The Golden Retriever – Symmetry and Strength

golden retriever


NOTE: The Golden Retriever Club of America urges all breeders, exhibitors, and judges to remember this statement from the AKC standard: “Overall appearance, balance, gait and purpose to be given more emphasis than any of his component parts.” We are pleased to share details of the standard here, but always with the sentence above at the forefront.



The opening statement of the Golden Retriever standard is a roadmap for breeders and judges of this very engaging and popular breed. “A symmetrical, powerful, active dog, sound and well put together, not clumsy nor long in the leg.” The first paragraph goes on to describe the overall character and breed-specific priorities. From where did these priorities arise?

When one first walks the grounds of the long-abandoned estate in Northern Scotland called Guisachan, a first impression springs to mind. This is rough terrain. Flat ground is not present as far as the eye can see. Stone walls break open country into smaller plots of ownership. The legendary moors rise to great heights above rivers and lochs, and the hills in the foreground make even a short hike a strenuous one. On these hills, the flora is dense and harsh. Thistles spring from meadows of tall grass, and if one is not very careful, another impression is a painful one: a turned ankle or twisted knee, because the rocks and furrows are so well hidden by natural cover that the eye doesn’t give fair warning.

The view from the Guisachan estate house in the Scottish Highlands, home of the Golden Retriever.
The view from the Guisachan estate house in the Scottish Highlands, home of the Golden Retriever.

It was on this estate that the Golden Retriever was developed. In the mid-1800s in Scotland and England, hunting was both sport and a practical way of obtaining food. Retrievers were important to pick up both waterfowl and upland game. Dudley Marjoribanks, later Lord Tweedmouth, was a man of means who frequently hosted hunting parties for his friends in the Scottish Highlands at his Guisachan estate.

Typical landscape of the Scottish Highlands.
Typical landscape of the Scottish Highlands.

Marjoribanks maintained a kennel of many sporting breeds. He set about developing the ideal retrieving dog to suit the climate and geology of his estate and surrounding area. Obtaining a yellow puppy from a litter of black wavy-coated retrievers, Marjoribanks worked on this endeavor with carefully recorded details. Through several generations of clever breeding, using now extinct Tweed Water Spaniels with subsequent crosses back to additional wavy-coated retrievers as well as other breeds (including at least one red setter), Marjoribanks created a consistent line of exceptional yellow retrievers that could cope with the demanding terrain of the Highlands.



The Golden Retriever AKC breed standard calls for a 12:11 (length:height) ratio. Translated into easily visualized terms, this would make a bitch of 22″ height at the withers (the median height specified in the standard) 24″ long, measured from breastbone to point of buttocks. This is only slightly off-square.

It is important to note the location of measurement for a Golden. Because the standard also asks for a well-developed forechest, the proper measurement from breastbone to point of buttocks adds approximately 1″ to 3″ of length (depending on the size of the dog) compared to measuring the same dog from the point of shoulder. The bitch noted above would very likely measure 11:11 if she did not have the prescribed well-developed forechest. As Connie Gerstner Miller, renowned Golden Retriever breeder and mentor, once noted so correctly, the Golden is essentially a square dog with a forechest.

Golden Retriever length is measured from the breastbone, NOT the point of the shoulder.
Golden Retriever length is measured from the breastbone, NOT the point of the shoulder.

To train your eye to assess proportion, it is an excellent exercise to look down a line of dogs in a large class, just considering length of underline compared to topline. Look for a relatively short underline from elbow to stifle, shorter than the length of topline from withers to base of tail. Also consider the 12:11 ratio overall. You will see clear differences in proportion in that one scanning glance.

Length of underline should be less than length of topline.
Length of underline should be less than length of topline.


Length of Leg

Length of leg is related to a breed’s function and purpose. Breeds that hunt in difficult terrain, like the Golden Retriever, need to have agility and athleticism, as well as endurance and strength. The optimal length of leg for running efficiently up hills, over heavy cover, and often over obstacles, is approximately equal in distance from ground to elbow and elbow to withers. This is different than breeds which require speed on flat ground (such as sighthounds) or those tasked with seeking and flushing live birds in dense brush (such as Clumber or Sussex Spaniels).

Although the first sentence of the standard states “not… long in leg,” it is important to know the historical rationale that led to this statement. As Dudley Marjoribanks developed consistency of type within the breed we know as the Golden today, crosses were made to other hunting breeds on occasion, such as setters, and a concerted effort to eliminate traits such as long legs led to wording that brought anomalies to the attention of breeders and judges. Avoiding the “drag of a breed” (traits that are reminiscent of ancestral cross-breeding) is crucial to maintaining breed type.

Length of leg (from ground to elbow) should be roughly equal to depth of body (from withers to elbow).
Length of leg (from ground to elbow) should be roughly equal to depth of body (from withers to elbow).

The length of coat on an adult Golden Retriever’s brisket, which often falls below the point of the elbow, can be deceptive and can create an illusion of shorter leg length. It is important for judges to confirm a visual assessment with a hands-on determination of where the brisket meets the elbow in adult dogs.

