Last Updated on
When English gamekeepers or poachers needed a meat dog — a dog that could find and retrieve birds left by other dogs after a driven shoot, or a dog to find and retrieve birds in the middle of the night — they often used a Curly Coated Retriever.
The Curly, as the breed is nicknamed, has always been the “blue-collar” retriever, especially in its native home of England, where a Curly was more often owned by a gamekeeper or poacher than an aristocrat.
While the term might be considered a slight by some other retriever breed owners, “meat dog” is the original description of a Curly Coated Retriever: a breed developed to find and retrieve birds, no matter the conditions or the ‘pedigree’ of the person on the other end of the leash.
Due to the increasing popularity of shooting flying birds (and the corresponding need to find the birds) in the mid 19th century, the initial Retriever breeds were developed. Some breeds, such as the Golden, were carefully bred for by a single individual, others such as the Labrador were isolated in one or two kennels for their development.
Still others were developed as gun dog fanciers tried breeding the “best to the best” and intermixing a wide variety of breeds and abilities. The general confusion over the origins of the Retrievers partly lies in the fact that at this time the word “retriever” referred to the function rather than the breed of dog, and so any dog that proved itself capable of retrieving was considered one, whether purebred, crossbred or mongrel.
Spaniels, setters, and waterdogs quickly proved themselves the best at this type of work and provided the foundation for all of today’s Retrievers, in varying proportions. However, the exact sequence of development is in many cases lost in the distance of history; even many contemporary accounts are considered flawed and mistaken today.
There are many references to a “sagacious” curly coated spaniel, or water dog, credited with outstanding retrieving and hunting abilities dating back to at least the mid fifteenth century. Even Shakespeare makes a reference or two to “Water Spaniells”.
These water dogs are most likely in the backgrounds of all the modern retriever breeds.
Although a host of curly-coated breeds now exist, it is difficult to separate one from another in dog breeding in the 1800’s. At this time there were a number of curly-coated breeds with varying names (including the Water Spaniel, the Tweed Water Spaniel, and the Wetterhoun) that could be ancestors of the modern Curly.
Or the Curly could have been a contributing ancestor to the modern-day breeds with curly coats. Suffice it to say that at about the time of the development of the Curly-Coated Retriever, other curly-coated breeds, including the Poodle, Wetterhoun, Portuguese Water Dog, and Irish Water Spaniel were also under development.
Some Curly historians have claimed knowledge of documented crosses between the Curly-Coated Retriever and Poodle, to improve the coat and elegance of the former and the staying power and sagacity of the latter.
It is a fact, however, that the first breed classified as a retriever and exhibited at a dog show as such was the Curly-Coated Retriever. And, of all the curly breeds, it is the Curly-Coated Retriever who has the distinction of being named for its curled coat, which may be an indication that the Curly-Coated Retriever was the first of all the curly coated breeds.
The Curly was first exhibited as a showdog in 1860, easily predating all the other Retriever breeds. In 1864, the Kennel Club split the retrievers into the Retrievers-curly coated and Retrievers-wavy coated classes.
Interestingly, while well-regarded, the breed has never been highly popular and the Labrador began edging it out when it appeared on the scene in the 1890’s. World Wars I and II severely reduced the breed’s numbers, to the point where only 5 were registered in 1919, edging up to 35-40 in the late thirties and dropping again to 13 in 1942 and 1943.
However, by 1947 there were 90 registrations, so the breed came back slowly but steadily from the war years.
In Australia and New Zealand
While records indicate that the Curly was an established breed by 1881 in Australia, most modern-day Curlies down under, that is, in both Australia and New Zealand, stem from breeding native Australian and New Zealand curlies with English imports.
For instance, NZ and GFTCh. Dual CH. Waitoki Tamatakapua, who is behind many modern-day Australian and New Zealand bloodlines, was the product of a NZ field trial Ch. and an English import bitch.
In these countries, especially New Zealand, the Curly is an extremely popular hunting dog.
Comparing the records of British, New Zealand, Australian and U.S. Curlies, especially in the field, is difficult since the requirements differ drastically in each country. For instance, a NZ or Australian Field Trial Champion is about equivalent to a U.S. senior or master hunter. A U.K. full championship (as opposed to a show championship) is about the equivalent of a Championship plus a WC in the U.S., though comparisons between the two cannot accurately be made since the style of the tests are completely different.
While Curlies were introduced in the United States around 1907, the first registered Curly was not until 1924. Many hunting enthusiasts thought that the Curly would become the most popular hunting dog in this country.
Again, World War II had a severe impact on the breed where only 16 Curlies total were registered between 1941 and 1949. Unfortunately, no patron for the breed was to be had after WWII, and when coupled with false rumors about the breed’s supposed hard mouth and difficult to care for coat, the breed was reduced to two registered dogs in 1964.
