The Flat-Coated Retriever — What to Expect of This Dog Breed

Due to the increasing popularity of shooting flying birds (and the corresponding need to find the birds) in the mid 19th century, the initial Retriever breeds were developed. Some breeds, such as the Golden, were carefully bred for by a single individual, others such as the Labrador were isolated in one or two kennels for their development.

Still others were developed as gundog fanciers tried breeding the “best to the best” and intermixing a wide variety of breeds and abilities. The general confusion over the origins of the Retrievers partly lies in the fact that at this time the word “retriever” referred to the function rather than the breed of dog, and so any dog that proved itself capable of retrieving was considered one, whether purebred, crossbred or mongrel.

Spaniels, setters, and waterdogs quickly proved themselves the best at this type of work and provided the foundation for all of today’s Retrievers, in varying proportions. However, the exact sequence of development is in many cases lost in the distance of history; even many contemporary accounts are considered flawed and mistaken today.

It seems clear that the St. John’s Water Dog from Newfoundland, played a significant role in the general development of the retriever breeds, though no one is quite certain of the dogs used in developing this breed. Nancy Martin’s recent The Versatile Labrador Retriever (1994) contains perhaps the most comprehensive summary of the St. John’s Water Dog’s known and surmised history.

By all accounts, the development of the modern Flat-Coated Retriever is credited to Mr. S. E. Shirley in the early 1870s. St. John’s Water Dogs, water spaniels, and possibly Scotch collies were all used to develop the Flat-Coat. He stabilized the wavy or curly-coated retriever and fixed the type of the flat coated retriever. Shirley himself did not use Setters in his development of the Flat-Coat, but it is probable that the retriever mixes at that point already had infusions of Setter blood from earlier in the century. He is known to have used Labradors once they became available outside the Buccleugh and Malmesbury kennels.

Mr. Shirley is well-known also for founding the Kennel Club in 1873. The breed’s close association with this man meant that they were bred at the onset for both showing and hunting unlike other breeds that were privately bred by estates with their own grounds and gameskeepers.

Given the depletion of breeding stock, especially after the second World War, Flat-Coats and Labradors were widely interbred to broaden the gene pool and increase the number of dogs to a safer level. For example, the Labrador CH. Horton Max, a well-regarded Labrador at the turn of the century was actually an interbred, sired by the influential CH Darenth, a Flat-Coat. For some reason, while those breeders in Flat-Coats are aware of this mixing, many Labrador breeders are not.

The next influential patron of the breed was Mr. H. Reginald Cooke, born in 1860 who saw some of the first dogs that Shirley established, their hey day during the turn of the century, their uncertain fortune through the World Wars and finally their decline in numbers afterwards. His kennel, Riverside, dominated the show scene for over sixty years. He also collected wins in field trials. This domination was both fortunate in keeping the breed on an even keel and unfortunate in keeping other patrons out. He was an advocate of a medium-sized dog as being the best for work; and was concerned about keeping the hunting ability alive in the show dogs. Contrary to popular supposition, though, Cooke purchased many dogs bred by others and there was no exclusive ‘Riverside’ strain of flat-coats.

The Flat-Coated Retriever’s decline directly coincides with the Labrador Retriever’s almost meteoric post-war rise in popularity. The Labrador was considered superior to the Flat-Coat in the field trials. The domination of the Flat-Coats by the Riverside kennel may have also helped to limit the possible growth that the Flat-Coat might have otherwise enjoyed alongside the Labrador; it is unclear whether this was beneficial or detrimental to the breed in the long run. There are risks in being wildly popular or in being too rare.

The Flat-Coated Retriever Today

The Flat-Coated Retriever is perhaps unique among the retriever breeds for being both a show dog and a working hunting retriever for the duration of its existence. This background in both venues has resulted in a breed that to this day has a strong tradition of being a dual-purpose dog, that is, both shown and hunted.

