A conversation with The Hon. Mrs Amelia Jessel

The following article was originally published in the Autumn 2000 Society Newsletter.

When did you have your first Flatcoat?

That’s a funny sort of question. Because although my very own first Flatcoat was in 1955, my Father owned a Flatcoat before the war. I suppose about 1935 and had it trained up in Scotland by a very well known man called David Black. I was terrified of dogs and my Aunt, who had a lovely little black Cooker, used to have to make it lie down in the room and “die for the King” and it was not allowed to get up until I had gone.

You were frightened of dogs?

Terrified of dogs, I would cross the road in order to avoid a dog on the pavement. It stays with me still slightly. Anyway, during the War, my father was away a lot at sea. He was a Naval Officer and he left his dog, a Flatcoated Retriever, behind. It was, first of all, looked after by my elder Sister and then by me and I absolutely worshipped him. He was called Don. One day I came home from school and found he was dead. He had picked up some sort of poison and l was totally shattered. My Father was so sorry for me he bought me a Golden Retriever – a trained Golden Retriever – and that was when I first started working dogs. It was in 1942. And then I got married in 1950 and when we moved to the country which was 1952/53, I wanted a dog and in 1955 I got my first Flatcoated Retriever from Read Flowers. I went to Barbara Hall who was then Secretary of the Society to ask her if she knew of any. That was the beginning and that eventually became a Champion – a full champion, Ch. Asperula. There weren’t Show Champions then.

You say you worked your Flatcoats, but did you show as well?

I actually started showing her, as Read used to show in those days, but I got her working certificate as soon as she had her first 0.0., before she became a Champion which I was determined to do. She was the first dog I trained myself. She was my foundation bitch.

What was her breeding?

She was by Denmere Prince out of Ch. Pewcroft Proper who was bred by Stanley O’Neil. I bred from her three litters and in one of them was a lovely bitch called Collyers Patch, but I could not breed from her because she had something wrong inside. She was the one who should have carried on my line as she was such a good bitch – won a Field Trial. My bitch line came from the last litter.

When do you start training?

Ah, that is a bit like how long is a piece of string. I start training right from the very beginning, without them really knowing, in all sorts of ways:- coming when they are called – sitting – knowing the word NO (very important) how to get into the car – and not to come out of the kennel until they are called.

Are your dogs always kennelled?

Half-and-half. They are basically always kennelled outside, but they take it in turns to come in at various times during the day. But there are kennels so that I can leave them out there.

How many dogs do you have now?

I have seven.

How many Flatcoats?

Only two – awful. I must get another one.

Why – do you find Labradors easier?

Certainly, I have done better in Field Trials with Labradors, which is what I like to do. It is much more difficult to bring a dog up to the very high standard of Open Stakes than it used to be and it is even more difficult with a Flatcoat.

Do you go along with the saying that some say that you can train three Labradors to one Flatcoat?

No, I don’t think I do. I don’t agree at all with the generalisation that they are slow to learn, and M also say that they don’t want to touch the dog until it is a year old, but by that time it has so many bad habits you can’t get them out of the dog.

Is there a difference between slow to learn, slow to train and slow to retain and to do as you are told?

Yes possibly, but the thing about Flatcoats is that they are definitely different from the Labrador, but a bit similar to the Golden in that they are much more ebullient.

A little bit more independent of thought?

I don’t know about that, sometimes perhaps. The main difference is that at first your goose is a lovely swan for a long time, and it is marvellous, and you think you have the best dog, but when you get on to the real thing, their noses take over from their heads and they then become more difficult. With a Labrador, you can say don’t go after that rabbit or pheasant or whatever, and it will turn around and come back again, while a Flatcoat will just go straight on.

When you are looking at a litter of Flatcoats, and are looking for one for work, assuming that you have a line that you like, how do you pick the one to trial?

l am not the one to ask. I am hopeless at picking dogs, all my successes have been complete chance. The only person I knew that could really pick a dog was Colin Wells. He was always able to produce the same type of dog having picked it out of its Iitter – I don’t know how he did it, but he had a genius for doing that. But I can’t. Every time I think I am right I am not. I can’t pick out Labradors either. The only one I might have picked out was Patch (that was the little one I could not breed from), she used to sit at the back of the kennel very upright and look at me in an interested way and not go rushing around being silly, but would just sit there, and I did pick her out.

