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How to Judge Golden Retrievers Like a Breeder Judge!

Close-up head photo of a Golden Retriever with rocks in the background.

This article was originally published in Showsight Magazine, September 2020 issue.


How to Judge Golden Retrievers Like a Breeder Judge!

Judging like a breeder-judge – should it not be the aim of every judge to know a breed well enough to put up a dog with correct breed type? One of the highest compliments I ever received as a judge was when I put up a certain Dachshund, surprising the gallery, who later told me that he was a “breeder-judge” type dog, a very good dog not often recognized by all-rounders.

I am a Canadian Kennel Club all-breed judge who has been a passionate breeder and owner of Golden Retrievers since 1974. I am currently Chair of the Golden Retriever Club of Canada Breed Standard and Judge’s Education Committee and served as a member of the Golden Retriever Club of America Judge’s Education Committee for seventeen years, fifteen as Chairperson. I also serve on the Canadian Kennel Club Breed Standards Committee.

As a person involved in helping new judges learn about Goldens, members of the fancy have often expressed their frustration to me about judges who “just don’t ‘get’ the breed”. I can relate, as I still exhibit occasionally. Many judges are drawn to the breed because Goldens have large entries and are enjoyable to judge. However, there is a growing trend in our breed where many exhibitors tend to show more at specialties or under breeder-judges whom they respect for their knowledge of what is required in a correct Golden Retriever. While this may be beneficial to the exhibitor, it does not allow many multi-breed judges to see some of these wonderful Golden Retrievers in competition.

Judge Golden Retrievers

Golden Retrievers should not be a hard breed to assess. Originating as a hunting companion for the aristocracy in the 1860s, Goldens are a moderate breed, free from excess or exaggeration, and reveal their beauty through balance, harmony of structure and fitness for purpose as a hunting dog. Combined with outstanding deportment and temperament, these characteristics make it one of the most versatile of breeds. While there is variety in color and style within the breed, these are allowable as long as the dog conforms to the requirements of the standard.

The breed standard is a reflection of the characteristics required for the dog to fulfill its function. First impressions are important, and judges should not focus on pieces or parts of the dog, whether correct or faulty, but consider over-all appearance, balance, gait and fitness for purpose. The opening paragraph of the AKC standard provides a good summary of what every judge should consider when taking their first look at a class of Goldens.

A symmetrical, powerful, active dog, sound and well put together, not clumsy nor long in the leg, displaying a kindly expression and possessing a personality that is eager, alert and self-confident. Primarily a hunting dog, he should be shown in hard working condition. Overall appearance, balance, gait and purpose to be given more emphasis than any of his component parts.

The essence of breed type for the Golden Retriever includes temperament, coat, colour, outline (proportion) and head. The temperament, a hallmark of the breed should be eager, alert and self-confident and not constantly “turned on” or busy in nature, nor should a Golden require constant rewards for attention. There should be no excuses made for any shyness, aggressiveness or unwillingness in this breed, toward man or beast. The Golden is friendly and should calmly accept a judge’s examination.

In my opinion, “type vs. soundness” arguments are not particularly valid when you have a breed that is expected to retrieve and be agile as it runs, jumps into water and swims multiple times a day. Admittedly, many Goldens don’t hunt in today’s world, but the standard requires they are fit for purpose as an athletic, working gundog with overall balance, condition, muscle tone, correct coat texture and a dense undercoat providing a waterproof jacket. Soundness is a part of breed type! However, judges need to learn to prioritize in decision making, and for most breeder-judges, issues of type will supersede minor movement faults.

The Golden Retriever should not be judged as a generic show dog, nor with undue emphasis on presentation, showy attitude and abundant coat, which are mere glamour points. More importantly, judges should not mistake excessive speed or extreme reach and drive for correct gait. Goldens should be shown on a loose lead with moderate speed. Feet should lift only high enough to move ahead as excessive lift is wasted energy. Correct movement should be easy, smooth, ground-covering and efficient, allowing a Golden to work all day in the field. The tail carriage should ideally be level with the topline or slightly raised.

The essentials of breed type for the Golden Retriever include temperament, head, coat, colour, outline (proportion). A hallmark trait of the Golden Retriever is its friendly, soft, self-confident expression and beautiful head.

