Posts Tagged ‘golden retriever conformation’

Rachel Page Elliott was the first person to connect the Tweed water dog to the golden retriever.

Rachel Page Elliott was the first person to connect the Tweed water dog to the golden retriever.

On March 20, the retriever world lost one of its greatest people. Rachel Page Elliott was considered the official historian of the golden retriever in this country and was among the first to publicize the findings of Elma Stonex and Lord Ilchester about the founding of the breed. She is the first person who actually found connected the Tweed water dog to the golden retriever’s ancestry. However, she was much more than that.

She was born into a Massachusetts family that spent lots of time on the coast of Maine. There, they kept all sorts of animals, including dogs and horses. It was here that she developed her love for the other species with which we share this planet.

She was a graduate of Radcliffe, which she attended during the Great Depression. To pay for some her expenses, she worked at a riding camp during the summers.

She later married Dr. Mark Elliott, who was into dog shows and duck hunting. They were largely German shepherd people, handling them in obedience and conformation shows.

She came to golden retrievers through her husband’s interest in duck hunting.  Goldens were virtually unknown on the East Coast in those days, and those that did exist were found largely in the Upper Midwest and were of the darker and more moderately built strain that we associate with with field line dogs today. Their first golden was purchased to be a duck dog, and they found him a Hank Christian’s Goldwood Kennels in White Bear, Minnesota.

Goldwood Toby UD would later become an important obedience dog. He was a very dark and moderate dog from Speedwell bloodlines. These dogs descended from working dog that were among the first dogs imported to Canada as golden retrievers (the earlier imports had all been considered wavy-coats).

He was the first working golden on the Maine coast, and he greatly impressed the local duck hunters with his prowess in the water and his strong retrieving instinct.

Things were good for the golden in those early days. It was primarily a working dog, and in this country, virtually all of them were well-built for their purpose.

However, things began to change when the breed became more and more popular. New lines were imported from Britain, which were, even at that time, developing very differently from the ones in the US.

In the Upper Midwest, the dark dogs continued to exist in large numbers, but the new East Coast dogs were of more of the British type. This led to some confusion in conformation shows.

Rachel Page Elliott began to notice that the golden retriever was beginning to have a wide variance in type.

By the time we moved back to New England at the close of the War, Goldens were gaining a foothold on the East Coast through lines new to me. Imported from England, the appeared to be heavier in bone, squarer headed and lighter in color. I swallowed hard when strangers mistook my beloved dark Toby for an Irish Setter, and a later Golden of ours as a small St. Bernard. But both dogs retrieved ducks equally well so I accepted the differences in type as just another interesting feature of the breed. But then a third dimension crept into the picture — and the alarm went out. A handsome twenty-seven-inch Golden, light in color, won top honors in a large show, with Best of Opposite Sex falling to a dark twenty-inch female. I overheard a spectator at ringside asking, “Are those dogs the same breed?” I thought she was joking. She was not. Following this incident, an advertisement appeared in a popular dog magazine describing mats large enough for 27-inch dogs. Occupying one of the mats was an enormous, blissfully contented Golden Retriever. About the same time a family of tall, setterish-type Goldens, soundly built and flashy movers, began winning consistently in another part of the country. It was time to bring the sides together and, with the support of a few concerned members, we stirred the Golden Retriever Club into action that resulted in cautionary changes to the breed standard. I was probably the gadfly on the committee so the job was eventually turned over to me as chairman. That was in the late forties and early fifties. Since then the breed standard has undergone even more refinement as the need for education and the awakening of greater intellectual curiosity among judges has become more apparent.


Now, this variance in type has long been part of the golden retriever. It seems everyone has an idea of what they are supposed to be. (You all know what I prefer–the “setterish” type.) But because of this variance, it is very difficult to show them. They are very prone, even today, to developing fads and new fancy points that make judging them in the show ring very difficult. Goldens change all the time.

She wanted some way to bring these different people together to develop a functional standard for the golden retriever, but to better facilitate this program, she began to study the gaits of her dogs, using film to fully map the gaits of various dogs. She explored the gait of the golden retriever very thoroughly, and because of her work, other breed clubs asked for her assistance in making sure their dogs had good gaits.

The level back requirement we see in golden retrievers comes from her. She was well-acquainted with the gaits of horses, and she found that the most efficient gaited horses were those who kept their backs level when walking.

She later compiled all of her research on dog gaits into a famous work called Dog Steps.

Rachel Page Elliot did so much for the breed in this country. I don’t know whether I agree with her on everything about golden conformation. I think that a bit more leg and a lot less feathering is needed in the dogs now. However, I do think the level back requirement is a very good part of an efficient gait.

Currently, there is a breed fund for health research named for her, but the first I ever heard of her was in Gertrude Fischer’s book, The New Complete Golden Retriever. She had written the chapter on dog conformation and gait, which I found much more detailed than any I’ve read in any other breed book.

All breeds need more people who are willing to take an honest look at conformation and movement. Right now,  the golden retriever could stand another hard look at its conformation before the breed becomes  too coarsely built and hairy to be useful as a working dog.

Her autobiography is From Hoofbeats to Dogsteps: A Life of Listening to and Learning from Animals. There, she describes her life studying animals and working with them. She began as a rider and transformed her knowlege as a rider into breeding for more efficient gaits in her dogs.

Rachel Page Elliot’s work is has changed the way we view gait in domestic dogs, and that will probably be her lasting legacy. However, her other contributions should also be remembered, especially when we think of the golden retriever as it should be.

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When did they change from this,




And this


To this,




and this?


It happened at least ten years ago, when I wasn’t in the market for a golden retriever, and I didn’t realize what was going on with the show lines.

I don’t think I’ll be as quiescent and complacent as I was when the shift happened.

In fact, I’ll do anything within my power to make them shift back.

These dogs are nothing like they once were, and you have to hunt hard to find a good one.

But in the popular imagination, golden retrievers don’t look like the old type, and I find this scary. That means that hundreds and maybe thousands of dogs will not be considered goldens if they are picked up on the street.

I saw a supposed Irish setter/golden retriever cross on the Dogs with Jobs show. He was no such thing. He was just a dark gold dog with a lighter build than what apparently show up in the ring and in dog breed books.

If you see a dark golden with  a light build, the odds are in favor of it being a golden retriever, not a crossbreed. I wouldn’t have had to say this ten years ago, because most golden retrievers in this country looked more like the old way.

This is the first real shift I’ve seen in goldens in this country, although the Europeans shifted their golden retrievers many decades ago.

So the dog fancy hates conserving the dog type. It claims to do so, but in reality, it is as susceptible to fickle caprices as virtually any fashion trend in clothing.

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A common condition in many golden retrievers and yellow Labs with black skin pigment is the phenomenon known as “snow nose” or “winter nose.”

A black nosed dog’s nose suddenly turns brown. In golden retrievers, one expects a panic, because brown skin isn’t supposed to exist our breed!  (It actually does, but it’s quite uncommon to see a golden with a brown skin and the features of a liver or chocolate dog).

The truth is that goldens and black nosed labs, along with Siberian huskies and malamutes, are prone to having their noses turn brown in the winter time.

Don’t worry, golden owners. Your dogs’ nose will usually turn back to black by summer time. Very old goldens often develop permanently brown noses, though, but this condition I’m describing here is only  temporary.

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