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More Curly Coated Retriever Ancestors: The Yarmouth Water Dog, Tweed Water Spaniel, Northern Irish Water Spaniels and the Llanidloes (Welsh) Setter.

Great Grandpa: Is That You?

Do I know if any of the above mentioned dogs--the Yarmouth Water Dog, the Northern Irish Water Spaniel or the Llanidloes (Welsh) Setter are curly coated retriever ancestors? Nope. 

However, there are certainly some indications each or all could be curly ancestors, remembering that when the curly was being developed there was no closed stud book, dogs were bred for performance, not appearance, and water dogs of any type that could perform were extremely desirable in several types of professions and past-times. 

Yarmouth Water Dog Illustration
The Yarmouth Water Dog. Ilustration by Harrison Weir, 1886. 

Curly Coated Retrievers may have been Developed Before Tweed Water Spaniels.

 A Water Dog with Short Curls was the Ancestor of the Tweed Water Spaniel. 

So, for some reason, there are many modern day authors who believe the Yarmouth Water Dog and the Tweed Water Spaniel were the same breed. And, in turn, the curly coated and golden retriever breeds were developed from the Tweed Water Spaniel. We know the golden retriever breed is descended from the Tweed Water Spaniel based on early pedigrees.  What exactly was a Tweed Water Spaniel? Was it a curly coated retriever? Which came first--Tweed Water Spaniels or curly coated retrievers? 

Two sources quoted above believe the dogs from Yarmouth were black and curly-coated, with the zoologists Newman and Harting identifying them as black, curly coated retrievers. The illustration by Harrison Weir, a famous animal illustrator, portrays the Yarmouth water dog as liver with what appears to be short curls. Sound familar? Either black or liver with short curls? Doesn't that describe the curly coated retriever to this day? 

So, Yarmouth water dogs were curly and some authorities of the day believed they were curly-coated retrievers. Perhaps some or all were curly coated retrievers or an immediate ancestor? Were Yarmouth water dogs related to Tweed water spaniels? 

The Yarmouth Water Dog: From the Shores of  the River Yare and the Shores of the North Sea on the East coast of England.

Writing in 1845, the English naturalist Richard Lubbock described the Yarmouth Water Dog as quite common. "The sagacity of these dogs in the pursuit of wounded birds, and their hardihood in the water, must be seen to be believed," Lubbock wrote. He goes on to describe dogs trained to seek out wild bird eggs and bring them back unscathed and uncracked. Wild bird and wildfowl eggs were some of the means used to feed families or make money. 

Lubbock doesn't say water dogs in Norfolk were trained to gather eggs but does mention a female water dog who taught herself to find and retrieve eggs-not for herself but for her owner. I have seen this behaviour in my own curly-coated retrievers who brought me intact wild turkey eggs. 

Who were these Yarmouth Water Dogs? Lubbock doesn't give a physical description but, writing 15 years later in Chamber's Edinburgh Journal, an article author mentions the "broad-man's dog" of Norfolk.


"It is the large, black, curly-haired spaniel known as the Yarmouth Water Dog. It's sagacity in pursuit of wounded birds, and its hardihood amidst the ice and snow of winter, must be seen to be credited And as the broad-man eats the herring-gull, coot, and other birds not considered edible by most people, and therefore unmarketable, his dog, unlike other dogs, is piscivorous, and generally subsists on roach, bream, and other unsaleable fish." The use of the term "spaniel" does not mean the dogs found in Yarmouth were not what we now know as retrievers--many people used "spaniel" to describe various dogs. English and other breeds of setters were once known as large land spaniels. 

The reference to the Yarmouth Water Dog as a black, curly-haired spaniel was written in 1860 (the same year curly-coated retrievers were shown for the first time at a dog show). By 1898, 38 years later, the Yarmouth Water Dogs were identified as curly-coated retrievers. 

Authors Edward Newman and James Edmund Harting, writing in an 1898 edition of Zoologist, labeled the dogs Lubbock wrote about as curly-coated retrievers. "Lubbock makes mention of a species of dog-the black curly-coated retriever-as 'very common here (meaning the Yarmouth area of Norfolk), though not entirely peculiar to the county-the Yarmouth Water Dog, as they are generally termed in other parts of England.'" So, the zoologists Newman and Harting are naming the dogs around the Yarmouth area as curly coated retrievers, but allowing for the fact they are called 'Yarmouth Water Dogs' in other areas of England. 

