Finding the Perfect Pup

By John Bulger

So you think you want a Flat-Coated Retriever. Wonderful! They are fantastic companions and talented performance event competitors. They are versatile hunting partners, at home in both waterfowl and upland game settings. You say you just want a pet? Flat-Coats excel in this category too! This breed is not for everyone; you need to understand the breed and its characteristics before you make the decision to be owned by a Flat-Coat. This article will review the characteristics and history of the Flat-Coated Retriever, ask you to evaluate whether you should proceed to make a life long commitment to a member of the breed, and then suggest approaches to finding the perfect Flat-Coat puppy.

Flat-Coat History

Flat-Coated Retrievers emerged as a distinct breed in the middle to late 19th century. Developed in Great Britain as a dual-purpose dog, they were equally admired for their performance in the show ring and the field. Early breeders of Flat-Coats strove to breed a dog of pleasing conformation and ability in the field. These remain the objectives that survive today among virtually all Flat-Coat breeders. In spite of clearly meeting these objectives, Flat-Coats were surpassed in popularity by the Labrador Retriever and the Golden Retriever. This is ironic since according to Roger Caras, President Emeritus of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Goldens were bred from Flat-Coats and other breeds. Largely because of very careful breeding and placement of puppies, Flat-Coat breeders have maintained the characteristics of a dual-purpose dog equally at home in the field and the show ring, and concurrently an exuberant and loyal family companion. These are the c haracteristics that have endeared the breed to its owners and breeders. There are several excellent sources for additional information on the history of the breed. Among them are Joan Mason’s book “Flat-Coated Retrievers Today” (Howell Book House, New York, 1996), and Brenda Phillip’s book “Flatcoated Retrievers” (Kingdom Books, Waterlooville, England, 1996).

Flat-Coat Characteristics and Personality

Let me try to describe this breed by using the black furry creature that sleeps at my feet while I write. He is pretty typical. Flat-Coats are people oriented dogs, with great desire to be a part of the family. As I move around the house, I will be followed closely by a black nose always trying to help. Along the way he will very likely pick up a favorite toy or tennis ball, just in case I need a play break. He loves to work, be the work chasing a racquet-launched tennis ball, (he doesn’t know it’s a conditioning exercise to build stamina for field work), flyball, tracking, agility, or even obedience training. He loves field work and the training associated with it. He is a fantastic watchdog, having a low tolerance for doorbells or strange noises, alerting with a determined bark that expands his stature ten fold. We don’t tell strangers that they are at risk of death by drowning from the effects of ceaseless kisses if they penetrate the perimeter. He is an endlessly happy and active dog. When we get home from work, or return from most any outing without his company, we are met by an offer to play with a favored toy, usually a tennis ball. Even when he was seriously ill with erlicheosis, a dangerous tick-borne disease, his desire to play went undiminished. That beautiful feathered tail is continuously in motion, reflecting his exuberance for life. Several authors characterize Flat-Coats as “Peter-Pan” dogs, never growing up, with their enthusiasm, desire to play, mischief, (and work) undiminished well into their senior years. Flat-Coats are devoted, high-energy dogs that live to work, play and cause mischief! These dogs are not suitable for everyone. Their nature can have a down side for the owner that can not, or will not give the dog plenty of exercise and keep its mind challenged. Obedience training is a must. If you want a couch potato that will chase a few tennis balls on a nice day, this is not the dog for you. They need a purpose. They love work and it’s essential to their well being! The Flat-Coat that has his mind occupied by training, and is vigorously exercised regularly, will be a calm, amiable household companion between sessions. The Flat-Coat that is not so challenged may become bored, and develop undesirable coping behaviors such as chewing furniture, woodwork or other household items, digging, or worse, frustrating owner and dog alike. Flat-Coat owners need a fenced yard or safe space to keep them well exercised. If you just want a companion, and can’t give the dog regular physical and mental outlets, don’t get a Flat-Coat. You’ll both be unhappy.

Flat-Coats enjoy participating in canine obedience or performance events, and revel in field work. These events are effective outlets for the Flat-Coat mind and body. Flat-Coats are very intelligent dogs, but that brain power isn’t always oriented in the direction the handler desires. They are sometimes distracted from the task at hand to their own interest and enjoy doing things in their own creative ways. Trainers need to be sensitive to this characteristic and put extra effort in developing some desired behaviors. A good example is field work. Judges like to see the dog go straight to the bird, and return straight to the handler. Flat-Coats often hunt the area of the fall and have been known at times to do the “Flat-Coat Romp” before retrieving. Often, trainers need to work hard to imprint desirable behavior! The up side of this is the joy Flat-Coats exude in following their own instincts. The Flat-Coat excels when hunting upland game where he can use his nose, intelligence, and bird sense. They love to “do their own thing” with such antics as kissing the judge.

Flat-Coat Health Concerns

Flat-Coats are a relatively uncommon dog with a small breeding population and a resulting small gene pool. Sally Terroux, a founder of the FCRSA, and noted authority on Flat-Coats, points out that because of the small population of these dogs, almost every breeding is a line breeding, with no true outcrosses to strengthen the gene pool. If you go back several generations, you’ll find common ancestors for all the Flat-Coat population. This is good for maintaining breed type, and field capability, but can cause a tendency to perpetuate diseases with genetic roots. Conscientious breeders are vigilant for these conditions, particularly hip dysplasia, patella luxation and eye disease. They will not breed dogs that they know have these conditions. Sales contracts for Flat-Coats normally call for CERF and OFA screening when the dog has matured, and require spaying or neutering if the dog suffers from defects. Breeders frequently provide a consideration, specified in the contract, if one of these conditions develop. Loss of Flat-Coats to cancer at an early age is a matter of concern to Flat-Coat owners and breeders. Among the general dog population the incidence of cancer in older dogs may be no higher than other breeds, however early-onset cancers do seem to be more prevalent in Flat-Coats. Many presume there is a genetic involvement, but there is no scientific basis to generalize that these cancers are genetic in origin. Even so, conscientious breeders are sensitive to the incidence of early onset cancers and will not breed dogs that have, or have survived cancers. You may wish to discuss longevity and causes of death within pedigrees with potential breeders. There are at least two university projects dedicated to researching the incidence of cancer in Flat-Coats. This is not to say that your puppy will have to deal with cancer as he matures, chances are he won’t, but potential Flat-Coat owners need to be aware of the problem.

