study participants are overweight, and 2 percent are obese.

• 687 dogs, or 22.5 percent, have had at least one ear infection.

• Nearly 56 percent of study participants swim regularly, with 334 of those dogs swim in the ocean.

• 91 dogs, or 3 percent, have eaten something they shouldn't have.

• 65 percent of study dogs drink municipal water, 28 percent drink well water and the remaining 7 percent drink water from ponds, bottled water or other sources.