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A most happy hunter: the always young-at-heart flat-coat.

During the 15 or so years I judged pointer, retriever and spaniel hunt tests, some personal conclusions involving several different breeds eventually evolved. In the retriever category, one conclusion was that those Labrador people breeding the tiny, hot-wired, speed-crazy dogs that looked a lot more like whippets than Labradors--"whipadors" as a Lab breeder friend called them--were doing the people who would wind up trying to hunt with them--and the breed as a whole--a major disservice.

Another conclusion was that too many golden retriever people were breeding beautiful dogs but giving scant consideration to their dogs' abilities to perform the breed's basic function. On the other hand, other golden people who bred strictly for the dogs' ability to work in the field were giving little consideration to conformation or temperament.

The final conclusion was that flat-coated retriever breeders must have been in love with the musical Gypsy and played its soundtrack endlessly because almost every flat-coat I judged came dancing to the line virtually shouting, "Let Me Entertain You!" I watched many dogs that were very happy in their work but top honors for the happiest of all were the flat-coated retrievers and the outcome wasn't even close.

The sheer gaiety exhibited by most flat-coats is the sort for which the French phrase joie de vivre or "joy of living" was invented. A long-time friend, the late Ann Mortenson, who was prominent in the breed during her lifetime, described flat-coats as "The Peter Pans of the dog world. They go through life singing the canine version of 'I won't grow up.'" From my perspective when judging them, her description was 100 percent on target.


That doesn't in any way denigrate the breed's abilities as hunters of both waterfowl and upland birds because they almost always did a fine job on either. It's simply that they did their work with such enthusiastic liveliness and spirit that you had to be as misanthropic as Oscar the Grouch to not feel good just watching them.

"The really neat thing about working with flat-coats is that they are typically enthusiastic, they love being with people and they generally want to please," said Chris LeBel. "But they also have a light-hearted, clownish side to their personalities so I've found it helps for there to be a balance in training between negative and positive reinforcement to get the best results.

"I wouldn't say they are necessarily stubborn but they will try a variety of techniques in order to avoid doing something they don't want to do. Dylan, my flat-coat, for example, will sometimes in training play the game of 'If I can't see you then you can't see me and actually make me do this.' On blinds, this could include doing things like quietly floating and hiding behind a clump of weeds or quickly ducking behind a lone hay bale or tree in a wide-open field. In the end, he always does what I ask but I also have to celebrate his avoidance creativity."

Don Freeman, another long-time flat-coat fancier, said, "They're a bit harder to train, especially in water, than a good field-bred Labrador, but in all fairness, just about any dog is harder to train than a good field Lab. In general, flat-coats are softer, less resilient and also less forgiving of training mistakes than a Lab.

"The evolution of my training methods toward less pressure has really made a difference in recent years. In fact, it's difficult for me to determine whether my later dogs have actually been that much better than my first flat-coats or if I have just trained them better. I will say, however, that master titles and controlled, biddable hunting companions are well within reach for good, working flat-coats. They may not be the easiest breeds in general but they can do it."



Alexandra Latta, who is known among flat-coat people as "Xan," commented, "Flat-coats may not have the stamina of a pointer, the working method of a spaniel, the fortitude of a Labrador or the heartiness of a Chesapeake but they are impressive all-around dogs capable of satisfying a broad range of hunting demands. They also adapt well to different terrain and they have stable and friendly temperaments, which means they do well in group hunting situations.

"However, they are sensitive dogs that thrive on praise and while they do accept corrections with an e-collar, they absolutely require a fair, consistent and soft hand, which means that when training a flat-coat you need to rely primarily on teaching rather than correction. They're fun-loving and downright comedic at times as well as easily bored with repetition so training can be frustrating and it requires creativity, patience and good humor on the part of the trainer. But their good nature and sense of humor makes them wonderful sidekicks on slow days in the field.

"They are very good marking dogs and will persevere on cripples but I've found they can lose focus on long retrieves, multiple marks or blind retrieves," Latta continued. "While they are fine waterfowl dogs, they especially love upland hunting and they have an excellent nose for finding game. But they're also a bit slow to mature so they often require a few years to develop into truly finished hunting dogs although I've had many successful hunts with dogs that were only a year old.

"Their bird drive is strong. As far as what they're like when the hunting seasons are closed, you need to keep in mind that they are emotionally needy dogs who demand to be connected with people and they want to be included in whatever is happening in the house. As a consequence, they are not suitable as kennel dogs that are always kept outside."

