Once upon a time, when English gamekeepers reigned supreme on the estates of the nobility, they needed a dog that could find and retrieve birds that might have been missed after a driven shoot. But their mortal enemies, poachers, also needed a dog to find and retrieve birds…only in their case, in the middle of the night. In both instances, for the law-abiding and lawbreaker alike, the flat-coated retriever was often the dog of choice.
For whichever task they were assigned, the dog needed to have an outstanding nose, be exceedingly biddable, and when they were working for the poachers, be fast and agile enough to escape the bull mastiffs the gamekeepers employed to patrol the estate during the hours of darkness. These traits, still present in the breed today, are a not-so-well-kept secret for this relatively rare retriever breed, which has achieved the highest levels of success in all of the AKC’s dog sports except for retriever field trials. Flat-coats were in 90th place in 2011 on the American Kennel Club’s “popularity list” of the 173 breeds recognized by the AKC.
This has resulted, say those who hunt with the breed, in a dog that wants to do whatever you are doing. “Flat-coats want to be part of the family and they want to be included in whatever is going on,” says Gary Simpson, who uses his dogs mainly for upland hunting, a reversal from the days when he first began hunting with the breed. “They make horrible kennel dogs. I need dogs I can hunt with but more importantly, I need dogs I can live with.
“The flat-coat’s outgoing ‘I-want-to-be-everyone’s-best-friend’ attitude allows me to take them along when I go fishing, whitewater rafting, camping or any other outings,” Simpson notes. “I used to mainly hunt waterfowl with only the occasional trip into the field with my dogs, but now it’s just the opposite. I spend about 90 percent of my time hunting upland birds and only about 10 percent hunting waterfowl. But it doesn’t seem to matter to the dogs.
“They do great with either. They are strong swimmers and love water. But mine have always seemed to like hunting upland birds more than waterfowl. I think it is because it’s more fun to be hunting and exploring than it is to be sitting in a blind for hours; and if there’s anything a flat-coat loves, it’s having fun.”
“They are resourceful, birdy game-finders and determined, soft-mouthed retrievers from either land or water,” says Mary Ann Abbott. “Mine seem to be equally at home working upland game within gun range or sitting quietly in a blind waiting for you to shoot something. But their personality is such that they don’t do well being kenneled or crated most of the time or as a backyard dog with little contact with people.
“They really need to be a ‘member of the family’ and participate in family activities. They seem to be happiest if they have some sort of job to do when the hunting season is over.
“I do hunt tests and dog shows with mine in the offseason but many other flat-coat owners also compete in obedience, agility, rally and tracking with their dogs,” Abbott continues.
“They are really very versatile and anyone who has ever worked with one will testify that they have a great sense of humor. They are also sensible and intelligent family companions.”
Lori Nevins concurs: “Flat-coats were bred to be a gamekeeper’s ‘boon companion,’” she says. “That is exactly what they are today. They are and they deserve to be true partners in the hunt and for that matter also when the hunt is ended. They are biddable and intelligent with a nice amount of drive.
“They also have a very ‘Brit’ style nonchalance about them and they work well with other dogs in the field. But they are not the dog for someone who wants a marionette-type dog that will run through mind-numbing dull drills time after time. They’re also not the dog for someone who can’t laugh at themselves or their dogs.
“They can get goofy and resist training. They can also get stubborn but I view that as a check on my training. I shouldn’t be boring them to distraction or be an uptight jerk with them. This really is not a good breed for someone who wants cookie-cutter compliance from their dogs.”
Long-time flat-coat owner and breeder Bunny Millikin agrees with Nevins. “A flat-coat is not a hardwired, damn-the-torpedoes Labrador. They need a lot more teaching with no shortcuts or skipped steps in their basic training. They have to be sure of what you are asking them to do.
“When they know what you want, they can take pressure but nothing like a Lab and they absolutely cannot be forced to do something the way a Lab can. They are much more successful if they are treated as your teammate and friend rather than as your servant and slave. But you have to be the leader with a flat-coat or they will take over and they love every minute of being in charge.
