European sportsmen consider the British to be desperately dull in the field. Not for us the charming tooting of French horns at dawn and dusk of each shooting day. We don’t dress up like hussars in frogged loden jackets, sporting dashing feathers in our hats either. Indeed, Napoleon’s definition of our collective boringness, a nation of shopkeepers, was essentially correct: we are a nation of black labrador keepers.
Apart from its predictability, there’s nothing wrong in that. Why change a winning formula? But over the past 50 or 60 years this obsession with the black labrador retriever has been to the detriment of other equally special retriever breeds. Above all, the flatcoated retriever is particularly entitled to feel its aristocratic nose has been put out of joint by labs.
At around the time Napoleon was calling us rude names, the earliest retriever strains were already being developed. Derived from lesser Newfoundland retrievers imported from America, the flatcoat was among the first to emerge with a distinct breed identity. By 1864 records show a Mr Hull breeding flatcoats. Then SE Shirley, who was a co-founder of The Kennel Club, established the breed fully. In Edwardian times, the flatcoat was the dominant dog of the great shooting estates. Sheila Neary of the Flatcoated Retriever Society, points out: In the past flatcoats were always considered to be the gentleman’s shooting dog, but as labradors came in, the flatcoats lost out to them because generally labs have a quicker learning curve.
The heyday of the flatcoat was at the turn of the 19th century, when Reginald Cooke’s Riverside kennels carried all before it, both in showing and field trialling. But all the time those pesky new labrador retrievers from the likes of the Buccleuch and the Malmesbury kennels were snapping at their heels. Labradors were quicker to train and more predictable in their work. When shoots began to suffer the effects of two World Wars, it wasn’t surprising that keepers, guns and pickers-up all turned away from the flatcoat to the cost-effective and less time-consuming lab.
Flatcoat judge and breeder Chris Gwilliam explains: In the Fifties the flatcoat was in real decline and by the Eighties, when I began breeding, there was only a very small pool. I started with dogs bred by Ken Butler, which were fantastic. We both sought out all the old pre-war lines – the working breeding that had disappeared during the war. These original lines were the best workers – reliable, honest, lovely dogs – but there were so few of them.
Neary agrees that the genuine working flatcoat was probably very close to being lost during the post-war years. We have people such as the Hon Amelia Jessel and Dr Nancy Laughton to thank for bringing the breed back at that time, she says. But there is a lot more we need to do. There have always been individual flatcoats around picking-up but we want the dog to be seen and known about. The Flatcoated Retriever Society [FRS] is pushing hard to improve the standard and have the dogs considered on equal terms with labradors again. I’d like to see more flatcoats out trialling – there are many that are good enough. But people are nervous about what kind of reception they will get. We have to break down those barriers.
Nobody says it in so many words, but there’s no doubt that flatcoat owners face prejudice and breedism. Pickers-up who work flatcoats are used to getting an aloof, even hostile, reception from the rest of the team. Chris Damon works his flatcoats on Somerset shoots. He admits: On some shoots they react unfavourably when you turn up with a flatcoat. You get quite a lot of leg-pulling. Then they see the dog work as well as any other, and they accept it. But you have to put up with a bit of teasing.
Despite his success Gwilliam still finds he and his flatcoats constantly have to prove themselves when they go shooting. “Even now you still get that thing on shoots of, ‘Oh, it’s only a flatcoat.’ But what people don’t realise is that, unlike labradors, flatcoats are air-scenters, which means they work in a completely different way. Where a lab will be a taking a straight line, nose down, a flatcoat will be out wide with its head in the air, working the wind.”
It may be this misunderstanding of different techniques that has given the flatcoat the reputation of being a bit of an airhead. Or perhaps it is simply that labrador owners can’t imagine a dog so glamorous being intelligent. And flatcoats are gorgeous. They have long, straight, patrician noses with eyes set rather high and a little close together, which enhances the impression that they have something to look down their noses about. Gwilliam admits this was one thing that originally drew him to flatcoats: I was a jockey, and the dogs remind me of racehorses. They are proud and athletic, two of the things that first caught my eye about them.
Watching a flatcoat galloping out on a retrieve – long, black or liver-chestnut feather streaming in the breeze, the noble profile of its head raised to quest the scent – you can see exactly what Gwilliam means. Most flatcoat owners put the dog’s looks high on their list of reasons for having one. Jo Montandon, who picks up on shoots in Cambridgeshire, remembers: I’d had golden retrievers to begin with, and a lab. Then I went to a show where I saw these wonderful, black, shiny creatures and I thought ‘What are they?’ I had to have one. So I did a bit of research. I wanted a healthy, retrieving gundog, and I did some checks and found out that they have a good history of very few hip problems, unlike labradors.
