Grooming & Presentation Trends Over the Decades: The Sporting Group

While there will always be an ongoing evolutionary process in presenting and grooming each Sporting Group breed, the question many serious dog breeders ask is whether or not all of the changes are for the betterment of the breed.


All the dog breeds in the Sporting Group were developed for a specific hunting function. The type of coat each breed possesses reflects this hunting heritage and the geographical location where the breed was developed. As a result, some Sporting breeds have longer coats and others shorter coats. For example, the six retriever breeds have among them longer coat, short coat, curly coat and straight coat. In the roughly 40 years I have been involved with the sport of dogs, there have certainly been changes in the presentation of nearly all breeds.

While there will always be an ongoing evolutionary process in each Sporting breed, the question many serious dog breeders ask is whether or not all of the changes are for the betterment of the breed. It can be argued that the changes in coat preparation are, at least partially, the result of two things: the blow dryer and the wide range of grooming preparations that change the texture of the coat and allow the groomer to hold the coat in place once applied, in addition to more sophisticated grooming techniques. Some would say changes in grooming over time can be considered extreme in some breeds.

The “whys” of this are of interest. Many would say that, in the rush to win, professional dog handlers, breeder-owners and owner-handlers alike do whatever they can to enhance the appearance of their charges in the hope of increasing their chances of winning. Some of the “tricks of the trade” are aimed at making the dogs look more appealing, and others were developed to try to hide imperfections in the dogs’ conformation. These tricks are used on short- and long-coated dogs alike and involve both cosmetic “enhancements” and changed handling techniques. Though professional handlers may have started some of these trends, amateur handlers have been quick to follow the pros’ lead in the quest to win. As a result of this perceived need, grooming techniques sometimes don’t follow the requirements of the breed’s standard.


Gaiting Changes

There is another presentation phenomenon that has appeared in the last 20 years or so and does not seem to vary much from breed to breed (or Group to Group for that matter), one that I find particularly displeasing. This is the tendency to race dogs around the dog show ring at speeds that are far too fast for the construction and intent of the breed. We have all seen the spectacle of the Cocker Spaniel keeping up with the Irish Setter or the Sussex Spaniel moving around the ring at a speed that keeps pace with the English Springer Spaniel. Why people seem to think that feet flying in the air — especially the rear legs — equals good movement I cannot understand.

Good, efficient gait is not the same for all breeds, and all breeds should not be moved in the same way. For that matter, not every dog in a given breed moves properly at the same speed. Correct speed is dependent on the construction of the individual dog as it meets the requirements of its breed standard.

Each breed was developed to perform a specific function in a specific location. The Sussex Spaniel and Clumber Spaniel were bred to be a sometimes senior sporting gentleman’s hunting companion afoot. The dog should move at a moderate speed, showing good reach and drive. The Clumber Spaniel breed standard says, “because of his wide body and short legs, he tends to roll slightly.” Further, “the gait is comfortable and can be maintained at a steady trot for a day of work without exhaustion.” The rolling topline that is undesirable in some Sporting breeds is desired in the Clumber Spaniel. The Sussex Spaniel is typically lower to the ground than the Clumber Spaniel, and, again, the breed’s standard notes that it has a typical “rolling gait,” moves deliberately and “is in no sense clumsy.” No racing for either of these breeds.

Several Sporting breed standards ask that the dog be “moved on a loose lead to reflect true gait.” Yet many dog handlers (professional and amateur) hold their charges on quite a tight lead, often resulting in movement faults in the forequarters, as the dog is pulled off balance from his natural stride. The really clever dog handler will know the requirements of the breed’s standard and adjust speed to what is best for that individual dog. In Sporting dogs, endurance is more important than racing ability.

Like the others, Spaniels have seen changes in the way they are gaited. Why take a show dog that moves with ease and proper breed-typical reach and drive at a slightly slower speed, and move him faster so the feet fly in the air? A hunting dog moved at that speed would surely tire quickly and become useless. So why do it in the dog show ring?