The Tweed Water Spaniel

Tweed Water Spaniel Dog

The above painting, by English artist John Charlton, is widely believed to be a Tweed Water spaniel.  (1864) However, the painting itself is labeled as "Water Spaniel" so the identification of this dog as a Tweed water spaniel is purely speculation. (See another painting connected to the Tweed water spaniel below.) I have enlarged this painting so it is rather pixelated. 

Ancestor of the Golden Retriever 

Many know the Tweed Water Spaniel as a documented ancestor of the Golden Retriever. In 1868, eight years after the first dog show in which curly and wavy coated retrievers were shown, Lord Tweedmouth of the UK bred a spaniel named Belle to a yellow wavy-coated retriever named Nous. According to most Golden historians, that was the start of the Golden retriever breed. Belle came from a place called Ladykirk on the Tweed river. The Tweed flows in the border region of southern Scotland and Northern England.  

Several years into his breeding program, Lord Tweedmouth bred to another Tweed water spaniel as well as to a bloodhound, two black retrievers and an Irish Setter. (These influences probably explain the many shades of yellow and gold and red found in the Golden retriever.)

The Tweed water spaniel was liver-colored and curly-coated. Were they a variety of the curly-coated retriever or the Irish Water spaniel? The painting above by John Charlton certainly indicates a great deal of common physical traits shared with both the curly and the Irish. 

Another Tweed


Water Spaniel?

The beautiful dog to the left, painted by Benjamin Wadham, has been labeled as either an Irish Water Spaniel or a Tweed Water Spaniel.  This British painting is from circa 1860 to 1870. This fine fellow resembles our Tweed water spaniel above very much but he also has the look of an IWS or an early curly-coated retriever. Remember, the hair on SOME curly-coated

retrievers can grow out like this if left untrimmed and the body coat can get quite untidy and longer like this. 

If we take appearance and performance together, it seems likely the curly-coated retriever and the Tweed Water spaniel were very closely related. One might have been the progenitor of the other but I don't believe anyone can say, with certainty, which came first. We do know, however, that eight years before Lord Tweedmouth started the breeding that would lead to the Golden retriever breed with a spaniel from the river Tweed, the curly-coated retriever was being exhibited at dog shows. So, the curly-coated retriever existed before or, at least at the same time, as Tweed water spaniels. 

Alas, the Tweed water spaniel is extinct. 

An Irish or Tweed Water Spaniel. Logo

The Northern Irish Water Spaniel

The instant I saw this painting, I thought "American Water Spaniel", but the artist labeled this dog an Irish Water Spaniel. Looks like a black American Water Spaniel, doesn't he? 

The painting, by English artist John Frederick Herring, Sr., is titled "Irish Water Spaniel Retrieving a Duck." 

Many canine historians suggest the Irish Water spaniel was an ancestor of the curly-coated retriever. Modern day Irish Water Spaniel type came from a breed known as the Southern Irish water spaniel. The Southern IWS was described by John Henry Walsh ("Stonehenge") as being a solid liver colored dog, little known outside of Ireland. The Northern variety was known in both Ireland and England. 


The North Country Water Spaniel was liver and white, leggier than the Southern variety, with little or no feathering on the ears,  but considerable curl in his coat, according to Walsh. But Walsh, writing in 1859, admitted he had never seen a "well-marked" Southern IWS. What this means is unclear but it wouldn't be surprising if Walsh was relying on purely anecdotal and second-hand information and had never seen a Southern IWS in the flesh. 

The Southern IWS had not only a topknot but a widow's peak down the forehead. The Northern IWS had little or no feathering on the legs and tail and the coat was described as SHORT curls. 


 What about the color of the Irish Water spaniel in the Herring painting? The Irishman Justin McCarthy, considered the father of the Irish Water spaniel breed we know today, described the Northern Irish Water spaniel as "very often a pied white and brown colour..."

In other words, often but not always brown and white, so there is room for a black Northern Irish Water Spaniel.


If Northern water spaniels were brown (liver) and white or mostly black with some white as the Herring painting shows, that could account for curlies being either liver or black and very occasionally some dogs sporting a small white breast spot. 


Northern Irish Water Spaniel painted by John Frederick Herring, Sr.

The dog above, based on the size of the duck in his mouth, looks rather small to be an ancestor of the curly coated retriever. But size can be changed quickly in one generation and curly coated retrievers were smaller back in the 1800's. The famous foundation curly, Jet, was only 24 inches at the shoulder, three inches shorter than the ideal size called for in today's standards.


