Back in the day, the Flat-Coated Retriever was developed as a retriever that could work on land and in water (or as the Brits said, “wildfowling” and “waterfowling”), and that made it unique among retrievers for a very long time.
Some affectionados have said that the coat makes this breed (which, we suspect, some might say is debatable), but as a working retriever, it is important. Those of us who don’t live and/or work with a sporting breed might not be able to appreciate that the coat these dogs are born with – and the only one they’ll ever have – must provide protection from weather, water and ground cover, and by water, we mean being in water. It has to have the right texture, length, density and fullness to offer adequate insulation, and if it doesn’t, today’s hunter will become quickly frustrated. Yesteryear’s hunter would simply have had no use for a dog at all that was punished by a raw winter dawn.
The ideal coat is straight and ﬂat lying, and it’s said that what gave this breed a coat that lays flat are the breeds that S.E. Shirley (one of the founders of England’s Kennel Club) used to develop it, and those were the St John’s Water dog, water spaniels, and possibly Scotch collies. Indeed, the FCI standard calls for the Flat-Coated Retriever’s coat to be “as flat as possible.” The AKC’s illustrated guide offers as a helpful instruction to, “Push the coat forward, against the lay of the coat, from the middle of the back past the withers, to determine length of coat, fullness and lay. It is normal to see the dog’s skin as the hair parts. The hairs should be straight, the coat full, and the coat should fall back into place naturally.”
Still, the AKC standard allows for a slight waviness, a nod to a time when the breed was known as the “Wavy-Coated Retriever,” or the “Wavy Coated Black Retriever,” possibly from ancient genes that may have included a setter or two.
In the end, the Flat Coated Retriever is probably the only retriever that has been both a show dog and a hunting dog for the whole time it has been in existence, and as far as we can tell, there’s been no diminishment in either the beauty of ability of this wonderful breed.