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Posts Tagged ‘working retriever conformation’

The dog on the left is obese. However, in America, we still like to breed our Labs bigger, even if they aren't overweight.

The Lab on the left is obese. However, in America, we like to breed our Labs larger, even if they aren't overweight.

Over the years, I’ve noticed something about pet-line Labradors.

People who market these dogs almost always offer two types.

One of these is the English type, which I have often heard referred to as the “Bentley.” These dogs are particularly sought after because they are derived from European show lines and are quite calm and placid.

In theory, of course.

Many of these dogs don’t live up to the hype of being super calm and some, like some golden retrievers, can be quite surly.

But of particular interest to me is the other way pet quality Labs are marketed: it’s gonna be a big dog!

Although most field and American show line Labs are in the 55-80 pound range and virtually all English Labs fit that definition, most of the Labs I see are in the 90 pounds or more range.

Large size does not have much utility for a working dog, and in the real world, smaller size does have its advantages.

I know of breeders of field line Labs that produce “canoe” Labs that are smaller than normal. The term comes from a possible linkage between these so-called “canoe dogs” that acted as retrievers for the native peoples of the Northeast and Eastern Canada. Speculatively, I have suggested that these dogs are related to the St. John’s water dogs and the Newfoundlands, which means they are possible ancestors of the retrievers. (Here’s a photo of a canoe dog. It looks like small Labrador with prick ears and a bushy tail.) Canoe dogs were about 30 pound or so in weight, and canoe Labradors tend to be in the 30-45 pound range.

The only reason to breed a super large Labrador is to sell puppies.

It’s also great for the ego.

I’m sure the conversations go something like this:

My Lab is bigger than yours.

Does it retrieve or listen to commands?

No. But he’s 130 pounds and built like an Angus bull.

I have looked at the histor of Labradors and other retrievers rather closely, and I can tell you with certainty that the St.John’s water dog, the ancestral Labrador, was never a giant dog.

Now, the other Newfoundland was historically used as a retrievers on estate shoots. In the nineteenth century, virtually all of the dogs in that particular breed were Landseers. They may have played some role in the development of retrievers, although their large size and slowness were always problematic.

However, I don’t think it’s exactly correct to think of these dogs as a model on which we could assume the conformation of the modern Labrador retriever. A big lumbering dog is by definition at a disadvantage as a retriever. It simply cannot swim with the speed necessary to do its work. It is also going to overheat more easily, simply because it is bigger. If one his hunting ducks, a big dog takes up more space on a boat or blind.

But none of this matters in the realm of selling pets.

Get a couple of guys bragging about the size of their dogs, and you soon have a perfect market.

Bigger is better.

It doesn’t matter that large size puts strain on the dog’s heart or make it more prone to various dysplasias as it grows.

Bigger is better.

I’ve noted this tendency exists in golden retrievers, but it is at a much lower level. I hope it stays this way, because goldens can’t stand any further fad breeding and remain viable as a strain.

However, it has happened to virtually all large gentle dogs that are in demand as family pets.

Does anyone seriously believe that St. Bernards always weighed 200 pounds?

If it happened to that breed, why couldn’t this happen to the retrievers?

Virtually all the pet Labs I see are huge.

It’s what people want.

I’m honestly suprised they haven’t made up a cock-and-bull story about the size of these dogs, something like the Roman Rottweilers or reconstructed dire wolf.

But maybe the desire to brag about size is enough to get people to accept such huge dogs.

These big Labs are so common, that people are often surprised when they find out how big their breed standard requires them to be.

It’s almost like you made something up or uttered the phrase “Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever.”

We’ve become so accustomed to seeing giant Labs that they now seem normal.

I hope for the sake of the dogs that we don’t continue to demand an increase in size.

Of course, serious Labrador people are going to breed normally sized dogs.

The pet people can just keep breeding ’em bigger and bigger.

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From izod.

Even in dogs with moderate feathering, the feathers tend to collect a lot of water. This increases drag as the dog swims, making it less streamlined. This dog isn’t a slow swimmer in the least. It’s actually got excellent working conformation.

However, you can see what James Lamb Free wrote about the golden’s pelage in his classic  text,  Training Your Retriever: “Like swimming in a coonskin coat.”

