by   David Hancock

Strong English Influence
Retrievers are uniquely British, mainly English, and reflect the way in which British sportsmen have chosen to operate in the shooting field in the last century or so. Sporting writers down the years have always found something nice to say about the retrievers. Stern taskmasters driven mad by the waywardness of Cockers, the selective deafness of Bassets and the wildness of hunt terriers have rarely rubbished the retrievers. Quite the reverse; their prose on this subject has frequently been inspired. And yet the field role of the working retriever is a demanding one. I didn't agree with the distinguished gundog writer, Wilson Stephens, when he once described the task of retrieving shot game as "a simple act of porterage". The recall needed for marking falling game, the nose-work required for game-finding and the softness of mouth to retrieve to hand calls for a variety of skills. Picking up in a gale-force wind or sitting in a freezing estuary on a December dawn is not a job for softees.

It is fair I believe to describe the Labrador Retriever as the sporting dog of the twentieth century, since their development as a breed, popularity and prowess is undisputed. 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. Nowadays this distinctive coat has to have small tight crisp curls lying close to the skin; in 1878, its coat had to have a texture between wool and hair, like an astrakhan sheep, with each curl distinct. In neither case is this coat required to be waterproof, the great need of a retriever. Every gundog breed needs a weatherproof jacket.

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.

Even Rawdon Lee felt compelled to record that: "We must however look to the curly-coated retrievers as the hardiest of their race, and perhaps the best animals to use as assistants for wildfowl shooting...He is a faithful and useful dog to follow the keeper who makes a companion of him, for, in addition to being very steady and easy to command, he possesses a good nose if the scent be not too stale..." Idstone, himself a great promoter of the Labrador, wrote of one Curly: "I don't know any dog which I coveted more, or which has produced better offspring." The breed standard of the 1890s gave the general appearance of the breed as: A strong, smart dog, moderately low on leg, active, lively, beaming with intelligence and expression. Rawdon Lee was happy to publish these words.

The unique astrakhan coat of the Curly, like the coat colours of the Vizsla, the Weimaraner and the Dalmatian, provides an inbuilt protection against cross-breeding; if the astrakhan coat isn't there neither is the breed! This distinction is reinforced by the fact that this is the tallest retriever with a silhouette all his own. Bede Maxwell, in her very forthright The Truth About Sporting Dogs of 1972, wrote on the Curly that: "He is a sober customer in the main, sometimes dour, and with a mind of his own, but a magnificent dog to own...He should not (maybe could not) look like a Labrador in outline, nor a Golden, nor a Flat-Coated. He is all his own dog!"

Against these compliments can be placed the words of ‘Pathfinder’ and Hugh Dalziel in their Breaking and Training Dogs of 1906: "I do not like Curlies of any colour. As far as my experience goes, the more the coat curls the more bounce and impetuosity in the dog and the harder his mouth." The author's experience with the breed is not revealed but his comments on coat texture are clearly absurd and if curly-coated dogs are harder mouthed than others, medieval sportsmen would have noticed it and it would have been recorded and acted upon. It is therefore worth being mindful of the references we do have of curly-coated water-dogs in medieval times. 

Despite the long history of the water-dogs, we in Britain have lost both our English Water Spaniel and our Tweed Water Spaniel. We have failed to acknowledge the ancient origins of our Curly mainly through the ignorance of Victorian dog writers, who so often speculated about an origin for the breed involving crosses between the Newfoundland and the Setter. The much-quoted Stonehenge, writing in 1877, described Lloyd-Price's retriever Devil as ‘a curly liver-coloured dog, apparently a cross between the Irish Water Spaniel and the Poodle...showing great perseverance in hunting, with a good nose.’ The Curly-coated Retriever shares a common ancestry with these two breeds but as a type is as old as either. In connection with coat colour, it’s worth noting that only a century ago, Brigadier Lance of Saluki fame, had a kennel of golden Curly-coated Retrievers, but they did not find favour with other sportsmen. Diversity in a gene pool is healthy but is weirdly under-rated or even dismissed by show-ring breeders. A golden Curly would be a handsome addition to our gundog portfolio.