Phil Bruton and GB FT Ch Shirlett Sweetheart

- Ingemar Borelius

The so called Working Flatcoated Retriever group was established in Britain by Joan Marsden, Nancy Laughton and Amelia Jessel and a few others during the nineteen eighties. The group was trying to promote the working Flatcoat at a time when the show Flatcoat was starting to match the very best at Best in Show competition and the interest in the breed exploded in the show world. The founders of the group saw a disadvantage for the working Flatcoat probably because many of the dual purpose oriented breeders would lose their focus on the working side. To me it was a bit like thinking the wrong way as it’s up to the work oriented breeders to produce the competitive and attractive workers. But they had a point in the fact that fewer show breeders would test their breeding stock in the field and care about the working qualities. Consequently, a growing share of the breed would gradually lose their basic working capabilities reducing the working Flatcoat genepool. No matter what the group started to promote the working Flatcoat with articles in dog media and they started to scan the country to find useful working dogs to broaden and improve the working Flatcoat.

It became a main target to find good workers that weren’t visible on the Field Trial scene and looking for those it was no doubt the gamekeeper’s dogs that came under the searchlight. The Flatcoat had (has?) always been favoured by gamekeepers and there are two dogs in particular I connect to that initiative although I’m sure there were many others. One of these was Boy Joe that was used by Joan Marsden to produce Tarncourt Duly and by his gamekeeper owner Peter Sarsfield to produce another litter. Many of his offspring was used by the working Flatcoat fraternity and his name appears behind many good dogs. The other dog was Bridport of Musk, which I believe was owned by Peter Sarsfield as well. He had an even stronger impact on the working stock producing many first-class workers and among those Joan Marsdens Wemdom Bright Bond of Tarncourt and Chris Gwilliam’s Brown Keston of Varingo were two of the most prominent ones. Both were excellent steady Field Trial dogs but Bright Bond was probably the most merited winning the Flatcoated Retriever Society Open Stake once, being third in an Any Variety All Aged stake once and gaining certificate of merits in two 24 Dogs Any Variety Open Stakes. He was for sure one of the best workers of his day.

Brown Keston of Varingo had a litter brother, Jasper Carrot, who was owned by the gamekeeper Norman Peace and the two brothers were used quite actively at stud. Joan Marsden used Jasper Carrot on one of her bitches, we had booked a dog pup from that litter and we went to see the sire on our way to Joan in 1991. He was a beautiful little workmanlike type of dog, quite far from the show winning ones but no one could deny he was the most typical Flatcoat with a beautifully moulded head and a short racy body. He was obviously a soft, quite laid-back kind of dog and I remember that his gamekeeper owner said he was not that keen on dummies. Saying that I’m sure he was an excellent worker when it came to the real thing. But it’s no doubt it’s about walking on a thin edge when you try to breed the easy handled steady dogs that are able to match the best at trials and look for drive, courage, stamina at the same time. I remember seeing Wemdom Minuet as well at the kennel, a beautiful little working bitch and thus the two dogs that produced two of Phil Bruton’s first Flatcoats. 

I didn’t see many of Jasper Carrot’s offspring appearing on the result lists, but they were used by many other work oriented breeders and it’s no doubt that he made his mark on the working scene with the three dogs that Phil Bruton trialed and not the least as the sire of GB FT Ch Shirlett Sweetheart. She won the title in 2003, being the first Flatcoat in Britain winning the FT Champion title since Amelia Jessel and Werrion Redwing of Collyers won it in 1978.

Phil Bruton is no doubt one of the British top trainers having a strong interest in the Flatcoat in parallel to his engagement in the working Labrador and he’s had a number of FT Champions over the years. I asked him to tell a little about his Flatcoats in general and about GB FT Ch Shirlett Sweetheart in particular. He tells: “- I have had several flatcoats over the years since the late eighties, Balham Girl (a granddaughter of Boy Joe, IB note) was 1st in a FCRS Novice Stake, Kentee Kelly (Jasper Carrot x Wemdom Minuet) had 3 Field Trial awards and his full sister, Keness Sweet Bella had a 1:st in a Novice Stake, a 1:st in an All Aged Stake, a 2nd in a FCRS Open Stake and a 2nd in an Open Any Variety Stake, consequently sniffing on the prestigious title. Noontime Gaiter (Keneven Toccata x Midnight Tulip) had 4 Field Trial awards.”

I asked if Sweetheart was an easy going Flatcoat from the very beginning or if there were any specific challenges along the way? Knowing the father and some of his other offspring I believe she must have been a quite soft Flatcoat?

“- I did not have Amy (S. Sweetheart) until she was 12 months old, it is my view that all Flatcoats have a sensitive side in as much as they do not take to training happily if they are confused or pushed too much. I train like a chess player in order to get them on my side, others train like rugby players and so make dogs harder because of it.”

On a homepage where Phil’s training classes are announced it’s stated: “Phil is a strong believer that to have a good performing gundog one needs to build confidence through patience, understanding and fluency in the dog, to ensure training is a positive experience for you and the dog.”

Shirlett Sweetheart

“Phil tells that

“- Amy” was 1st in an Any Variety Novice Trial at the age of two, she had several other awards before winning the Flatcoat Open Stake at the age of 6, followed 2 weeks later by winning Bristol and Wests 2 day (24 dogs) Open Qualifying Stake for AV Retrievers at Windsor in 2003. During the last trial she had eye wipes over other dogs and picked a strong runner on day 2. Her main attributes were the ability to mark along with a massive drive to find game.”

