Wickedly smart, versatile, and fun-loving are all words fanciers of this unusual breed use to describe the Curly Coated Retriever. However, their charm and versatility are a well-kept secret here in the United States. Curly owners invariably are asked, “Is that a curly Labrador Retriever? A Labradoodle (Labrador-Poodle mix)? Do they shed?” The answers to these common questions are No, No and Yes.
One of the oldest retriever breeds, Curlies originated in England. They were prized by English gamekeepers and poachers for their exceptional hunting skills, intelligence, strength, and perseverance in the field. Curlies were used to fetch furry critters or fowl in the roughest cover and iciest waters. Their pleasing dispositions also made them wonderful companions in the home. These traits remain unchanged in modern-day Curlies.
The exact origins of the breed are unknown. Various sources propose that older versions of the Curly Water Dog, the St. Johns Newfoundland, Tweed Spaniel, Irish Water Spaniel and the Poodle all contributed to the development of the Curly Coated Retriever. The breed has changed very little since it was first shown in England in 1860.
Curlies nearly died out during World War I and again in World War II when food was scarce. A handful of breeders in England assured their survival through these rough times and brought about a resurgence of the breed after the wars.
The first Curly came to the US in 1907, and the first Curly was registered in the AKC Stud book in 1924. Curlies were popular gundogs in the 1920s and 1930s due to their legendary adaptability to various hunting situations. However, by the 1950s, many hunting kennels began breeding faster-maturing and flashier retrievers, and owners of Curlies were unable to replace their old hunting companions.(1) Today the Curly population worldwide is estimated at 5000, with less than 2000 in the United States. AKC statistics indicate that 199 Curlies and 25 litters were registered in 1999, compared to 150 dogs and 31 litters in 1998.
Eighty Curlies competed at the Curly Coated Retriever Club of America’s first independent national specialty in San Diego, California, in May of this year.
The AKC breed standard for Curlies has not changed much over the years. According to that standard, Curly males stand 25-27 inches tall at the withers and weigh 70-90 pounds. Females are 23-25 inches tall, and weigh 50-70 pounds. However, you will find small, so-called “condo-sized Curlies” from 21 inches and 50 lbs. to some really large dogs that are up to 30 inches tall and weigh over 100 lbs. The ideal Curly should carry size and bone without losing its elegance or agility.
“To work all day, a Curly must be balanced and sound, strong and robust, and quick and agile. Outline, carriage and attitude all combine for a grace and elegance somewhat uncommon among the other retriever breeds, providing the unique upstanding quality desired in the breed. In outline, the Curly is moderately angulated front and rear and, when comparing height to length, gives the impression of being higher on leg than the other retriever breeds. In carriage, the Curly is an erect, alert, self-confident dog. In motion, all parts blend into a smooth, powerful, harmonious symmetry,” according to the Meeks.(2) “The coat, a hallmark of the breed, is of great importance for all Curlies, whether companion, hunting or show dogs. The perfect coat is a dense mass of small tight, distinct, crisp curls.”
The coat on the face, front of the legs and feet is smooth. Curls start at the top of the skull and form either a “V” shape or a curved shape called a “bonnet.” A Curly with uncurled areas on its back or sides is not suitable for the show ring. Another serious coat fault in Curlies is coat patterning – a hereditary trait characterized by bare patches and/or stripes on the back legs and in a triangular area under the neck.
Coat patterning should not be confused with a severely blown coat or a juvenile coat. Intact females blow coat – often shedding a majority of their hair at the time in their hormonal cycle when they would be having puppies. A nursing bitch might be virtually bald after whelping – which can be distressing to prospective puppy buyers who don’t understand that it is normal. When young Curlies lose their puppy coat and grow their adult coat – some exhibit “juvenile coat patterning” which might or might not ever occur again.
Although some consider them to be a low-shedding breed, all Curlies shed to some extent. Their dark curls – that Curly owners refer to as “public hairs” – have an amazing way of ending up in the butter dish. Males and spayed females generally shed much less than intact females.