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In search of style: you can't teach birdiness, trainability, coordination, or speed into a dog born without them.

THE EXPERIENCED RETRIEVERITE recognizes good style when he sees it, at least in retrievers of his own favorite breed. But, when watching dogs of other breeds work, if he judges their style by the standard of his own breed, he is apt to err, one way or the other. For style varies from breed to breed.

That's why it's so difficult to define. We can more easily identify the mental and physical components of style and then examine how stylish dogs of each retriever breed express these: Let's call the mental component intensity, the physical component athleticism. For style, the mental component matters more than the physical. Poor physical specimens sometimes work so vigorously that they give you goose bumps. Physically impaired dogs, perhaps shy one leg, can do the same. On the other hand, gorgeous physical specimens sometimes work so disinterestedly, so half-heartedly, that they disgust you.

Intensity comes from birdiness and trainability. Athleticism comes from physical coordination and appropriate speed.

Let's cover them in that sequence. I'll include only the even breeds classified as retrievers. The standard poodle, as well as several s aniel and pointing dog breeds also make excellent retrievers, but we don't have space for them all.


Each breed has its own typical mixture of birdiness and trainability. The two work together in that you can't train a non-birdy dog into an effective retriever. But in another way they work against each other, in that the more birdy a dog is the greater his hunting intensity and the less willing he is to accept directions from his handler. Some breeds have more birdiness than trainability. Other breeds have the opposite. Every retriever breed has at least a reasonable amount of each, but the balance between the two makes each breed's intensity distinct.

A stylish Labrador has equal balance between the two. He's very birdy, so he marks quite well. But he also accepts training willingly, so he handles superbly on blind retrieves. An old adage expresses this balance: A Chesapeake resents being trained; a golden loves it; A Lab accepts it to humor the boss, but doesn't think it's really necessary. This explains why Labs dominate retriever field trials. They mark better than superior handling breeds and they handle better than superior marking breeds, so in trials they usually do better overall work than other breeds.

A stylish golden has more trainability than birdiness. He has plenty of both, but as pointed out before, he loves to be trained. Frankly, if you can't train a golden; you should go back to decoy carving, golf, or skydiving. Training a golden for blind retrieves is easy; handling him to any unmarked bird is a pleasure.

A stylish Chesapeake has much more birdiness than trainability. He has an amazing talent for marking and remembering multiple falls. He nails most of them, and hunts a very tight area on the others. He can be extremely difficult to train for blind retrieves. When a great-marking Chessie has a good day on blind retrieves, he conquers all in field trials, and scores very high in hunt tests.

A stylish flat-coat has a nice balance of birdiness and trainability, with a little more of the former than the latter. He has more birdiness and less trainability than his descendant, the golden. His good looks and charming personality make him a pleasure to train, handle and hunt.

A stylish curly-coat, like his descendent, the Chessie, has much more birdiness than trainability. He marks very well, and when necessary, really hangs in there in hunting the area of a fall. He sometimes gets so intent on his work that he turns everything and everyone else off, which makes handling him a challenge.

A stylish Irish water spaniel has much more birdiness than trainability. He marks very well, but is unpredictable in training and handling. Some days he responds immediately to every whistle; other days, he seems deaf On still other days, he seems to turn his handler on and off unpredictably. Hey, what can I say? He's Irish!

A stylish toller (Nova Scotia ducktolling retriever) has much more birdiness than trainability. He marks well, but handles to blind retrieves unevenly. He may look like a miniature golden retriever, but he has a totally different engine under the hood.


Each breed has its own physical coordination and appropriate speed. These vary with different body builds and temperaments at which they operate most effectively. Don't judge style in terms of sheer velocity The retriever that races around like a greyhound when he should be hunting a downed bird has very poor style.

A stylish Labrador has "wide receiver" athleticism. Muscular but lithe, he's built to get from here to there rapidly and effortlessly. The slight undulations of his top-line seem to leave what mathematicians call a "sine wave," trailing along behind him as he flies along. He hits the water with a long leap and a big splash. His sleek and relatively short coat allows him to slice through the water very rapidly. Our fastest retriever, he's a joy to watch, both on land and in the water.

A stylish golden has "tight-end" athleticism. Seeming to be supremely self-confident, he moves elegantly, but somewhat more slowly than the Lab. His beautiful, long and flowing coat adds something indefinable, especially when seen on a sunny fall day, when the leaves are turning. He enters the water nicely, usually with a short leap and moderate splash. While swimming, his gorgeous coat slows him down a bit, but he doesn't seem to notice or care.

A stylish Chesapeake has "linebacker" athleticism: powerful, determined and unrelenting. On land, he rampages forward with moderate speed and reckless disregard for obstacles between him and the bird he's after. Our best waterdog, he seems to prefer swimming to land travel. He enters water with a long, low, whole-nine-yards leap, and swims as if he has finally found his natural element.

A stylish flat-coat, like his descendent, the golden, has "tight-end" athleticism. On land, he floats loftily through the scenery, showing his Gordon setter background with every elegant stride. Since he has noticeably less coat than the golden, he takes better to water, entering with a long leap and swimming smoothly. His shake-dry coat delights his admirers, both by its beauty and easy maintenance.

A stylish curly-coat, like his American descendent, the Chessie, has "linebacker" athleticism. Nicknamed in England the "gamekeeper's dog," he's built for endurance rather than speed. On land, he trots along purposefully and tirelessly, but like the Chessie, he prefers water. He enters it smoothly, with minimal splash, and swims almost effortlessly.

A stylish Irish water spaniel has "punt returner" athleticism. His loosely-curled coat makes him seem to flop around as he dashes this way and that. He loves water, hits it joyously, and swims swiftly in spite of his abundant coat.

A stylish toiler has similar athleticism. He's fast, shifty, darting this way and that. He loves water, enters it enthusiastically, and swims smoothly and rapidly in spite of his heavy coat.


As you can see, every element of style--birdiness, trainability, physical coordination, and appropriate speed--comes from a dog's genes. You can't train any of these elements into a dog born without them. That's why, when buying a puppy, you should become familiar with the style of his ancestors, meticulously looking into the viability of their bloodlines, before writing a check. You should especially learn what sort of style his parents and grandparents have or had. Every litter has legendary forebears on the far right-hand side of the pedigree.

Although you can't train style into your dog, you can train it out of him. If you overwork him day after day, or if you train him too harshly for his temperament, he will lose interest. If that happens, he'll look bad.

And so will you.

A Chesapeake resents being trained; a golden loves it; a Lab accepts it to humor the boss, but doesn't think it's really necessary.

Jim Spencer's books are available from the WILDFOWL Bookshelf.
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Title Annotation:RETRIEVERS
Author:Spencer, Jim
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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