Yellow Flatcoated Retrievers

Posted in KUSA Canine Health Schemes

There has been increased interest in the Flatcoated Retriever in recent years, in its acknowledged colours of black and liver.  However, yellow puppies can very occasionally make an appearance, giving rise to speculation and some rather surprising claims concerning perceived health benefits from the yellow gene.  We feel that the following recognised, internationally accepted and scientifically proven facts will be of interest to all gundog owners.  We are grateful for advice from the Flatcoated Retriever Society (FCRS) in the UK, and permission to reproduce information from the Society booklet.

Before going any further we need to look at the Breed Standard, which was originally drawn up in 1923.  This stated that the colour was black, liver being accepted later in the 1940s.  The Flatcoated Retriever is a UK breed, and the British Breed Standard states unequivocally that the Standard is Black or Liver only.  The American Breed Standard goes a little further and states: “Color: Solid black or solid liver.  Disqualification – Yellow, cream or any color other than black or liver”.

The origin of the yellow gene can be found in the history of the breed and one of the claims being made in favour of yellows is that it shows this history.  This is true, but is it either necessary or desirable to breed away from the Standard to prove this?  The FCRS booklet states: “In the early 1900s Labradors and Golden Retrievers were emerging as breeds in their own right but, as bloodlines were short, interbreeding was often carried out and the same dogs could be found in Flatcoat, Labrador and Golden pedigrees”.  After the Second World War Flatcoats had become scarce, as gamekeepers had been called up and breeding was very restricted, so the outcrossing of the Flatcoat with the Golden or Labrador was due to sheer necessity to preserve the breed, not to provide colourful litters in years to come. To again quote the Society booklet: “When most of the cross breeding was taking place genetics, and the mode of inheritance, was not widely known or even considered”.  Most certainly it was never envisaged that the yellow gene would be re-introduced many years later.

Black is a dominant inherited colour and unless both parents carry yellow genes only black puppies are produced.  The recessive gene, resulting from a Golden or Labrador being crossed with a pure black Flatcoat, can be hidden for many generations until two parents carrying yellow genes are mated, which can result in yellow puppies.

With regard to registration, following the Second World War “2nd Class Registration” was allowed, based on a physical assessment of correct type by a breed authority.  Progeny of the 'B' register dogs were eligible for Kennel Club registration.  Currently in the UK yellow puppies can be registered as non-standard colour, but the registration should also be endorsed “progeny not eligible for registration”.  The dogs are unable to be shown.  In South Africa yellow puppies can also be registered and it is hoped that new owners would appreciate that they should never be bred from.  Obviously if a black or liver puppy comes from a litter containing yellows, this puppy could also carry the yellow gene.  Pedigrees need to be carefully examined to ensure that there is no likelihood of both lines carrying this hidden gene.  Yellow Flatcoats are rarely seen in the UK these days due to colour testing of parents, and the FCRS does not encourage the breeding of yellow puppies.  When there is a very small gene pool, as in South Africa, the situation could arise where a relatively high percentage of dogs could be carrying the yellow gene, which would mean careful selection in the future.  In fact this would create a stranglehold for breeders wishing to honour accepted practices, since a breeder can control only one generation.

According to the FCRS booklet, the main reason for not breeding from the yellow Flatcoat is due to the fact that it is “very similar to a Golden Retriever and it would not be beneficial for either breed, being closely linked in type, to have the same colour within their Breed Standard.  They could easily be bred together, or with black Flatcoats and then bred back to black dogs again.  Due to the black gene being dominant the yellow gene can remain hidden but other genes can also be inherited”.  We understand this to mean that there would be a very real possibility of transferring any genetic problems between Golden Retrievers and Flatcoats.

The booklet goes further to state: “In the UK it is considered unethical to breed from a yellow Flatcoat and the Society recommends that yellow producing dogs and bitches are not used for breeding”.

Extraordinary claims have been made regarding health benefits.  it has been said that the incidence of cancer diminishes when yellows are included in the breeding programme.  This theory has been tested on local Vets and met with scepticism.  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.

The internet is a valuable tool but can also be a misleading one, in that much information is theoretical and unproven, or based on conjecture or anecdotal evidence.  There are links to sites in the USA which support the idea that the yellow gene is less likely to carry cancer.  One Kennel maintains that cross breeding is the only way to maintain a healthy gene pool and that the yellow gene should be re-introduced to reduce the apparent high incidence of cancer in the breed.  However, this Kennel has also made extraordinary and, to the purist, quite appalling genetic mutations to the Flatcoat, mating it to the American Cocker Spaniel, using black, liver and yellow, in the creation of a hybrid retriever.  This Kennel is, by its own admission, young, with many young dogs, and breeds AKC Flatcoated Retrievers, AKC American Cocker Spaniels and AKC Long Hair Weimaraners.  Their claim is that with 100+ puppies there have been no problems with hip/elbow dysplasia, PRA, cancer or any other genetically predisposed condition.  It is difficult to give credence to this extravagant claim.

In conclusion it appears that the yellow Flatcoat is in a canine no man's land, labelled by his own breed as non-standard colour and unacceptable as a Golden.  Surely, as people who love this beautiful breed we should accept the Standard as it was established so many years ago, and respect those who worked hard to maintain it?  We need to be responsible with this legacy and with the careful mentoring that has come down through the years.  In South Africa we owe it to the first people who imported the Flatcoat from the UK in the 1960s to maintain the correct standard.  Anything less is indeed hazardous to the future of the breed.

Jane Laing – Woodside Flatcoated Retrievers
Diane Holman – Trevena Retrievers