Why is the flatcoated retriever so rarely seen in the field now?

Last month I dined at Holkham’s Victoria hotel in North Norfolk. Holkham has long been one of the premier sporting estates in England, covering 25,000 acres of saltings, marsh and farmland; its gamekeepers still wear their traditional bowler hats. On the back of the Victoria’s menu was a picture of a group of Holkham keepers, wearing their bowlers, photographed in 1909. With them is a flatcoated retriever. A popular breed in the show ring Long celebrated as the gundog of Edwardian England, the flatcoat was then about to be eclipsed by the ubiquitous Labrador. according to The Best of the Best: A History of the IGL Retriever Championship 1909-2011 by Graham Cox and Gareth Davies: “1908 marks the first occasion when a trial had more Labradors than flatcoats running.” Today, the flatcoat might not be a rarity in the shooting field, but it is a scarce sight. It does, however, remain a popular breed in the show ring: last year no fewer than 404 were entered for Crufts, compared with just 225 English springers. I was reminded of how good flatcoats can be as shooting dogs when I spent a day picking up with Neil Gilbert and his two flatcoat bitches, seven-year-old  Kola and her daughter Sinte, aged three. Neil is arguably a typical flatcoat owner. A keen shooting man, he started with Labradors and did a little trialling with them. He then acquired a working cocker that he loved before deciding to try a flatcoat. He was well aware that the breed has a predisposition to cancer — several of my friends with flatcoats have lost dogs to this horrible disease — so he did his homework carefully, looking for genuine working dogs with good survival rates. He ended up buying Kola from Fiona Joint, one of the leading advocates of working flatcoats. Neil had established that dogs from her Hertfordshire-based Hullabaloo kennel enjoyed long lives. It was clear to Neil that it would be difficult to find a more responsible breeder, or one doing more in trying to secure the future of the flatcoat as a working breed. Training a flatcoat proved to be a delight Kola came as an eight-week-old puppy, and Neil undertook her training. “Training a flat coated retriever proved to be a delight,” he told me. “However, I do believe that they need a softer approach than a typical Labrador. They are sensitive to your voice and body posture. To get the best from one it’s essential to be patient, to be gentle in your methods and  to tune into their canine psychology. It’s also important to work hard to develop eye contact. “Training can take a little longer than with a Labrador — flatcoat enthusiasts always say that they are slower to mature. However, if you get it right you will end up with a great shooting dog that really will turn heads in the field, or even when out walking.” Neil added: “I’m now a flatcoat convert and would encourage other people to consider … Continue reading Why is the flatcoated retriever so rarely seen in the field now?