A lot of repetition does not work particularly well with flat-coats, according to Greg Mathis. "While it is thought that Labs will take heavy repetition and they really just begin to learn once they get tired, that's not the case with flat-coats as they become bored with heavy repetition," he said. "This is true whether you are training them for the field or any of the many dog sports that are available these days.

"There's a reason the flat-coated retriever breed carries the nickname of 'Peter Pan.' They are a breed that never grows up and are always looking to have fun, which may not be the best qualities to have if your goal is strictly competition. They also have really good noses and they can be more easily distracted in the field. This is particularly true in hunt tests where there tends to be a lot of stray scent in the area, but if you are patient and combine love with good training, a flat-coat can be as good as a Lab in the field and a golden in a lot of the other dog sports.


"Plus, this is a breed that is not fractured into 'field' and 'show' types and there's something to be said for that. One advantage of an FCR is that they'll do pretty much anything you want to do with them. In the space of a month's time I've successfully done field work, agility, obedience and shown the dog in conformation."

The flat-coated retriever likely originated sometime during the 19th century in England where the dogs gained favor with gamekeepers. It is thought that part of their ancestry came from North America from the now extinct St. John's water dog, but that is not certain. In all likelihood, Canadian seafarers brought Newfoundlands to British ports and they almost certainly found their way into the flat-coated retriever ancestry.

It is also thought that setters contributed to the breed's excellent scenting ability. Initially a very popular breed in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the U.S., shortly after 1915 the flat-coated retriever began to be eclipsed by the golden retriever, ironically bred in part from flatcoats, and by the end of WWII, so few flat-coats remained, there was considerable doubt about the breed's ability to survive.

The flat-coat is still a relatively rare breed, ranking 86th in 2015 out of the 184 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. What this means is that finding a pup may take time. What's more, flat-coat breeders are deeply committed to breed improvement, which means a prospective pup buyer probably will be subjected to a fairly intense interrogation, according to Alexandra Latta.

"Most breeders sell their pups on contracts that dictate breeding terms, health reporting requirements and resale, among other things," she noted. "They work very hard to preserve the breed's form and function as one and dogs that have earned both conformation and field titles are very highly valued in this breed.

"Still, if you are a hunter I would encourage you to seek a puppy whose parents are known to be successful hunting dogs or have hunting tides. If you want a flat-coat puppy, you should be prepared to answer as many or more questions about yourself and your plans for the dog as you may have for the breeder."

Don Freeman recommended taking a hard look at the pup's pedigree. "I learned to believe in pedigrees through experience," he said. "For about 10 years, the flat-coat core group in the Denver area hosted what we called Flat-coat Fun Days. We invited anyone with a flat-coat to meet at a game preserve to have birds planted and shot for their dogs. With only a few exceptions, the results could have been predicted before each dog started working.

"A clear majority of the dogs who hit the ground hunting had multiple advanced hunt test titles--senior hunter and master hunter--in the pedigree. While the presence of these titles doesn't mean that the dog will be great, it does mean that the breeders /owners prioritized field work and the pup's pedigree provides documentation of this priority. Without such documentation, it's a case of 'Trust me, his ancestors were great.' Keep in mind that objectivity is hard to find except in the pup's pedigree."

Because of the near extinction of the breed following WWII, the gene pool for flat-coats is small and this has led to some major health issues in the breed, with cancer being the number one problem. "Absolutely, cancer is the greatest challenge the breed faces," said Chris LeBel. "I know of some dogs who have lived to be thirteen and fourteen but that is definitely the exception."

Latta added, "Flat-coats have a limited founder population and adding to the problem, there was some genetic bottlenecking during WWII. This makes it much harder to work on any genetic issue. They are prone to a variety of cancers, especially soft-tissue sarcomas such as hemangiosarcoma and histiosarcoma. While breeders work diligently to improve the breed's longevity, their best efforts are sometimes not enough to prevent the heartbreak of a cancer diagnosis in a young dog."

Anyone looking for a flat-coat pup would be wise to go to the website for the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America (,) according to Greg Mathis. "The FCRSA has a breeders' list and a newsletter which provides information about planned litters," he said. "There is also a section that explores the steps the parent club is making to improve the breed and what is being done to deal with the health issues, especially cancer.

"Before buying a pup of any breed, you should familiarize yourself with the breed's written standard to help determine if the breed is the right one for you. I believe the flat-coated retriever's regal appearance, uniqueness, happy attitude and natural ability set this breed apart and I'll bet that once you get to know a flat-coat, you'll agree."
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Author:Nelson, M.J.
Publication:Gun Dog
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Sep 28, 2016
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