Posts Tagged ‘working conformation for a retriever’

Culham Brass (b. 1904) is an example of what early golden breeders deemed functional conformation.

Culham Brass (b. 1904) is an example of what early golden retriever breeders thought was functional conformation.

I was digging through some GRCA literature online, when I came across this document, which includes some analysis and commentary from early golden retriever people in the US, Canada, and Britain.

It seems that a poison seed always existed in the early days of the golden retriever as a standardized breed.

I don’t know how to describe this poison seed exactly, but the best I can come up with is the “Irish setter inferiority complex.”  The early people in the breed hated that their dogs were mistaken for Irish setters, so they decided to breed away from the setter’s conformation.


Now, one must not forget that wavy/flat-coated retrievers came in two basic types: the setter-type and the Newfoundland-type. A very good illustration is these two can be found in the illustration of two wavy-coats named Paris and Melody in Stonehenge’s  Dogs of Great Britain, America, and Other Countries.

Then, as wavy-coats evolved into the top working retriever of their day, the Newfoundland-type was deemed inferior in the breed. Writing about the merits of the working flat-coat in The Complete English Shot (1907), George Teasdale-Buckell contended that the flat-coat is “open to regeneration when he is bred more wiry and less lumbering.” In other words, one should breed away from the Newfoundland-type.

Teasdale Buckell continues his critique of heavily-built, lumbering retrievers. He writs that the “the old dogs were lumbering, and so no doubt the Newfoundland type of wavy-coated dogs were” (187) and again criticizes his own selection of the Newfoundland-type wavy-coat stud named Zelstone, claiming that he was the worst cross he ever made (188).


Now, this information on flat-coated retrievers is very nice, but what does it have to do with golden retrievers.

Well, golden retrievers actually started out as a strain of wavy-coated retriever and then became flat-coated retrievers. Their original breeder, Dudley Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, bred these dogs with the best black wavy-coated retrievers he could find, including some of the top wavy/flat-coated dogs in the strain. He never intended to split this breed off because it was a different color.

Good working conformation for a flat-coated retriever is based upon a very simply axiom “Power without lumber and raciness without weediness.”  It’s actually a very good axiom for breeding any strain of retriever.

However, if you are breeding golden retrievers with this conformation and they happen to be towards the darker end of the spectrum, they will look a lot like Irish setters.

This makes a lot of sense when you realize that the main outcross for flat-coated/wavy-coated retrievers was the setter. In fact, Idstone thought that the wavy-coated retriever was a specialized strain of black retrieving setter!

In the nineteenth century, a very common setter was the red setter.  In the US, we call this breed an Irish setter, but red setters also occurred in the gordon setter breed (and still do).

Because wavy/flat-coated retrievers were almost always black dogs at this time, it was very common for a black retriever to carry the gene for red, as was the case with Moonstone.

After the Tweedmouth strain had been founded, it was augmented through outcrossing to black wavy/flat-coats that had setter ancestry. And as the setter type became preferred in flat-coat, it also affected the golden retriever (How could such a preference not?)

That’s why the Noranby goldens  in the 1930’s looked like this:

Yes, these dogs do look like Irish setters.

To which I say, “So what?”

Flat-coats have obvious setter ancestry. It is celebrated in that breed.

It is condemned in the golden, even though this is what the efficient functional conformation is for a retriever that has some coat.

If you scan to page 3 of that GRCA document, a person named E.F. Rivinus contrives a whole rationale for breeding away from this functional type. Basically, he wants to breed to look so distinct from the setter that everyone will recognize that it is not one.

I find it interesting that Winifred Charlesworth, the founder of the golden retriever as a separate breed, wanted to breed for a different head in her dogs. She produced the Noranby dogs in the above photograph, and their heads are not radically different from a flat-coat. Of course, she was one of those people pushing the Russian origins poppycock, but you can obviously tell that her dogs are derived from flat-coats and red setters.

I can’t imagine a sillier rationale for coming up with a conformation standard.

In fact, it is a reversal of what British golden breeders were trying to breed for as the golden became distinct from the flat-coat. Because the golden had been an estate shooting dog, it had been one of the last strains of wavy-coat to develop the lighter strain. The Reverend Needham- Davies wrote the section on the golden in A.C. Smith’s Gun Dogs-Their Training, Working and Management. In that section, Needham-Davies contended that the golden was more like an old fashioned retriever, which he incorrectly suggested was the Newfoundland (it was actually the old-fashioned Newfoundland-type wavy-coat). He writes that the golden was being developed that could move with more speed, and  it would eventually be able to compete with the best flat-coats and Labradors.

Of course, that was in the working gun dog sphere. In the show ring, breeding away from the lighter-built dog and the darker colored dog was the goal, while in the working gun dog sphere, breeding for lighter-built dogs was the main objective.

And even early on, you the beginnings of the split that has since happened in this breed.