As a result, American lines from prior to this time were lost.
In 1966 Dale Detweiler’s English import, CH Siccawei Black Rod, proved the catalyst for turning the breed around. Not only was he extensively used and shown, but more dogs were subsequently imported from both Australia and England and became the base for revitalizing the breed in this country.
Today, there are several well-respected lines that have been going for approximately 20 years with significant contributions to the breed.
In 1979 the turnaround was sufficient to form Curly Coated Retriever Club of America, now the national breed club for AKC registered Curlies.
The Curly Coated Retriever is still very much the breed it has always been – unique in looks, loving and easily trained, and fully capable of stepping from the show ring to the field every weekend. Although there are far more Curlies with Championships than with working titles, there are still more with titles at both ends of their names than most other sporting breeds.
Field activity in the breed is mostly in the National Club’s WC/X/Q tests and in the hunting retriever tests held by the AKC, NAHRA and UKC, as well as the versatile hunting dog tests held by NAVHDA.
A few Curlies have been run in Field Trials and have done fairly well, but since the breed is slow to mature, a Curly is usually not ready to compete until it is too old for Derby and most Curly owners/trainers do not have the time and money to commit to the upper stakes in Field Trials.
The Curly is still a relatively rare breed in the US. In 1994 it was ranked number 123 out of 137 breeds recognized by the AKC. This rarity makes it harder to find a puppy, but also helps to ensure that the Curly will remain the all around good looking working dog it has always been. The last 10 years registration numbers for CCRs in the AKC are:
Year 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 Dogs 117 62 95 121 118 129 135 207 129 157 Litters 22 16 19 19 28 25 26 34 24 34
Curly Coated Retriever new titles – AKC Awards issues 1/94-12/94
Ch OTCh CD CDX UD UDX JH SH 29 1 12 3 1 1 10 1
The Curly Coat is an active, well balanced dog that is “just off the square,” only slightly longer than it is tall. It is at home in the water, in the field, or in your living room. Distinguishing it from all the other Retriever breeds is its uniquely textured, curly coat.
This unusual coat is composed of very small, tight, waterproof curls which ideally extend from the back of the head down to the elbows and hocks and to the tip of its tail. The crisply curled coat forms a striking contrast to the face devoid of any curls — the short hair growing naturally smooth and straight.
Ideal heights as listed in the AKC Standard are 25 to 27 inches for males and 23 to 25 inches for females, although otherwise excellent dogs are not to be penalized for falling outside these ranges. Because for a long time no height ranges were stated in the Curly Standard, there is often a large variance in the size of both US and imported Curlies.
Characteristics and Temperament
The AKC Standard states that “outline, carriage and attitude all combine for a grace and elegance somewhat uncommon among the other retriever breeds.” The grace and elegance is combined with a sturdy structure and hardworking, persevering temperament to create an excellent working retriever.
The Curly Coat is possessed of an imperturbable temperament. Even tempered, this dog is intensely loyal and will be protective of the family while maintaining unfailingly good manners to humans likewise mannered.
Curlies tend to be reserved rather than extroverted with strangers. However, this reserve can be shed rather dramatically when someone the dog knows and loves approaches!
Curly Coats are very slow to mature and this should be taken into account when training them. They are always quick and intelligent, however, so tailoring your training into multiple, short, and interesting sessions will yield the best results over time.
Of course, not all Curlies are paragons of virtue. There are individuals in the breed who do not automatically swim, can be hard-headed, and so on. As individuals, Curlies can vary. But for the right people, this breed has much to offer.
Care and Training
A Curly that lives in the house, has regular exercise and work, including any type of work that takes advantage of the breed’s innate intelligence, and is a part of the family, is a happy Curly. The most important care and training of a Curly is involving him in the family’s day to day activities. Include your Curly in your every day life and he will repay you with years of friendship.
Keeping up the Curly coat for every day or hunting use is fairly simple: comb or brush the coat when the dog is shedding, usually twice a year, in spring and fall, and bathe him at that time as well.
You may also choose to bathe him at other times as you see fit. A clean dog is a healthy, happy dog and the Curly-Coated Retriever benefits from frequent baths, at least three times a year. And from combing or brushing when he is heavily shedding.
A show dog requires additional grooming, in the form of scissoring off excess hair from tail, front and rear legs, ears, etc. This can be quite an extensive project for Curlies who have not been show-groomed before.
Grooming this way is a choice of the dog’s owner; the Curly-Coated Retriever standard does not require this grooming for any Curly shown in a conformation ring although it might be difficult to win in the show ring if your Curly is not groomed this way.
For information about grooming for the show ring, contact your puppy’s breeder or any of the listed Curly contacts. Remember: grooming this way for the show ring is not required but is expected by most judges.