The Golden standard asks for a “free, smooth, powerful and well-coordinated” gait. This gait is methodical and efficient, not fast or flashy. Lengthening a breed’s stride to create an exaggerated trot (“tremendous reach and drive,” a trait appropriate for a handful of breeds but not retrievers), proportions may begin to change over time. Square breeds may become longer than tall. Slightly longer than tall breeds may become longer still, and the length of their legs may be shortened. These are trends to be monitored by dedicated breeders, and discouraged by judges.


Bone and Substance

The term “good bone” in historical reference meant solid, healthy, strong bone. A weedy retriever with fine or narrow bone is prone to injury. Just as incorrect is heavy bone, creating a cloddy appearance and labored motion. In the case of bone in a Golden Retriever, more is not better. The standard states: “Legs, viewed from the front, straight with good bone, but not to the point of coarseness.” We would urge breeders to guard against seeking massive bone as a desired trait, and to identify the moderate puppies in a litter as correct. Goldens should not carry bone similar to giant breeds such as the Newfoundland. In addition, judges are encouraged to guard against rewarding heavy bone over medium bone. The Golden is a moderate dog.

It is important to also remember that substance involves not only the amount of bone, but also depth of body and spring of rib, as well as musculature. Golden Retrievers should be deep through the chest, with width being described as “at least as wide as a man’s closed hand including thumb.” That language is subjective, as one man’s hand is not going to be the same size as another’s. In your evaluation, look for a Golden’s chest at the sternum to be broad and fill your hand, ahead of well-sprung ribs and brisket extending to the elbow.

Although there is no weight disqualification for the breed, the stated weights of 55-65 pounds for bitches and 65-75 pounds for dogs are clear. The ten-pound range for each sex is a significant one for a dog of this size and allows for the accompanying variation of height range. Just as height is allowable up to 1″ in either direction before a disqualification, so too will weight vary.

The standard does not give an allowable weight differential, but a dog that is 24-3/4″ tall (falling into the range that would be proportionately penalized) may weigh somewhat more than 75 pounds. A 22″ dog (just in allowable range for males) should be closer to 65 pounds. The key is balance and lack of exaggeration. If a dog is clumsy or massive, consider suitability for purpose. If you would not want a dog climbing into your boat or sharing your duck blind because it is massive, that thought should influence your decisions. Similarly, a refined dog lacking depth or rib spring would not be the sturdy working retriever required in the terrain of the Scottish Highlands.

Descriptions in the standard also include the phrases “neck… sturdy, muscular appearance,” “loin short, muscular, wide, and deep,” “forequarters muscular,” “hindquarters broad and strongly muscled,” and gait that is “powerful.” Specific issues such as slab-sidedness and a narrow chest are noted as faulty. The Golden Retriever is not an elegant breed created for speed. It is a moderate, sturdy, muscular dog created for endurance and athleticism.

golden retriever
©Marcia Schler


Final Thoughts

Thinking back to the terrain of the breed founder’s estate, consider how proper length of leg and proportion are crucial to navigate the tall grasses and rough, furrowed fields that lead to the hills upon which the hunters found their game. Carrying a heavy duck or goose up a steep embankment would be difficult for a dog low on leg.

Goldens work by sight first, marking the falls of the birds when they are shot, often multiple marks that the dog must commit to memory. Once sent to retrieve those birds, a retriever must keep a sight line clean, even when negotiating water crossings, downed trees, fences, and tall brush. Dogs with legs too short or substance too ponderous must overcome that fault to do their jobs. Heart will carry them through, but it is inefficient and tiring to compensate. A dog with proper size and proportion can move over cover and obstacles effectively while coming into scent range to complete the retrieve.

An excellent video of a Golden Retriever competing at a Scottish field trial is on YouTube at: We encourage you to watch and note the challenging terrain and cover of the Golden’s ancestral home.

The final statement of the standard’s first paragraph is one to memorize and bring to the table when choosing breeding stock or competition winners: “Any departure from the described ideal shall be considered faulty to the degree to which it interferes with the breed’s purpose or is contrary to breed character.”

The Golden Retriever is primarily a hunting dog. Proportion, bone, and substance must, without compromise, fit the profile of the working retriever. Beauty without symmetry, or size without athletic ability, do not bring home the birds.

The job of a retriever requires proper proportions and substance to assure athleticism, efficiency, and stamina.
The job of a retriever requires proper proportions and substance to assure athleticism, efficiency, and stamina.



Golden Retriever Dog Breed Magazine

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Read and learn more about the friendly Golden Retriever dog breed with articles and information in our Golden Retriever Dog Breed Magazine.


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  • The Golden Retriever Club of America is one of the American Kennel Club’s (AKC’s) largest national breed clubs, full of talented members working to steward the well-being of our dogs. GRCA has over 4,000 voting members, 61 local member clubs, and members in many countries and supports the Golden Retriever Foundation. As an important AKC parent club, our committed membership base has significant influence to shape the policies affecting our interests and breed.

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