One set wanted a dog that could move efficiently and with speed, while the other wanted a dog that didn’t look like an Irish setter.


I’ve searched long and hard for the reason why the show-strain goldens developed as they did.

I can’t believe it was for such a silly reason as the lighter-built and darker dogs looked like Irish setters.

I’m sure stranger rationales exist for the conformation standards of many breeds, but I have not heard them yet.

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Speedwell Pluto

Speedwell Pluto

I’ve noticed some discord among the golden retriever message boards about a post I wrote about the first golden retriever champion in this country.

The following things are repeated. The GRCA doesn’t want a split in type, so they are doing everything they can to push a dual purpose dog. I’ve even found where on their official website that they want the dogs to have more moderate coats.

The problem is that the GRCA can say this stuff all it wants. It can support dual purpose breeding and competition all it wants.

But the horse has left the barn.

When the standards began to require a dog with more bone and more coat, then the dogs split into two basic types.

It’s unfortunate, but the split has happened.

And like Humpty Dumpty, it probably won’t come together again.

Remember, goldens in working trials are being run against Labradors– lanky, long-legged Labradors that run with a lot of style. They are at a disadvantage if they are short-legged and heavy-boned.

I personally don’t like the look of the show-bred dog.

There– I said it.

But I also don’t like the way it runs, the way it swims, or the fact that too many of them have to be taught to put things in its mouth. That’s one thing that a retriever should be doing automatically.

And despite what the GRCA says about excessive coat, I still see lots of show dogs being put up with lots of coat.

Has anyone ever read any working retriever literature? Have you ever read in any of these books or talked to anyone who has worked them who has said that the golden needs more coat?

I prefer an old-fashioned golden. One that looks a lot like Speedwell Pluto or Noranby Diana. Maybe I like those old 1930’s model dogs. They are built right, without exaggeration of either bone or coat. In the 1930’s, the heavier dogs that had so tinctured the Tweedmouth strain had been replaced with retrievers that had lost their lumber.

I find the whole dual purpose thing rather insulting to those people who bred performance dogs in this breed for years and years, while the show strain deteriorated into something like the American cocker of the 1980’s. The whole exercise is really quite Quixotic, like the Buckleys of the dog world standing athwart history yelling “stop.”

I am fine that this breed has split. I’m not happy that the genetic diversity continues to atrophy, but that problem is not entirely the fault of the split in types. Everyone seems to want to use just a few sires in this breed– and this problem is not only that of the show-line dogs.

I see a split in types. A performance bred dog is going to be a good performance dog– generally better than a show-bred dog. That’s why we have the split in the first place.

And the split isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It allows breeders to focus on producing the kind of dog they want to produce.


I think now that I should say that goldens aren’t the only breed to have split in this way. There are certain factors that have led to splits within breeds, and many of them have been nastier than this little split.

1. If a dog has more than a couple of thousand individual dogs in its worldwide population, it will split. You cannot get all the clubs in all the countries of the world to agree to a single standard. If every club was in the FCI’s registries, maybe that could happen.

2. If the type of dog that does well at a dog show is fundamentally different from the type of dog that is worked, the split will happen. That’s what happens in just about every working breed. If a gun dog breed originated in Great Britain, with a few notable exceptions (Flat-coats, Welsh springers, Irish water spaniels, etc),  that dog comes in a separate show or working form.

3. In the early fancy, internecine conformation debates have caused splits. I say this as if it doesn’t happen today, but in reality, it does sometimes happen. The most recent is the row over what an Akita is. The Japanese have different sort of dog that is confined to a narrower range of colors than the Akitas you typically find here. There have been moves to separate these two Akitas. The most recent split I can think of that affected an AKC breed was when the Norfolk and Norwich terriers became separate breeds, which happened in 1960 in the Kennel Club and in 1979 in the AKC. The big difference between the two is that the Norfolk has floppy ears, and the Norwich has prick ears.

4. If someone discovers that the dogs originally looked very different from the current crop of dogs, there will be a split. How many bulldog breeds are there?

5. The whole history of dogs since the founding the fancy has been the history of these internecine conflicts that have eventually boiled over into schisms. The fancy not only created a way of standardizing already extant breeds, it created an atmosphere in which one could almost guarantee that there would be splits. If a certain strain in a particular breed couldn’t win at a dog show, because it didn’t meet the standard or possess a “fancy point,” the breeders of that strain would pack up their marbles and start a new breed. That’s what happened to the golden retriever. They even made up a story about the dogs coming from Russia to make sure everyone knew that this breed had nothing to do with the flat-coated retriever (except, you know, for sharing lots of different ancestors and being heavily interbred with the flat-coat.)

So when it comes to golden retrievers, roll that beautiful bean footage and lets have more 1930’s models!

