The Flat-Coated Retriever

The Flat-Coated Retriever

A Gun Dog With A Sense Of Humor

About the middle of the 19th century in England, the hunters and gamekeepers began hunting with a very versatile dog that, like the Chesapeake Bay retriever and the Labrador retriever, was developed from the St. John's Water Dog of Newfoundland. It is generally thought that water spaniels and possibly Scotch collies also played a role in the breed's ancestry.


Connor (Ch. Mantayo Highland McCleod CDX SH WCX), one of Don Freeman's flat-coats, hits a solid point on a pheasant, something he almost always does when hunting upland birds, Freeman says.

While the exact crosses with the St. John's Water Dog that brought about the existence of the "wavy-coated retriever" that in turn became the flat-coated retriever (FCR) are not recorded, one part of the breed's ancestry is absolutely clear. Somewhere in the gene pool of the FCR lurk the canine cousins of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy with crosses to the dog versions of Larry, Moe and Curly and probably a dash of Emmett Kelly tossed in for good measure. Certainly no other breed of retriever, and probably no other hunting dog breed, is quite as willing to don its clown suit and sing, "Let me entertain you" as is the flat-coat.

"Flat-coats have a well-deserved reputation for being clowns because if they do something goofy and you laugh, they'll repeat that behavior as they like to please you and make you happy," said Mitch White. "There are folks who view this as a stupidity issue, but many comics or satirists are very bright people. Really, it's not an issue of intelligence but rather, it's just that these dogs love life.


"Watch them in the show ring sometime. They're always wagging their tails. They are rarely depressed even when they are afflicted with the scourge of this breed--cancer. But while they may clown around in training, when you are actually hunting they are generally all business and obsessed with finding birds."


Hawk (Ch. Gamekeeper's Black Hawk MH WCX HOF), owned by Mitch and Maria White, was not too tired to pose with his "trophies" after a successful pheasant hunt.

"Flat-coats are the 'Peter Pans' of the dog world," said Penny Fuhlman. "They stay young into their old age, they love life and they make every effort to enjoy each day. But when you get them in the field, the 'clown' aspect of their personality disappears. They know why they are there and they are fired up to work.

"Just as an example, Sugar, (Ch. Paradise Sugar N Spice CDX MH WCX) was a bit 'high' for hunting ducks from shore. Once I tied her to a small tree up the hill from me while I stood on the bank of a pond. During a volley of pass shooting at wood ducks, she ended up at my side, tree and all. You have to love that kind of enthusiasm."

Don Freeman noted that one of the grande dames of the breed, the late Honorable Amelia Grace Jessel (she was the daughter of Robert Oliver Fitzroy, Second Viscount Daventry which accounts for the honorific) described flat-coats greeting a stranger as "hail fellows well met."

"I couldn't describe it better," Freeman said. "They probably compare most closely to the perpetually happy golden but with more mischief, inventiveness and in-your-face needs. Just as an example, taking a lunch break on a pheasant hunt, I sat down on the bank of a dry streambed. Wink, one of my flat-coats, tolerated this for about five minutes, then she went around behind me, put a front foot over my shoulder and pulled me over backwards all the while frantically licking my face, imploring me to get up and get going.

Journey (Ch. Gamekeepers Sentimental Journey CD SH AX OAJ WCX), owned by Mitch and Maria White and Susan Adkinson, demonstrates that flat-coats make fine waterfowl dogs.

"I laughed at her. It was a mistake. Now I can't sit down on a hunting trip unless I have my back to a tree or a fence post. Flat-coats are also not a put-him-in-the-yard-and-forget-about-him breed. This is a breed that has a high level of activity and mischief between the ears, which means that they need to be trained and maintained in lifestyle situations. They are also less likely to be 'self-raising' than some other breeds."

This is also a breed that has a very high energy level and is quite stylish in the field, according to the people who hunt with flat-coats. They combine the best qualities of the setter style with the fetching capabilities of a retriever. "Flat-coats differ from Labs and goldens when they're working in that they tend to initially scent and quarter, carrying their heads high, similar to a setter," observed White.

"They are equally good hunting upland birds or waterfowl. However, I do have favorite dogs for goose hunting or duck hunting or pheasant hunting, as certain style traits of these particular dogs makes them more fun to hunt with such as big water entries, perfect quartering or tenacious in cover on pheasants."

While generally easy to train, flat-coats do require that their trainer have a great deal of flexibility in his or her training techniques. "Flat-coats are intelligent and love to learn," said Fuhlman. "But this intelligence can be a challenge in itself. They don't always take training at face value. They think there might be another way to do things.

