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This is Sambo.

He may have been the first curly-coated retriever.

When 19th century barrister at law Henry Coleman Folkard went duck hunting, he wanted his favorite dog to accompany him. That dog was a curly-coated retriever named Sambo. 

Folkard was an avid waterfowler, using all sorts of boats and methods to pursue ducks, geese, snipe, and just about every water-loving bird he could find. So accomplished was he at waterfowl hunting, he wrote a comprehensive and detailed book in 1859, covering everything from guns to duck hunting boats to appropriate hunting attire for the different duck seasons to ancient duck hunting history

to---well, everything ducky.

He even hunted ducks and geese at night and gives instructions how to do so! Won't fly in our day and age of game laws but certainly an interesting read, none-the-less.

In his waterfowling treatise, Folkard explained a waterfowler, particularly those who only had access to shore hunting (rather than the yachts, punts, sail boats, and other conveyances Folkard used), needed a dog "specially trained in the pursuit."

"The best bred dog for the purpose, is the curly-coated retriever. Newfoundland dogs are used for this sport by many wildfowl shooters; but, generally speaking, they are too large," he writes.

Folkard's mention of the complete phrase "curly-coated retriever" is the first I have found-- the first edition of his book was published in 1859 but it appears he had owned his curly-coated since at least 1854. 

Advising his readers to teach a dog to pick up wounded birds first, he gives us a little insight into the talent of Sambo: "The faithful and valuable creature, whose portrait is given...used to do this as if by instinct; and it was a rare occurrence indeed, to lose a winged or wounded bird when "Sambo" was with me."

As with so many 19th century authors who actually owned and hunted with curly-coated retrievers, Folkard mentions courage.* In giving advice on training a retriever, he cautions to begin water fetch training only in the summer so as not to spoil a young dog by sending him into icy cold water. 

"But, after a course of careful and judicious instruction, a well-bred and high-courage dog never refuses the water, though ever so cold,'' the barrister writes. Courage appears to be a trait frequently evident and highly valued in 19th century curly-coated retrievers. 

Folkard, who lived in Bath, England, was also an authority on boats. A book he wrote on boats is still quoted by boating enthusiasts today.

"Would that all my friends were faithful as that dog!" 

  --Henry Coleman Folkard, 1859

Can You Identify the

Breeds in these 3 Pictures?

Irish Water Spaniel circa 1855

Dog A

Chesapeake Bay Retriever "Kent" owned by Robert Milbanks.

Dog B

Retrievers by Edwin Landseer

Dog C

'But Sambo Doesn't Look Like a Curly so He Can't Be a Curly.'

I hear you and I agree: Sambo doesn't exactly look like a modern day curly. But there are many modern dogs who

look quite different than their 19th century ancestors.

(Take the dog quiz on the right. Each picture was identified as a "breed" by the painter, engraver or photographer. I didn't get any of them right when I first found the pictures.)

Perhaps the first issue taken with Sambo being a curly-coated retriever is his color.  He does have quite a bit of white but even modern day curlies sometimes sport white spots on the breast or even on the toes. A white curly was shown at Birmingham in the latter half of the 19th century, according to the late breed expert Audrey Nicholls.**

As breeds became more standardized, a movement to

breed only solid colors in some dog breeds began. The

Irish Setter was originally red and white but the solid red

became desirable and, eventually, white was disallowed.

Poodles used to be parti-colored but parti-colors were

eventually banned from the show ring. Many breeds

started with colors and color patterns now disallowed in the show ring and breed standards. 

So, a parti-colored curly-coated retriever during the very initial stages of identifying a dog breed AS a 'curly-coated retriever' does not seem far-fetched to me.

Black curly-coated retriever with a white spot on breast.

What about Sambo's long ear hair and loose curls?


Sambo does not have the tight, crisp curls we see in many modern curlies but the coat is something breeders continually worked on to improve--both by breeding to tighter-coated dogs and by using such things as a swim in salt water or oils rubbed in the coat to try to keep a tighter curl. But looser coated curlies have always existed, although it is rare to see

a modern day curly with a coat as loose as Sambo's.

Sambo's long, straighter hair on the ears? Take a look at Cooper, the liver curly on this page. We intentionally let the hair on his ears grow for more than six months to take this picture. Most pictures you will see in books or on the internet depict groomed curlies but we wanted to illustrate what ungroomed ear hair on a curly with a thick coat can look like. (Note: not all curlies will grow this type of hair on the ear if ungroomed.) Cooper has lots of coat and many of the dogs with lots of coat grow long hair on the ears.

So, Sambo may not look a great deal like the pictures of modern day curlies groomed for the show ring, but he had enough physical and behavioral traits to convince me he was one of the first, if not THE first, curly-coated retriever. I don't have an exact birth date but he was likely born at least 10 years before the first curly was shown at Birmingham in 1860, and 35-40  years before any written standard for curlies was produced. That means he was born before breeders began breeding to try to adhere to strict parameters of appearance, rather than for performance.

curly coated retriever head closeup showing long ear hair
curly coated retriever against a blue earth.

Planet Curly

*Courage, courage, courage--a trait which should be repeated over and over and over again as a primary and desirable one in the curly-coated retriever. Courage is a trait extremely valuable in any hunting dog. 

**More about white and yellow curly coated retrievers soon. 

Answers to our dog quiz:

Dog A:   Irish Water Spaniel circa 1855;

Dog B:  Chesapeake Bay Retriever "Kent" owned by                       Robert Milbanks, 19th century.

Dog C: "Retrievers" painted by Edwin Landseer, early                    1800's.

Henry Folkard wasn't the only 19th century waterfowler who believed the curly-coated retriever was the best dog for the job.

More about curlies as waterfowl dogs on a future page.

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