Posts Tagged ‘retriever conformation’


Very early in the short history of this blog, I posted this video.

I think it’s worth looking at again. The golden retriever is changing before our very eyes, and in my humble opinion, not for the better.

The golden retriever began as a strain and color variety of the wavy-coated and later flat-coated retriever.

The first champion in the breed was Noranby Campfire:

Ch. Noranby Campfire-- the first champion in the breed.

Ch. Noranby Campfire-- the first champion in the breed.

And to get an idea of what color these dogs were, here was the original range:

noranby diana

(The second dog from the right is Ch. Noranby Diana, who also placed in field trials. She is also my avatar on the comments, just in case you were wondering.)

After a nearly century of showing, this is the type we get in the European show ring:

cream golden wiki

These dogs have lots of bone and are more sedate and docile. They tend to be healthier and longer lived than other strains of golden, but they typically lack true retrieving instinct. They are not bad pet dogs, provided one avoids those European lines that have some aggression issues.

American show lines of golden have evolved very differently.

show golden

They have lots of bone, but they also have lots of feathering. Feathering and heavy bone are antithetical to functional conformation to a retriever. The dogs can do the work if they have the instinct, but they are not built for efficient movement. Aggression issues exist in these lines, but their biggest problem is that feathering.

The show ring has essentially turned the golden retriever into the reddish colored Newfoundland. It’s not that Newfoundlands can’t swim and retrieve. That is the original purpose, and they still can be used for that today.

However, they are next to useless as retrievers. And yes, Newfoundland dogs, not just the St. John’s water dog, were used as retrievers. In fact, both types of Newfoundland are at the base of retrievers, and the addition of this blood was a great leap forward in the development of retriever.

The problem is that Newfoundland dogs as they exist now are not as efficient movers in the water or on the land as the modern strains of retriever. Now the Newfoundlands are stronger dogs and can haul greater weights in the water. But they are not fast dogs– not in the least.


That’s why you never see a Newfoundland doing retrieving work. In the nineteenth century, these dogs were very commonly used as retrievers.

As retrievers began to develop, there was a deep disdain for heavily built retrievers:

“The worst cross the author ever made was with Zelstone. Although not a large dog, he was said to be a pure bred Newfoundland. He was a flat-coated retriever Champion, and may have been himself a good worker ; but he ruined the working qualities of the descendants of Jenny above mentioned, and brought the author’s strain of them to an end. Consequently, it is suggested that the Newfoundland is the type to breed out of the flat coats.“

George T. Teasdale Buckell, The Complete English Shot (1907). He was writing about flat-coats. At the time, this breed included golden retrievers, which were referred to as “Lord Tweedmouth’s strain.”

The early retriever breeders liked some of the Newfoundland’s traits, like their interest in water and retrieving instinct, but they were very concerned that its heavier size and longer coat was a hindrance in the field.  By the twentieth century, the retriever breeders wanted that conformation bred out.

For the most part they succeeded, but then competitive dog showing changed all of that. Top breeders on both sides of the Atlantic are breeding for the Newfoundland’s conformation in golden retrievers, even though we know that the Newfoundland’s conformation prevents it from ever working as a retriever.

So bit by bit, the golden retriever is becoming the twenty-first century Newfoundland, which was the first large working breed to ever be mass-produced for the pet market. Today’s Newfoundland is but a remnant of what was once perhaps the most common dog in the world. They are dogs with gentle natures and biddable temperaments, and they do water trials and hauling competitions. But the original Newfoundland dog is lost the pages of history.

And I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen to the golden retriever.

Update: Okay, this is getting too hard to moderate, so comments are now officially closed.


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mother golden

What is the future of the golden retriever?

I often think about this subject, and let’s just say I don’t see the glass as half full. It seems emptier every time I look at it.

Fewer and fewer goldens have retrieving instinct and possess the nose and biddability of a good working retriever, and those that do come from somewhat inbred lines. The only solution to some of the inbreeding is to do outcrosses.

The problem with outcrosses is that we don’t have the absolute best dogs to outcross with. Show goldens don’t really have the body type that makes for an efficient retriever, and in the US lines, they have too much coat. In the UK  and FCI lines, they are the wrong color. Trust me, dark color is functional conformation! The dark color is easier to see in a cut corn or grain field if shooting pheasants, but it is also good camouflage in the reeds if waterfowling. And even fewer of them have retrieving instinct.