"They do tend to be on the softer side with regard to corrections. They do not usually do well with a heavy-handed, regimented routine. To be successful with a flat-coat, you need to be a bit more creative and thoughtful in your training techniques. If I have a dog that is in the part of training that requires a fair amount of pressure and repetitive drills, I try to break it up by going back into the field, provided there are no training issues that can carry over. It breaks up the monotony for the dogs and keeps their attitude up.

"While most take kindly to the obedience necessary for field work, sometimes they add a twist. They'll come when called but they may make a stop or two along the way. Sometimes they can be a bit strong-willed but they'll usually yield. Personally, I prefer a dog that has the intelligence and grit to thumb their nose at me on occasion but will yield when I push the issue. They need to be able to think on their feet and solve problems if they are going to be good working dogs."

Freeman added that if you are talking about comparing a flat-coat to a field-bred Labrador, flat-coats do not have the ultra high degree of trainability of a field-bred Lab. "Even if you have a hard-core field-bred flat-coat, they don't have the kind of 'I'll try harder' trainability that you see in field-bred Labs.

"Again, comparing them to field-bred Labs, even a birdy flat-coat doesn't 'rivet' on the spot of a fall. There are some great marking flat-coats but they are not the norm and they can be found most often in a few bloodlines. However, where flat-coats greatly differ from field-bred Labs is in the area of resiliency to corrections and more importantly to training mistakes. If you make a serious mistake in training, you may be faced with rebuilding for a few weeks or even months with a flat-coat, while a good field-bred Lab will spring back and forgive.

Sugar (Ch. Paradise Sugar N Spice CDX MH WCX) with owner Penny Fuhlman after a successful goose hunt.

"Also, while drills are a necessary part of training, even a good working flat-coat will not keep hustling through long drills the way a Lab will and still maintain interest. So my solution is to do shorter duration drills more frequently."

As is the case with most rare breeds (there were only 563 flat-coats registered with the American Kennel Club in 2007), the small size of the gene pool creates problems. "We need to maintain and improve the healthy gene pool to produce flat-coats of type and soundness while preserving the field abilities of the breed. The gene pool is small so our task is extremely important in order to keep this breed true," said White.

Freeman agreed. "Our small gene pool is the greatest challenge facing this breed today," he said. "If a problem arises, it's very difficult to breed away from it in a breed this small. If the problem becomes pervasive worldwide, like cancer, there is literally nowhere to go. We have studies going on and all doubt about the very high incidence of cancer in this breed has been removed.

"We have very few other health problems compared to other large breeds precisely because of the small gene pool and relatively well-guarded breeding stock. So when your dog dies at the age of seven of cancer, his eyes, hips and shoulders will be fine. Anyone who has been in the breed for any length of time has been touched by cancer in their flat-coats, myself included."

"Without question our most pressing issue is cancer," said Fuhlman. "The most recent average life expectancy that I've heard is eight years. As a breed, we are dedicated to finding the gene marker for cancer. We spend a great deal of the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America's resources in both time and money toward this cause."

Because this is a rare breed, it is not always easy to find a pup when you want one. Fuhlman said the best place to begin looking is on the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America's website. "Click on contacts and you will find a contact for breeder referral. Then do the research and talk to the breeders.

"We tend to be very protective of the breed so it is not always easy to get a flat-coat but if you are truly interested, be diligent and patient. I waited two years for my first flat-coat. It was well worth the wait."

"You have to remember that there are no guarantees," said Freeman. "Great hunting dogs can spring from wells seemingly dry of instinct and duds can come out of the best-intended and researched litters. But you can improve your odds even with a rare breed like flat-coats by buying from a breeder who has evaluated field ability and made breeding decisions based on those evaluations.

"So look for advanced field titles in the pedigree. These do not document strengths or a lack of weaknesses in an individual dog, but they do document that the breeders in the dog's pedigree were out in the field making an effort to evaluate the field ability of their dogs.

"A good place to do your research is at hunt tests. Watch the dog work, look at the catalog and talk to owners, handlers and pros. If there is a professional trainer at a test with flat-coats on his or her truck, you may be able to learn a lot in a short time. A good pro possesses objectivity and experience at a high level.

"Once you have formed a list of candidate-bloodlines, I can say with certainty that in a breed this size the list will be quite small," Freeman continued. "Call your chosen breeders, ask for references and ask about other dogs from their breeding in your area. You should make a real effort to contact these references and observe their dogs. It really is a simple concept. Selective breeding does work.

"In today's flat-coat world, and indeed in any retriever breed, those who know how to evaluate field ability and apply those evaluations to a breeding program are in the minority. If you want to increase your chances of getting a really good field dog, you have to go find them."

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