Now a totally different subject – I heard that you once ran away to the Circus? That puts you in a different light – our President ran away to the Circus!

Well not quite. My family knew about it. My older sister was trying to write a book about it, she was a children’s book writer and was living in the circus so my other sister and I used to go and stay with her. We were always given a job to do. I helped to look after the horses, dogs, hippo, monkeys, snakes and flying foxes – There has been a bit of poetic license in the telling of the tale – there is no doubt that I would have liked to. l was going to ride the high school horse in the ring, but unfortunately, the horse had an accident and I could not.

How many posts have you held within the Society?

Committee member, Secretary, – never Chairman, but Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Field Trial Committee and now President since 1994. I was elected to the Committee in the late ’50s and I became Secretary early ‘60’s – I think I was Secretary for 20 years. It was not so bad at the start. The Society went from barely 100 members and when I finished it was nearly 2,000. By that time we had started things like the Newsletter etc. I think that Nancy used to have a little Newsletter and then we started the Year Book and made the Newsletter much bigger.

Have you seen a lot of difference in the Flatcoats over the years?

Well yes, I suppose a lot of difference. When I look back to the beginning you would be lucky if you had as many as 12 Flatcoats at a Show. I think that now the overall quality is much higher. You had much more variation between the best and the worst in the old days. I don’t think the best have changed that much. I think they are more or less still the same, but there are more of the really good ones.

Do you enjoy judging Championship Shows?

Yes, I do.

Did you know that you have judged Flatcoats at more Championship shows than anyone else judging today? Do you prefer to Judge a Field Trial? ‘

Yes, I do. It is much more interesting, such funny things can happen, whereas in a Show you are doing the same thing all the time. However, it is most important and I think there is something that we need to do as Show Judges. Most things that are happening in life are changing and trying to improve, but I think that dogs should conform to a standard. I think that you have got to go back in your mind to that standard as you see it or you find that a sort of ‘drift‘ happens. This has happened already with the other gundog breeds. I don’t know anything about any breeds other than gundogs. When you look at the old Labradors that were shown for instance, from around the first World War, they were a different dog to that which is shown now. However, if you look back at some of the photographs of working Labs, they are also almost identical to those of today, but the show ones have changed.

Do you think the Flatcoats have changed?

No, but certainly the Goldens have, and the Springer Spaniels and I think it is because people have slowly changed what they look tor. They think it ought to be just a little bit of this or that and bit by bit the Judges‘ eyes change what they are looking for, and this is quite dangerous. I think that as a Show judge you should always go back and think for yourself – and what I always think when I cannot decide between two dogs is what would Colin Wells have done – because he, I think, was a marvellous judge of dogs.

Do you think that you can still look at a Flatcoat and not say that is primarily working or that is a Show Dog?

No, you can’t tell.

Are there certain lines that you think are more work orientated?

Oh yes, certainty.

Do you think that is a good thing?

Yes, I think it has to be.

Do you think that the breed will split?

I am afraid that it probably will.

There are an awful lot of people that enjoy working their dogs. Maybe not to Field Trial standard, but working nevertheless.

Yes. but the danger that Dr Laughton always said was that if you don’t go back into the work in every second or third generation you are going to lose the ability.

Yes, but it depends on how you are going to define the word work.

You need a quiet dog, a biddable dog and a dog with a good mouth, Those three things are all hereditary. If you don’t check that they are still going on in your breed in the shooting field, and it has to be in the shooting field, these three things cannot be tested anywhere else. You can‘t be certain you are not breeding unsuitable dogs for work. You have got to have a calm temperament The only way you can prove that your dog works are some yardstick like the Shooting Dog Certificate or Field Trial – you can’t test in a WorkingTest about mouth or whining. Biddability you can, to a certain extent.

Some dogs go up two or three gears on the real thing.

Yes, but some don’t and they never will.

The problem is that there are a number of people that would very much like to have the opportunity of experiencing the real thing and cant get that chance if they dont have an in” to the real thing like a husband who shoots or a contact.

I think if you really want to you can. I know it is not easy, but if you are really interested you can. I always quote the case of Brian Wheatley, a very good Field Trial man who lived in North London and he brought his dogs up to the highest possible standard simply by going out and finding keepers to talk to and finding land to train on.

