The Curly Coated Retriever


The Curly Coated Retriever was once probably the most popular working retriever and was a well established breed by the early 1800s. Stonhenge ( 1879) in the third edition of his 1859 book "The Dog in Health and Disease" refers to only two types of retrievers the Curly Coat and the Flat or Wavy Coated retriever. From the illustration reproduced here it can be seen that the curly coat type was well established at that time. Most dog books of that era give a few paragraphs on the curly coat but the definitive history of the breed must surely have been written by John Lennon in his book,
"The First Curly Coated Retriever Book of Champions 1860 - 1997"

He has pulled together an impressive and comprehensive array of material including an excellent piece with which he illustrates how "form fits function."

"I had a dog called Prince Rupert, a big, strong, curly, brown retriever, brother to King Coffee, who was the Champion Curly Retriever in this country and the father of all the best for years. I kept Prince Rupert on the marsh because he was essentially a very strong dog and a marsh dog. He could stand any amount of work, like I was able to myself...

It had been cold for several days and was still freezing, but it was too rough for the ice to settle down on that water. In the dark I couldn't tell whether it was water or ice; I only knew that the keepers reported a good many fowl about in the morning, so I went down to see what I could get. They came over now and then and I got seven or eight down. Some fell on the water and some on the land. It gradually got light, and then I saw that the water was covered with ice, but it could not be thick because on the previous day there had been none, and it was now unduly thickened through the water's previous readiness to freeze.

Prince Rupert was a little out of condition, but he knew my signals and when the time came to retrieve these birds, there was a teal lying on the ice about fifty yards out. I pointed it out to Prince, and he went for it. He dashed through the sedges and made his way to the bird. The ice was not thin enough for him to swim through; he had to fight his way through it with his forelegs. When within about a yard of it he was exhausted, but, craning his neck over the ice, he kept making futile attempts to get the bird. He would not turn back. But presently lay perfectly still on top of the water. My two keepers were coming up to join me. and they arrived at that moment. Of course it meant drowning.

I asked the men if they could suggest anything, and there was no rope, no boat, no anything. The water was deep. I was frantic. The poor dog was out there with not much of a kick left in him, yet even then he tried to crane his neck to get the bird.

"I'm damned if I'm going to see my dog drown". I suddenly exclaimed. I chucked off my coat and waistcoat and dashed into the sedges until I got to the edge of the ice. The first part of the ice broke by my trying to get on to it but I went a little wide and to my great astonishment, I succeeded in getting on an ice raft. It was floating but it proved sufficient to bear me. I kept away from the rill that the dog had made in going out and I bent down and gradually worked the floating ice by swaying my body until I got opposite Prince. I then got hold of his topknot and worked back with him in just the same way.

When we got within a yard or two of the bank, the whole contraption gave way, but of course I could struggle out. The dog was apparently dead. Coated with ice, he was an ice dog - ice all over him in a great big mass. We had to kick it off him. We carried him down to the decoy house, laid him in front of the fire, gave him brandy, kept rubbing him of course - and he lived for years after."



Curly Coated Retriever by R Ward Binks

Patrick Chalmers charming poem published in 1931 emphasises the wildfowling function of the dog.


His brow is so spacious
He looks so sagacious,
The very owdacious
Old workman is he,
And out late and early,
A black dog and burly,
And coated as curly
As corkscrews can be;

When scent is all tricky,
When cover is thick, he
Can pick any dicky-
Bird, titled as game,
That you. Sir, can slaughter;
But it's in cold water
{His wig twisting tauter)
That most he wins fame;

Since to curls unmonastic
But closely elastic
No weather's too drastic,
His clusters are none
That rainstorms can raggle
Or haggle or draggle,
Agog for the gaggle,
He sits by the Gun;

And let tides as they will race
Away like a mill-race,
Shall your game, in their chill race,
Go out on the floods'?
Nay, a dog, black and curly,
With curls that are twirly,
Bobs back through the hurly-
Green water, white suds;

With a goose that is big and
A shake of his wig [and
The diamond drops jig and
"Jump off him like rain,
The pearly drops glisten)
He's landed, "Here's this 'un,"
Says he, "Now, let's listen
For gaggles again."

Down he sits, oh, let none err,
The dog that's the one-er
To wait, with the gunner,
The jowl off the sea-
A black dog, a burly,
Whose black coat is pearly
With raindrops and curly
As corkscrews can be!

