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The English Water Spaniel and the Curly

English Water Spaniel "Tim"
A Mish-Mash of History

Canine historians, both long ago and presently, spend a lot of time trying to trace the roots and ancestors of breeds. That's a problem because most breeds developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were a mish-mash of ancestry.


Dogs were called setters and pointers and spaniels and hounds but those labels didn't denote breeds. A spaniel could be a dog 17 inches high with a shiny, flat black coat or a dog 24 inches high, who was liver and white and curly-haired. That same curly haired dog might be called a water dog in another part of the same country or a Barbet in France or a wachtelhund in Germany. 


So, when we trace possible curly-coated retriever ancestors, there could have been hundreds of them, varying in size and color and hair texture and temperament. I am starting here with a breed I believe shares both physical and behavioral traits with the curly. 

In a painting from 1805, an English Water Spaniel named "Tim" stands by a pond. Painter S. Gilpin. 

Click to magnify

The English Water Spaniel

The beautiful dog in the painting we present here is named "Tim", an English Water Spaniel painted in 1805. Most of the respected

dog authorities from the 1800's name the English Water Spaniel as one of the Curly-coated retriever ancestors and one expert states

the curly is a direct descendant of the now-extinct English spaniel. 


A closer examination of Tim shows he shared some distinct traits with the curly. (Click the picture above to magnify it.) The water

spaniel, as pictured above and in the English standard, was not supposed to have any hint of a topknot just as a curly is not supposed

to have a topknot. Early English Water Spaniel and curly fanciers were adamant that both breeds were smooth-coated to the occiput.

The coat, as described by early water spaniel experts almost perfectly decribes the coat of a curly-coated retriever. Here is the description

of the English Water Spaniel written by Captain Thomas Brown in 1826 and reprinted in 1833: 




LARGE WATER SPANIEL. (Canis Inquisitor).—The large water spaniel is about the size of an ordinary setter, but much stronger

in the bone and shorter in the legs. His head is long, his muzzle moderately acute, and his face is quite smooth, as well as the

front of all of his legs; his ears are long, which, together with his whole body, is covered with deep hair, consisting of firm,

small and distinctly crisped curls, not unlike those of a wig, his tail is rather short, and clothed with curled hair. His hair

is very differently curled from that of the great water dog and poodle, as those of the two latter consists of long and pendulous

curls. His general color is a dark liver-brown, with white legs, neck, and belly; and is sometimes, though rarely to be met with,

all black, or with a black body and white neck and legs.--The Field Book; or, Sports and Pastimes of the British Islands


Shared Traits




The 1826 description of the English Water Spaniel, above, fits that of the curly-coated retriever in many, many ways. Some shared traits include: 


SIZE: If about the size of an ordinary setter, the English Water Spaniel would be about 23-24 inches tall, which is about the height of early curlies. 


HEAD: The curly head has always been described as long as is the English Water Spaniel's.


FACE: Smooth in both breeds.


LEGS: Smooth in the front for both breeds.


COAT: Deep indicating the desire for depth of coat. FIRM, SMALL, DISTINCT curls in both breeds.


CURLS: Different from the poodle in both breeds. A very important point we will revisit in a later post. 


COLOR: English Water spaniels came in both all black and all liver, just like curlies, as well as parti-colors of liver and white and black and white. Even after more than 150 years of breeders seeking pure liver or pure black some curlies, even today, will turn up with white spots on the breast. 

One delightful trait long-time curly fanciers enjoy in the breed is the calm and docile nature of the breed in the house. The most wild, dashing, maniac in the field will turn into a sedate and patient companion in the house. Turns out, the English Water Spaniel shared this exact same attitude: 

Similar Temperaments

The water-spaniel, although when at his work being all that his master can desire, is, when unemployed, comparatively a slow and inactive dog; but under this sobriety of

demeanor is concealed a strength and fidelity of attachement to which the more lively land spaniel cannot always lay just claim.

--Samuel G. Goodrich, 1859

There are a lot of breeds mentioned in a lot of places as potential ancestors of the curly. My money is on the English Water Spaniel as the primary ancestor.  I believe curly-coats could have been classified as spaniels or retrievers because they are supremely talented as upland game dogs, as well as for water work. (Perhaps we need a new classification for curlies: 'Spantriever'?)                                                                

As retrievers became more popular and considered to be THE dog to own (because guns improved, cover was destroyed due to farming so birds became warier, and shot birds could land much farther from the shooter), it is not out of the realm of possibility some 'spaniel' owners renamed their dogs 'retrievers' because that is what the dog did.

A Water Dog and an English Water Spaniel play with a stick.
Diver and Shuckleback, a Water Dog and an Engish Water Spaniel. Painted by Ben Marshall, England, about 1809. This painting is officially titled "Mrs. Orby Hunter's Water Dogs 'Diver' and 'Shuckleback' Carrying A Stick on the Seashore."  
 The dog Diver, on the left, was later identified as a water dog but the dog on the right, Shuckleback, was named a water spaniel. Thomas Orby Hunter and his wife, Fanny, lived at Crowland Abbey , Lincolnshire, UK.

There are many canine authorities who name the English Water Spaniel as a curly ancestor including the retriever authority Charles Eley, who states the curly was directly descended from the English Water Spaniel. Plans are to include a page with some of those citations later. 


There are several other breeds which likely contributed to the Curly-coated Retriever and I will post more about those breeds as well.


But it is time to correct a mistake by the American Kennel Club on the history of the curly. For more about that, go to INTRODUCTION TO THE U.S.

Planet Curly
Curly coated retriever silhouette against planet earth.
Liver curly coated retriever runs with stick.

Speaking candidly, very little is known regarding the origin of

the curly-coated retriever, the leading writers and authorities upon the breed admitting their inabiity to express any definite opinion upon the subject, with a unanimity which is surprising. It is, however, pretty generally admitted that there is a foundation of spaniel blood, and that the water-spaniel  is the more likely source than any other members of the family.

~Country Life magazine (UK), 1900.

The English Water Spaniel was a very important breed during the early development of spaniel and retriever gun dogs. It was a breed highly valued by early hunters. Should you wish to read more about them, I have included a few passages from various sources on this page: More About the English Water Spaniel. 

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