Many breeders never brush their dogs, only bathing them instead. Some use a pin brush just before bathing to loosen dead hair. Flea combs are not generally recommended as they will strip out much of the coat.
A curly coat benefits from frequent swimming and outdoor exposure (which nonetheless does not make them good kennel dogs). The coat is frequently oily, which can be a problem for some allergy sufferers.
Curlies are intelligent and smart. They are easily trained, but do not generally tolerate repetitious training well. Their streak of independence can make some types of training a little more difficult, as the dog will start making his own decisions. Because they mature slowly, training frequently takes longer than in some of the more popular retrievers.
It is best for all Curly owners to do some obedience training with their dogs especially when young. A combination of early socialization and training will result in an adult with a wonderful sense of judgement about others that you can trust and a close lifelong companion.
As already mentioned, they do not make good “kennel dogs,” kept outside away from their families — close interaction instead is best for them.
The Curly is a hunting dog for the person who likes variety: ducks, pheasant, grouse and a dog who can also be a companion to children and a family friend. Though he is designated as a retriever, the Curly is also an outstanding upland game dog on pheasant, grouse, quail, etc.
Curlies are currently being hunted throughout North America, and are used extensively for hunting in New Zealand (where they are the hunting dog of choice) and Australia. Many, if not most, of the people hunting Curlies are family-oriented who just want a dog that hunts and can be a companion so hunting Curlies is rather a silent revolution.
You don’t have to hunt or follow the usual obedience routines to make a Curly happy: if you are cutting wood for your fireplace, most Curlies will happily haul each login. If you are carrying trash out, a Curly will share his part of the load. If you have children who have an energetic streak, asking them to throw a ball or whatever for a Curly will keep them occupied.
Curlies often end up being a child’s best friend: if you can give them something to do together, you can keep them both out of trouble.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is that a poodle mix?
No. In actuality, the Curly Coated Retriever is the oldest recognized of the Retriever breeds, having been fixed in appearance from approximately 1850 or so, and bred as a distinct breed from this time.
Whether Poodles are present in their background is in dispute. Poodles were not present in England at the time the Curly was recognized (although they were present on the Continent, chiefly Germany and France).
This makes it doubtful they were used prior to 1850. Some claims are made that Poodles were used later in Britain to improve Curly coats.
Do they shed?
Yes they do! They are not like the Poodle breeds because their hair stops growing (unlike a Poodle’s which never stops). This means the hair shaft eventually dies and falls out. Curlies shed annually, and if they are intact bitches, will shed just before each estrus (up to twice a year). The coat should grow back within 6-8 weeks after shedding.
How much grooming do they require?
Very little. Their coat is naturally curly, does not grow beyond and inch or two in length, and its oily, dense character sheds dirt, mud, and burrs easily. A Curly needs to be bathed regularly, and an occasional trim of straggly curls is all that is required of the pet Curly. Brushing frizzes the coat out until the next bath, but it does help loosen dead hear and stimulate the skin.
What colors do they come in?
Curlies come in black and liver colors. Liver is recessive to black, so two liver Curlies would only produce liver puppies. If a black curly with a liver recessive is mated to another black Curly with the liver recessive, about one fourth of the litter will be liver, one half will be black carrying liver, and the remaining one fourth will be black and not carry liver.
If a black Curly has both a liver and a black parent, you know that Curly carries liver. If it has a liver littermate, but black parents, there is a good chance it carries liver but until it produces a liver puppy of its own, you will never be certain.
There are no health or temperament problems associated with the liver color in this breed. Livers can fade or lighten somewhat with sun exposure, age, and when beginning to shed. Because liver is recessive, black Curlies tend to be numerically superior.
Are they good with children?
Most Curlies are good with children. You should, of course, supervise all interaction between any dog and young children, as it is possible for either to accidentally hurt the other.
Are they just like Labradors or other Retrievers?
No. Each of the Retriever breeds, even though closely related, has distinct habits and temperaments, and the Curly is no exception. Curlies are very much loyal family dogs and are reserved with strangers. They make excellent watch dogs because of this characteristic.
They are generally a dignified and somewhat independent dog, especially as compared to the Golden Retriever and the Labrador Retriever. Like the Flat Coated Retriever, Curlies come in both black and (recessive) liver colors. There have been occasional reports of yellow Curlies, but this has never been an accepted color in the breed and very few if any yellows occur today.
The Curly Coat does share the general Retriever characteristics such as intelligence, keen instinct for hunting and retrieving, an extended puppyhood, and an even and stable temperament.
What should I ask the breeder when looking for a puppy?
You should ask about the parent’s health: they should have been xrayed free of hip dysplasia and have certificates from OFA; they should have been examined annually for eye abnormalities and have either CERF certification or reports from an ACVO certfied veterinarian; they should both be fully coated.
