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Covered In Armor: The Curly-Coat Retriever

by James B. Spencer   |  May 13th, 2011 0

The curly-coat retriever is tough in water and on land.


With a love for water and an inherent drive for birds, the curly-coat is a stellar hunting partner.

Developed in England by gamekeepers through the first two-thirds of the 19th century, the curly-coat retriever was not “to the manor born.”

No, in traditional British driven hunts, this blue-collar retriever didn’t get to work side-by-side with England’s blue-bloods: the flat-coat, the Labrador and the golden. Instead, after the hunt, the gamekeeper and his dog picked up the shot birds that the nobility’s dogs failed to find. This job frequently lasted far into the night.

British gamekeepers, hard-pressed and practical men, developed this breed for that exact purpose. Being busy full-time managing their noble bosses’ estates, birds and dogs, these men created a breed that required minimal training — a breed that marks well, retrieves naturally and has an outstanding nose.

Since those driven hunts had no limit on the number of birds shot, they produced a breed with stamina and perseverance. Because the cover on British estates could be punishing, they formed a breed with an almost bulletproof coat that, happily, is also almost waterproof. And, not surprisingly, they developed a large breed — on the average, our largest retriever.

Curly Genealogy
What breeds were used to develop the curly? No one knows for sure, because gamekeepers had even less time for record keeping than for training their dogs. Tradition says they started with the now-extinct English water spaniel, the St. John’s Newfoundland and some sort of retrieving setter.

Many speculate that at some point they added Irish water spaniels and poodles to the program. However, the curly’s tightly curled, hard coat differs so completely from the softer coats of those two breeds that some people question that theory.

In the late 1800s, hunters in Australia and New Zealand imported curlies for both upland game and waterfowl retrieving. Since the waterfowl there includes huge swans, the Australians and New Zealanders began breeding even larger curly-coats.

The first recorded importation of curlies into the United States was in 1907, and the American Kennel Club accepted the breed in 1924. However, the breed never gained much popularity in this country, largely because many of those who would most benefit from the curly’s talents have had a long-standing “previous engagement” with the Chesapeake Bay retriever.

Protective coat
According to the AKC breed standard, curly males should stand between 25 and 27 inches at the withers, and females between 23 and 25 inches. Males typically weigh about 80 pounds, females about 70. Some specimens, especially those with ancestors in Australia or New Zealand, are larger. Although quite muscular, the curly stands tall and lithe, rather than short and stocky, thus moves gracefully. In color, the coat is either solid black or solid liver, with perhaps a few white hairs on the chest.

The coat is the breed’s most distinguishing, most valuable and yet most misunderstood feature. When they hear the breed’s name, many assume the coat is soft and fluffy, given to picking up burrs that go in easily and sink in deeply. This misconception has prevented many hunters who could have benefited from the curly’s many talents from even considering one. Too bad.

Actually, the curly’s coat comprises a mass of short, tight, hard curls that provide protection like a suit of armor. Such a coat shields the dog from both punishing cover and icy water. In the uplands, a curly might pick up a few burrs, but they remain on the outer surface, where the owner can easily pluck them off — if the dog doesn’t beat him to it. In the water, this coat protects the dog so well that even after many retrieves, his skin remains dry.

Loyal to One
The curly matures slowly, both physically and mentally, but especially the latter. He might not emotionally mature until his third birthday. Whether mature or immature, he’s milder-mannered than the Chesapeake. Nevertheless, the curly is no shrinking violet. In fact, his natural courage and determination complement his physical strength quite nicely.

A one-family dog that works out better living in the home rather than in a kennel, he chooses his own favorite person from among the family members, and does so in some mysterious way that even long-time curly fanciers cannot understand. He’ll try especially to please that one person, both around home and in ordinary situations out in the field.

But sometimes in the field, he ignores the boss’s command and responds instead to an inner voice that seems to take over. Afterward, he’ll accept chastisement stoically, but that inner voice will never go completely away. “Thank heaven it won’t!” says the typical curly owner, realizing this trait springs from the breed’s outstanding natural instincts.

Both protective and territorial, the curly makes an excellent watchdog. However, he warns and admonishes for as long as possible before getting physical with an intruder. He stands his ground, bristles and growls, seeming to say, “Please don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.” Said intruder should heed that heartfelt admonition, for if pushed too far, the curly can get physical.

As an innate retriever and an extraordinary marker, the curly doesn’t take readily to the rote drilling required in blind retrieve training. Like other naturally gifted breeds, the curly gets creative if subjected to too much repetition in a training session. He can find an amazing array of new paths to the dummy pile. This creativity prevents the chief benefit of rote drilling, which is consistency. Thus, to keep a curly from realizing he’s being drilled, a savvy trainer mixes marked retrieves in between repetitions of rote lining and casting drills.

Natural Drive
Like his alleged American relative, the Chesapeake, the curly takes easily to serious goose hunting and will subdue the largest, most cantankerous, crippled goose. The two breeds differ only in that the curly does it with consummate competence, whereas the Chessie does it with eager delight. Either way, that goose ends up in the boss’s gamebag.

The curly loves water, which might seem surprising, since British gamekeepers developed the breed for retrieving upland game. However, when sent to Australia and New Zealand, these dogs took naturally to water. Ditto when they came to America. Perhaps we should attribute this fringe benefit to pure serendipity.

These dogs are so big and strong that they can ma
ke repeated, long swims in heavy seas without tiring. Unfortunately, with today’s waterfowling conditions and bird limits, opportunities for such extended labors seldom occur, but a dog that can handle them can also handle all the lesser chores we routinely assign to our waterfowling pooches.

As a result, this breed makes an excellent all-around waterfowl retriever. And among our retriever breeds, the curly just might be the best upland gamebird hunter.

But with a calm nature, curly works well from a shore blind, boat or field blind, too. His coat takes on little water, which is especially nice when hunting from a boat. His calm nature also makes him a great companion for the jump shooter, who needs a dog that heels well without frequent verbal reminders. In pass shooting, where some birds fall at great distances and in challenging cover, his extraordinary marking and memory talents serve the hunter well.

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