From Gundogs by Patrick Chalmers(1931)

In his book Lennon traces the roots of the breed and with his kind permission we have published an extract below:

"The Curly Coated Retriever
In the United Kingdom today, there are usually between 100-150 Curly Coated Retrievers registered annually with the Kennel Club, so even in their country of origin they, although not rare, are relatively uncommon, especially when one considers the fact that there are sometimes as many as 16,000 Golden Retrievers registered annually.

Their ancestry is unknown but it is widely believed that they are the product of crosses between the now extinct English Water Dog, the Large Rough Water Dog, the Small Water Spaniel, the Large Water Spaniel, the Tweed Water Spaniel, the St. John's or Lesser Newfoundland Dog, the Llandidloes Welsh Setter, the Irish Water Spaniel, and the Poodle. Quite a mixture you will agree, but even so, colour, type, and conformation had been fixed as long ago as the mid-1800s making the Curly one of the oldest, if not the oldest retrieving breed of gundog still being shown and worked today.

Although various breeds seem to be involved in the evolution of the Curly Coated Retriever the end result is a large gundog, 27 inches at the withers (compared with the modern Labrador Retriever at 22 inches); they are black or liver in colour with a waterproof coat, hence its great stamina and proven ability to stand up to a long wet day in the field, or frequent immersion in water when out wildfowling. When working in water the dense curls of the coat are virtually water-tight so cold conditions hold no fear for him. The wildfowler often prefers the liver variety as they tend to blend in with the background found in marshes, shores or lakesides. His coat also offers good protection when hunting in potentially hazardous undergrowth

Years ago, before the Labrador assumed the key position amongst Gundog Retrievers, the Curly was probably the most popular shooting dog and was especially appreciated by gamekeepers, hard working men in all weathers, who required Gundogs which were tough, intelligent and courageous because, due to poachers, there were, and still are, times when a keeper needs a good guard.

Many of the Curly fraternity emphasise their intelligence and sagacity while always pointing out that they need firm but gentle training from an early age as they can easily become willful and out of proper control. In the past the Curly wrongly, in my mind, gained a reputation for being hard mouthed, a sin in modern gundog operator's eyes. This was due in part to their being possessed with tight fitting lips which may have given the impression of being hard in the mouth. Certainly, in my experience, I have never found a Curly with this fault. I would make the comment that Retrievers which have to recover wounded geese from rough water must take a firm hold and this habit in the old days may have helped to create the myth that Curlies are hard mouthed.

Curlies are noted for their physical toughness and their particularly keen noses, hence their brilliance on wounded game which had run. Intelligence in a working gundog is a priceless asset and I am of the firm belief that Curlies have A-Level brains.

The Curly Coated Retriever has had its ups and downs as a show breed, but it is difficult to understand the fluctuations in their popularity for they are indeed a very attractive and handsome breed and though their coats may require rather more preparation for the show ring than some, they certainly do not require as much as certain others which have achieved very high popularity in this sphere.

Breeding and showing has been left to a small but dedicated band of enthusiasts, without these people the Curly would have long since disappeared into the annals of history and the dog world would be all the poorer. Thankfully, with careful breeding and owners who care a great deal about their stock, this is a breed which is relatively free from the hereditary defects which plague other more popular breeds.

To sum up, the Curly is a Retriever well appreciated by sporting folk, with physical toughness, mental stoicism, strength, intelligence, nose and pace, in fact, he has all the good points associated with Retrievers. His temperament is very steady and all members of the family will receive his loyalty and devotion. This devotion will be demonstrated when guarding his owner's house and his solid build makes him a force to be reckoned with. Some amount of exercise is necessary for this
essentially outdoor breed, with good rural surroundings being preferred although his versatility also shows that he can fit into almost any surroundings be it town or country."

John concludes a very interesting chapter on the working side of the breed with an appropriately Irish note From the Labrador Stud Book of 1949. "One final note can appropriately surround Major Brennan's "F.T. Ch Ranger of Heapstown - whose feats during the War years in Ireland has been one of the finest advertisements the Curly has received for a very long time. Enjoying splendid isolation as the only one of the variety to gain the working title in the last quarter of a century, his achievements have assuredly long overdue stimulus. In the course of his historic career, "Ranger" held all opposition effectively in subjection, and, up until 1943, he had won five Open Stakes in succession also collecting over twenty firsts on the bench. Born in 1938 "F.TCh Ranger of Heapstown" is by "Ruff of Chelworth" ex "Rachel of Hellingley" being a grandson of "Ch. Calgary Grizzly" on the sire's side, thus proving further impressive evidence of the power in descent from "True Reformer".

The First Curly Coated Retriever Book of Champions 1860 - 1987 by John Lennon is available from John through his web site: