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Breed History: Part One

Curly-coated retriever Bonnacord Darkie, circa 1905.
  Our cover dog is Bonnacord Darkie, a curly hailing from Manchester, England. Very nice fellow with lovely type and  substance for the time. Notice the bare tail tip. This is something sometimes seen on curlies today--believed to be caused by wag, wag, wagging the tail in confined spaces. The photo is from 1905.  

One of the Oldest Breeds

Most people unfamilar with the curly-coated retriever, particularly other retriever breed owners, are often surprised at the claim the curly is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, retriever breeds in existence. 


Of the six retriever breeds, the curly has the smallest population and is unlikely to be immediately recognized by other than those heavily involved in pure-bred dogs. A surprising result when one considers the breed was one of only two retriever breeds in existence when the first pure-bred dog stud book was published in 1874 (the other retriever breed recognized in 1874 was the wavy-coated, since renamed the Flat-coated retriever.)


The first pure-bred dog stud book, published by the British Kennel Club in 1874, listed more than 4,000 dogs--but only two retriever breeds: the curly and the wavy. None of the four other retriever breeds recognized by most major registries today were listed because they did not exist as breeds, according to the UK kennel club. The UK kennel club was the first to classify breeds according to pedigree.


The curly as a standardized breed existed long before that first stud book listing in 1874. Let's examine some documented history to get a better picture of when this breed might have gotten started. 

Curly-coated retriever and other dogs at the 1862 Birmingham, UK, dog show. Illustration from the Illustrated London News.
Dogs entered at the 1862 Birmingham dog show. Yes, that fine fellow sitting down front right appears to be an early Curly-coated retriever with the finer head and size typical of the breed at that time. Graphic from the Illustrated London News.

The First Breeds

No matter how many varied and different dogs make up breeds as we know them today, the idea of 'breeds' rather than functional dogs, didn't really exist until the third or fourth dog shows. By 1864, retrievers at dog shows were frequently divided into curly and wavy.


Not all shows used this designation. Smaller shows often still lumped them together but by 1874 it was clear that the curly-coated and the wavy-coated retriever breeds would go their separate ways and courses. Labrador and golden retrievers wouldn't be recognized as breeds until decades and decades had passed. 

Breed standards didn't exist when conformation dog shows began. As dog shows and dog breeding became more popular and financially lucrative, people began to complain about the judging at dog shows (HA! what else is new?)

With no written guidelines or rules, judges could reward whatever dogs struck their fancy. Wins at dog shows translated into higher stud fees and folks wanted to win.


Breed standards--written descriptions of the physical traits of a breed--wouldn't exist until the dog authority and writer Dr. John H. Walsh, editor of The Field, put together a list of points and traits for many breeds. Walsh, aka "Stonehenge", started compiling his own standards and, in 1867, published them.


That publication essentially began the practice of breeding for appearance, rather than solely for function, and also led to the establishment of breeds.


Here are the breeds recognized in the first ever stud book and pedigree register for pure-bred dogs in 1874. Click to magnify.

A Primary Curly Ancestor

Function, Not Appearance


There were lots of dogs dubbed retrievers in the early 1800's. (We will have more about that later.) And

there were lots of dogs called spaniels and lurchers, setters and pointers, hounds and water dogs. Most of them were grouped and labeled together based on their function--not on their parentage or their appearance. 


If a dog consistently brought back ducks and other game to his owner, he was a retriever, no matter what his color or coat length or any other aspect of his appearance. It is the old "form follows function" adage--and in the early 1800's the adage actually applied to the world of dogs. 


In 1859, the method of classifying dogs based on their function, rather than their breeding or their appearance, was about to change. 

Curlies and Wavies

The first dog show at Newcastle-on-Tyne in the UK was organized by men who hunted and harvested game with the aid of dogs. In the case of this first dog show in1859.


The only dogs exhibited were setters and pointers (who were separated into large and small varieties.) The top dog, in an entry of 60, was a setter named Dandy.  

Several months later, a show in Birmingham, England, drew several more types of dogs, including retrievers.

When a group of fanciers organized a show at Birmingham, England, in 1860, they opened the show not only to gun and hound dogs used to hunt and pursue animals but other 'breeds' in existence. The 1860 Birmingham show was the first to be fairly well organized and to include many 'breeds', not just setters, pointers and hounds but breeds like the poodle, terriers, sheep dogs, bull dogs and others. 

Breeds had no standards of description, no requirements as to color, size, coat, or temperament. But some breeds had been becoming standardized for many years and one of those, by 1860, was the Curly-coated retriever. 

So, by 1860, the breed was recognized and well-known by the most active and powerful dog men of the times--the men who started the British Kennel Club. But where did the breed come from? 


There is one path into curly ancestry that can hardly be discounted.  The now extinct English Water Spaniel, or at least one of the strains of working dogs described as an English Water Spaniel, shared many traits with the curly-coated retriever. Many early writers link the curly directly to the English Water Spaniel. 


curly coated retrievers Nell and True
Dog breeds recognized by the English Kennel Club in 1874. Chart.
Chart of the dog breeds recognized by the English Kennel Club in the first stud book and pedigree register. The Curly-coated retriever is one of two retriever breeds with pedigree listings in this book. Published in 1874.
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