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Fadó, fadó,* shortly after I got my first Flatcoat, we began gundog training, of which I knew absolutely nothing. What was blindingly obvious however was that apart from Grania’s Springers, Eddie’s Irish Water Spaniels and my Flatcoat, it was a world of Labradors. Having asked, I was told that no one bothered with other breeds because they were too difficult and took too long to train. Very early I heard the accepted wisdom expressed thus, “You can train 3 Labs and 5 Labs in the time it takes to train a Golden and a Flatcoat respectively.”

Clearly these people knew what they were doing; they competed in these trials and tests that I was hearing about for the first time. It was obvious that Labs were more suited to competitions; some young dogs were way ahead of my guy whose progress was slow but whose work was fast and very flashy. No problem for me; I was always likely to stick with flashy. Yep, I’d fallen for Flatcoats and there has never been a moment when I considered a change.

Over the decades I developed a remarkable record of failure in competitions (Don’t misunderstand me; I’ve had a wonderful time in good company and beautiful places.) and never questioned that the superiority of the Lab in competition was innate.

It is only very recently that I’ve developed doubts. Firstly, I’ve been seeing and training with a few late-developing Labs. Secondly, something crucial and significant was said to me that started me thinking: “If they’re not winning field trials by two years of age, get rid of them and get another.”

Now, I’d been aware of the age preoccupation for decades but because I’d opted for a “late maturing” breed, it was of no concern to me, and I didn’t expect my dogs to be remotely competitive until they were well over five.

Something should have stirred in me as judges almost always asked only about the age of the dog, competitors expressed themselves too embarrassed to compete at novice and preliminary levels with Labs over two – perhaps three – years old, and relatively few older ones competed even at open/advanced level.

Despite the mounting evidence, I hadn’t the slightest doubt in the old wisdom until those last seven words finally settled in, “… get rid of them and get another.”

Now, apart from my family refusing ever to speak to me again, I was never remotely likely “to move along” and replace an unsuccessful friend of mine. However, assume for a moment that I’m ambitious and prepared to be ruthless, cut my losses and bring in another pup, I still have a problem. Do you see where this is going? I couldn’t get another Flatcoat pup – especially from working lines – in a short time frame and if breeders knew that I was cutting my losses, they wouldn’t sell me a pup.**

I asked some friends who compete with minor breeds to think ruthlessly. They too immediately came up against the insurmountable problem of supply.

Right so here’s what I’m suggesting and there is no criticism implied: Labradors have come to be favoured because their success is highly visible and people want to emulate. However, that success rests on a less visible foundation.

You see, if a test/trial competitor is not happy with the progress of their young dog, starting afresh is a reasonably attractive option. They can try again pretty easily. They haven’t wasted a great deal of time and effort, and they can realise the value they’ve added to the dog they now reject, i.e. their partially trained dog is valuable and in demand.

The competitions also serve as quality control to a small industry, producing reliable gundogs from proven stock. For some at least this makes two years a commercial necessity.

Now clearly nothing I’ve said here supports any substantial change of mind about the desirability of Labs as trialling dogs. It is likely that the turnover of young dogs and the industry generally has led to very refined, working stock. However, that same facility layers-on the evidence that promotes two beliefs. Firstly, that apart from odd exceptions only Labs are worth taking to competition standard. Secondly, that once a Lab reaches, say, three years old and is not in the rosettes, it’s time to pack it in. The consequence will be to discourage competitors and potential competitors of two – one might think – types: i) those with minor breeds; and ii) those with Labradors whom they are not willing to move-on.

What’s to be done? Well, little or nothing really. Those who favour minor breeds will continue to do so. Because of the belief that their dogs are slow to mature, they will feel not the slightest embarrassment in entering older dogs in competition. If there is a problem at all, it is for Labrador owners and possibly the vitality of the sport which relies almost exclusively on Labs.

Consider someone attracted to the sport – possibly a young person – who does some research and acquires a Lab pup from proven working stock. They are really pleased with their new little friend and later doubly pleased when they join a training group and begin a working relationship. For a variety of reasons their Lab doesn’t make alarming progress but they’re still enjoying an occasional outing to run in preliminary level working tests or even a tilt at novice level – and slow progress is evident. Both are learning and having fun; there’s no problem – yet! At some stage the working retriever credo is put to them: “How old is that dog? Ah, you’ll achieve nothing with it now. Get rid of it and get another. Yeah, it may have FT Chs on both sides but that’s not a guarantee.”

It’s just as demoralising if the beginner gets the dog first as a pet and then tries to turn their hand to working it.