Coat isn’t everything, however. A coated dog with more moderate bone and good legs is still going to be faster in the water than the English show- type Labrador.  Here’s an example of an English Lab trying swimming slowly. It also has TERRIBLE water entry for some reason. The English Lab has poor working conformation, and virtually no English Labs are trial dogs (and this is THE retriever trial breed.)

To understand why this is so, watch this bulldog swim.

(Note: It’s  not a good idea to let bulldogs swim withouth any kind of buoyancy device.)

Bulldogs have shorter hair, but they are all bone. They have a much more exaggerated frame than the English Labrador, but the English Labrador is closer to the bulldog in build than the the working golden retriever in the first video. Lots of bone is really just loading a dog with muscle. Muscle tends to sink in the water.  If you also have shorter legs on that dog, it’s not going to be able to move as well in the water.

That’s why Dachshunds, Bassets, bulldogs, and French bulldogs should not swim with out any kind of buoyancy aids.

Think of an Olympic swimmer. Every analyist of these sporting events says that the best Olympic swimmers have relatively long limbs and relatively large hands and feet. They have oars and paddles.

You want good oars and paddles on a water dog, not lots of coarse bone that sinks and short legs that have no reach in the water.  It is really silly to breed lots of bone and really short legs on a retriever. It might look good in the ring, but it’s terrible in terms of working ability.

Goldens can get away with their long coats, but I don’t think they can really do well with lots and lots of feathering. It’s just that simple.

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Modern Newfoundlands are slooooow swimmers. Why?  They are big dogs with lots of bone, lots of coat, and substance.

Compare their swimming to this flat-coat, which is a breed with some feathering but no coarse bone:

Now, both of those dogs have a common ancestor. I highly suspect that if the flat-coat were taken to Newfoundland in the eighteenth century, it would be put to work immediately on the fishing fleet. If the Newfoundlands in the youtube video were taken to Newfoundland in eighteenth century, I think the fishermen would leave them on the dock!

I thought it might be interesting to train a modern Newfoundland dog as a retriever, but I’m sure it could never be trial quality.

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They start out as cute little “white” puppies:

cute-white-retriver1

Unlike field bred golden puppies, they aren’t nearly as active or obsessively intelligent and driven. The first dog I had of this type I actually thought there was something medically wrong with puppy, because she never wanted to play or get silly. Most consumers of dogs don’t really want the real drivey temperament in a puppy, so that puppy doesn’t cause that much trouble (at least by comparison).

Then they mature into dogs that run like draft horses. Have you ever ridden a draft horse? They may have once carried knights in full armor, but compared to a saddle horse, they are lump and choppy in their gait. You get the same out of a blocky English goldens. (Here’s an example of coarse English goldens running with that choppy, lumbering gait.)

Compare the gait of these dogs with some working bred dogs.

Here’s a video of “Shuttle” (The dog in the header). She moves very quickly and fluidly. I don’t see any lumbering around with this dog.

Now, you might like a cute dog that lumbers around. You aren’t going bird hunting, and you don’t want to work a dog. Well, I have a simple statement: Don’t get a golden retriever and stop accommodating breeders who are breeding in poor working conformation and mellow temperaments in the dogs. If you can’t handle the working temperament, you need another breed.

I hate to be blunt here, but I’m tired of seeing my breed destroyed by the caprices of a fickle public, one that wants a mass-produced animal that is not only good- natured and very trainable but also “white,” bear-like, and calm. To get those other three characteristics, you have to fundamentally change the other two.  And people who like retrievers as retrievers and not playthings do not want those  first two characteristics to change.

Further, a lot of these “white” dogs develop food possession for some reason. The one thing this breed always had going for it was its incredible temperament. It might have a relatively high cancer rate. It might not be as good a trial dog as a Labrador. But its gentle temperament was its asset. If that goes, this breed deserves to lose its popularity.

I hope it does. And I say this as someone who is absolutely in love with the golden retriever as a retriever and dog.

*I have yet to be challenged by any “white” golden fans out there. I’ll just tell you this– I don’t have any good scientific studies on the two separate lines of golden and their behavior and health. However, it’s been my experience dealing with this breed most of my life.

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The blocky English Labrador or "Bentley" Labrador may become a thing of the past if standard revisions are accepted in the UK.

The blocky English Labrador or "Bentley" Labrador may become a thing of the past if standard revisions are accepted in the UK.

The KC has come up with some standard revisions for the Labrador.

Characteristics Good-tempered, very agile (which precludes excessive body weight or substance). Excellent nose, soft mouth; keen love of water. Adaptable, devoted companion.