Seeking the Puppy of Your Dreams

So you have weighed the pros and cons, explored other breeds, and decided you want a Flat-Coat. Now let’s examine a strategy for seeking the perfect Flat-Coat puppy. Don’t be in a rush. Unless you stumble onto a rescue dog that is available for adoption and suited to you, your quest will probably take a year or more. You won’t find a Flat-Coat pup in a pet store. Virtually all Flat-Coat breeders carefully screen their potential owners and place strict contractual controls on the sale. If your breeder interviews you with a rigor like that you would expect from someone evaluating you for adoption of a human baby, take that as a point of confidence in the breeder. Seek out these breeders! They have both you and the well-being of the puppy at heart! Many test their puppies to identify those with good conformation and performance potential, and place those with lesser potential in “pet homes” with contracts that commit the owner to spaying or neutering the dog. This measure is designed to enhance the breed. Get organized and prepare for a careful search. Here is what we would suggest: First, if you have specific performance event objectives, look for successful experience in those areas in the breeder’s results. Study puppy testing so you can discuss it intelligently with your breeder. Remember that Flat-Coats are very versatile dogs, and the multipurpose objectives of the breed standard are strongly subscribed to by most Flat-Coat breeders. Almost all breeders have found success in a variety of canine activities. If you are interested in specific performance events, or campaigning a champion dog, breeders with success in those areas will normally be of invaluable help in pursuing your objective.

Get Advice from Knowledgeable Flat-Coat Owners and Breeders

You have several sources for breeder information. The FCRSA maintains a list of breeders who are committed to the breed standard. Currently, you can contact the Membership Secretary, MaryAnn Abbott, 19275 Whispering Trail Traverse City, Michigan  49686. Her e-mail address is maafcr@pentel.net. She will also provide more information about Flat-Coats and a list of planned or expected litters for the printing and mailing cost of $5.00. The society also can refer you to points of contact at local FCR clubs. The FCRSA also maintains a very informative web site with breed information and points of contact: www.fcrsainc.org. FCRSA regional clubs are a valuable resource often closer to home. They are also a good source for breeder information. Perhaps more important, through these clubs you can meet Flat-Coat owners and breeders, benefit from their experience, and get to know their dogs. You should definitely take the opportunity to meet some of their dogs in your decision making process. Warning: meeting Flat-Coats can sway you to the breed. When we were investigating whether or not to bring a Flat-Coat into our home we visited several shows then visited the home of a local Flat-Coat breeder. One of their dogs met my wife at the door, took her hand in his mouth, and escorted her on a tour of the house, terminating at the deck with an ample supply of toys. His Flat-Coat companions and Golden buddies followed and joined in the fun. Now how can a person not become involved with these dogs after such an experience!

Selecting a Breeder is a Most Critical Step

The FCRSA can help you find breeders in your area. If you have no specific objectives regarding conformation or performance, particularly field performance, your pool of breeders is broader. Buying from a local breeder will normally give you an invaluable, close in help source. The breeders I know follow their puppies very closely, and are there for their owners when they need assistance. A breeder that is a long distance away will have the same interest but will not be able to provide a lot of help in raising or training the dog. If you stumble onto a breeder that doesn’t want to talk about their dogs and their accomplishments and problems, find another breeder! That is not very likely with most Flat-Coat breeders. If the plans of local breeders don’t meet your needs, have them help you expand your search. They normally will be more that happy to help. They can refer you to other breeders and owners, and help you find veterinary assistance. Your breeder will undoubtedly have a contract that documents the terms and conditions for the sale of the dog. These contracts have been developed to protect the breed. They protect the owner as well as the breeder. Typical provisions call for approval of the breeder before ownership of the dog can be transferred, and spay/neuter requirements if the dog develops genetic conditions such as dysplasia or CERF related eye problems. There may also be spay/neuter requirements if the dog develops disqualifying conformation faults as he matures. Read the contract carefully, and have the breeder explain any conditions you don’t understand. It’s there to protect you, too! If you do not agree with a provision of the contract the time to iron it out with your breeder is before the sale is completed.

What’s Next?

Well, there you have it. Hopefully this article has helped you understand this wonderful breed, make an informed decision if this is the breed for you, and how to find a Flat-Coat puppy. These “Peter-Pan” dogs never seem to grow up and think they know better ways to accomplish performance and obedience skills than do you! This breed provides delightful pets, intense competitors in breed and performance events, and versatile hunting companions in the field. If any one of these is a characteristic you are seeking, and you understand that this is a high-energy dog that requires attention and exercise go for it! You won’t be disappointed. If you can’t make that commitment, please look elsewhere. There are many purebred breeds that can probably fill your needs. Don’t forget your local shelter; there are hundreds of displaced dogs that will make delightful pets and excellent performers. If you want more information about Flat-Coats, contact your local Flat-Coat regional club for help, or review the information on the FCRSA web site.