Curly-Coated Retriever Temperament

“I will...declare that a really sound and typical curly-coated retriever is one of the most useful sportsmen that ever entered a cover, and one of the handsomest sporting dogs ever seen on a show bench .”

Theo Marples, writer, canine authority, former editor of "Our Dogs" magazine (UK), 1934

Intelligent, Active and Versatile:

Curly-coated retrievers can be superb family companions.

Temperament is Paramount.

I don't know about you but, for me, temperament in a dog has always been the most important trait. I want a dog who can live in a crowded urban environment or on a country estate or deep in a desolated wilderness. A healthy dog, given correct nutrition, housing, socialization and medical care, should be able to adjust to the types of activities and lifestyle his adopted family chooses.  

Let it be known, right from the beginning, that I have owned curly-coated retrievers exclusively for more than 30 years. Obviously, I must like the temperament of the breed--and I do! But it is important to review what might and might not be expected in a curly so those researching the breed or considering a curly as a family companion can get some idea of breed temperament. 

“I will...declare that a really sound and typical curly-coated retriever is one of the most useful sportsmen that ever entered a cover, and one of the handsomest sporting dogs ever seen on a show bench .”

Theo Marples, writer, canine authority, former editor of "Our Dogs" magazine (UK), 1934

Intelligent, Active and Versatile:

Curly-coated retrievers can be superb family companions.

Temperament is Paramount.

I don't know about you but, for me, temperament in a dog has always been the most important trait. I want a dog who can live in a crowded urban environment or on a country estate or deep in a desolated wilderness. A healthy dog, given correct nutrition, housing, socialization and medical care, should be able to adjust to the types of activities and lifestyle his family chooses.  

I have owned curly-coated retrievers exclusively for more than 30 years. Before that I had a couple of different breeds, including English and Irish setters.

 

Obviously, I found something in the temperament of curly coated retrievers which has proven great for me and the types of activities I enjoy with dogs. Curlies, like most sporting breeds, are extremely versatile dogs--they were used for carting, hunting, and guarding in the 19th century. Some curlies in Canada were used to help haul logs and firewood. Others were owned by miners in the U.S. and Canada and worked in varying capacities for the miners.  

Hunting activities encompass a lot of types of traits seen in various organized activities modern day dog owners participate in--obedience, nose work, agility, search and find, and general athleticism and endurance. Although I have bred and owned a number of top winning conformation show dogs, my primary activity with curlies has always been hunting. But curlies can do much more than hunt. Curlies and curly-coated retriever crosses have been used very successfully as guide dogs, drug detection dogs, search and rescue dogs, and several types of therapy dogs, including assistant dogs to the disabled, nursing home therapy dogs and R.E.A.D. dogs. ( R.E.A.D. dogs are registered therapy animals who volunteer with their handler as a team, going to schools, libraries, and many other settings as reading companions for children.)

To be successful at so many different types of activities, curlies typically have certain temperament traits which I have listed below. 

VERY IMPORTANT:  SOME CURLY PUPPIES NEED A GREAT DEAL OF SOCIALIZATION TO  AVOID BECOMING SHY OR FEARFUL. IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING GETTING A CURLY, ASK THE BREEDER WHAT HE/SHE DOES TO SOCIALIZE PUPPIES AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONTINUING THAT SOCIALIZATION WHEN YOU TAKE YOUR PUPPY HOME. 
Please note: Some curlies are very outgoing and social. Like any other breed, curlies exhibit differences in temperament. Research has determined dog temperaments are a product of heritable traits AND experience. In other words, BOTH nature and nurture ultimately determine a dog's temperament.

A Famous and Infamous Guide Dog

David Blunkett, former Home Secretary and member of the UK parliament, has had a series of guide dogs, including his four curly coated retriever/Labrador retriever crosses.

Curly enthusiasts will immediately recognize the pose adopted by Sadie, one of the curly crosses, in this photo. Sleeping upside down, with legs extended into the air, is a favored position of most curly coats. When my first curly coated retriever exhibited this behavior, a friend of mine dubbed him a "land shark" and that is a term some of us use to describe the behavior to this day. 

The late Sadie became quite famous for her adeptness at escorting Blunkett around.  Her predecessor and half-sister, Lucy, also had her moments in the press.

During a speech by an opposition leader, Lucy vomited on the House of Commons floor. One wonders if it was political commentary.

A lovely tribute story about Lucy is here.

There are a couple of character traits desirable in curly coated retrievers. Not all curlies you meet will have these characteristics, but they are traits connected with the early foundation dogs of the breed. 

Character Traits

CONFIDENT

Well-bred and socialized curly coated retrievers exude confidence in whatever they do. They should enter any situation without fear or cowering. This is an important personality trait for any curly coated retriever. In hunting dogs, this confidence makes for dogs who fearlessly enter cover and water, hunt new fields and territory, and keep their cool in chaotic situations. A confident curly is easier to live with because they are calm and collected in social situations, at home, and among strangers and crowds.

