I own a dog, a beautiful yellow dog. He is not a Golden Retriever, nor a Yellow Labrador, and he most certainly is not a Yellow Retriever Type Cross. He is a pure bred, registered Yellow Flatcoated Retriever. His name is Legolas – Zimzala Prince of Elves (DMA) CGC(Go) APT and he is an awesome dog. He has tons of personality, bidability, just so ready to work and excel in any field, my most endearing companion. An excellent example of everything one would expect a Flatcoat to be. He has a presence that draws the eye and everyone who meets him, or sees a photo of him usually has only one reaction, “Oh my, what a beautiful dog!” Or I should say, nearly everyone… as I have found that the Yellow Flatcoat is a sensitive topic and for reasons unknown they have some very dedicated detractors. It seems any discussion concerning the Yellow Flatcoated Retriever easily turns into a very emotionally debate. The question is, why? Why would a beautiful yellow dog lead even tempers to reach such astounding heights?
Reflecting on the accepted colours for a Flatcoat, as defined by the Breed Standard, would be a good place to start. The Breed Standard of the UK, country of origin, states colour as Black or Liver only. The American Breed Standard takes it further, reading – Solid black or solid liver. Disqualification - Yellow, cream or any color other than black or liver.
Origin of Yellow
This would lead us to the first point of discussion, if not part of the breed standard, where does the yellow colour come from? The simple answer is, it has always been there. Right from the start, 150+ years ago, at the inception of the Wavy/Flatcoated retriever, they appeared in different colours. Vero Shaw writes in Illustrated Book of the Dog (1881), – “the fashionable colour for the wavy-coated retriever is black and no other stands a chance at modern shows. In the earlier portion of its existence both black-and-tans and black-and-brindles were not disqualified …, but now a dog showing traces of these colours would certainly be kept at home for breeding purposes only”, and he continues to relate the details of seeing two golden/yellow puppies, born to Dr Bond Moore’s dog Midnight, a jet black flatcoated retriever. Brenda Phillips confirmed this range in colour when she wrote in Flatcoated Retrievers (1996), “Whatever its original breeding base, by the late 19th century the Flatcoated Retriever was established as a quality breed with great family likeness and character. The dogs were known for their beauty and for breeding true to standard. They were mainly black or liver, although other colours were permitted in the early days.”
We can thus deduce, yellow puppies were not common, but they did occur in litters, they were recognised as part of the breed, and most important, dogs of colour were used in breeding programs. In Herbert Compton’s, The Twentieth Century Dog (1904), Mr Harding Cox states, “It is a mistake to suppose that black is the only recognised colour for the retriever; a good liver, chocolate, red or even cream-coloured or white would have full recognition by any modern expert judge, if the dog was up to proper standard with regards to points of conformation, coat and symmetry.”
The next question would be, why and when were they excluded from the breed? Reading through historical literature, one is bound to notice the number of comments, by various authors, which highlights the fact that, amongst Flatcoated Retriever owners and breed enthusiasts “the vogue” or “the fashion” of the day was a demand for elegant, shiny black dogs. I would like to emphasize the use of the word “fashion”, as this indicates a proportion of supporters where selection was based solely on looks and coat colour as required of a fashion accessory or for the show ring, and not based on working ability, or conformation to breed points such as sound structure, symmetry, balance and coat quality. The Black Flat-coated Retriever was immensely popular, with entries exceeding a 100 dogs of this breed at turn of the century dog shows.