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It has long puzzled me why most working strain goldens are dark gold to golden red in color. I have argued that this coloration is an example of the the “founder effect,” in which the original working strain goldens were of this color and this trait was passed onto their offspring. Color has next to nothing to do with the actual abilities of the dog, but bloodlines do. Because the lines that produce field-type goldens tend to be darker, the dark colored dogs become associated with working ability. Because of this coloration association, I have argued that the European standard (KC/FCI), which penalizes “red” in the golden retriever, actually hurt the breed’s ability to compete with the Labs, which already have very specialized lines for gun dog work. It’s true that goldens have the same split, but Labrador people are more willing to admit this. Because of this split, I have argued that it is next to impossible to have a dual champion golden or Lab in the United States or Canada. In Europe, where competition isn’t as extreme on both sided, it might be possible. But really, the show type goldens and Labs actually don’t have working conformation.  I have made all of these arguments in various parts of the blog, but it turns out that I am wrong about color.

The founder effect may have something to do with it, but it turns out that dark color is actually functional in the field. I have had some golden people tell me that the dark color is useful for camouflage in the duck blind, while others have told me that the dark color is actually a superstition. Dark colored dogs are supposedly hardier than light-colored ones, just like horses with dark hooves are supposedly hardier than those with light hooves. (Neither of those hypotheses have been fully studied, because these are superstitions). I’ve seen a few light colored dogs have retrieving ability, but these have been relatively rare. I thought it was the “founder effect” and nothing else. Well, I’m wrong. 

In a column in Gun Dog, Chad Mason points out how color functions in various types of bird dogs. Some of these spotted and roan pointing breeds actually can disappear in snowy fields that happen to have areas of exposed vegetation. Because pointing breeds don’t bark on the hunt, a dog that cannot be seen clearly against the landscape is a major liability. What I found most interesting in the piece is the discussion of yellow Labs and golden retrievers:

Speaking of duck ponds, today’s trend toward bleach-blonde Labrador and golden retrievers may be advantageous to pheasant hunters, but seems grossly impractical for waterfowl hunting. I once saw a picture in a magazine of a virtually white Labrador retriever in a camouflage neoprene vest. They weren’t trying to be funny, but the dog looked like an albino elephant wearing a bowtie. There is nothing less conspicuous in the widest possible range of wetland (or grain field) scenarios than a tawny dog. Message to yellow Labrador and golden breeders: Give us darker coats

A light colored dog is a liabilty in the duck blind! However, it still doesn’t explain why black retrievers were preferred for so many years.  Oh well, I might add this to the working conformation list. But keep in mind the old saying: “No good hound is of a bad color.” The author points out that color isn’t everything, and he uses two black Labs that work well.  

The original goldens were dark in color. The only ones that were light gold were those produced in the first litter produced with Nous and Belle. The rest were really dark, showing a strong setter influence.

I am more interested in preserving the dark color because most of the working dogs have dark coats.  The KC and the FCI have shot themselves in the foot. They have essentially decided that the cream golden will be the only type considered. The working lines in North America are devoid of this color. We barely have this color in our show stock.

I’m not against light colored dogs at all. I’m against getting rid of the “red dogs.”  If you breed for the light color alone, the dark color will disappear (as it nearly has in Europe), simply because dark color is dominant to light color. Light colored dogs cannot carry a gene for dark color, but dark colored dogs can produced light colored puppies. If you select for light color alone, you will end the dark color forever.

Although I’ve read in several golden retriever books that the FCI/KC standard actually allows for a wider range of color, the opposite is true. The FCI/KC simply ban the dark gold and golden red colors, and promote the light gold and “cream” colored dogs (also mass produced in the US as “white” golden retrievers).  Now, this would be okay, but the working retriever people have selected for dark color for reasons of camouflage or superstition or “founder effect.” What happens is that those people who want to breed for a dual purpose dog  will be searching for light colored dogs that can retrieve. These dogs exist, but there aren’t many of them. And when you’re selecting for that light color, you are going against the grain of selection for the dark color in the working lines. This means that you will be searching for much longer to find a dog with the ability and the color, and this means that at some point you have relax on working ability. If this process is repeated for several dogs and generations, you can forget about competing with the Labradors, which are being selected solely for working ability. (I mean this as a general idea. I’m sure there are a least some light-colored goldens that can give the Labs a run for their money.) But because you’re already selecting for a light-colored dog and the people who came before you selected for the dark color, it’s just become that much harder to preserve and enhance the working abilities of the golden retriever.

What if it was decided that border collies could no longer come in black and white? And what if all the herding champions, except maybe ten every decade, were of black and white coloration? The working ability of border collies would drop rather significantly. This is what is happening to golden retrievers.

I should note here that Mrs. Winifred Charlesworth,  one of the people who separated the golden from the flat-coated breed, refused to breed a light colored dog, even though he was an excellent worker. Her Noranby dogs were often very dark in color, as this picture shows:

These dogs reflect the preferred original range of color in goldens.

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