The relationship between mankind and Canis familiaris is indeed long. The saluki, for example, was chasing down wild goats and gazelles for its human partners as far back as 2,100 B.C. Another sight hound, the basenji, is even older. Libyan cave paintings dating back to 6,000 B.C. depict dogs that closely resemble the modern basenji. Inuit carvings that are at least 12,000 years old show dogs that are virtually identical to current Alaskan malamutes.
By these standards, the dog breeds known as “retrievers” are truly Johnny-come-latelys. The first references to a curly-coated water spaniel said to have had outstanding retrieving abilities were in the mid-15th century. The first breed actually developed to do this specialized job was the curly-coated retriever, making it the oldest breed among those sporting dogs classified as retrievers.
No one really knows how the curly-coat came into being. Shakespeare made a reference or two to “water spaniells” in his works. In the 1800s there were a number of curly-coated breeds including the water spaniel, the Tweed water spaniel and the wetterhoun that could have been ancestors of the modern curly.
Alternatively, the curly could have been a major contributing ancestor to all the modern breeds with curly coats. The only certainty about the development of the curly-coat is that there is nothing certain about how the breed came to exist.
What is certain is that the curly-coat has always had the reputation of being a “meat dog.” Generally owned by a gamekeeper or a poacher instead of a peer of the realm in England, the gamekeeper’s curly was developed to find and retrieve birds passed by other dogs following a driven hunt.
In the hands of a shadier character, the curly’s job was probably finding and fetching birds in the middle of the night. On whatever side of the law the curly’s owner operated, the breed was well known for its ability to find and retrieve birds, something that curly owners say is still true today.
The curly-coated retriever’s capabilities in the field are a well kept secret according to those who own and hunt with them. “They are ‘naturals’ for basic upland and waterfowl hunting,” says Eva Raczka, who has owned, hunted with and trained several curlies, including her mother’s dog, which was the first curly-coated retriever to be both a conformation champion and a master hunter.
“The average hunter can find a litter of well-bred curlies and get a pup that, with minimal training, will be a good family hunter,” Raczka continues. “But if your objective is a master hunter title or being competitive in field trials, they are not ‘easy’ to train for those events by any means.
“Most field trainers would not do well with a curly. They drill and use pressure to get results and simply put too much on a dog before a real relationship is established. This doesn’t work well with a curly as they can’t handle strong punishment of any type.
“They respond better to praise and fun, which can make formal field training more challenging as that type of training tends to be punitive in nature. If you have a curly and need a professional trainer, you need to look for a trainer who owns or has trained similar non-traditional breeds—flat-coats, tollers, Irish water spaniels or standard poodles.”
Another curly breeder, Kathy Kail, says, “One thing a curly won’t do is accept the sort of ‘just do it’ training that seems to be common with pros whose major experience is with field-bred Labradors. Curlies don’t like unfair corrections or ones that don’t make sense. They will either shut down or bolt if there is too much of that happening. However, if a correction makes sense, they will have no trouble accepting it.
“Our breed standard calls for a dog that is ‘wicked smart’ which has led many breeders to believe that it is more correct to breed for a dog that is a bit stubborn,” Kail adds. “These dogs tend to be a little more difficult than average to train. I try to choose pups that want to please but are tough enough to take corrections and not take it personally.
“That may be one of the biggest issues the breed has with regard to field training—dogs that will sulk or even seem to try to get back at their trainer for what the dog viewed as unfairness, whether it was actually unfair or not. My current curly, for example, is a dream to train compared to his mother as she was one who would never take responsibility for any mistakes she made and so always resented even the mildest correction.”
Natalie Donnelly concurs. “They are actually pretty easy to train for field work. It’s what they were bred to do and they love it. You can see how much they like the work in their eyes. But they can be a bit hard-headed.
