The Flat-Coated Retriever Dog Breed | The ‘Un-Generic’ Retriever

I have written about the Flat-Coated Retriever Dog Breed before and have referred to it as the “un-generic” retriever. I will still lead off with that: Un-generic.

When you first set eyes on a Flat-Coated Retriever with good type, I promise, you will smile. Everything, from the perfectly molded skull and dark eyes, to the tip of the sleek, feathered tail, is pleasing. So, how do I best describe this truly unique breed? Let’s start with a brief history to understand utility, and describe the ideal size, substance, and proportions to further understand its singularity.

Image of Flat-Coated Retriever dog walking
The Moving Silhouette should be balanced, free-flowing and well-coordinated, with good reach and drive.

The Flat-Coated Retriever dog breed was developed in Britain in the mid-to-late 1800s. Originally known as Wavy-Coated Retrievers, the breed likely descended from the St. John’s Newfoundland, crossed with a variety of other breeds such as Setters and Water Spaniels. It was developed as a moderate, lean retriever with more endurance than its heavier predecessors, but with the same keen nose and soft mouth for retrieving on both land and water. The breed was established as the Wavy-Coat, known for its marcel waves of black coat, differentiating it from the Curly-Coat. It was later named the Flat-Coated Retriever and is now commonly referred to as the Flat-Coat. In early days, they were mainly black or liver, although other colors existed. Today, only black and liver are permitted to compete in conformation, and yellow is the only disqualification listed in the official standard.

According to the breed standard, the Flat-Coat has traditionally been described as showing: “Power without lumber and raciness without weediness.” It also calls for a moderately-sized dog, with a preferred height of between 23 to 24 1/2 inches at the withers for dogs, and 22 to 23 1/2 inches at the withers for bitches. There is no disqualification for height, but note that the Flat-Coat should be slightly longer than tall. It would be the goal for breeders of quality dogs to be well within these parameters, but there are occasions in which a dog or bitch may fall one inch below the preferred standard or stand one inch above. A reasonable practice would be to find a dog of good type and quality before using size as a consideration.

Flat-Coated Retriever dog
The croup should be very slightly rounded, with tail well set on. The tail should be fairly straight and be carried happily, but not above the backline.

One of the most distinctive features of the Flat-Coated Retriever dog breed is its elegant headpiece. When viewed from all angles, it should give the impression of a one-piece, molded head with minimal stop. I often describe it to future judges as being carved from a single brick of clay. The backskull should not be wide, and ears should be level with the eye, not placed high on the head. The dog should have an alert and kind expression, with dark, almond-shaped eyes set widely apart. The zygomatic arch should be clean and flush, the foreface should be well-filled. The underjaw should be full, and lips should have a clean finish. The neck should be free of throatiness. A scissors bite is preferred, and a level bite is acceptable.

Even though the headpiece of the Flat-Coat is one of its most distinguishable characteristics, at times the emphasis on head is so heavily weighted that the overall silhouette is lost. So, not to make this mistake, consider the head as part of the overall silhouette, as it should not be weighted on its own. The breed standard specifically speaks to the Flat-Coat’s unique standing and moving silhouette. Judges should consider all placements with this in mind. Head planes should be visible from the standing and moving outline, with the moving silhouette being of utmost importance. (What often pleases the eye while standing may not always translate when moving.) There are some very key elements to the silhouette and to the build and proportions of the Flat-Coated Retriever that equate to type.

Flat-Coated Retriever dog
One of the key elements contributing to the outline is the prow. It should be prominent and well-developed.

The standing silhouette should be comprised of several easily identifiable body parts. One-piece head, proper length of neck, shoulder layback with equal return of upper arm, prow, deep rib cage, return of rib, level topline, slight rounding to the croup with tail held off the back, and moderate rear angulation. Moving from the undeniable headpiece towards the hindquarters, the Flat-Coated Retriever dog breed has a strong, slightly arched neck. The neck should be moderately long, and the neck-to-shoulder transition should be smooth, with not only good layback of shoulder, but also good lay-in. At times, we see short or ewe necks, which consequently affect reach. Flat-Coats that lack prow and forechest should be faulted. This is one of the key elements contributing to the outline and should be high in consideration. It should be prominent and well-developed. The underline of the dog should have a deep chest, tapering to a moderate tuck-up. The topline should be strong and level. A weak topline is often a product of a short rib cage. Rib cage should be deep, with good length and good return, and should be gently sprung, described in the standard as a blunted triangle. The loin should be well-muscled and long enough to allow the dog to sufficiently move, but never weak or loosely coupled. The croup should be very slightly rounded, with tail well set on. The tail should be fairly straight and carried happily. Steep croups are a bit of a problem as of late, affecting the overall outline of the dog—and often the set and carriage of the tail. Tail should be well-feathered and carried not much above the level of the back.

Flat-Coated Retrievers Dogs

The neck should be moderately long, and neck-to-shoulder transition should be smooth, with not only good layback of shoulder, but also good lay-in. The Flat-Coat head has a foreface that is well-filled, with dark, almond-shaped eyes. Stop is barely perceivable. It’s important to understand that overall balance is key.

With all parts and pieces considered, it important to understand that overall balance is key—balance front to rear and balance shoulder to ground. The front should not be too over loaded and conversely the rear should not appear weak. The length from the withers to the elbow should be equal to the length of the elbow to the ground.

With the correct proportions and silhouette as described above, when viewed from the side, Flat-Coats should cover ground efficiently without choppy or mincing steps. The movement appears balanced, free-flowing and well-coordinated. Front and rear legs reach well forward and drive well back, achieving long, clean strides. The topline should be level and strong while the dog is in motion. A truly typey, well-balanced animal while moving
is undeniable.

Understanding the temperament of the Flat-Coated Retriever dog breed is also key to understanding the breed. A nervous, hyperactive, apathetic, shy or obstinate dog is highly undesirable. Any aggressive behavior toward people or animals is totally unacceptable. The Flat-Coat is a versatile dog with a desire to work and please. The Flat-Coat in competition is known to have a wagging tail at most times. I have witnessed judges becoming annoyed at the wagging Flat-Coat. My advice to them? Decline the assignment.

I was asked to include the health and longevity of the Flat-Coated Retriever to this article. With regards to health, the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America recommends all breeding stock be clear of hip dysplasia and patella abnormalities by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or a board-certified veterinary equivalent. Eyes should be cleared annually by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist. Eye conditions to be screened for in breeding stock include Progressive Retinal Atrophy, Cataracts, and a predisposition for narrow angles that can lead to Secondary
Glaucoma. Cancer is a primary concern in the breed, but through utilization of genetic diversity when breeding, dedicated breeders are seeing added longevity to the breed. The average life span of all
retrievers combined is about 10 years. The Flat-Coated Retriever is not an exception.

So, when you have the privilege to observe the Flat-Coated Retriever at work or play, or you have the opportunity to judge them, please remember to bring your smile. A properly built Flat-Coated Retriever that oozes type, tail wagging incessantly, will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

  • Marla Doheny has been involved in the sport of purebred dogs since she was a young child. Her fascination with the utility of the purebred dog has led her to a lifetime of involvement and continuing education. She breeds under the pre-fix, Valhala, and currently resides in Florida and Connecticut.

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