A Discussion on Flat-Coated Retrievers

We asked the following questions to various experts involved with the breeding & showing of Flat Coated Retrievers.  (Above  Photo by Cheryl Ertelt)

  1. Where do you live? What do you do “outside” of dogs?
  2. How many years in the Flat-Coated Retriever? Showing? Judging? Breeding?
  3. What, in your opinion, is the secret to a successful breeding program?
  4. Flat-Coats are currently ranked #91 out of all AKC breeds. Do you think this position fosters a responsible breeding program?
  5. Do you feel the breed gets its fair share of attention in the group ring?
  6. What is your favorite dog show memory?
  7. Is there anything else you’d like to share about the breed? Please elaborate.

Kurt Anderson

My involvement in purebred dogs began in 1974 with the purchase of a Golden Retriever. I purchased our first Flat-Coated Retriever in 1985.

A life member of the FCRSA, I currently chair the Judge’s Education program for the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America. I have also held the offices of President, Recording Secretary and Board Member and chaired the 1999 and 2009 FCRSA
National Specialties.

I am currently approved by the AKC to judge the Sporting group, 5 Herding breeds and Junior Showmanship.

I live in Connecticut and am retired after a 40 year career with a global telecommunications company. I’ve owned purebred dogs for over 40 years, starting with Golden Retrievers. I have owned Flat-Coated Retrievers for just over 34 years, and have exhibited in the breed ring for pretty much the entire time. I have judged the breed for 18 years.

The secret to a successful breeding program is having great mentors, keeping an open mind, never stop learning and being ruthlessly honest with yourself and others regarding both the successes and challenges you face in your breeding program.

Do I think the breed’s ranking fosters a responsible breeding program? I’m not sure the Flat-Coat ranking has a bearing on what fosters a responsible breeding program. I do feel the Flat-Coat breeder community for the most part is quite collegial and most folks are more than willing to lend advice and assistance to those new to the breed.

Do I feel the breed gets its fair share of attention in the group ring? I think any “lesser known” breed faces some challenges getting attention and recognition in the group ring. The Sporting Group is a large group very often with many worthy choices, many from breeds that are shown in larger numbers. That said, judges who appreciate the Flat-Coated Retriever do seem to be awarding them placements in the group more often now than was the case 15 or 20 years ago.

I have many wonderful memories of both dogs and individuals I have met through my involvement in pure-bred dogs. My favorite memory is likely the privilege afforded me judging our national specialty a few years back.

Two things I’d like to share about the breed: I think new judges misunderstand proper substance, which translates into proper
silhouette. I also think judges don’t fully understand or appreciate the importance of one of the hallmarks of our breed, the unique long, strong, clean, “one piece” head, which is unique to the Flat-Coated Retriever. I see more and more generic heads being rewarded in the show ring. Additionally, temperament is of paramount importance. Please don’t reward dogs that exhibit any signs of aggression or excessive timidity.

Jake Cassady

I live in New Jersey. I have a health and nutrition business, I have been an electrician for 30 years. I have 16 years with Flat-Coats, 13 years showing and 13 years breeding.

The secret to a successful breeding program? That would first depend on what you mean by successful. I think many factors go into creating a great Flat-Coat. Starting with picking the appropriate dog and bitch, raising puppies, finding great homes, picking the next generation that will bring or keep inline to the standard, not to mention coaching new families, coaching new show owners and many more items for a good breeding program. It takes many people to work together over many years. The one thing above all probably is a dedication to the continuing of our breed.

Do I think the breed’s ranking fosters a responsible breeding program? I am not sure how this impacts being responsible.

Do I feel the breed gets its fair share of attention in the group ring? That is always an interesting question, I am not exactly sure how to answer. I think Flat-Coated Retrievers are becoming a more noticeable breed in groups for a number of factors: better dogs, great handlers and, again, dedication.

My favorite dog show memory: I have a lot. But I think between two, one was a barbecue we had with my friends that show together most have Flats. My liver girl, Echo, took me around the ring as fast as I could run. We had a great weekend. The other is a Christmas show we all managed to get in a great photo. Both times lots of laugh and fun with my Flat-Coat friends.

This breed is amazing in their ability to understand language. They value their family and pack. They are funny, charming, ornery, smart, sometimes defiant, always loving and generous. They will own you much more than you own them. The people in this breed are a reflection of their dogs. Its been amazing to be part of the world of the Flat-Coated Retriever.

Marla J. Doheny

I live in Florida and Connecticut and I am retired. I have been judging Flat-Coated Retrievers for just under ten years.