“There are times when my dog, Lodi, wants to do his own thing. He has blown past me in hunt tests to run into the gallery and show off his duck. There have also been times on water retrieves where he hasn’t entered the water where he’s set up. Instead, he has run the land to enter the water where he can make the quickest retrieve. While that’s something a sensible hunting dog would do, if your plan is to have a dog that can also compete in hunt tests, this desire to think for themselves can create problems.
“I have to confess that I’ve never really ‘corrected’ Lodi as I want all field work to be a positive experience for him. I’ve never used an e-collar with him and he’s not been force-fetched. Still, he does the work and gets the job done in the field for me,” Donnelly concludes.
Curlies still have a lot of “hunt” in them, notes Kail. “This means it can be a bit more difficult to convince them to run a good line. As far as they are concerned, getting into the area of a fall and then using their nose to find the bird works just fine.
“They are excellent upland hunters and many have done well in the spaniel hunt tests. They don’t have the sort of ‘wiper blade’ hunting pattern that you see with field bred springers but they do check all likely cover and they have great noses. Some sort of ‘flash point’ so teaching them to stop on the flush isn’t difficult.”
Eva Raczka agrees with this assessment. “They are really best at hunting upland game, in my opinion, although they get the job done on waterfowl. Sometimes their keen nose and problem-solving ability makes them approach field work quite a bit differently than other breeds and it’s fun watching the things they will do. But you simply cannot drill a curly or force them like you can field-bred Labs or goldens.
“You have to be skilled, creative and a good trainer to get the most from a curly. The best combination with a curly is a person that can get out three to four times a week doing fun drills and techniques to slowly develop a good hunting foundation. Suddenly taking an adult dog to a training event or to a pro trainer will not work with this breed.”
While some curlies are content being kennel dogs, the majority do not do well with that sort of isolation. “Not only do they want to be part of the family, they want to sit in your lap and sleep on your bed,” says Donnelly. “They thrive on constant human interaction and affection. Don’t ever expect to go to the bathroom unescorted if you have a curly. But this is not a breed that I’d recommend for a first-time dog owner.
“If you don’t train your curly, they will train you and if you don’t find things for your curly to do, they will find things to do on their own such as eating your couch cushions. They require exercise, playtime and mental stimulation. They are eager to learn but you have to be the ‘alpha dog’ in the relationship.”
Because this is such a rare breed—curly-coats are in 171st place of the 190 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club on the AKC’s 2017 list of breeds ranked by popularity–finding one can be a challenge. Obviously there aren’t many litters of curly-coat puppies available at any time and in all likelihood, you will have to get on a waiting list.
“The best bet is to go to the club’s website and find a breeder that has what you want,” Eva Raczka recommends. “They should have produced puppies and also have dogs that are doing what you want. Be skeptical of any breeder who has only an occasional successful dog.
“You also need to be aware that many hunters with very good dogs never put any titles on those dogs. While it can be a real challenge to find a breeder who breeds curlies strictly for the field, the breed as a whole still has good instinct and has not split into ‘show’ and ‘field’ lines as yet.”
“Many breeders will tell you that the breed is not ‘split’ and to some extent that’s true,” says Kail. “But if you want a dog with a lot of natural drive and talent that would be reasonably easy to train, look for pedigrees with advanced field titles up close. Advanced obedience titles are also a plus because they indicate that the dog is biddable.”
If someone is interested in owning a curly-coat, they need to research the breed and read the breed standard to determine if a curly would fit their lifestyle, according to Donnelly. “It’s a good idea to go to some dog shows and hunt tests where curlies are entered and talk to their owners.
“You need to do your homework about health issues in the breed and ask the breeder for health test results from both the sire and dam of a litter. Hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy, exercise induced collapse, glycogen storage disease III and epilepsy are all problems that occur in curly-coated retrievers.
“If it’s at all possible, you should try to meet both the sire and dam of the litter you are interested in to see their temperament and personality. You should ask what type of activities the breeder’s dogs compete in and what titles they have.
“It’s really important to ask questions and also give the breeder honest answers to their questions so they can match puppies to what you are looking for in a dog.”