Working Flatcoats.

By the Hon. Amelia Jessel 

from Letters to the Editor, Shooting Times & Country Magazine, July 4, 1985.

Sir, Patricia Chapman’s letter (June 13 issue) on the working ability and breed type of the Flatcoated retriever has spurred me to write.

I agree with her supporting the principals of the newly formed working group and in wanting to retain breed type. I believe also that the winning of her Champion Shargleam Blackcap, of the supreme Championship at Cruft’s was not the main reason for the Flatcoat population explosion although no doubt it did encourage more people to jump on the bandwagon. Flatcoat interest was already on the increase before Brett’s win.  Pat has also always been most careful not to exploit her win although pressures on her must have been great.

My view diverges from hers in other ways.  The ascendancy of the Labrador retriever is no new cause for the decline of the flatcoat.   This began before the First World War.  Many theories have been advanced to explain it.

The emergence  (in the early 1900s) of several very good field trial Labradors; the demise of the big Flatcoat kennels during the First World War, new kennels for the up-and-coming breed of Labradors being started up after the War; the free inter-breeding of Labradors and Flatcoats when the progeny of these crosses often favoured the Labrador in looks, the longer coat of the Flatcoat (rather a suspect theory in view of the increase in popularity of the Golden Retriever and the English Springer Spaniel) and last, but not least, the emergence of the “fiddle-headed” and “Borzoi-type” Flatcoats, breed with extra-long heads for the show ring.

These caused much acrimonious correspondence in the sporting magazines of those days.  Labrador breeders were determined “not to ruin their breed by allowing the show fancy to dictate its breeding.”

The Flatcoat, however, thanks to a few dedicated breeders, managed, with only a small breeding pool, to struggle through until after the Second World War.  It still managed to retain a few challenge certificates at Championship Shows and the Society still manage (just) to fill the 12 – dog all-aged stake, and we have even been able to run one and sometimes two, non-winner stakes.

This is the state of the working dogs today.  The show dogs, however, have not been content with this modest improvement (if improvement it is).  Classes of 20 – 30 Flatcoats are commonplace now at shows; challenge certificates are now on offer at nearly every Championship Show throughout the country; the Society runs its own Championship Show (with over 400 entries) and an Open Show each year; breed type and quality are now established.

It will be seen, therefore, that it is not so much that the working flatcoat has actually declined in numbers now, but that the show and pet side has increased enormously.

This sorry state of affairs has been pushed into the open by the establishment of the shooting dog certificate days which we (The Flatcoated Retriever Society) began to run several years ago.  These were designed to encourage people with ordinary working dogs to demonstrate their capability on a normal day’s shooting. They were asked to sit their dogs at a stand during which the dogs had to remain quiet and that they should retrieve tenderly from whatever cover was around.  In short, to behave themselves as ordinary shooting dogs should.

It became obvious only too soon that some supposed workers had never been called upon to retrieve live game or to sit at a drive.  Breeders and trainers dedicated to the working Flatcoat knew that something had to be done, and quickly, to redress the balance and breed back into the Flatcoat its inherent working ability.  For this reason, the working group was formed.

It has been said that the breed will be split; that working Flatcoats will come to look like Whippets or Collies; that the breed will no longer be dual-purpose.  (Dual purpose should be looked upon from both angles.  If the Flatcoat 30 years ago was dual-purpose, it is now much less so because it is so heavily biased on the show/pet side.  The working side must now redress the balance or be lost altogether.

I agree entirely with Patricia that we must work together to create unity. We are most fortunate that our breed standard was drawn up many years ago with imagination and foresight.  The conformation of the show-bench winners allows it to work with style and stamina.  I hope this will never be lost, but unfortunately the inherited but invisible qualities of soft-mouth, quietness and trainability can manifest themselves only on a proper day’s shooting.

It is to breed for these characteristics that the working group has been formed.  I would be surprised if any of its supporters liked the idea of breeding “Whippety” og “Collie-type” Flatcoats, but if some type is lost in order to gain some of the essential working characteristics it should not be too difficult to breed back to type from some of the excellent show specimens, many of which at present are not far removed from genuine workers.

I hope that neither Flatcoated retriever nor their owner split into fractions.  I believe that it’s unnecessary to do so and that we can continue to work and show our dogs in harmony, but that we should remember that it is the breed itself, formed over 100 years ago as a specialized shooting dog, that is in danger of losing the essence of its character.

The Hon. Amalie Jessel, Stoke Charity, Hampshire.


    © Alex Faarkrog 2017


       © Alex Faarkrog 2017