To have a successful breeding program it takes years of hard work and a fair amount of luck. You must reach deep into what information is available to you and hope that in the end it all works out for the betterment of the breed.

Do I think the breed’s ranking fosters a responsible breeding program? Any breed, no matter how rare or popular, can foster a responsible breeding program.

Do I feel the breed gets its fair share of attention in the group ring? In my opinion the breed gets plenty of attention in the group ring. I don’t think this was so in the past.

My favorite dog show memory—there have been so many. I suppose it was my first Group One placement. 550 dogs defeated—the size of some shows today.

Lastly, to FCR judges. Reach deep and find the quality, not the generic black dog. Do your best to interpret the standard, and try not to reinvent it to what may be more popular or pleasing.

Michelle Heikes

I have been in dogs/dog shows since about age five. Lived in California until 2007 when I moved to Minnesota. Married to my husband Wayne who has been in Flat-Coats for 15 years. I have worked my way up from being kennel help for handlers in California to being a handler. I specialize in sporting, working and hounds. I have been breeding Flat-Coats with Wayne for some time now and now have our own kennel name we are breeding under, Blixthalka Flat-Coats. I enjoy judging Jrs and try to help as many kids in showing I can, especially give the boys words of encouragement.

I live in Rogers, Minnesota.Outside of dogs, I enjoy snowmobilIng with my husband, Wayne. Also enjoy having friends over for bbq’s and doing fun things with pour kids.

I have been in Flat-Coats since I was about ten and started our showing for a family friend and that turned into Sarah and her dad mentoring me in the breed. Bred some litters with them under the kennel name of Folly Retrievers. Now my husband, Wayne and I have been breeding Flat-Coats together. We are hoping for puppies sometime this fall! I have my Jr.s judging license and so enjoy judging kids! I handle dogs for other people, so right now i just keep it at judging the kids. Someday I will get my Flat-Coat breed license.

The secret to a successful breeding program, read your breed standard and don’t just breed to the “flavor of the month” dog that you see win day in and day out or what you have in your backyard just because it’s there. Be honest with the faults your dog or bitch has and look for what is going improve those faults and keep the ones that are correct. We are seeing way to many that are dropping off at the croup, bad fronts and not very pleasing heads. Really take a look at What it is going to take to fix your dogs faults and do what needs to be done to improve the breed. If that means breeding to a dog that is not in the United states, see what it costs to do that. If that means breeding to a dog that belongs to people you really aren’t good friends with, do it. I was given great advice a long time ago, you are breeding to the dog/bitch, not the people.

We are pretty protective over our breed. Flat-Coats are a breed that is not for everyone. We screen our puppy people well to make sure they are going to the best home possible. We don’t breed our dogs just to have puppies. When we breed we are doing it for a reason because we are wanting to better the breed and make sure Flats are around for a long time to come.

Do I feel the breed gets its fair share of attention in the group ring? No, I don’t feel like the Flat-Coats get a fair share of attention in group. Flat-Coats are not flashy dogs like the Golden or even the Setters. We shouldn’t be flashy like them. Flats are a happy-go-lucky breed, but also a good hunting dog. I also feel like many judges just don’t understand the Flat-Coat or like judging them. We have some that love judging our breed! They comment on it when handing our ribbons. This breed has a hard time standing still. The tail is ever wagging and most like to try and give judges kisses when being examined. That’s our breed and some judges act annoyed at their antics and want to get the judging over with. They don’t call them the “Peter Pan” dogs for no reason!

One of my favorite memories was when I was just about nine months pregnant with my first kid. Was at a show in California where I lived at the time and was during a warm summer show. Was in open dog in Flat-Coats and the judge walked down the line before our first go around. He got to me and said, “You aren’t going to pop today are you?” We laughed and I said, “No.” After the first go around, he came over to me and made me go sit down in his chair and said you are not to move until I tell you. Just sit there because I am not going to deliver a baby in my ring today!

Flat-Coats are not a breed for everyone. They like to be active and enjoy doing things with their people. They are smarter than they appear at times. You need to be three steps ahead of them in their thinking. They are a great family dog and love to do different things. They like to be busy, but the flip side they will also lay on the couch with you to watch tv.

Andrea Holsinger

The Bertschire Kennel name belongs to Nancy and Mark Cavallo, who were kind enough to give me my first Flat-Coat and to allow us to be a part of the Bertschire kennel name. Thanks for that!

I live In a small town just outside of Athens, Georgia. I am a Hospice Nurse. I am also a retired nursing supervisor from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, where I was employed for 34 years. I enjoy gardening when I get the chance. We love to travel. I live a quiet (but crazy) life with my partner of 22 years, Kass and her sister, Donna.