“They are OK with an electronic collar if the handler is also good and understands both the power of the collar and the dog’s perception of the situation. However, anyone planning to use an electronic collar on a flat-coat needs to be really skilled with that tool because a mistake or a misunderstanding can and will set a flat-coat back quite a ways and may set them back forever.”
Keep It Fresh
This is a breed where, if the dog makes a mistake during training, you have to make sure the dog understands the lesson and whether you have given the dog an adequate opportunity to understand what it should do. “Most flat-coats do not do well with a lot of repetition in training. They get bored and lose interest. You have to keep training interesting and fun for them,” says Judy Teskey, whose dog Rip is a National Master Hunter, a Grand Master Hunter, an obedience trial champion, a hunting retriever champion, and has earned placements in Canadian Kennel Club retriever field trials.
“I always try to mix things up in training so that there are always opportunities for the dog to do things they really like such as live flyers or doing some upland quartering or marks using birds rather than a steady diet of bumpers. This is especially important with this breed when you are working on such things as learning to take casts or otherwise be handled.
“They also do not do well with a training program that’s heavy on punishment or corrections. Although my dogs are collar-conditioned, I never use the collar as a ‘teaching tool.’ Frequent, heavy or unfair collar use will cause a flat-coat to ‘shut down’ or lose interest in training and you’ll get avoidance behavior, ‘no-goes’ or poor or no momentum,” Teskey says.
“When this happens, the environment for successful training just doesn’t exist. When one of my dogs does make a mistake, I first make sure that the dog really understands what I want and that I have done an adequate job of teaching the dog that particular lesson.
“If I’m not sure the dog completely undoes understand, I simplify things until the dog is successful,” Teskey explains.
Rarity a Plus
As is true with most sporting breeds, flat-coats are not the right dog for everyone. “I’ll probably be lynched by the flat-coat community for saying this, but if the only reason you have a dog is for hunting, there are other breeds that would be better for you,” says Sam Mitchell. “Any pointing breed will point birds better than a flat-coat and a field Lab will have more stamina, keenness and drive.
“The breed that is most like them, temperamentally, is the golden retriever. They are very willing to please and most of them enjoy training. They are great fun to work with and they develop a strong affection for their trainer. If you enjoy working with a dog for their companionship and don’t mind the occasional screw-up, they’re wonderful hunting companions.”
There has been a fairly persistent rumor that has circulated in the sporting dog community that flat-coats can’t handle so-called “big water” but Nevins says she has not found that to be true. “My dogs have no problem with water the size of Lake Michigan, and it is rather big. Our 11-year-old female is a slender, petite dog and she sometimes does have difficulty negotiating the swells on the Great Lakes but we have been careful not to send her into surf that she can’t handle.
“Our males have never had an issue with it. I think training and exposure have a great deal to do with whether or not a flat-coat does well in big water. I wouldn’t send a dog on a 300-yard mark in heavy surf their first time on the lake, that’s for sure.”
One problem the breed faces is a high incidence of cancer. Many of the cancers that occur in flat-coats seem to be genetic and this could be due to the breed being nearly extinct at the end of World War II. In order to bring it back from that brink, by necessity, there was a good deal of inbreeding with the few dogs that remained at war’s end.
The Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America has been very aggressive in its support of cancer research and while the disease remains a huge concern within the breed, some progress has been made. In addition, the breed has the usual purebred dog health issues of hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy and luxating patellas.
The rarity of the breed has, however, resulted in some positives. Flat-coat breeders and owners have had considerable success encouraging their puppy buyers to earn both conformation and field titles with their dogs.
This means that unlike many of the sporting breeds, flat-coats have not split into “show” and “field” types. You can buy a flat-coat with a bunch of show champions in its pedigree and expect that it will do a decent job hunting for you since, with this breed, show dogs and performance dogs are usually the same animals.
The problem is finding one to buy. “Flat-coats have always been a challenge to find,” says Simpson. “We have no ‘backyard breeders.’ But now there are more resources for finding one. The Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America has a breeder list as do many of the regional clubs.
“In addition, you’ll quite often find flat-coats running at hunt tests and their owners can help put you in contact with breeders. Also, because the breed hasn’t split, you can talk with flat-coat owners at dog shows.”