Any tips you can pass on to anyone buying a Flatcoat and who wants to help to keep it dual purpose?

I train in such a way that at first the puppy does not know that I am training it. I do things like bashing buckets about and making sudden noises so that it does not become gun-shy.

Do many Flatcoats become gun-shy?

A few. I have had gun nervy ones. I did actually once breed one that I sold to someone who sent it to someone totally unsuitable to train and they must have frightened her out of her wits because she became apparently gun-shy and so I said I would have her back and see what I could make of her. Every time I even lifted my stick, which was not a gun at all, she fled and l was still determined that she was not gun-shy and was only gun nervy. I got her all right in the end by letting her run into the water and retrieve after each bang. She became perfectly all right and was an excellent gun’s dog for years and years. It is important that you treat every dog as if it might be gun shy and introduce it carefully by getting someone else to fire the gun some way away so that you can be with it and reassure it.

l have heard of the occasional Flatcoat that does not like picking up feather – what can you do?

There are various things. You can fill a sock with feathers or, if you have a bird you can put it in the sock and let a few feathers come through, and then let the wings fall out and gradually it will get right. There are some people that say that their dog is getting runners at 8 months, but you have to be so careful. A dog can be absolutely ruined. There is something that some Flatcoats are rather sensitive about and that is delivery. I have had several that either doesn’t want to give the retrieve to me or they just run around. There are so many things that you can do about it so easily. I have one now. If it picks up something you don’t want it to and you make a cross noise it will rush away and try and hide. But if, as soon as it picks something up you say what a good dog aren’t you wonderful, it will come up perfectly alright. They are very sensitive about that, you have to be very careful.

I was thinking more about those who mark beautifully, pick up, but have to show the whole world before returning?

Ah well, that is all in the initial training. You should do a lot of work making it sit with something in his mouth and then give it to you and then give it back.

Do you think that a lot of people are Inclined to rush the initial training?

Yes probably, l have always maintained that a Flatcoat is a natural retriever which some breeds may not be. I have got to the belief that you have got to do a certain amount of actual training because then you have got something to fall back on when things start to go wrong. If you have trained it the right way from the word go, like putting the dummy in its mouth and telling it good dog etc. and then when it is good at doing that you sit it a little way away and call it into you. It is a very long boring business, but it is well worth it in the end. So, if you later get the situation when your dog does not come back you have a command that the dog understands and the dog won‘t start running around you. You will find that none of the professionals will have a bad delivery because they all do this. Peter Griffiths was terribly good. He bought Twill which was by my Raffles and he said could you tell me anything I ought to do to cover things that it might have inherited from Raffles, and I said that one of his failings was that he was bad about delivery. Peter was determined that his dog was going to be good and he really worked on that dog and he had a beautiful delivery because he knew initially that he had to really concentrate on that and if you do concentrate on it you will get over it. You must not let them run around and round but get to some really quiet place and stop it.

If you want to get a message through to Flatcoat owners trying to train theirdog, what would it be?

There is one thing that I do notice with novice trainers and that is they say “Oh my dog is a baby and can’t do this”. It is possible to teach your dog between 6 and 9 months: heelwork which should be really good, sitting and staying, throwing things around them – not letting them go for everything, drag things past their noses, get children to run past them. You can’t do too much of that sort of thing. Always keep it separate from the retrieving, because the retrieving is fun and the other is just boring old slog. However, most Flatcoats enjoy heelwork if it has been taught properly, you can’t do better than follow an obedience book about that. I have started them all with obedience and I have never had trouble with heelwork. Just because it is nine months there is no excuse for not doing that. Six to nine months you should be able to teach it anything like that and get to a pretty high standard. There is no excuse in saying it is too young to start a Flatooat. Say you were in a Puppy Test, you had to do a little bit of heelwork and then set it down and walk away. No excuse to say that it is too young at about a year and a half, which is what people do say. One can do a lot in the garden because it is enclosed and the dog is near enough to control and not be distracted.

And another thing that one can do a lot of, not to bore the dog, which is one of the worst things, is to hunt the dog. It is almost better if you yourself don’t know where the dummy is. Get the dog in the area and on a signal let it hunt that area until it finds the dummy, but keep the dog within the area.

How much training do you do – how often?