As is the case today, breeders of old bred according to public demand, and for those puppies not meeting the “requirement” there were two possible outcomes, the lucky ones were registered and kept for breeding purposes and work. The Illustrated Book of the Dog (1881) relates Dr Bond Moore, whose Wolverhampton kennel produced a number of yellow puppies, commenting, “that experience had taught him that dogs of this colour (yellow) were every bit as likely to breed puppies without a strain in colour as any other dogs in his or other kennels.” The other ghastly practice befell the unlucky ones, as described by Major T.C Lucas, in Pedigree Dog Breeding for Pleasure or Profit (1925), “These intruders (yellow puppies) were often consigned to the water-butt.” This practice seemed to continue for many decades, and sadly it seems even to this day. Mr Read Fowler commented in an article (1992), written for The Flat-coated Retriever Society’s club members, in his capacity as a serving committee member, “If any of us should produce yellows in a litter there are several things that may be done: First: rear them for sale. I saw an advertisement a year or two ago which read ‘yellow Flatcoats, the popular new variety ...’ No comment! One could immediately cull them, but that may be too hard a path to follow. I would hope that I would be able to do it.” Well, this statement leaves me feeling nauseous. Remember, this was written in 1992, not the dark ages, by the Chairman of the Flatcoated Retriever Society of the UK. It just breaks my heart when I consider how many beautiful, healthy puppies died due to his ill chosen words.
The other contributing factor to Yellows being excluded from the breed would most certainly have been the development and registration of the Golden Retriever as a separate breed. Preferring not to cull, some breeders registered their yellow puppies as Yellow Flatcoated Retrievers, as time went by the registration of yellows and goldens were combined and by 1911 The Golden Retriever Breed Club was established and recognised by the Kennel Club in 1913. The first Flatcoated retriever breed club – The Flat-coated Retriever Association – was only established in 1923, and when a panel of judges was appointed to draw up the first official Breed Standard, it stated, “Colour: Black and Liver only.” Some yellow flatcoat pups still found their way into the Golden Retriever registration, as the similarity in breed was obvious, and adding the “Yellows” to the “Goldens” probably made sense. However, as the difference in physical conformation, expression of breed traits and character between the two breeds became more pronounced, this option would have fallen away. A fact that is quite evident when considering the huge difference between the Golden retriever and Yellow Flatcoat of today.
It is relevant to note that this sad fate did not befall the Liver Flatcoats. This could probably be contributed to the fact that dogs of this colour had patrons attending to their needs, such as Mr Phizacklea and his wife, of Atherbram Kennel, to name but one.
An interesting observation, and I should believe quite incidental; the beginning of the decline of the Flatcoated Retriever as a breed, seems to correspond with the period where the yellow puppies were actively barred from the breed, and sent "elsewhere". The popularity of the Labrador retriever (recognising the yellow strain) and the Golden retriever as a breed on its own, grew beyond any expectation, leaving the Flatcoated retriever lagging behind
As a whole the fortunes of the breed continued to declined, and after World War II the FCR was just about decimated. Picking up the lines and saving the breed from extinction was a formidable task. In Flatcoated Retriever (1996) Brenda Phillips writes, “Stanley O’Neill must be given credit for his painstaking research into lines that should be used, and for advice and information he gave to other breeders. He and his wife were well known for their selfless devotion to the Flatcoat. The breed was very low in numbers, and all stock had to be used, some not of the best quality. The priority was to save the breed; breeding to type had to come later.” During this period of B registration it is quite possible that black flatcoat-like dogs, carrying a yellow gene were used. Ingemar Borelius of Kennel Friia, active in the Flatcoat world since 1971 writes , 'Another interbreeding is the one between Amelia Jessel’s Collyers Blakeholme Brewster and two Scottish interbred littermates from mixed Golden/Flatcoat breeding in 1969." I hope to have shown that YES, the Yellow gene is recessive, YES it may have been re-introduced after WW II, but NO, it is not just present in Flatcoat lines due to post war crossing with Golden or Labrador Retrievers. It has always been there, an integral part of this incredible breed.