I have 32 years showing, working and breeding Flat-Coated Retrievers. It was my greatest honor to judge puppy and veteran sweepstakes at the 2002 FCRSA National Specialty. I am not a licensed judge.

The secret to a successful breeding program? There are many secrets. Honest evaluation of one’s own breeding stock, an ethical standard that respects the breed, it’s working roots and the reasons for which the breed was developed. The willingness to evaluate and remove poor producers or poor specimens of the breed, the willingness to continue to learn and the interest in helping others to succeed are all attributes. Oh, and a very thick skin! Lastly, without an artistic eye for dogs, it is just impossible to improve the breed.

Do I think the breed’s ranking fosters a responsible breeding program? I think responsible breeders foster responsible breeding programs. If each of us screens our homes and works with individuals who purchase breeding stock from us, giving them education and guidance, our breed will continue to benefit from responsible breeders.

Do I feel the breed gets its fair share of attention in the group ring? No. On the other hand, I am not enamored of the impact that “group attention” can have on a breed. Breed type in the Flat-Coated Retriever remains a mystery to most judges. I would like to see our system of judging change in this country to reward “breed specialist” judges. We need to get back to the business of judging breeding stock.

My favorite dog show memory? Winning the 2013 FCRSA National Specialty with our home bred, owner handled dog, BISS GCh Bertschire Horse Power, JH, WC. Or maybe it was winning the 2003 national with an imported class dog that no one had ever seen. We met him in The Netherlands and fell in love with him as a 13 month old dog. He was loaned to us by our very generous friends, Richard and Wilma Van der Horst. His name was BISS Ch. Steelriver Could it be Magic, JH. It might have been winning the 2005 national with our lovely bitch, BISS GCh Huntlane’s Under the Sea, JH. She was bred by our friend, Jennifer Andrews. She was shown by our friend and professional handler, Cathy Pullian to that win.

Our breed is suffering from a devastating rate of cancer. Our gene pool is tiny and if we are to ever pull ourselves out of this corner we are in, we must utilize genetic diversity testing. We must expand our gene pool and consider that as an important cornerstone to our breeding programs.

Liz Saunders

We live in southern Alberta, Canada, between Fort Macleod and Lethbridge. I run my own business developing and illustrating nature conservation related educational materials such as interpretive signs, displays and booklets. I also create some of my own art work and am an avid photographer. My husband, Andy Hurly, is a retired biology professor and avid hunter.

We have lived with Flat-Coated Retrievers for 23 years. We showed our very first Flat-Coat in conformation and have continued to show our own dogs. Our dogs have always been hunting companions, mostly for waterfowl hunting, but also some upland work. Because our winters are long and cold, we turn to obedience and rally when field training is not possible. We bred our first litter 15 years ago and have had 11 litters to date. In 2018 I had the great honor of judging Veteran and Puppy Sweepstakes at the FCRSA National Specialty in Pennsylvania. My first serious venture into judging was an amazing experience as it was such a thrill to get my hands on so many puppies and veterans.

In my opinion, a successful breeding program is one that consistently produces dogs that are sound in mind and body, can do well in the show ring and retain the natural instincts needed to be a valuable hunting companion. There is no one “secret” to a successful breeding program, it is a combination of hard work, passion, commitment with a bit of good luck thrown in!

Some of the elements that I believe are key to a successful breeding program are: Knowing the breed standard thoroughly and understanding the relationships between form and function. Constantly evaluating dogs we have produced helps us make better decisions in the future, which means keeping in touch with all puppy owners through the lifetime of the dog. Being knowledgeable about structure and how it affects a dog’s outline, movement and working ability (our mentors, Hans and Margareta Berin, always stressed the importance of this in their breeding program and we have tried to follow suit). We also put a lot of thought and effort in to how our dogs and litters are raised—providing them with high quality food, plenty of free exercise in natural environments and opportunities to explore and learn.

Attending national specialties is another critical component. Specialties give us a “snap shot” of the breed in time (in both conformation and working abilities) which helps us to see where our own dogs are lacking, where they excel and what to work on in the future. Similarly, visiting shows and breeders in countries where Flat-Coats are more numerous, such as in Europe, can be extremely useful in gaining a higher understanding of the breed.

For the most part we handle and train our own dogs in conformation, obedience and Retriever work. I believe that this helps us to appreciate the subtleties of what constitutes a well-built and good working Flat-Coated Retriever.