That varies terribly with the dog’s temperament, but what I like to do with a puppy is two or three, five-minute sessions a day.

Did you enjoy judging the Flatcoat Working Test in May?

Yes, I did, very much – it’ was quite interesting.

Did you realise there were a lot of show people working their dogs and that many owners attempt to do a bit of both?

I was not very impressed with the dogs in the first test which was a mark across some ground and up a bank. Hardly any dog did that right – and it really wasn’t very difficult. It was quite interesting because I thought it was going to be a doddle, but it wasn’t. The first few dogs were very depressing, they didn’t seem to mark very well, got to the ditch and then went mad rushing up and down and did not go over the bank. Open dogs, they should have experienced that sort of thing before.

What do you think is the worst fault in a Flatcoat, working wise?

It is very difficult to tell what is genetic and what is the fault of the handler because we have so few that are trained by top-class handlers. One doesn’t know if a fault is something that is the fault of the handler or of the dog.

Do you think there will ever be a Flatcoat Field Trial Champion again?

Oh yes, there should be. Now there is something I was thinking of. I believe in our breed we have all the right ingredients because the few dogs that have become Field Trial Champions or very nearly so have shown that they have the ability. The difficulty is getting all the right ingredients into the same dog – this is where I think it is very difficult. It is an old old argument that has gone on for many years. I remember ages ago when Wilson Stephens was very much in the breed. He bred FT Ch Hartshorn Sorrel (trained and owned by Major Harry Wilson in Northern Ireland) and he always maintained that it was not possible to be dual purpose successfully. It is hard to be the best in both, as you always have to sacrifice something on either side. That is why we have such difficulty in competing against labradors who are actually bred specifically for Field Trials and have been for a number of years.

Once trained, do you continue the training on a regular basis?

Yes, I do. It gives them exercise and if one does stop during the Summer they become quite rusty. The big trouble with a lot of novice people is that they overdo it. They do too much retrieving and then the dog gets bored, but I train them every day of my life with something. I drop a dummy and send them back – it helps to give them exercise and it helps their brains work a bit, particularly their memory.

How can you stop a Flatcoat bringing back two dummies?

Why just Flatcoats? Any dog can bring back two dummies. It is quite easy to train them not to by putting down two dummies quite close together and get them to pick up one and then go back for the other. It is all in the training – and one can get other people to help you. One of the things that is quite useful in stopping them from switching is to get a friend out training with you to throw a dummy to the left and then to hide a dummy to the right. The marked dummy is then picked up by the friend, but the dog does not see this and then you send it for the one that it has marked. You must then pull it away from that area and send it for the one it has not seen. That will teach the dog that it has to obey you always whether it thinks it is there or not. It will be very difficult to pull the dog off that dummy at first, but as it is not there it can’t pick it up.

What do you think the Society can do to help people who want to train their dogs?

Well, they already do quite a lot – they run several Working Tests.

I was thinking more in the training sense.

Well, I think we would all get on very much better if we went to any variety training and trained with goldens or labradors – because we would learn from the other people and we would get our dogs up to a better standard. There are very few places around the country that you can’t find training classes of some sort. I started that way. I personally think that that is one of the big faults of Flatcoat owners because someone laughs at them and says ‘Oh well that’s a Flatcoat’ they rise to it and they should not take any notice. I have had lots of people who have said to me ‘Oh my God those fluffy dogs again’ of course it is going to do something awful – you just have to live with that – and prove that your dog is just as good as the others. This is something that really ought to be said and that there is a fear among Flatcoat people, particularly novice people and that is that people with other gundog breeds are against Flatcoats, but they are not if they are good and successful.

I have heard that if you have a Labrador Judge on a Field Trial he will look down on a Flatcoat?

No, not if it is good enough. A lot of my friends in the top echelons of Field Trials have said, “I wish I could have a really good Flatcoat”. When Joan Marsden was being so successful a lot of people said’ it was wonderful to see a Flatcoat working well. Peter Griffiths was beginning to do well and Chris Gwilliam also has been complimented a lot. I have always tried to encourage Flatcoat people to go in for Any Variety things – don’t just stick to breed things or you will never get any further.

I just think that many of us are a little bit reticent about this.

Yes, I know you are, but you shouldn’t be.

I suppose more should put in for their Shooting Dog Certificate?