You will find that most show dogs have AKC hunting test titles as well as HRC and NAHRA titles; far more so than in other retriever breeds except possibly for the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. The converse is also true: most of the Flat-Coats that you see in the hunting tests are also being shown in breed.

You will not find that the breed is split between show lines and hunting lines as is so unfortunately true of many other retriever breeds. However, they are largely not present in competitive Field Trials, which is dominated by the field-bred Labrador Retriever.

The Flat-Coated Retriever remains a modestly popular and relatively rare breed, which most breeders and owners prefer.

Characteristics and Temperament

Flat-Coats are absolutely unfailingly cheerful and often maintain a youthful outlook on life and a rather immature character (Paddy Petch called them the “Peter Pan” of dogs.)

Most Flat-Coats feel that the primary purpose in life is to be “your buddy.” They can become quite despondent when left alone or neglected for periods of time. They thrive on human companionship, and while they do love a good run or walk, games of fetch, etc., they are mostly content just to be with you.

In general Flat-Coats are very happy dogs throughout their whole lives and only their immediate families will notice the gradual slowing down they do get as they age. To most outsiders (and Flat-Coats love EVERYONE) they are very happy, friendly dogs.

As with most of the retriever breeds, they seem to feel that they are “at their best” when they have something (anything for most of them) in their mouth. When their mouth is full, their whole body exudes happiness.

Many are confirmed poop eaters, although some grow out of it. Sometimes the activity seems seasonal or even food-related. Bitches seem to be worse about it, especially after having a litter.

In general, they make good pets for houses with kids, but don’t expect the kids not to get bruised. It will not be intentional, but they are big dogs.

Flat-Coats are unabashed people dogs. They do not do well in kennel situations at all and they do not do well in families continually on the go — unless they get to go as well! This is absolutely not a breed you can leave out in the backyard all the time.

These dogs are very intelligent, and can be very creative in their destruction. They will do almost anything to get your attention, so unless they are in a situation where they are going to get a lot of attention, they can become chewers and diggers and they do have a lot of energy. They are not couch potato dogs.

Flat-Coats are very stoic and do not show when they are in pain very often. They put up with a lot before they let you in on it. In this sense they make bad patients, as they are often up and around much too early for their own good after an injury.

Care and Training

Because they have such boundless energy, obedience training is highly recommended. In particular, prospective owners new to the breed should take advantage of local kindergarten puppy classes as well as the obedience classes so that their cute pup does not become an unruly adolescent brat.

They seem to take criticism (harsh voice or collar corrections) to heart and can get their feelings hurt easily. They often “shut down” when this happens and it can be very aggravating. You have to “make up” with the dog before they get going again sometimes. Non-coercive training methods work especially well with this breed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are they hyper?

A properly bred Flat-Coat will not be hyper. However, this is an active retrieving breed. Their need for exercise is enormous and without an outlet for this need, they will become destructive and hard to handle. And even when properly exercised, their unflagging good spirits and refusal to age as they grow older mean that they will still be exuberant, cheerful dogs always ready to jump into activities with you.

If you are leaning toward a sedate dog, this breed is probably not for you!

Are th

ey good with children?

As with most breeds, especially with the retriever breeds, yes, they are good with children provided that both are supervised to make sure they don’t accidentally injure each other. Because Flat-Coats are such exuberant dogs, they can easily knock children over without having the slightest intention of hurting them. All contact between children and dogs should be supervised no matter how good the dog (or child) is, and this is doubly true if accidental injury is a good possibility. You may want to wait until your children are a little older and not as easily frightened by a large, happy dog (or consider a more sedate breed).
Is this a black Golden? How are they different from Labs or Goldens?
While these breeds are fairly closely related (especially the Flat-Coat and the Lab), they each have distinct differences. All three are retrievers, people friendly and generally non-aggressive to either dogs or people. However, in general, Labs tend to be stubborn, Goldens tend to be soft and anxious to please, and Flat-Coats tend to be quirkily happy and content to be with their person. Labs tend to be hard workers and will have a business-like and independent attitude towared what they are doing. Goldens tend to work hard if their owner wants them to, and they can be nearly anxious about trying to please their owner. Flat-Coats have a blissfully happy, even silly, attitude about everything, though they can be perfectly stubborn when they choose to be.
They are also physically distinct. The Labrador has a short coat and generally a stockier build than the Flat-Coat. They usually have a different head with a deeper stop although some poorly bred (at least from the conformation aspect) ones can have heads very nearly like the Flat-Coat. Labs can come in black, chocolate (liver), and yellow. The Golden Retriever has a long coat, but it tends to be more abundant than the Flat-Coats and may have a harsher texture. They always come in shades of yellow and gold, never black or liver. Their heads are also very different from Flat-Coats, being more massive, domed on top and not filled in at the cheeks or stop.