I think that excellent quality Flat-Coats are usually noticed and rewarded in the group ring. I hear talk about how it is more challenging to do well in the ring with a liver-colored Flat-Coat, but I have not found that to be the case, as long as they are a high-quality dog. However, keeping a liver coat in show condition is significantly more challenging than with black dogs.

It’s difficult to pick just one favorite show memory, but recently we have had some lovely wins with our veteran bitches. At the recent Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America’s National Specialty in Albany, Oregon our home-bred veteran bitch won Best Veteran in Sweeps (under long-time breeder Judy Gladson) and then went on to win Best of Opposite (under long-time breeder-judge Helen Szostak). Blazingstar Puffin is about to turn nine years and is a classic example of how Flat-Coated Retrievers improve with age and converge more towards the breed standard once they are six years old and beyond. Big wins by veteran dogs is not that unusual for our breed. Vbos the Kentuckian was a super example of that, winning Crufts at the age of nine years in 2011.

Flat-Coated Retrievers are a dual-purpose breed, so it’s critical to be cognizant of factors that play into working ability (such as drive, birdiness, biddability and natural marking and scenting abilities) when making breeding decisions, rather than only breeding for dogs that are competitive in the show ring. The dual-purpose nature of Flat-Coats is what attracted us and many others to the breed in the first place. We feel very strongly that it is important to retain the working side of the breed along with the attributes that constitute a good show dog.

Helen Szostak, DVM

I live in Plymouth, Michigan and I am a veterinarian in my “other life”. I got my first FCR in 1974 and I believe had my first litter in about 1978. I judged the our National Specialty this spring as a Breed Club recommended/requested judge and am in the process of completing the requirements for a “real” judging license.

The secret to a successful breeding program is having a good strong bitch line.

Do I think the breed’s ranking fosters a responsible breeding program? I think it is good that our breed does not have great popularity. Flat-Coat breeders are very careful with puppy placements and with trying to produce dogs that remain true to their original purpose—that of a working Retriever and family companion. Health, type and temperament and working ability are of extreme importance.

Do I feel the breed gets its fair share of attention in the group ring? It is still difficult to do much in the group with an owner handled dog, even a very good one, and even if it is well presented.

My favorite dog show memory is winning Best of Breed at our National Specialty in 1999 with my very special girl, on a day that I had a broken bone in my foot. She had won three previous BOS awards and I had pretty much given up on the dream of a breed win. I bred, owned and handled her.

Flat-Coats are happy active dogs. Standing still is not their forte. Hand stacking rarely shows them off at their best. They look wonderful free baited and standing with the typical happy wagging tail.

Cindy Zelbst

I have lived in a small community, nestled in the Wichita Mountains in southwest Oklahoma, called Meers, my whole life. Outside of dogs, my husband and I manage my family ranch where we raise Angus cattle. I am also involved with the Meers Volunteer Fire Department, one of the oldest volunteer fire departments in Oklahoma. I serve on the Board of Directors for the Comanche County Conservation District. In addition, I am President of Mid-Del-Tinker Kennel Club, Vice-President of the Lawton Dog Fanciers Association, and am a member of the Board of Directors of the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America. I’ve been involved with Flat-Coated Retrievers since 2000 and have been breeding Flat-Coats since 2003.

For me, the secret to a successful breeding program is having a great mentor and I had one. I also believe that to have a successful breeding program, you must talk to other breeders and learn from them. Having a successful breeding program is an on-going learning process. I also try to have a very critical eye regarding my own dogs and breed based upon the needs of the areas I have identified that need improvement, while keeping in mind the pedigrees involved.

Do I think ranking #91 fosters a responsible breeding program? Yes, I do believe our ranking does foster, for the most part, a successful breeding program. Flat-Coat breeders are a fairly small group, compared to other breeds. It’s easy for us to talk to each other about our breeding programs. There are many of us who communicate with each other regarding where our puppies go. There are a lot of us who either get referrals from other breeders, or we send prospective puppy homes to other breeders. As a whole, we have a good idea where our puppies go and what puppies might become a part of a breeding program.

My favorite dog show memory is pretty recent. My dog was awarded Best of Breed at the Westminster Kennel Club show in 2018. I was humbled beyond words by the award. I immediately thought of all of the breeders before me and currently who have been involved in the breed a lot longer than I have who have yet to achieve that goal. I thought about the breeder, who was also my mentor, who would have been so very proud of that moment, who sadly and suddenly passed away in 2015. I so wished I could have called her to tell her the wonderful news. I thought about all of the breeders, Flat-Coat and otherwise, who have given me guidance throughout the years. I thought of all of the miles my first FCR and I traveled to shows together and what started me on the path that I’m on today.


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