Flatcoats must have something special about them, because it isn’t easy being a flatcoat owner. The breed is still comparatively few in number, so finding good working lines is harder than with other breeds. When you have found a dog good enough to take shooting, you can face breedist insults. And the dog isn’t that easy to train. Brian Travers had to overcome all this and more with his first dog because, living and working in the outskirts of London, he didn’t have ready access to a support network. He explains: It’s more difficult when you aren’t living in a rural area. I found it quite daunting to begin with. For example, the first working test I went to, a lot of the labrador people didn’t seem to want to talk to me. But then I discovered the FRS, which is great. Even now I end up training my dogs at night in the park, but it works because they can’t see the retrieves easily, so they have to use their noses!
Yet despite all these drawbacks, flatcoat people seem more than happy to persist in the quest. Neary thinks it is partly because the dogs are so rewarding to work: I work mine on grouse up in the Highlands, which is a wonderful experience. Flatcoats make great picking-up dogs. As a working dog one of its attributes is game-finding. If there is a bird and you put a flatcoat in, it will come out with it.
Flatcoats have a reputation for being independent to a fault, yet this seems exactly what their owners value most about them. It is striking that many people currently working flatcoats are new both to shooting and to gundogs. With little history of generations of labs plodding through the family’s coverts, flatcoat owners have come to their sport unblinkered by preconceptions of what the dog does or does not do. Sue Redpath, who works her flatcoats rough-shooting in Wiltshire, jokes: Flatcoat owners are probably more open-minded. Frankly it helps, because you have to have a sense of humour to work a flatcoat. I was lucky with my first one because he happened to come from very good working lines, and when I decided to have a go at trialling him we did very well, even though I hadn’t done anything like that before. My current dog is a bit more of a challenge because he’s rather independent. But I love taking him shooting; he goes, “I know what I am doing, now stop blowing that whistle because it is annoying me.
Anna Yates has had similar experiences with her flatcoat Radar: You can’t always be certain what a flatcoat is going to do. But if you have a long retrieve you can just leave him to go and get it. Though a lab may be very good on the whistle and handling, it can also become dependent on them. Flatcoats are less predictable, but they show a lot of initiative. I used to let Radar do his thing. After a while I’d decide to fetch him and would find him asleep somewhere!
The flatcoat is a strong candidate for title of coolest canine: it has the cachet of rarity; it’s beautiful; it doesn’t follow the crowd; and it’s talented. Could the flatcoat be the Kate Moss of gundogs?
What’s more, this is a dog that could save your marriage. Neary confesses how she came to be a flatcoat owner: ?I was brought up working golden retrievers, and my husband had always had labradors. So he wanted a black dog and I wanted a long-haired dog. A flatcoat was the obvious answer. So obvious indeed, that it’s hard to see why the flatcoat ever fell out of favour in the first place.
GET AHEAD OF THE PACK
First there was the fashion for working rare-breed spaniels. Now the aristocracy has gone crackers over cockers. What will be the next cool canine? If you want to get ahead of the pack, choose your breed from this list:
Chesapeake Bay retriever
Specialises in extreme retrieves, such as wrestling a Canada goose from a grizzly bear. Usually owned by an ultra-tough wildfowler who daren’t let anyone else near it.
Even more recherché than a flatcoat. Appeals to the fashionista gun with its curled Persian lambswool coat. Has the added cachet of being on the vulnerable native breeds list.
Like a flatcoat, but blond, which probably saved it from suffering in the same way as its brunette cousins when the great British labrador obsession set in.
Irish water spaniel
A big, impressive dog with amazing Rastafarian-style dreadlocks. On the vulnerable native breeds list. Considered to be a retriever rather than a spaniel.
Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever
Considered to be a spaniel rather than a retriever. Loved by quiz masters (“What kind of animal is a ??”), but also by dog-trainers for its adaptability and quick learning.
Not a retriever at all, unless you happen to be in France, where it’s deemed extremely chic to go picking-up with a poodle.
Spanish water dog
Looks like a poodle, but used by the Spanish for fishing, herding and shooting. Will be the next must-have gundog when it officially joins The Kennel Club register next year.
For more details about flatcoats
Visit the FRS website or for information on puppies call Shirley Johnson on 01638 718231.