Many canine behaviorists believe fear leads to aggression toward people, or other dogs, or both. A fearful dog is more difficult to live with so confidence in curlies, whether they are destined for a couch potato life or hunting or show, is extremely important.

 

Confidence has long been a term connected to the breed and is one of its most endearing traits.

Friendly

Friendliness is a curly coated retriever trait first mentioned as a commonly occurring and desirable breed characteristic in the mid 1800's. As a hunting dog, curlies were developed to hunt alongside groups of people, including strangers, and other dogs. 

The standard of the United Kingdom, where the breed was developed, says a curly coated retriever should be friendly, as do most of the standards worldwide. 

Some curly coated retrievers are aloof or reticent, especially toward strangers. Others are very friendly and much more outgoing. Either is correct. This is why in the U.S. curly coated retriever standard, we say a curly might or might not wag his tail when being examined in a show ring. Either attitude is correct.

The UK standard calls for a curly to be friendly, confident and bold but goes on to state a curly "may appear aloof." The FCI standard friendly, confident, bold and may appear aloof. 

Some curly coated retrievers are sometimes not as effusive as other retriever breeds. This sometimes stems from the fact they are so confident and so independent that they do not feel compelled to seek out approval of their owner and/or handler. This independent nature and confidence can, on occasion, provide some glitches in training a curly. Patience and consistency can overcome this, however. 

Wickedly Smart

The term "wickedly smart" in the U.S. standard came about from a curly coated retriever I owned who often learned to do things solely to benefit himself. 

When Jim-Bob was about two years old, I made the mistake of allowing him to watch from a kennel run as I loaded up his sister in my Mazda hatchback. I put his sister "Lu" in the front seat and seat belted her in. She was on her way for her semi-annual visit to my veterinarian's boarding kennel because she was in season.

The next day was a beautiful Saturday and we spent much of the morning doing yard work. When we stepped around the house, the front driver's side door was open on my Mazda. I thought my husband might have gotten something out of the car so I shut the door.

Two hours later, as we ended our yard chores, and walked back to the driveway side of the house, the car door was open. I mentioned it to my husband but he said he hadn't been in the car all day. Huh? We discussed it briefly and I walked away, silently pondering my husband's sanity.

On Sunday morning, in the space of about 2 hours, we found the car door standing open once again. But we now knew who the perpetrator was because Jim Bob was sitting in the passenger seat. He apparently was hoping for a ride to visit his sister.

We eventually got to see him opening the door which had a handle he could pull with his mouth. He had to try over and over again but would finally pull hard and straight enough to get the door slightly ajar. He then would wedge his head into the opening enough to get into the car.

Laughing about it with a friend one day, she called him smart but wicked and that is where the standard term "wickedly smart" came from. 

Not everyone, even curly owners, understand the term but those curly owners who have had dogs who open gates, turn on water faucets, or open doors to go outside, along with other "wickedly smart" behavior, understand the term perfectly.  

Energetic

Curly coated retreivers are dogs bred to find, flush out, and retrieve wild game--including birds and rabbits and hares. They are big dogs. They are fast dogs. They are strong dogs. They have been known to be one of the breeds with a LOT of endurance. 

Guess what? They need regular exercise to do best as a well-adjusted family companion. They were bred to endure for long days across fields and marshes and creeks and rivers and moors and hills and dales and cabbage and turnip and corn fields. Yes, they like exercise.

However, one of the very most endearing curly coated retriever trait is the ability to adjust to the situation. Although they love exercise, a curly can turn off his energy in the house and maintain a calm demeanor even though he would rather be outside doing something interesting. Of course, a mature curly is better able to maintain that calm composure than a puppy. 

Though they love being out and about, plenty of curly coated retrievers live comfortably in large cities. 

The Aloofness Question

In various places, including some official breed standards,  the term "aloof" is used to describe the curly temperament.

 

The UK standard says "May appear aloof." The FCI standard states "May seem aloof." The U.S. standard: "Of independent nature and discerning intelligence, a Curly sometimes appears aloof or self-willed, and, as such, is often less demonstrative, particularly toward strangers, than the other retriever breeds. The Curly’s independence and poise should not be confused with shyness or a lack of willingness to please."
 
In the U.S. standard, we purposely linked the breed's independent nature with the tendency, for some curlies, to be somewhat aloof. This independence and the breed's natural confidence can be part of the reason a curly may be more aloof than some other retriever breeds. 
 
The UK, FCI and US standards also call for a friendly nature.  Some breeders believe a curly should always be aloof and never outgoing and friendly but the approved standards state differently. Friendliness and aloofness are not mutually exclusive. Are some curlies more aloof than friendly? Yes. Are some curlies more friendly that aloof? Yes. Either is correct.
Dogs, even those of the same breed, are not made with cookie cutters. There is going to be variation in temperaments even among littermates. When we mention certain curly traits, we are describing commonly encountered traits within the breed but not every single curly is going to fit the description exactly.
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