Body Chest of good width and depth, with well sprung barrel ribs – this effect not to be produced  by carrying excessive weight. Level topline. Loins wide, short-coupled and strong.

The new proposed standards can be seen here. Several breeds are getting them.

I think the standard revisions are also necessary for the golden retriever which is losing its agility, and yes, there are lots of fat ones!

As I’ve said before, the blocky Lab is cute but it’s not functional.

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golden-original-color2

The above picture appeared on a cigarette cartoon in 1939. These dogs represent the original color range in the breed, which is not “cream” but gold with cream shadings to golden red in color. The dog in the background has a white spot on the chest, which isn’t uncommon, especially with the darker colors.

Neither dog is “cobby” or excessively feathered. To my aesthetics, these are far better looking dogs than what currently passes for show quality in goldens these days. And I actually don’t care that much for aesthetics.

I suppose some people like to turn dogs into bear-like animals, while others think its a charming thing to put as much feathering on a dog as possible, not realizing that this feathering incumbers the dog in heavy cover and in water. It’s partly why goldens will always be a novelty when it comes to working retrievers. It matters not that goldens are generally the most biddable of all the retriever breeds. That biddability is quashed when we compare it with the need for speed.

Again, we need to go back to the roots of this breed during the halcyon days of the flat-coated retriever, when breeders demanded that the dogs have “power without lumber and raciness without weediness.”

Maybe that would be a good place to start. Perhaps we really ought to look at wolf anatomy. In Nature, the modern wolves were able to outcompete the dire wolf because the dire wolf had too much lumber to run down smaller game. It was perfect for bringing down the North American megafauna, but once those beasts became extinct, it could never compete with long-legged, more lightly built wolves. It’s also why I’ve never heard of a Newfoundland fisherman ever using the modern breed called the Newfoundland for hauling nets, yet its ancestors did just that.  The flat-coated/wavy-coated retriever breed/type very nearly went extinct in Britain in the late nineteenth century. It was deemed too coarse and cobby to be a useful retriever, perhaps because it was being outcrossed with the newly popular heavy Newfoundland. It was only when the fanciers of that breed bred out the cobbiness that the dog became the cornerstone of gamekeepers’ retrievers in Britain as well as becoming the top trial retriever. 

Bigger is not always better. More bone on shorter legs is always an anatomical disaster for canine species. You will not find a single breed that is both heavily boned and short-legged that has a healthy body structure. That’s why we have two types of Dachshund: the Teckel (which has somewhat longer legs and is dominated with the wire-haired variety ) and the Dachshund (which has a long back and tiny legs and can be purchased anywhere in the United States).

However, there should be a caveat to this advice. The flat-coat fell from favor after World War I in part because it suddenly began developing sighthound characteristics, including a very light frame and a very narrow muzzle. Some retriever fanciers denounced the flat-coat as being crossed with a Borzoi (Russian Wolfhound), although this charge has never been proven. Today, flat-coats are being bred back the more moderate body type. They have gone in the exact opposite direction as their yellow and tawny cousins. They have suffered a severe drop in popularity, coupled with breeding for this “weedy” frame.

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dark-golden-and-light-one

The dog on the right represents the original type for golden retrievers and is now only represented in the field lines. It also has a common characteristic in field bred goldens– a slightly undershot jaw. Some really dislike this characteristic that appears in working type goldens, but since we really don’t want a golden to bite to kill its game– like we would with a terrier or a sighthound– it’s not that big a deal. However, excessive bone and coat are a much bigger deal when we talk about working conformation. The dog on the left represents a light-colored dog, but the conformation is far more functional that we see in most modern “English cream” goldens.

I was recently going through some old golden retriever books. One was Gertrude Fischer’s The New Complete Golden Retriever (1984). Another was Valerie Foss’s Golden Retrievers Today (1994). The former is a classic golden retriever book about golden retrievers in America, while the other is a rather brief survey of the breed in Britain. What is interesting is how the type and color have evolved in both countries.

In the 1920’s, when the breed had experienced just a few years of separation from the flat-coat, the breed in both countries very strongly resembled the dog on the right. As I have stated before, from around 1890 until the First World War, the flat-coat (and the golden– known as “Tweedmouth’s strain”) were the dominant retrievers in Britain. The dogs had been bred with more leg and a more moderate coat. The “Newfoundland” influence was being bred out of the lines of the flat-coat.  The old strain of Newfoundland, which once reigned as the top retriever outcross, had disappeared, replaced with the more modern strain of mastiff-type dog.

