In the past, I have called Flat-coated Retrievers "four-legged cancer bombs," a term I also use for Bernese Mountain Dogs, Scotties, and Scottish Deer Hounds.
In the case of the Flat-coats, a core issue has always been absolutely pointless inbreeding.
This is a dog that first entered the AKC in 1926, and which has an estimated population size, in the UK, of fewer than 68 dogs.
It does absolutely nothing that other dogs do not do just as well.
The furnace of destruction here is dog show ribbons and a sense, by Flat-coat people, that they have a dog that is a wee bit "better" than a run-of-the-mill black retriever.
This wee bit of pretension does not make Flat-coat people stupid or bad; it simply makes them human.
In fact, from what I can see, Flat-coated Retriever people tend to be smarter, better-educated and more caring than most dog owners. But have these otherwise smart and caring people embraced a breed that is a genetic mess? They have.
How did it come to this?
Simple. Let's start with the dog. As I noted in Making and Breaking Dogs In the Show Ring:
The story of Kennel Club dogs is pretty much the same from one breed to the next:
- A relatively small numbers of dogs are brought into the Kennel Club;
- The registry is closed so no new genetic material can find its way in;
- The show ring selection system results in a relatively small number of dominant (ribbon-winning) sires being elevated in the gene pool;
- The breed splits due to differences between types (coat color, size, lay of the ear), further reducing the already-small gene pool;
- An extremely condensed gene pool (10,000 dogs may have the genetic diversity of 50) means that negative recessive genes are able to easily find each other and double down within a litter, resulting in offspring with disease or deformity.
With any Kennel Club breed, the only three variables in this story are:
- The genetic quality of the dogs in the original Kennel Club pool;
- The length of time the dogs are in the Kennel Club, and;
- The degree to which the breed standard calls for negative morphological selection.
The genetic quality of the original Kennel Club pool is obviously important, but it cannot provide salvation, for even a pool of dogs without negative genetic traits is doomed under a closed registry and show-ring selection system.
So what's new?
Just this: The University of California at Davis has just put out a paper on Genetic Diversity Testing for Flat-Coated Retrievers in which they note that "Flat-Coated Retrievers have the lowest level of breed-wide genetic diversity that we have identified to date." Note the caveat; "...that we have identified to date." They have clearly not tested all the breeds yet, and they will find worse with Basenji, Portugese Water Dogs, and a few others such as Clumber and Sussex Spaniels.
What is a surprise is how cavalier (pun intended) the people who wrote this paper are about canine health. They write:
Should Flat-Coated Retriever breeders be worried about the small amount of genetic diversity that exists in the breed? If they are pleased with the appearance and health of their breed, they can accept the status quo.... According to studies sponsored by the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America (FCRSA), the average lifespan of the Flat-Coated Retriever is only about eight years, with a high percentage of deaths due to cancer.
Heather Houlahan describes the Flat-Coated Retriever as "A breed being responsibly, lovingly, expertly stewarded to extinction," which I think nails up the issue perfectly.
What is going on here with these other-wise bright and caring people?
It is simply enough: Most breeders want a registrable dog, if for no other reason than it is easier to sell a pup off to a "good" owner at a top price, and the AKC tells them they cannot out cross, and so they do not.
If you want to buy or sell a "real" Flat-coat, it has to be inbred, and it almost certainly has the seeds of defect, disease, early death, expense, and pain sewn into it.
Dog-buying customers and dog dealers are engaged in the Milgram Experiment as business plan.
Every Flat-coat buyer and breeder is turning the dial up to 11 long after the cries of pain have echoed down the hall, and long after the fall of the thudding body has been heard.
Now, they just wait for the final silence, a hauling away of the latest body, and a chance to do it all over again with a brand new pup.