Occasionally a newcomer will follow the advice and go on to make up a FTCh with a later dog. Very rarely one will say “feck that for a game of soldiers” and continue to try. Most will pack it in.

Of course this doesn’t matter if the idea is to refine and confine numbers but if the idea is to increase participation, it matters.

Over the years I’ve seen late developing Labs whose progress is quite like that of the minor breeds. Moreover, shooting fields are graced by thousands of early rejects who have clearly come good with maturity.

Here’s the thought and let’s confine it to fairly good working stock: Now, if the early achievers among the Labs are excluded from consideration, would age of maturity and success in competition be very different from other breeds of retriever? I’m beginning to think not and I’m beginning to think that trainers, training groups and judges owe it to the sport to encourage those with Labs of two and three years of age – as long as there’s some sign of progress – to persist.


* It’s the Irish equivalent of the traditional storyteller’s opening, “Long, long ago …”

** I’m aware of one breeder of working Labs who will not sell to a trialer for that reason.


I tend to have more serious pieces here but in the last couple of days I became involved in a discussion of Facebook and I realised that I had a reasonably serious and developed view on the importance of being able to predict the outcome of choosing to share a home with a dog.

I’m often accused of being a “dog snob” because for many years I’ve had well-bred Flatcoated Retrievers. They suit me, I admire them, they are fun and I like their company but I’m very aware that they could drive someone else to distraction. Now, that’s essentially the point: If you want a dog, you should get one that behaves and looks as you think your dog should. In that regard a pedigree dog is a better bet; it’s to do with knowing what you are getting into and I’ll explain.

ALL breeds are man-made, contrived for some human purpose. Their purpose determines not just their appearance but their temperaments and characters. Once you begin to think that you’d like to have a dog, you can research breeds and it’s very likely that you will find one that appeals in all or enough of these aspects. For example, gundogs are friendly BECAUSE their purpose is to work closely with lots of dogs and humans. Springers, however, appear crazy BECAUSE all that running around is what they’re bred to do in flushing game. They may be impossibly active as pets but a working springer doing what could appear crazy but under control is very effective.

However, most dogs are now kept as pets and if some day your pet reverts to type, there are different outcomes. Your pet Labrador might jump into a bush and retrieve a ball that you didn’t know was there. Your pet pitbull might revert to purpose by attacking another dog or worse! Your mixed breed from the pound is probably ok but you don’t know for certain and you’ve no idea if he/she will be active or quiet, will be destructive or not etc. etc. Pedigree dogs with some horrendous exceptions tend to be quite like their parents. In other words, if you purchase a particular breed, you are relatively certain of getting what you want or at least what you expect. Of course I’m not saying that your puppy will grow up without training to be like his beautifully behaved mammy. What I am saying is that with care, attention and training, he very likely will be.

Now, the alternative view is that rescue dogs are at least as good, are much cheaper, have a high success rate, have a million cute anecdotes to support them, and that rescue is a good in itself. Moreover, this view tends to be linked to an opposition to puppy farming. I don’t disagree with any of this but my point is quite different.

My son’s dog, Amy, is here now. She’s a collie/Labrador cross, she’s fabulous and possibly the best-trained dog I’ve ever seen. I like animals and dogs in particular. It would be great if homes could be found for all of the unwanted and greater still if they turned out like Amy. The difficulty is that breeds are very, very different and getting a dog is a big decision; you live WITH them and you better get it right. Now adopting a mature rescue dog might carry a degree of certainty as you’ve some idea what you’re getting but a pup of uncertain breeding is a gamble that I wouldn’t take.

A familiar line is, “A little bit of love, training and dog socialisation classes will do wonders for a rescue dog.” I wish that were true. However, if the line is changed to read, “… will do wonders for the vast majority of rescue dogs.”, I agree.

Two more points. Firstly, price isn’t an issue. The issue is degree of certainty that on having an animal literally share your home, it works out as you would like.

Secondly, I know that puppy farms exist for popular breeds but it would be very, very wrong to tar breeders generally with that brush. The few whom I know operate very differently: They produce very few pups and always for a particular purpose, and they subscribe to a code operated by their breed association

By the way, I’m certainly not recommending Flatcoats. They are friendly, excellent house dogs, beautiful, athletic, and marvelous as working gundogs but they are very playful, boisterous, confident, intelligent and physical; that’s why they are far less popular as pets than Labradors and Golden Retrievers. If you can endure the full-on American presentation, here’s a video:

The real thing, my friend, Stevie, is watching me as I finish this. He’s so much better than the ones in the video and though young (He was two a couple of weeks ago.) he’s already a super working retriever.