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Sporting Breeds: Field vs Show Dogs

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

by Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD

Sporting dogs, which include pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers, originated as field athletes to work cooperatively with waterfowl hunters. In addition, sporting dogs compete in conformation shows, akin to beauty pageants, where championships are awarded to individuals who most closely conform to AKC standards. These two different activities (fieldwork/hunting and conformation/shows) have led to distinct “types” of Labrador and Golden retrievers.

Labrador & Golden Retriever Types

The three most popular dog breeds include Labrador and Golden retrievers. While purebred Labradors and Goldens are easily recognizable, each breed can exhibit distinct variations in their physical appearance. For example, some Labradors are short, stout little tanks while others are long, lean, athletic specimens. Golden retrievers not only vary in stature like Labradors, they also can vary in coat color. These distinct breed types result from different selection strategies of influential dog breeders.

Labrador Retrievers

Labrador retriever coats come in three main hues: black, yellow, chocolate. Although red and silver hues occasionally pop up, black, yellow and chocolate are the standard colors. The physical stature of Labradors, however, is quite variable. Labradors bred for conformation/shows are short, stocky dogs with relatively laid-back personalities; this breed type is referred to as English Labradors. In contrast, field/hunting Labradors are taller, lighter-weight and highly energetic dogs; this breed type is referred to as American Labradors.

Golden Retrievers

Golden retriever coats come is a huge variety of colors, ranging from creamy white to rich, mahogany red. The length and texture of the Golden retriever coat also varies from short to long, thin to thick, flat to curly. In addition, similar to Labradors, their physical statures distinctly vary between field and show goldens. Confirmation standards favor the British/English golden retrievers with their shorter, stockier build, broad skull, and long, cream-colored coat with extensive feathers. Hunting goldens are smaller, slighter in build with rich dark coats that vary from flat to curly textures.

Conflict of Interests

The selection preferences of dog breeders have conflicting interests which have lead to the different retriever types. Variations (types) in retriever physical appearances (forms) are directly related to the dogs’ purpose (functions). Those interested in aligning their dogs to a breed’s prescribed look are breeding to achieve a specific physical appearance (form) based on the AKC standard. In contrast, those interested in field retrievers are breeding for hunting/retrieving skills (function), which results in a much different dog than conformation retrievers.

Choosing Your Sporting Dog

Sporting dogs, such as retrievers, naturally work cooperatively with humans. This cooperative behavior, combined with their easy-going temperaments, make retrievers ideal dog companions. Does it matter if your dog is a field type or show type? The answer is “most definitely” and your selection should be based on your lifestyle.

Field retrievers tend to be slighter in build and more energetic than their show retriever counterparts. They are active, athletic animals who thrive on physical activities, making them excellent traveling, hiking, running and/or biking partners. If you desire the living rug of a dog, the show retrievers may be the better match. Either way, you cannot go wrong with a retriever.

Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD is an evolutionary biologist, college biology instructor, former zookeeper, author and certified professional dog trainer with Lucky Dog Training Asheville. She can be followed on Instagram @LuckyDogTrainingAVL and @KyloRenPup, contacted at or 828-423-9635.


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