With the breed’s prime function of retrieving game, the proper construction of muzzle and skull is imperative, as is musculature of the neck and head. Good depth and breadth of muzzle and skull are necessary. The muzzle should be approximately as long as the skull. Ears should be relatively short, attached slightly above and behind the eye. While eye shape is not stated in the standard, they should be medium large and dark in an open almond shape. They should not be obliquely set, round or triangular, all of which detract from the correct expression. Examine the head with the ears at rest, to ascertain the correct breadth and arch of the skull and the proper attachment point of the ear.

Judge Golden Retrievers

The coat should be a close-fitting, water-proof jacket with a firm, resilient texture and a dense undercoat. The coat may be straight or wavy without preference. The breed standard requires a natural appearing coat, with moderate feathering and untrimmed natural ruff. Any trimming should be limited to neatening stray hairs on the ears and feet and virtually undetectable if done on any other areas of the dog. The Golden’s coat should not be moussed, clippered, stripped or sculpted and the underline should appear natural, not scissored into a straight line.

Goldens require a thorough hands-on exam, so check under the coat for correct prosternum, return of upper arm, shoulder layback, depth of chest, solid, level topline, correct croup and tail set. What you see from across the ring may not be what is truly there, so you must feel! Unfortunately, there can be a lot of deceptive grooming in this breed but a proper exam can be done quickly and efficiently. The topcoat should never have the ends trimmed evenly. The coat must protectively wrap the body and not be fluffed out into an open coat. We want a weather-resistant, resilient, protective coat. While some may argue over-grooming is a man-made issue, the correct coat is an extremely important feature of breed type and must be given seriously consideration.

Judge Golden Retrievers

Variation in colouring, with lighter feathering on the back of the legs, thighs and tail, is one of the endearing features of this breed. The breed does appear in a range from cream to darkest gold, often in the same litter, and the coat darkens as the dog ages. Puppies will have deeper colour in their ears, which is indicative of how the coat will darken with each year.

The AKC standard states: Predominant body color which is either extremely pale or extremely dark is undesirable. “Undesirable” is not a disqualification, a major fault or fault and there are many structural and type issues that should be considered more seriously than color. Greying of the face and body due to age is not to be faulted, but any noticeable area of black or other off-color hair is a serious fault. Most breeder-judges rarely make a decision on their winners based on color when there are more concerning issues to address in the breed.

Judge Golden Retrievers

Some of the current concerns are straight shoulders, lack of forechest, lack of length and return of upper arm, slanted, round or small eyes, soft, silky coats, lack of rib spring. There have been tendencies for the breed to become low on leg and long in loin. Lack of convergence when moving leads to wide moving fronts which are inefficient and are often reflected in rolling or dipping toplines, which should remain level, standing or moving.

The breed standard is clear, but what is often appearing and being rewarded in the ring is not in keeping with the requirements of the standard. Length from breastbone to point of buttocks slightly greater than height at withers in ratio of 12:11. This is only slightly off-square. The measurement of withers to elbow and elbow to ground should be approximately equal. The underline should be relatively short. The Golden needs sufficient leg to scramble out of the water and over some tough terrain in its native Scotland. Often excessive body length comes from length through the loin which is not the short, muscular, wide, deep loin called for in the standard.

Golden Retrievers have a disqualification for size. Please note that puppies are NOT exempt from the size requirements. Judges should always be aware of the size standard of the Golden Retriever and its importance to the breed function. The Golden Retriever is a moderately sized, athletic, hunting dog that may be required at times to work out of a small boat and have the stamina to perform a full day in the field. We encourage judges to measure any Golden Retriever in competition whose size creates uncertainty, whether at the upper or lower limit of the allowed size range. Currently, it is often in the Junior Puppy class, where females especially, may appear to be below the standard height, so be prepared to measure. Dogs that are outside of the desirable size range but within the extra one-inch allowance either way should to be proportionately penalized. Dogs and bitches which fall within the stated acceptable size range should be regarded as having equal merit, whether they are at the upper or lower end of the desirable range.

The versatile Golden Retriever can fulfil many roles in today’s society, and the qualities that made it a keen hunting dog and fireside companion are those that endear the breed to so many today. It is possible that the best Golden in your ring may have never appeared in a dog magazine. Please judges, understand the importance of correct proportion, coat texture, head properties, gait and temperament in your assessments, to ensure the breed remains true to type and true to its heritage.

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Photos used courtesy of the Golden Retriever Club of America