The Forever Adolescent Flat-Coat

By Sally J. Terroux

Flat-Coats are slow maturing dogs (usually 3 to 5 years) but even in the "mature" Flat-Coat there usually remains a spark of joy and mischief. One of the leading authorities on the breed, Dr. Nancy Laughton of Great Britain, refers to the Flat-Coat as a canine Peter Pan. This is an endearing quality for Flat-Coat fans when the ten year old Flat-Coat is still playful and eager to hunt. But not so admired by the pet owner whose Flat-Coat gets into some mischief at 6 or 8 or 10 years of age when the owner is sure "he knows better".

In our country of "disposable dogs" many pet owners who buy a cute, promising puppy unreasonably expect mature behavior when the puppy has attained adult height. At that time, 8 or 9 months of age, the puppy is at an early stage of adolescence, easily the most difficult stage of life for any animal. At that time the dependent, well-behaved puppy becomes curious, investigative, adventuresome, peer oriented and independent. Just when the owner is expecting maturity, the puppy becomes more trouble than he's ever been. More dogs are discarded during adolescence than at any other stage of life. This causes even more than the usual problems for the Flat-Coat because he has a particularly lengthy adolescence.

Most people interested in getting a Flat-Coat are primarily interested in having something that looks rare or different and naturally expect the Flat-Coat to act pretty, much like the more popular breeds of Retrievers. In some respects they do, but in many they don't. There are reasons why the breed is rare. The Flat-Coat is not a breed that suits everyone. The Flat-Coat is a very natural breed and likes to do natural things. That means digging, chewing, eating feces, rolling in manure and mud puddles and barking when confined if he doesn't jump over the fence to entertain himself. The Flat-Coat is not extremely destructive. I don't get reports of Flat-Coats tearing down draperies and demolishing sofas. They carry or chew on what's handy or smells good, like articles that smell like the owner, laundry, children's toys, magazine and book bindings, trash, tissue, plastic and wood. The Flat-Coat doesn't chew excessively. He leaves things alone long enough for you to think he's grown up and trustworthy, and then finds something irresistible. The hit or miss or shortcut training methods that are effective on many breeds leave holes the Flat-Coat bounds happily through. And he matures very slowly. Many never completely mature. They are genetically "frozen" in an infantile stage that keeps them dependent, playful and friendly like eternal puppies.

The very characteristics that make the Flat-Coat special to those of us who love him dearly are the same traits that make him a nuisance to a typical dog owning family. The Flat-Coat is a thinking dog. He wants to please but he's always looking for the exception to the rule. That is in part what makes him an exceptional hunting dog. But even there he is different. Other retrievers retrieve for the joy of retrieving. If the Flat-Coat is not both bonded and motivated to work for the handler, he will work for himself or perhaps not work at all. He is birdy and will find birds but whether he stays within gun range and brings downed birds back will depend on the relationship he has with his handler. For the owner he shares a home and life with, he will give his all.

Is confinement to a "safe" area the answer for the Flat-Coat growing up? It can be as long as the Flat-Coat has had enough attention and exercise before being confined, and is greeted calmly to again spend personal time with the family. But the Flat-Coat that is separated too much from the owner, like all night as well as all day, will develop an extreme degree of anxiety, making life difficult for the family as well as for himself.

Are there exceptions? Are there Flat-Coats that live in back yards, seeing the owner occasional evenings, mellow and well behaved and content? There are ranges of temperament characteristics in all breeds and exceptions to everything, but believe me, not very many.

Is keeping multiple dogs the answer? Yes and No. Yes, raising a puppy with a mature, well-behaved dog can be helpful. Both need daily individual attention from the owner and the puppy has to have daily periods of total separation from everyone so he can learn that it's all right to be alone. But, if you have a puppy, getting another puppy to keep him company will only cause both to develop some degree of dog-oriented dependency. It will keep both from maturing, as each one will join the other in any activity either can think of like a couple of boys. It will keep both from developing close, strong bonds to individuals in the human family, which then interferes with each puppy's response to training and control.

So be sure your adolescent Flat-Coat is getting as much attention, affection, work and exercise as he needs to feel satisfied. Keep him in or very near your bedroom over-night (more important if you're usually gone all day), and confine him thoughtfully when you need to. He will grow up. Or rather, he will eventually almost grow up.