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Breed Profile: The Flat-Coated Retriever

by M.J. Nelson   |  September 10th, 2012 18

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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.”

Faithful Friend
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.”

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Judy Teskey’s Rip.

  • MMJ

    Thank you for this article. :-)
    One thing – it's very sad to know, that somebody, who is "National Master Hunter, a Grand Master Hunter, an obedience trial champion, a hunting retriever champion" – is using electric collars. We read about a gentle hand and then about these collars. It's an absurd, don't you think?

    • FieldGold

      The collars can be easier on the dog than a verbal correction. It is a tool and needs to be used appropriately, just as any training technique.

    • jacquie Thomas

      I agree, and please can you explain how an electric collar can be easier on the lovely dog than a verbal correction. Have you tried it on yourself..Would you put this collar on your child rather than give a verbal command. Sorry do not agree with electric collars. so sad :( I have flatcoated retrievers.

      • RANDY

        YES I HAVE USED A SHOCK COLLAR ON MYSELF, TO TEST IT. IF USED RIGHT, IT IS A GOOD TRAINING TOOL. IF MISS USED, IT CAN RUIN A GOOD HUNTING DOG! I HAVE NEVER SEEN A PERFECT GUN DOG YET, SO THIS CAN BE A HANDY TRAINING TOOL!

  • http://2browndawgs.com 2browndawgs

    I enjoyed this article and found it very informative. I have had the pleasure to watch Ms. Abbott's flat-coats run hunt tests. They are wonderful dogs.

  • Mara H Redden

    Such a wonderful article….and such an amazingly wonderful breed. We just have our third….and feel so blessed to have him in our lives. We miss our first two who we lost to cancer. Heart breaking is SO many ways.
    Love the flatcoats…very very special spirits. xoxo

  • dkf

    Thank you for a great article! Flat-coats are indeed a special breed! And thank you for quoting very highly experienced and respected owner/handler/breeder/trainers.

  • doug

    I have been honored to both train and hunt with Mary Ann and her Flatcoats. Love that Jack.
    Here is a photo of Jack getting the job done in Iowa. http://s399.photobucket.com/albums/pp74/Cherry_pi

    And here he is bringing home the bling.
    http://s399.photobucket.com/albums/pp74/Cherry_pi

  • Greg Mathis

    Flat Coated Retriever Head shot is CH MACH HR Wingmaster Kasper SH CD MXS MJS WCX

  • Greg

    Kasper is also qualified for the Flat Coated Retriever Society of America Hall of Fame.

  • S. Davis

    I owned one of these dogs as a family pet. The thought of fitting any dog but especially this wonderful , devoted , gentle dogs with a " correction collar" is absolutely ridiculous !

  • PMW

    Good article. These are wonderful dogs and I have been owned by them for over 14 years now. I have put WCX and JH on three of my flat-coats and I am working towards more senior titles. As far as e-collars go, I was totally against them until I learned how to properly use them. Have I ever had one on? You betcha! I have found that, when used properly, they are wonderful, improperly used they are punishment and can ruin a great spirit. But, I have seen the Amish Method used as well and it is no better and it can also physically harm a dog. Every training tool has limitations and everyone is entitled to their opinion. It's all in using it correctly and fairly, knowing how to read the dog and properly apply the appropriate correction.

  • Rio

    The thought of e collars being bad is old and out dated. The new e collars can be adjusted to exactly what is needed nick or tone. Once a person learns each dogs level the dog can run hard and be stopped even when they are running hard through the brush when the can't hear you yelling.
    The dogs obviously aren't to concerned about the nick they get. When I pick up the collars they run circles around me and can't wait to get them on.
    My golden retriever needs a two on the collar to have her stop and look at me rather than run across a highway because she couldn't hear me say stop or heal.
    My wirehair pointing griffon just needs to hear the tone and he stops and looks to see where I am. If you think your way is better o.k. But don't look down on the e collar user. His dog is likely to be living better than you are.
    In fact my griff is laying here feet up in the air on a leather couch gettin ready to chase pheasants tommorrow. Yeah he will have his collar on.

  • Kathleen

    http://www.Flat-Coat.com
    YELLOW * BLACK * LIVER FLATCOAT RETRIEVERS

  • Celeste Whipple

    I pick one up from a rescue group and I need to stop the jealousy and jumping any suggestions how to proceed. I really love him but can not be part of family without these corrections. Thanks

    • happy retriever family

      We were luck enough to get rescued by one as well, a one year old boy. I don’t know about the jealousy, but the jumping stopped with consistent verbal correction, and a gentle push on the shoulder. Also making sure we got down on the rug for play sessions with him so that all the action wasn’t up so high seemed to help.

  • Capture Motion Media

    I adopted a dog from a kennel that I now call Darla, and I have found that she looks like a flat coat retriever and displays all of the characteristics. She is a wonderful dog and would like to thank you for your articles you write.

  • Capture Motion Media

    Here is a photo of her.

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