20 THE CURLY
THE CURLY-COATED RETRIEVER
It is probably just as fair to describe the Curly-coated Retriever as the oldest and most under-rated breed of retriever. Their qualities are well known to their owners but are usually untapped by the majority of shooting men. Yet there is something very masculine about the curly, they are a fussless breed and a very individual one, protected from 'mongrelisation' by their astrakhan coats. I once spent a happy day judging working tests just for this breed and found much to admire in their character. A number of knowledgeable writers of times past have become seriously confused by the Curly. Youatt scarcely mentions the breed. The much-quoted Stonehenge wrote that: "Little or nothing seems to be known of the history of this dog...there is no getting at the exact source of the breed...I am led to think that some non-sporting dog, such as the poodle has been used...The general belief is that the water spaniel and small Newfoundland have been used in establishing the breed, and there is little doubt of the truth of this theory." This is quite astonishing ignorance for a writer of his standing. Dalziel, usually so reliable, attributes the curly-coat to the "old close-curled English Water Spaniel" and states that many think the Irish Water Spaniel is behind the breed.
Rawdon Lee did the breed no favours, writing in 1906, that: "He is inclined to be hard-mouthed...His temper too is decidedly unreliable, especially with strangers..." Lee was a prolific writer and more of a gossip than a real dogman. At this time the Labrador was being promoted strongly and rival retrievers played down. I don't know of any evidence of a breed being hard-mouthed, i.e. damaging the shot game being carried in the dog's mouth. I have never come across a whole breed possessing an unreliable temper; I like my dogs to be suspicious of strangers. The Curly is the best guard dog of the gundog breeds and grows out of puppyhood rather better than some retrievers.
James Wentworth Day, who expected a great deal from his retrievers, being a renowned wildfowler, had enormous regard for the Curly. In his compelling The Dog in Sport (Harrap, 1938), a superb read for any youngster starting out in dogs, he wrote: "Then there was Bruno, the curly-coat...He was a good-looker from nose to tail. He stood well and moved well. He would face any tide and sniffed at the cold. I remember sitting for three and a half hours one winter afternoon in a sunken barrel by the side of the fleet on a marsh at Salcott, snow falling and a north-easterly half a gale blowing. Bruno scarcely moved the whole time, and never whimpered."
This breed has medium size ears: the standard demands rather small ears. The standard calls for large eyes but the breed displays quite small eyes. Ears and eyes can typify a breed; the standard should establish breed type. The American Kennel Club standard for the breed is just as misleading on these two aspects but is quite excellent on gait and temperament. A breed standard may not be a blueprint in the true sense of that word, but it should still act as the construction plan for a breed. The KC breed standard does no justice at all to this distinguished breed and needs a radical rewrite - despite its recent review. But whether undersold in its breed standard or underused by today's sportsmen, this is a breed we should be proud of; it is our contribution to the water dogs of the world. LPC Astley, writing in 1907, likened the Curly's coat to the close fitting tightly-curled beautiful head of hair of many native African people, stating that this was the only 'true and proper one...of which every knot is solid and inseparable. A coat of this quality is not capable of improvement by any methods of grooming, for the simple reason that its natural condition is itself perfect.' If you don't lust after the labour of grooming, this is the breed for you!
Whilst I would not wish too much popularity on any breed, this one deserves wider patronage. Whilst we are welcoming new breeds of gundog here in each decade, this native breed of gundog goes underrated and largely unappreciated. It was gratifying to see, at the World Dog Show in Helsinki, that our water dog was there in greater numbers than any other. The American standard describes the breed as: "Self-confident, steadfast and proud, this active, intelligent dog is a charming and gentle family companion and a determined, durable hunter. The Curly is alert, biddable and responsive to family and friends, whether at home or in the field. Of independent nature and discerning intelligence..." Perhaps this distinctive breed of ours is better appreciated abroad. If so that's not unique in a British product and shame on us for it.