I got my dog from the shelter, but he looks just like a Flat-Coated Retriever! What are the chances this is true?

Most Labrador Retriever or Golden Retriever mixes can look like FCR’s and they are much more common than the relatively rare FCR. Chances are high your dog is such a mix. If you really think your dog might be an FCR, then you should find a local breeder to look your dog over. It is certainly worth trying to ILP your dog as an FCR if you want to do obedience or agility work with him.
I understand that there can be yellow Flat-Coated Retrievers. What is the story with them?
Yellow is a disqualifying fault in the FCR. Many long-time breeders are extremely vehement in keeping yellow out, believing that health problems automatically come with the color. Reported health problems include skin sensitivities, and foot problems. Yellows are considered to have poor coats, and poor pigmentation (leathery nose and eye rims). Strictly speaking, it is unclear if these problems are inherent in the color or are simply because the little stock left carrying yellow is generally poor. Any reputable breeder offering a yellow Flat-Coat for sale should insist on a spay-neuter clause at the minimum if the dog is not already so altered. While they are rare, they are not valuable, and should not command any kind of a high price.

How does the color inheritance work?
Disregarding the yellow color, livers are recessive to blacks meaning that a liver Flat-Coat has both parents with at least one gene for the liver color though in appearance they may be black or liver. A liver only has genes for the liver color. Two livers can only produce livers, never blacks. If yellows are considered as well, it is likely that the mode of inheritance is the same as that of the Labrador Retriever, which is described in more detail in Labrador Retriever books and its FAQ.


Health and Medical Problems

Patellar Luxation

This is a fairly serious problem, as it is genetic, but it is not really widespread. This is a condition in which the dog’s kneecap will slip out of the joint and lock the leg straight. It can be surgically treated to keep the dog comfortable, but of course the dog should then be neutered. You should make sure the parents of any Flat-Coat puppy you consider has been cleared of Patellar Luxation by OFA.
Elbow and Hip Dysplasia
Flat-Coats may be prone to elbow and/or hip dysplasia, just as the rest of the retriever breeds generally are. In fact, according to OFA, the Flat-Coat is one of only four breeds in which the incidence of CHD is on the rise. The level has doubled from about 10 years ago and while is still low, the upward trend is troubling. Note that the overall incidence in, for example, the Golden is much higher; however, their rates have been decreasing in the same time period.
To minimize the risk, all breeding stock must be x-rayed and certified clear of hip or elbow dysplasia by OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) in the US; there are equivalent programs in other countries.

Hip dysplasia is a malformation of the ball and socket, with varying degrees of presentation. Symptoms can range from none to severe crippling. Only an xray can give you a definitive diagnosis of this disease. While environmental factors have been found to play a role in determining the degree of visible symptoms, the causes are believed to be genetic. For more information on this disease, please see the medical information FAQ or consult with your veterinarian.


Some Flat-Coats may have low thyroid levels. Allergies, poor coat, etc may indicate low thyroid levels. It does not seem to be a widespread problem in the breed.


Cancer is a troubling and complex presence in this breed. The age of onset seems to be about four years and different areas may be affected. Inquire about the general longevity in the lines of the puppy or dog you may be considering.

Research into this problem is ongoing.

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