This is a clipping from the Illustrated Sporting News from March 28, 1908. It is about Lewis Harcourt’s golden retrievers and their talents compared to other strains that were bred for a more uniform type.
The text of the piece, for those who might have trouble reading the text, goes as follows:
When Mr. Harcourt’s yellow retrievers were exhibited at Cruft’s Show, the dog-show critics condemned them for want of uniformity. That was a display of ignorance, of educated ignorance, for in any pure bred, and necessarily inbred race, the greatest characteristic it can possess is its differences. In other words, the breed qualities condemnatory of the mongrel are the salvation of thorough-breds. For thirty, or more, years, Lord Tweedmouth has passed this breed of sandy-coloured retrievers. Ideal breeding cannot be found in breeding for colour, because it is reminiscent of the remark of the Suffolk sportsman, that “there is a toy in the kennel of every sportsman, from his honour to the rat-catcher.” But there has been no ideal retriever breeding for many years. It has been governed by show influences, or breeding for uniformity of error. Consequently, the colour fad is quite as likely to have done less harm than the breeding for uniformity [of type], particularly when we remember that the colour faddists have always been sportsmen and the uniformity faddists have not. Besides this, there is evidence of a public sort that there is working instinct left in this race. Mr. A. T. Williams’ crack field trial Don of Gerwn was by one of them, and no dog has distinguished himself more in public than this liver-coloured one. Now that a race of breeders of retrievers are arising who breed for nothing but work and have a large field of choice, it will become harder to maintain a particular colour in small numbers at the high working standard that is sure to be set. On the other hand, it does not follow that crosses with best working black dogs will stamp out the golden colour (pg. 126).
This piece points out that this strain of flat-coated retriever, which became the basis for the modern golden retriever breed, were actually pretty influential in the main flat-coated retriever breed at the time. Don of Gerwn, mentioned in the piece, was the winning of the 1905 International Gun Dog League’s retriever trial in 1905, and his sire was one of Lord Tweedmouth’s yellow retrievers named Lucifer.
The author of this piece was obviously a practical sportsman, excoriating show breeders and pointing out that if you start breeding for type alone, you start producing lots of useless dogs. The author’s line about every kennel having a “toy” in it is probably always truism, no matter what sort of working dogs are being bred, but the implication is that retriever breeding up to that time had gone astray as wavy/flat-coated retrievers were being bred with a heavy emphasis on making them look more uniform in type.
The original wavy-coated or flat-coated retrievers were quite variable in type. Some showed a stronger St. John’s water dog or “Newfoundland” type, while others were very setter-like. Both really wavy coats and extreme straight coats were found in the breed, which is one reason why the breed had two different names.
The “golden retriever” strain had been closely held by only a few devoted sporting families, and they were used for sporting work, mostly picking up from grouse and pheasant shoots and tracking wounded deer. There was not a strong selection for uniformity in type, just for the yellow to red color.
The “golden retriever” strain retained a lot of variance in type that was being lost as the wavy-coated retriever began to develop along a much more narrowly defined creature. Flat-coats were having the bone bred out of them, and in the drive to make them straight-coated, there was a selection away from the dense undercoat that protected their Newfoundland ancestors from the cold water and kept British land retrievers well-insulated from thorn pricks.
Today, the golden retriever’s diversity in type is something that ought to be celebrated. It is in the golden retriever breed that the old wavy-coated retriever’s diversity in conformation was preserved, and it is in part because of this diversity that the golden retriever wound up thriving as a breed while the flat-coated retriever has become quite rare (and almost became extinct).
Beyond the narrowness of discussion of golden retriever types, though, is the pernicious desire of the show ring culture to produce cookie cutter dogs. Many breeds have excluded colors, like the pied in mastiffs, the white in German shepherds, and the yellow in modern flat-coated retrievers. Others, like the Portuguese water dog, have a coat type that is excluded. These dogs with “improper coats” look a lot like flat-coated retrievers, but they have been deemed essential for the breed’s survival. Even though a genetic test now exist that determines whether a bearded dog carries the improper coat, the breed club urges breeders not to exclude those dogs.
Which is pretty forward-thinking for the modern dog fancy.
Diversity is seen as an aberration in the world of purebred dogs. In working dogs, people are more willing to allow for conformation or color differences because it means one can select more for working characteristics, but in a show dog, the looks really do matter to the point that it becomes much harder to select for working traits. It also becomes harder to select for health and genetic diversity.
The more one narrowly defines the “correct” criteria for breeding selection, the harder it becomes to breed for sustainable gene pools across the breed.
In this way, in a purebred dog the greatest characteristic it can possess is an acceptance of diversity. In golden retrievers and Labradors, there is already a very wide acceptance for diversity, but in breeds like mastiffs and pugs, there is very little tolerance for this essential diversity.
In 1908, golden retrievers were just a few years from becoming an actual breed, instead of a strictly working-bred strain of flat-coated retriever. Ever since the two breeds have split, yellow flat-coats still pop up, and they are now usually sold with the understanding never to be used for breeding. However, they tell us very clearly that these two breeds didn’t arrive as separate specially created kinds that jumped off of Noah’s ark.
The two breeds are part and parcel of each other, so much so now that the flat-coated retriever that exists now is really but a sub-type of what we call a golden retriever– at least that’s what the DNA says. If you ever follow the pedigrees of golden retrievers, you’ll hit black flat- or wavy-coats soon enough.
Much more so than in 1908 does the modern flat-coat needing new blood. Plans to cross flat-coats with goldadors (golden retriever/Labrador crosses) from guide schools have been rumored. There was even a discussion about crossing them with Labradors in Britain a few years ago, but it never went anywhere.
The closed registry system no longer rewards innovators like Lord Tweedmouth or Lewis Harcourt. Innovation, which we celebrate with our crossbred hogs and beef cattle, is now abhorrent in the world of dogs.
And has been for quite some time.
But it still stands that diversity is not the enemy of sound breed management.
So here’s to the yellow flat-coats, pied mastiffs, and parti-colored Gordon setters.
Someday, you’ll be appreciated for what you give to your breed, but it make take a lot more disease and suffering for us to recognize it.
Until then, let this article from 107 years ago tell us that truly knowledgeable dog people knew better than the modern fanciers. It was our fair warning.
To which too many didn’t heed.
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