Stacking Changes

Another change is the accepted method for stacking, both in general and for many of the individual breeds. Baiting was not done much 40 years ago, just a few times to show the judge the dog’s expression. Bait was rarely thrown in most breeds, and when it was, it was retrieved before moving on so as not to distract other dogs. Stacked dogs were “top and tailed” with the head and tail held, often from a kneeling position. Nowadays, baiting is universal, and dogs are almost constantly baited. It seems to the uninitiated that the purpose of showing is to feed the dog. Further, the baiting keeps the ears erect on top of the head at all times. This is even true for breeds that mandate specific placement of the ears. Golden Retrievers, for example, should have ears that are set about on a level with the corner of the eye; but when you look at the Golden Retriever ring, the ears are almost always erect, and it’s the rare conformation judge who asks to see the ears at rest. How do they tell if the dog’s ear set is correct?

In many Sporting breeds today, dogs are stacked with the front legs placed far forward on the body, often under the neck, and the rear legs are stretched way out behind the dog. This was not practiced years ago, especially in breed standards which call for a level backline. Sweeping rears with extreme angulation are often seen, though this usually eliminates the desired bend of stifle of many breeds. Seeing a Brittany, for example, stacked well out behind is almost comical in a breed that warns us not to judge angulation standing but only when moving because most appear to lack angulation when stacked. Again, I wonder why this practice has become standard, often to the detriment of the dog’s conformation. Stack your dog in front of a mirror and take a good look at how you are presenting him to the judge from their perspective. Is that what you really want? Remember that some return of the upper arm so that the front legs are beneath the withers is usually desirable.

When I first started showing Golden Retrievers, the accepted method of stacking the dog for examination was to top and tail him, place the front feet well under him below the withers with the rear feet just behind the back of the dog so that a line drawn down from the buttocks to the feet would pass just in front of the toes. Then the head was held forward of the body, and the tail was held straight out and behind the dog with, at most, a slight upward curve. Little baiting was involved, and the dog’s backline was level as called for in the standard. Nearly constant baiting, done so that the head is held high with an exaggerated arch (too often with the neck over the withers, creating the look of a straight front lacking proper angulation) was never seen. This changed in the later 1970s with an outstanding bitch that had a rather plain head and low-set ears. Her professional handler started standing or kneeling in front of her and baiting her almost constantly so that her ears were erect and framing her head nearly always, improving the look. She started to do some serious winning, including a national specialty BOS and BOB and multiple Groups. As a result, many exhibitors starting mimicking this baiting, thinking it would make their dogs win as well — even if the dog already had a very correct head and expression. Soon, everyone was doing it whether it improved the dog or not. The practice continues today. I know this story is true, for it was my bitch.

Stacking Setters has changed over time, as well. What might appear as an exaggerated slope of topline is often seen in the Irish Setter. The standard says that the “topline of body from withers to tail should be firm and incline slightly downward without a sharp drop of the croup.” The sweeping rears most often seen today have changed also. The standard asks for a “well angulated stifle,” though stacking as it is often done now takes much away from the angulation, making the rear look straight. Is this the picture that is desired? Even the less stylized Gordon Setter has changed.


Grooming Trends

It is always interesting to compare photos of top-winning show dogs of the same breed whose wins are years or even decades apart. For example, look at photos of big-winning Cocker Spaniels from the 1970s (such as Ch. Sagamore Toccoa) and compare them to current dogs in the ring. You’ll note how much more coat there is and the stylized trimming on the current winners in comparison to the winners of nearly 40 years ago. Notice also how, over time, some of the words of the breed standard are ignored. The standard says: “The ears, chest, abdomen and legs are well feathered, but not so excessively as to hide the Cocker Spaniel’s true lines and movement, or affect his appearance and function as a moderately coated sporting dog … Excessive coat … shall be severely penalized. Trimming to enhance the dog’s true lines should be done to appear as natural as possible.” The accepted trim for a Cocker Spaniel today results in a dog with much more coat than in the past.

To be fair, it should be noted that in the minds of show dog exhibitors, the definition of “excessive coat” has changed over time. The additional coat allowed today developed over many years. I remember ‘Toccoa’ was criticized by some as having excessive coat. GCh. Casablanca’s Thrilling Seduction ‘Beckham,’ the Cocker Spaniel that won the Group at Westminster in 2011 and 2013, carries no more coat than nearly all of the other Cocker Spaniels being shown today. Still, the changes over time are interesting to note.