Here are two golden retrievers who were shown and worked as flat-coats:

Culham Brass (1904):

culham-brass-1904

(Note the water spaniel influence in his coat).

Culham Copper (1908):

culham-copper

(Note the white markings–not uncommon in working type goldens. It’s a throwback to the Irish setter, which was originally red and white. Most working red setters– field type Irish setters– in the US have at least some white on them).

Culham Brass’s dam was Lady, Archie Marjoribanks’s dog that he kept on the ranch in Texas. These dogs were typical of the type found in Britain at this time. The breed only existed in very small numbers in Canada, where Lord Aberdeen, the governor general, introduced them. The Culham dogs were registered, trialed, and show as “liver flat-coats,” “yellow flat-coats,” or “Tweedmouth’s strain.”

Colonel Magoffin’s first imports to North America in the 1930’s were all of this type. The breed was often mistaken as an Irish setter. Several field trial champions during this time period in America were often thought of by spectators as unusual retrieving Irish setters that could swim.

Lighter colors did exist in the breed in the early years, but these would be called light gold by today’s standards, not cream. The darker colors, because of their dominance in heritability, were simply more common.

In the United states and Canada, the darker colored dogs were much more common well into the 1990s, but in the UK and the FCI, something happened. In 1936, the KC and FCI standard allowed for cream colored dogs, probably hoping to open up the color so that dogs with whitish shadings could be used in the breeding program. The Golden Retriever Club said that the original dogs were cream, so they had to allow for it. Interestingly, the Marjoribanks family bred all of their dogs towards the darker end of the spectrum, even though that first litter between Nous and Belle were indeed light golden in color. (Nous was dark gold).

Then, the standard was rewritten to require that “red and mahogany” were not allowed colors. This would change the way that golden retrievers would develop in Britain and the FCI countries. All truly golden dogs are a diluted red in color, even those that are “white.” Then the KC and FCI standard reduced the height at the whithers– 20 inches became the new minimum. The result was that KC and FCI show breeders began breeding the lightest possible goldens until they were producing the pale creams that we sometimes call “English cream” or “white goldens.” The shorter legs on these dogs was soon accompanied with increased bone, and the breed entirely changed in Europe. If you look throug Foss’s book, the dogs sudden shift around 1960 to this English cream type.

In Fischer’s book, the American goldens do not get more heavily boned at all, in part because her book was published in 1984, before some of the shifts hit the North American golden population. The vast majority of the goldens in her are of the original type. There are light dogs, but there are no “white” dogs. What happens in her book is that the dogs’ feathering becomes more and more excessive. By the 1980’s pictures, the dogs in that book have 7 or 8 inch feathering streaming off their legs and tail. A dog built like a working golden with that type of coat is a beautiful thing to behold, even though that feathering is a hindrance in the field, collecting burrs and becoming waterlogged. Here’s a pic of a famous show golden from this time period. His type is very common in the American Kennel Club shows, although most of the modern American show dogs are now lighter gold than he was.  Heavier bone is appearing in these lines, too, making them even less functional.

Now, we have this dichotomy:

american-and-show-type

The dog on the right still has the dark color and more moderate body type (although heavier than the originals), so we know this is an American show type golden. The dark gold dogs are not frowned on the ring. You still see American show champions of this color. The dog on the left is the English show type, short legged and heavily boned and not even “gold” in color.

The English type also has been selected for a much more “mellow” temperament. Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has studied the brain chemistry and behavior of a wide variety of domestic animals (most famously using her knowledge to design humane slaughterhouses), points out in her book, Animals in Translation, argues that breeding golden retrievers to be so calm has made epilepsy more common. Goldens are now subject to Avalanche of Rage Syndrome and may be related to this, which is actually a seizure disorder in which a nice dog suddenly attacks people for no reason. I wonder if the influx of English type goldens has resulted in an increase in aggression and biting in the US golden retriever population. According to one study, goldens are now the Number 3 biter in the US.

I’m not looking for a polar bear golden or a dog with so much coat that it drags half the undergrowth of the forest out with it. I’m looking for the old type, the “Swamp collie,” which varied in appearance but was more often dark gold or golden red in color, often with some white splashes on the face and chest. Something like this:

red-nice-goldens

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