You could be sure that she bet a line of the top Labrador Retrievers at that occasion knowing that this is one of the more challenging trials in the heart of England. The prestigious win at the two-day stake qualified for the Retriever Championship the same year. To give you an insight in the challenging task to step into what could be seen as the “Wimbledon” competition for Retrievers gathering the crème-de-la-crème of the British Retriever trainers and the 40 - 50 or so best Retrievers in the country, I’ve made an extract from the Our Dogs report from the Championship. It’s notable that Phil Bruton entered two dogs, one Labrador and one Flatcoat, at the trial:

“This year’s Retriever Championship, run by the International Gundog League Retriever Society, was held at Sandringham Estate, Norfolk, by gracious permission of Her Majesty the Queen, on November 25th, 26th and 27th, writes Gaynor Bailey. It was disappointing for everyone that Her Majesty was unable to attend as we know that she enjoys watching and is able to relax whilst watching the best dog work in the country. (You should know that the Queen is a frequent expert guest at the Championship when arranged on her own grounds, watch the article below, IB.

The first day was overcast but dry until late afternoon with a light breeze, conditions looked right for a good Championship, the most important event of the retriever trials calendar.

Headkeeper David Clark took the 44 competitors and a huge gallery with visitors from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, South Africa, France and probably a lot more countries, to a field of sugar beet to commence the day. Judges David Garbutt and Kevin Doughty were on the right and Derrick Capel and Greig Paterson on the left. The first shot was at a hare, giving a retrieve for Christian Ayres Labrador bitch Field Trial Champion Syntax Silversnipe Classic, running as No 1 and no stranger to Sandringham having won the Labrador Retriever Club’s two day Trial here in 2002. As expected of this classy bitch she made a good fast return with the hare and we were away.

The next shot was at a pheasant which defeated four dogs and then the judges. It had to be picked later by the official picker up as it had run and with scent poor, required a lot of hunting time to find. Because only No. 2, John Halstead, had been sent immediately, just his dog was put out which is the way trials are run, the other three dogs having had to await their turn to search are given another chance. Jim Gale’s nice Golden Retriever (one of only three running), FT Ch. Hawthorne Heather picked a pheasant that the previous Labrador had failed on.

Phil Bruton with his Lab dog Olivertash Bailey had such bad luck as a pheasant was shot that landed only three feet from his dog which took two steps sideways and picked it, not allowed as considered " running in".

Allan Thornton’s FT Ch. Willowyck Jack Snipe, handled by Tess Lawrence made a slick job of hunting out a pheasant that the previous dog had failed on and Robin Watson’s FT Ch. Whitmill Eclypse of Tibea took a strong runner down a hedge, a retrieve that is prized and gains a high mark from judges.

Next came the work of a bitch that everyone was waiting to see, the liver Flatcoated Retriever FT Ch. Shirlett Sweetheart owned and handled by Phil Bruton, his first time to run in the Championship and with qualifications for two dogs, well done Phil! Flatcoats haven’t run in the Championship for many years and "Amy" as he calls her, is probably the first liver coloured one to ever run in it. Her first retrieve of a hare was classic, a perfect mark, fast out and back but unfortunately luck deserted Phil as his next retrieve was a pheasant a long way to his left, close to the hedge and obviously unseen by "Amy" who struggled to find, not making the distance and being called up by the Judges, what a shame! The pheasant was eventually picked by Tess Lawrence’s Willowyck Ruff, the fourth dog to try, a good achievement.”

Phil Bruton – dogtraining

According to the historical British FT rules an eye-wipe means that the dog that finds the bird at the end is rewarded and all dogs having previously failed to find it are out of the trial. But obviously Amy didn’t disgrace the breed not the least noting that she was beaten by the eventual runner up (2: nd winner), a dog that had a long line of awards at the Classic being the winner in 2007. I will end this extract noting that the trial as always went on for further two days to sort out the very best dogs.  

The well-known Sweden friend, breeder, trainer Peter Johnson (Downstream), at that time the FT Secretary of the Flat Coated Retriever Society wrote a few memorable lines in the FCRS yearbook 2004 as a tribute to Phil and Amy:

“How many people realise the strong odds against Mr Bruton. There were over five thousand Labradors, fifty Golden Retrievers and one Flat Coated Retriever competing in the British Field Trials. These are low odds, but he has done it and has proved it can be done.  I would like to think that it could be done again in the near future. This year I am going to break with the normal tradition and commence my report by congratulating our new FT Ch Shirley Sweetheart owned by Phil Bruton. The wave of euphoria that swept through the Flatcoat world that week was wonderful to witness.  Suddenly, everything seemed possible again.  The added kudos of having a Flatcoat at the Retriever Championship was something to celebrate. To Phil and Amy our warmest congratulations and thanks for proving that Flat Coated Retrievers can still get to the top in what is now a highly-professional and fiercely-competitive sport.”

Finally, I asked Phil about his current team of retrievers and he told that he’s got 5 dogs, 3 Labradors and 2 Flatcoats. The older Flatcoat being Shirlett Skylark (b.2006) from the same breeder as Sweetheart, the younger one is Cloisterwood Frankel, an 18 months old locally bred dog. Frankel is sired by FTW Houndswood Cedar at Tunnelwood out of Cloisterwood Dusk, bringing back several lines to his first Flatcoats on the dam’s side. Let’s hope we’ll see some more Flatcoats at the top in the hands of this competent trainer!


       © Alex Faarkrog 2017