Coat preparation has certainly changed in the last 40 years. Look at the Golden Retriever photos above. When I started showing in 1971, standard ring preparation consisted of some trimming of the feet, ears, tail, perhaps a small bit of coat removal when there was an excess in some areas, and then giving the dog a bath the day before the show. The dog was dried while wrapped in a towel to hold the coat flat against the body so that it would appear straight and wrap the body when dry. At dog shows, a bit of final minor trimming might be done, and a light spray of a coat conditioner like Full Bloom might be brushed into the coat. Powder was occasionally used on wet or dirty leg and tail feathering, but it was carefully brushed out before going into the ring. That was it. Total grooming time at the shows was anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.

Today the dog is kept standing on the table for at least an hour or more while it is wet down and then dried with a strong blow dryer that fluffs up the coat so that it stands away from the body. Various grooming products are applied to hold the coat in its fluffed-up position and to sculpt in a smooth outline to create the look of an arched neck and excellently angulated front assembly with a level backline — whether or not this reflects the actual structure of the dog. As with all breeds, the idea is to fool the eye of the conformation judge into thinking the dog has it all. The wise judge uses his hands to confirm that what appears to be there is actually in place. Look at the two Golden Retrievers. Quite some evolution!

The Golden Retriever is certainly not the only retriever or Sporting dog to receive this treatment. Even Labrador tails are routinely fluffed to create the correct “otter tail” that is desired, whether it is actually there or not. Changes in grooming presentation are true in nearly every hairy breed, the Brittany being, in general, one exception. The German Wire and the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon have seen some changes as well. I recall one breed comparison seminar where a professional handler took an untrimmed Wirehaired PointingGriffon and groomed it so that it became an acceptable German Wirehaired Pointer. No, the two breeds are not that similar, but grooming can make them appear to be.

Setters have seen their share of changes too. Over time, grooming presentation has changed from a more natural look to one that is more stylized, with perfectly trimmed underlines creating an outline that may — or may not — reflect what is beneath the coat. As with every breed, these changes did not occur overnight but are a gradual evolution of grooming styles over time, often started by a clever professional handler wanting to emphasize or de-emphasize a particular aspect of a dog. If the animal wins, others will copy, and a trend begins, eventually becoming the accepted method of presentation.

Spaniels, with their long coats, come in for some serious grooming preparation for the show ring, and there certainly have been changes over time. As shown today, nearly all the spaniels require a good deal of grooming and trimming to accomplish the accepted ring presentation. There are very specific breed standard-described trimming requirements that vary from breed to breed, even breeds whose standards read like the Sussex’s statement that “no trimming is acceptable except to shape foot feather, or to remove feather between the pads or between the hock and feet. Feather between the toes must be left in sufficient length to cover the nails.” A wash-and-wear show dog, according to the standard. Adhering to this requirement is probably less practiced today than in years past.

The English Springer Spaniel breed standard give specifics on trimming the breed, noting that it is “legitimate to trim” specified areas of the dog. However, it adds that “overtrimming, especially the body coat, or any chopped, barbered or artificial effect is to be penalized in the show ring, as is excessive feathering that destroys the clean outline desirable in a Sporting dog. Correct quality and condition of coat is to take precedence over quantity of coat.” Modern dogs are presented in a more stylized manner.

Finally, it seems to me that when I started judging nearly 30 years ago, many of the dogs were in much harder physical condition. Today, far too many suffer from the soft backlines and soft thighs that come from a lack of conditioning. True, most show dogs are not hunted and so don’t get the same exercise as those that are, but they still can receive enough exercise to maintain reasonable condition. Coats are regularly conditioned. Why not the dogs themselves?

So, have these changes been a benefit to their respective breeds, or are they harming them? You decide.


Read More About Grooming Trends:

Hound Group>>

Working Group>>

Terrier Group>>

Toy and Non-Sporting Groups>>

Herding Group>>


From the July 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the July 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.

Article Categories:
Dogs In Review