Even though many people identify the Irish Water Spaniel as a curly ancestor, IWS developer McCarthy did NOT believe this was true. McCarthy would never reveal the breeding that led to his bloodline of IWS. If you ask me, one could take an Afghan Hound, cross it with a standard poodle, and get a reasonable facsimile of the McCarthy water spaniel. A curly is quite different from a McCarthy water spaniel--in coat texture, length, in top knot or lack thereof, and in temperament. 

Curly coats and the Southern Irish Water Spaniel were developed at approximately the same time. While they may share a common ancestor or two (the English water spaniel, the large water dog, the Barbet, the Portuguese Water Dog all come to mind), the Irish water spaniel mentioned as a curly ancestor, if there was one, might just be the black fellow pictured here rather than McCarthy's spaniel. Logo

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Water Spaniel painting by Jacque Agasse

A Water Spaniel--Painting by Jacque Agasse

Before we leave the Irish Water Spaniel, I wanted to include this fascinating painting of a Water Spaniel by Jacque Agasse. The dog was painted some time before 1849. Agasse was born in Switzerland but studied in Paris and also lived for a time in England, so we do not know what country this water spaniel lived in. I just enjoy the top knot, the liver nose, and the all white body, which appears to have some sort of curls. No way of knowing whether the dog was shaved or trimmed but certainly an interesting picture of a possible missing link in gun dog history. 

Could this dog be closely related to the Llandiloes setter, described as all white or white with "lemon" patches?  Continue reading below for a description of the Llandiloes setter.

The Llandiloes or Welsh Setter

In her book about curly coated retrievers, the late breed authority Audrey Nicholls advanced the possibility of the Llandiloes or Welsh Setter, now extinct, as a curly ancestor. Indeed, it is an intriguing theory. Before dogs later known as setters were selected for their ability to point, they were selected for the ability to drop their bodies down or "set" while, at the same time, almost hypnotizing or mesmerizing birds so the birds would not fly. The birds froze in front of the dog and hunters were able to throw nets over the birds to capture them. 

One of those setters, the Llandiloes or Welsh setter, was  described by the hunter, dog authority and judge William Lort thusly:

     The coat of the Welsh, or LLandiloes Setter, or at all events of pure-bred ones, is as curly as the jacket of a Cotswold sheep, and not only is it curly, but it is hard in texture, and as unlike that of a modern fashionable setter as it is possible to imagine. The color is usually white, with occasionally a lemon-coloured patch or two about the head and ears. Many, however, are pure white, and it is unusual not to find several whelps in every litter possessed of one or two pearl eyes...  William Lort, The Book of the Dog.

Although Lort lumps the Welsh and Llandiloes together, other canine authorities separate the two breeds. In his classic book, The Setter (1872), Edward Laverack, perhaps the most important man in setter history, separates the two. Laverack described the Welsh setter as an all-black dog and the Llandiloes as white. 

Some may be surprised that curly coated retrievers in the 1800's were sometimes all white.  Mrs. Nicholls wrote about an all-white curly at a dog show:  

"Apparently at one Birmingham show a white curly was exhibited. It was a most typical specimen of the breed but of course as the standard did not embrace white, it could not be awarded a prize." -- Audrey Nicholls, The Curly Coated Retriever, 1992.

All-white curly coated retrievers? Yes. I found this blurb to further substantiate they did exist in the 1800's. The passage is from The Practical Kennel Guide by William Gordon Stables as he describes various types of retrievers: 


 2. The Black Curly Retriever. — In general formation, both this dog and the Red Retriever ought to be the same; but his coat is one mass of short, multitudinous, crisp curls. There ought to be no feather on the legs below the hocks, and no flag on the tail — nothing but the short, crisp, curls from the occiput to the point of the tail. The curly-coated dog is more leggy than the flat-coated. This breed is apt to be harder in the mouth, and not so easily taught.

3. The Red Retriever. — Same points as last, and the same sort of coat, only the colour is a liver-red. There is also a breed of White Curly Retrievers coming into fashion. The size I like in a Retriever is about 25 in. at the shoulder. --Gordon Stables, 1877.

An all-white, curly coated setter as a curly ancestor? Yes, not a stretch of the imagination at all. That could be where some curlies get the instinct to hunt like pointing/setting dogs with their heads in the air until closing in on a running birds. I've also had two curlies who would hold a point for

1-2 minutes if you let them--two bitches who loved to mesmerize birds. Both would merrily wag their tails and then do a giant leap and pounce to flush the bird. 

There is a picture purported to be of a white curly in the late 1800's but I have been unable to improve the picture's quality enough to include it here. 

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