The Downton Abbey gundog - What would Lord Grantham have used as a gundog? A flatcoat or a labrador?

As the final episode in this season of Downton Abbey concluded, poor Isis, Lord Grantham’s pale yellow lab, shuffled off this mortal coil. Perhaps now the writers will see fit to replace her with a period appropriate model for the next season. After all, given that the first yellow lab on record was not born until 1902, Isis would have been incredibly unusual, even more so given that “yellow” labs were actually more fox red than yellow. Lord Grantham would more likely have had a flatcoat retriever at his side, as it would be many years before the labrador retriever became a popular choice.



A new form of competition, retriever field trials were in their nascent phase and overwhelmingly dominated by flatcoats. The Retriever Society ran a trial in conjunction with the Kennel Club for 20 all-aged dogs at Horstead Hall, Norwich, in November 1906. There were only four labradors, with 15 flaycoats forming the majority, followed by a lone curlycoat. A flatcoat won, Lewis D Wigan’s Sweep of Glendaruel, but a labrador called Flapper came a prophetic second. A few years later labs were forging ahead in the working retriever stakes, and by the end of that decade the sporting press was alight with debate as to which was the better gundog. A letter submitted to the The Field in November 1909, signed with but a single mysterious letter “M”, listed what he (or possibly but less likely, she) felt were the merits of both breeds. M felt that the labrador was the hardier dog, liking the short coat which didn’t attract so much water and mud, and believed it to be better at picking up after a grouse or partridge drive, or standing at a covert shoot. M also wrote ““good nose and mouth as a rule, but [is] inclined often to use eyes too much and cast forward if scent weak, instead of puzzling it out – at times with great success, but it is a fault to my mind” When it came to flatcoats, M thought they had excellent mouths and good noses, but in style were inclined to be slow or to potter, or even be slack on a hot day. However, while he regarded the labrador as a one-man dog, the flatcoat was praised for being, “very friendly and affectionate with master and everyone else”. His conclusion was that, “Given a good scent the labrador easily beats the flatcoat and has birds quicker. Given a bad scent, the flatcoat will equal the labrador and probably better him.” However, the flatcoat’s eventual fall from favour wasn’t its pottering or slackness on hot days, but because labradors proved to be quicker to mature and easier to train.



Though the Downton Abbey gundog remained popular with gamekeepers until the Twenties, their heyday was over, and it wasn’t long before they became a rare sight in the shooting field, almost totally eclipsed by the upstart from North America. No one is quite sure of the flatcoat’s origins, but the wavy-coated Newfoundland retriever is thought to be one of the principal ancestors. These dogs were in turn crossed with setters to produce an animal resembling the dogs we see today. The early flatcoats soon proved themselves to be excellent gundogs, quickly finding favour with sportsmen for their ability to retrieve and their enthusiasm for entering water. Early flatcoats were black, with the liver variant not appearing until the early Forties.


Today the flatcoat remains largely ignored by shooting men, but its relative lack of popularity in the show ring for many years has been to its advantage, for there is no visual difference between an individual from a working or a show kennel, not something that can be said of either labradors or golden retrievers. However, flatcoats have become much more popular in the show ring in recent years. At last year’s Crufts there were no fewer than 358 entered, compared with 507 labradors. To put this in perspective, around 45,000 labrador puppies are registered every year, compared with a mere 1,300 or so flatcoats, so a higher proportion of flatcoats end up being shown. They are an unusual sight in field trials, and only one field trial champion has been made up in the past 20 years. I asked Rory Major, one of the few people to have won a trial with a flatcoat, why they are so scarce in competition. “I’ve always found flatcoats to be among the best game-finding dogs, and a good one can be brilliant, but they are slow to mature and can be difficult to train. You can put a dead pheasant out during a training session and a flatcoat is quite likely to ignore it.” Fiona Joint has worked and trained flatcoats for 20 years, and agrees with Rory. “They are often called the Peter Pan of the dog world, and with good reason. If you don’t like being made to look foolish and want to win consistently then you probably shouldn’t choose a flatcoat. There are very few people who are really committed to training and competing in trials with flatcoats and we really need more of the top triallers to give the breed a go. As picking-up dogs, I believe they are unequalled: they have wonderful noses and will always find the bird given up for lost by the other breeds. They are still dual-purpose, as you can work and show them, with working tests often won by dogs that do both. But when it comes to trials it’s really only the pure working dogs that do well.”


So there’s the golden rule. If you want a flatcoat for shooting, make sure that you get one from a kennel or breeder that gives more emphasis to brains and working ability than success in the show ring. Such dogs do exist, though finding one can be just as much of a challenge as training it to be a gundog.