The Flatcoated Retriever as a breed, has again come to an impasse, its future and with that the Yellow Flatcoat, depends on decisions made by owners, breeders and breed clubs today. Again, as post World War II, the breed is facing a crisis. Statistics show that 57% of all Flatcoats die of cancer, average age of onset is 8 years of age, but many dying much younger at 2 or 4 years of age. Some breeders and owners would like to discount this fact, as if hiding your head in the sand would make the monster go away. I quote from Laing & Holman’s article Flatcoated Retrievers (2012), “With even less logic it has been said that excluding the yellow gene so many years ago has been a contributing factor to the relatively high incidence of cancer in the breed. During the 1980s when cancer in the breed appeared to be unusually high, the FCRS established a committee in conjunction with the Cambridge Veterinary School, and they have been carefully monitoring the situation ever since. No single cause has ever been found and, in fact, cancer in the breed is currently no worse than in any other breed.” I so wish this statement was true. Sadly it is not, cancer is higher in our breed, but not just with regards to incidence, but especially with regards too age of onset. A study published in 2013, by Jane M Dobson, of the Veterinary Department at the University of Cambridge; on Breed Predisposition to Cancer shows and I quote,”The breeds with the highest proportional mortality for cancer in the Kennel Club/BSAVA study included the following in descending order: irish water spaniel, flat-coated retriever, hungarian wire haired vizsla….” and the list continues, but it is noteworthy that the Flatcoat is number two on the list. Too many Flatcoat owners lose their beautiful dogs at an inappropriate age, too many young, precious, and life loving flatcoats die a painful death.
Mr Read Fowler also made the comment in Yellow Flatcoats (1992),“It (the yellow gene) could probably be eliminated by a strict selective breeding programme. I doubt the result would be worth the effort, and who knows what we might lose along with the yellow factor?” Lack of genetic diversity plays a major role in the onset of hereditary conditions, immune deficiency and incidence of cancer in pure bred dogs. Researchers Pieter A Oliehoek, Piter Bijma and Arie van der Meijden conclude in their paper published in Genetics Selection Evolution (2009) with the following comment, ”Often dog breeding is only authorised with animals meeting specific criteria. These selection criteria, like show qualification and health status reports, often strongly limit number of animals used in breeding. Moreover, certain specific animals are genetically important, but in practice these animals are not used at all because they do not meet the previously mentioned selection criteria. Therefore selection criteria may unintentionally accelerate loss of genetic and/or potential diversity, which is harmful for populations as a whole.” The majority of Flatcoat breeders and all breed clubs have been, and continue to exclude the Yellow Flatcoat and all its genes from the gene pool, solely based on colour prejudice, despite the fact that there are no known health issues attributed to the yellow gene. This practice does not even begin to make sense.
I don’t propose to have the answers, but am asking the questions. Can there be any benefit for an already strained gene pool, to be discarding healthy genes, based on colour only? What is the value in excluding beautiful healthy dogs, based on the decision of a panel of judges, who faced a totally different set of circumstances, 100 years ago? What made sense then is not necessarily relevant today. Stanley O’Neill, breed specialist who diligently fought for the survival of the Flatcoat 60+ years ago, wrote, as published in The British Yearbook (1957), “The Standard itself could be more informative and does not always conform to the rules accepted up to its publication in 1924. It must be remembered that Standards were not universally authoritative documents they seem to be considered to-day and the authors of ours certainly never considered it in that light.” He continues, “Many of our breed standards are just rough agreements or contracts drawn up by themselves by practical breeders owing no great skill as draughtsmen or overmuch bothered with visions of the future.”
This brings us back, full cirlce to the Breed Standard specifying, "Colour: Black and Liver only". It is necesary that we take note of the fact that Yellow is considered a "fault" and some would consider it a serious fault, but please be aware that in the UK, country of origin, it is NOT a disqualifying fault! This fact leads us to another point of interest in the breed standard where guidance are provided when judging faults. "Faults: Any departure from the foregoing points should be considered a fault and the seriousness with which the fault should be regarded should be in exact proportion to its degree and its effect upon the health and welfare of the dog ". Based on this, Yellow should not be regarded as a serious fault at all, as it poses NO threat, in any degree to the health and welfare of the dog. And yet, so many frantically cling to our standard's stipulation of; ”Black and Liver only”, despite the fact that it has, and still does, condemn beautiful healthy dogs to their deaths, and sadly contributes to the demise of our wonderful breed as a whole.
(A. de Wet - March 2021)