You should ask about common problems in the breed and not receive either “there are none in this breed,” nor “there are none in MY dogs.”
You should ask why the breeder bred the litter, e.g., what were they hoping to gain or improve. You should ask about the breeder’s background, what they have done with their dogs, whether they are members of local or national Curly clubs, and about any guarantees they have.
If you are interested in any specific activities with your Curly, find out what the breeder has done in this area (for example, hunting) to prove that their dogs are capable. Look over the breeder’s other, adult, dogs and ask yourself if you would want to have any of them, as the pups will likely resemble them closely when grown.
Before you commit to a puppy, you should have seen or received copies of OFA and CERF clearances, a copy of the written guarantee the breeder gives with a puppy, and a list of references that you should actually check before making a deposit or paying for a puppy.
Do they like water? How should I introduce my pup to water?
Most Curlies cannot be kept out of the water and are great natural swimmers. You should exercise due sensibility when introducing a puppy to water. Never throw the pup into the water: allow him to approach the water himself on a gently sloping entry with plenty of shallow water with little or no current.
As he gains confidence, he will be splashing about in no time. If an adult dog is around to encourage the pup, he will probably be swimming before you (or he) know it!
Health and Medical Problems
In general, reputable breeders will be happy to discuss potential problems in the breed and be honest about those that have cropped up in their lines. They should be able to discuss the health screening done with their breeding stock and other measures they’ve taken to reduce the likelihood of problems.
They should be willing to guarantee against common problems and want to know of anything that might show up later in your puppy.
In general, if your Curly should develop a major health problem, you should tell your breeder about it. This way, the breeder can remain informed about potential problems in their lines. Such problems would include those listed below and others, such as seizures, cancer, and anything else that might be heritable.
Like most modern dog breeds, Curlies are experiencing a disturbing increase in the number of dogs who contract malignant cancers.
Elbow and Hip Dysplasia
Elbow and Hip Dysplasia are ongoing problems for all the retriever breeds as well as many other breeds of similar or larger size.
Hip Dysplasia is a malformation of the ball and socket joint in the hip, with varying degress of resulting impairment. Diagnosis is definitive only through proper radiographic (xray) analysis. OFA reported ??% of affected dogs in 1994, which may or may not accurately reflect the rate in the breed as a whole.
Elbow Dysplasia includes several problems such as Ununited Anconeal Process, Fragmented Coronoid Process, and Osteochondrosis Dessicans. Elbow dysplasia does not at this time appear to be a widespread problem in Curlies.
While affected dogs may show gait abnormalities, etc., HD (or ED) cannot be diagnosed on these factors alone. No dog with either HD or ED should be bred. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals will examine xrays taken of individual dogs and grade them. If the grade is passing and the dog is at least two years old, the OFA will issue a certificate for the dog.
All dogs that are bred should have this certification for at least HD.
Eye problems – cataracts of various kinds, corneal dystrophy, suspected PRA, distichiasis, entropion, ectropion, PPM, retinal dysplasia. None are particularly common but all should be asked about and guaranteed for.
All dogs used for breeding should have annual eye examinations (as some problems are not visible until later in life); the breeder should continue with the annual examinations even with dogs no longer being bred.
The “Curly Coat Problem” can be frustrating — it is often misdiagnosed for other diseases such as thyroid deficiency, and it is detrimental to a breeding program trying to establish the proper coat. It is difficult to say how many Curlies are affected with this, as many are not shown, are not noticeably affected, or the problem is thought to be something else, such as wear from the collar.
In mild cases, the patterning may appear once and then never again when the coat grows back in. While mildly affected dogs generally lead normal lives, it is an indicator of more serious trouble, as it is caused by some type of auto immune problem.
Affected dogs are more likely to have allergies, reproductive problems; in its severest form, it affects the growth hormones and the dogs mature at about 40lbs.
Very often dogs with patterned baldness will have good coats as a puppy, with the bald spots appearing at sexual maturity. Bald patterning appears on the backs and/or insides of the hind legs, and/or on the flanks, and/or on the front and/or sides of neck, and/or the deepest part of the chest and/or as an overall thin or brittle coat.
A minor indication of the problem are dogs that are fully coated but only have real curls on their necks and backs. The hair loss is very distinctly bilateral — that is, on both sides of the dog. There are varying manifestations of this syndrome, from appearing nearly normal to being almost completely bald. In some cases, hair grows back after shedding, but within months rather than weeks.
Diets and supplements do not take care of patterned baldness. You should inform your dog’s breeder (send clear, closeup photos of all the spots) of any symmetrical bald spots appearing on your puppy so that they can take this information into account in their breeding program.
Unaffected dogs seem to produce affected puppies, implying a recessive gene or genes, but the exact mode of inheritance is unclear. Very few veterinarians know about this problem in Curly Coats.