If you own a Labrador or Golden Retriever, you own a tiny piece of a Curly Coated Retriever.
Some owners of Labrador and Golden retrievers—the most popular retriever breeds by a long, long shot—might be surprised to learn their dog just might have a curly coated retriever ancestor (or two or three).
The early foundation of the Labrador retriever breed begins with the curly coated retriever “Lord Grimston’s Susan”. For Golden retriever owners who can trace their dogs’ pedigrees back to the famous English Champions Michael of Moreton or Cubbington Diver, you will find a curly coated retriever named Rajah.
Susan, the curly coated retriever 'mother' of the Labrador retriever breed.
When Lt.-Colonel Lord George Scott began researching the pedigrees of some of his family’s Labrador retrievers, he had a distinct advantage over those of us who pursue retriever history by pouring over old books, letters, and pictures. Scott was able to speak with some of the early Labrador owners and breeders and family members.
Scott owned Buccleuch Daniel (born 1926). Scott’s niece, Mrs. Hill Wood, owned Hiwood Chance (1928). Both these Labradors are well-known, important foundation dogs of the breed. The Buccleuch and Hiwood kennel names are some of the most revered and important in retriever history. Hiwood, in particular, would go on to produce many English field trial champions and winners.
I can only imagine Scott’s reaction when he began to research the Lord Grimston portion of the early Labrador pedigrees. Let’s let him tell it as he did in his 1936 book The Labrador Dog, Its Home and History:
“… there is one which may for convenience be counted as of the foundation, although she never was claimed to be a Labrador. Lord Grimston, afterwards third Earl of Verulam, son-in-law of Sir Frederick Graham, procured Kielder, (1872), probably in 1879, and mated him with his Susan. The progeny were called Labradors, and Lord Grimston inbred incestuously to these for several generations. From this it is evident that Lord Grimston's Kennel of Labradors was originally only half bred. Sir Richard Graham, brother-in-law to Lord Grimston, described Susan as having “No pedigree so far as I know. She was a small black curly-coated good retriever: the sort that has completely died out."
But Scott said Susan “had a pedigree of a kind” and reproduced it in his book.
Susan’s pedigree consists only of a few dogs but here it is as listed in Scott’s book.
I did some research and can trace some of the current American Field Trial and Amateur Field Trial champions from kennels all the way back to Susan, the curly coated retriever. Field dogs with such noted kennel prefixes such as Arden and Nilo go back to our little curly coated “Labrador” mother Susan. And because Lord Grimston mated sons and daughters of Susan together, there is a LOT of her blood in the origins of Labradors.
Getting rid of Susan’s curly hair in the offspring or future generations would be fairly easy if the sire did not carry or was heterozygous for the KRT71 keratin gene mutation. Curly hair is usually recessive or incompletely dominant to non-curly hair. (Other modifying genes can also affect the incomplete dominance of curly hair.)
It is likely our “mother curly” is behind almost every Labrador retriever of today—the show champions as well as the field champions!
Here is what Scott said about that (remember, though, he was writing in 1936):
“Although not a Labrador, Susan appears occasionally in almost every pedigree of a Labrador retriever, and were it not for Susan the strain of Netherby Kielder 1872 would not exist now.”
Lest you think Scott was some kind of crackpot, he was a Lt. Colonel and British Lord. He would later manage the kennels of one of his relatives—the Duke of Buccleuch.
Scott’s co-author was Sir John Middleton, K.C.M.G., K.B.E., formerly Governor of Newfoundland. (Yes, the Canadian Newfoundland.)
The foreward to the book was written by the English Kennel Club’s Secretary, H. T. W. Boutwell, Esq.
So the history contained in this book wasn’t something made up by a bunch of guys who had a few beers together, got bored and said “Hey, let’s make up some dog history!”
ext time some owner of a high powered Labrador field trial champion stops to talk with you, congratulate him/her on the dog, and maybe ponder, out loud, just how much talent our little “Mother Curly” contributed. Okay, just kidding but it would be kind of fun!
There are other connections between curly coated and Labrador retrievers including the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon. The Duke and Duchess owned some talented field Labradors who were ancestors of many of today’s top field Labradors.
One of their female field trial winners, Dungavel Juno, goes back to the curly coated retriever Susan. Juno’s pedigree on her paternal side is known only as far as her sire. Juno was bred by M.J. Gordon, born in 1905, and her sire was the Earl of Shaftesbury’s Ben. The rest of her paternal ancestors are unknown.
Interestingly enough, the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon were curly coated retriever owners and breeders in the late 1800’s. They owned and exhibited the curly coated retriever champion Baron in conformation dog shows. Other curly coats they owned that were shown include a dog named Baronet and a dog named The Chief.
Cross breeding was not uncommon and allowed by most kennel clubs and registries until the 1940’s. It is a mystery why more breed histories don’t acknowledge this. When mysterious coat textures or colors pop up in a litter of puppies, the sport gene can sometimes be traced back to one of these crosses.
(I will be writing about the curly coated retriever ancestor in Golden retriever pedigrees and some important Golden/Labrador crosses in a later article.)
It should be noted the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon were not the only aristocrats who bred, owned and exhibited curly coated retrievers. There seems to be a misperception among some curly coat fanciers and historians the breed was bred, worked trained and owned only by gamekeepers and/or meat hunters, including poachers. But records indicate otherwise.
While it is true gamekeepers for large estates owned by royalty and aristocrats did most of the dog training and often made the breeding decision, that wasn’t the case in all situations. Some gamekeepers kept and bred curly coated retrievers on the side as their own personal dogs but other curly coats were owned by aristocrats and landed gentry who not only owned the dogs but made the breeding decisions.
The Labrador Dog: Its Home and History, by Lt.-Colonel Lord George Scott and Sir John Middleton, K.C.M.G., K.B.E. Foreword by H. T. W. Bowell, Esq., Secretary of the Kennel Club, 1936.