Our solution is that we wish to breed a good thoroughbred or warmblood, but all we have for outcrosses are Belgian draft horses to increase genetic diversity.

Now, we can breed dogs with poor working characteristics into those lines and then breed back to working characteristics. However, that means that we must sacrifice the working ability of a generation or two just to increase genetic diversity.

I find this a very imperfect solution, because while you are increasing diversity, you are also increasing your chances of getting that particular conformation in your working stock.

It would be better if we had, as we call them in West Virginia, a “come to Jesus meeting” with the show people, and actually showed them what functional conformation looked like, even running dogs of different conformation in order for them to get a feel for what is functional and what is an encumbers efficient movement.

That’s the only solution I have to this problem. When the golden retriever was began to become noticed by retriever fanciers in the early twentieth century, it was in a terrible shape in terms of conformation. They were all short-legged and heavy-boned, and the normal flat and way-coated retrievers could run circles around them. But it wasn’t long before selective breeding reduced the bone and lengthened the legs of the goldens and made them more competitive with their black and liver brethren.

I certainly don’t see why this cannot be accomplished again through careful selective breeding. But we actually have to do it. Only then will the glass fill up again.

I don’t want our dogs to become like the Sussex spaniels, a rare breed and very much a novelty as a working dog. (They do exist, but it’s one breed of spaniel that suffered from the fad of breeding them for very short legs. The field spaniel also suffered from this, but today, they aren’t bred with short legs.)

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golden retriever bear

I have never understood certain fads in purebred dogs, especially in dogs with which I have a great deal of familiarity.

I’ve never understood why breeders think it’s cool to breed retrievers that don’t retrieve. I also never understood why you would have a breed called a golden retriever and then do everything in your power to breed the golden color out of it.  Hey, I’m not a dog show person.

I’m also not into fad pet dogs.

So I’ve never understood why I see golden retriever and Labrador dogs offered for stud in the local paper described as possessing the following assets:

1. Big dog (100 plus pounds)

2. Blocky head

3. Heavy bone

Not a single one of those is functional to a working retriever. Very blocky headed dogs often lack muzzle depth to hold a bird properly (That’s one reason why the Newfoundland dog is no longer used as a retriever.) A big dog can overheat far faster than a smaller one, and dogs with lots of excessive bone aren’t agile or efficient movers.

I’m coming to the conclusion that the average pet retriever owner would like to have a dog that looks like a bear, rather than a functional working dog.

Of course, that’s okay.

However, it means that I have to sort through lots of dogs with this type in order to find a decent working dog. It also means that the lines that have a more natural head and body are going to be little less genetically diverse.

So while the “bear goldens” are cute (and they certainly are as puppies), they really aren’t exactly what is needed in a working dog.

Now, my ideal dog isn’t cute. It’s rustic and functional. It looks a bit like it belongs on in Edwardian shooting scene or on a ranch in Montana or the Dakotas. It’s a good natured dog, but it’s entirely without exaggeration.

If you want a dog that really looks like this, it exists. It’s a very trainable and good natured breed– in fact, it’s from that same root stock. It’s called the Newfoundland. You can also go for Leonberger, if you want one with tawny coat. (Of course, Leonbergers and FCI Landseers are closer to retrievers in their builds).

But in a working retriever, you really don’t need a dog with a bear’s conformation. All you have to do is watch a Newfoundland dog swim, and you’ll see why.

I have nothing against Newfoundland dogs. It’s just that, as a retriever person, I find that they lack speed and style in the water. They remind me of a big heavy draft dog that incidentally has water dog ancestry.  And that’s probably what they are. A good retriever can swim circles around a Newfoundland, but in a weight pull, I’d definitely put the Newfoundland on top.

Because Newfoundlands are in a different breed group than retrievers, comparisons between the two aren’t given enough attention. The truth is I find them really interesting. They descend from almost exactly the same stock, but they have evolved in such different ways. The bear-like conformation probably works for the Newfoundland, although I suspect that water dog trial purists prefer FCI Landseers or Leonbergers. That conformation definitely doesn’t work for the retrievers, for you want more style and speed in the water.

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