Yes, they should – most are happily surprised when they do the SDC. They arrive trembling and after their dog has picked a few birds, and we do a lot of sort of picking up behind guns and work in the woods, they become relaxed and enjoy it. There are some names coming forward and as soon as l have four I can look for a ground. Last year was very disappointing as we only had one.

I think it is the fear of failure, your dog letting you down or you letting your dog down.

Yes, this is understandable, I still feel terrified – although success does help a little. Judging working tests you have the points system and Field Trials you have A or B or A+ or A- or B+ or B-. If you give a dog a B it is probably the kiss of death, but in the working tests you judge differently (out of 20 say) and if it is a borderline case as the judge you wonder if you should give it 16 or 17. You give it 16 and somebody could win by one point when you could have so easily have given it 17. It is very difficult.

I have heard recently that if you have a 0 you cant appear in the awards?

Yes, that is so, but one should consider Working Tests a sort of training exercise and then that does not matter a bit.

I always find it disappointing in tests because of what they do and not what I know they can do.

Well, the reason may be that they have not had enough experience on different grounds and different situations. I am always having an awful battle as I firmly think that Working Tests should just be a means to an end and should not be an actual sport in themselves.

Where do you think the breed is going?

That depends on whether that is where I think it will go, or where I think it ought to go. I think it will go the way of the Labradors in the show ring most probably because, unfortunately, we are not so strong on the working side. I think it will split between the work and the show. I think the working side may go completely – the competitive working side – because they will no longer be able to compete with the other breeds. I hope that won’t happen. I think, and the Society is to blame to a certain extent. that we have got so strong on the show side and not so on the working side, and that we should actively try to breed better working dogs.

I think that it is not that there are fewer people working, but just that the show has got much greater.

I think that is probably right, but the working side has not increased at the same rate which is what it should have done.

I know that you believe that if you have the will you can work, but it is much easier to get into the show scene.

Of course, it is because it is much easier to show a dog. I used to love it and spend hours standing around in the ring. I probably spend just as much if not more time standing around at a Field Trials but the achievement in the work is so much greater. I suppose breeding a good show dog is an achievement. I hope very much that they are not going to be turned into trimmed poodles. I disagree so much with excessive trimming. Some people are trimming right down the pasterns – poodle feet – so that they have lovely feathered legs and then these funny little feet at the bottom. They should look as if they have not been trimmed, that is my opinion.

Do you think the breed is getting larger?

I don’t think they should be too big. I think I would rather go for a good small one than a good big one if I had to choose between the two. I think they have seriously got bigger.

Why do you think they have got bigger?

I don’t really know, I had two very big dogs, Don and his son Corker (Collyers Mannered and Tarncourt Ranger of Collyers). Corker produced Claverdon Rattles of Collyers and Raffles was just an ordinary size.

So you had no hesitation in breeding your big dog to something smaller?

No I did not, but l hoped that it would not get any bigger – Corker did sire a very big dog, but a good one, Peggy Miller’s Emanon Water Starwort.

Now, just one or two questions that come to mind – your own most memorable dog?

It has to be Ft Ch Werrion Redwing of Collyers by Wizardwood Sandpiper ex Collyers, Juno. There could have been no more exciting moment than when I made her up. She won three Open Stakes, one of which was an Any Variety and many AV awards.

Do you prefer dogs to bitches – do you find a difference in training bitches to dogs?

I have had equal success, really, with both sexes. Most important is the temperament, not the sex.

Is your line continuing – are you still breeding?

My bitch line, sadly, has almost petered out – my fault – but my dog line from Ch Collyers Blakeholme Brewster is still going strong through Raffles which produced among others Varingo Richboy, Greatwood Moonraker of Riversflight and Mister Mustard Seed, all winners of Field Trials. l have only dogs now.

Are there any other comments you would like to make?

I would like to see a concerted movement towards improving the working side. For too long we have been haphazard in our working breeding. Breeders have bred either mainly for a show with a small concession to work or have not really got together to breed better good-looking workers. We do have all the attributes in the breed, but it would take a conscious effort to identify the right working characteristics and get them together – by line breeding – into several strong working lines. This can only be done by finding these characteristics in the shooting field.

Many thanks for sparing the time to have this conversationwith me.

Anne Brook

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