Curly Coated Retrievers are fetching dogs

Charming and versatile dogs little known in US


Wickedly smart, versatile, and fun-loving are all words fanciers of this unusual breed use to describe the Curly Coated Retriever. However, their charm and versatility are a well-kept secret here in the United States. Curly owners invariably are asked, “Is that a curly Labrador Retriever? A Labradoodle (Labrador-Poodle mix)? Do they shed?” The answers to these common questions are No, No and Yes.

Breed history

One of the oldest retriever breeds, Curlies originated in England. They were prized by English gamekeepers and poachers for their exceptional hunting skills, intelligence, strength, and perseverance in the field. Curlies were used to fetch furry critters or fowl in the roughest cover and iciest waters. Their pleasing dispositions also made them wonderful companions in the home. These traits remain unchanged in modern-day Curlies.

The exact origins of the breed are unknown. Various sources propose that older versions of the Curly Water Dog, the St. Johns Newfoundland, Tweed Spaniel, Irish Water Spaniel and the Poodle all contributed to the development of the Curly Coated Retriever. The breed has changed very little since it was first shown in England in 1860.

Curlies nearly died out during World War I and again in World War II when food was scarce. A handful of breeders in England assured their survival through these rough times and brought about a resurgence of the breed after the wars.

The first Curly came to the US in 1907, and the first Curly was registered in the AKC Stud book in 1924. Curlies were popular gundogs in the 1920s and 1930s due to their legendary adaptability to various hunting situations. However, by the 1950s, many hunting kennels began breeding faster-maturing and flashier retrievers, and owners of Curlies were unable to replace their old hunting companions.(1) Today the Curly population worldwide is estimated at 5000, with less than 2000 in the United States. AKC statistics indicate that 199 Curlies and 25 litters were registered in 1999, compared to 150 dogs and 31 litters in 1998.

Eighty Curlies competed at the Curly Coated Retriever Club of America’s first independent national specialty in San Diego, California, in May of this year.

Physical characteristics

The AKC breed standard for Curlies has not changed much over the years. According to that standard, Curly males stand 25-27 inches tall at the withers and weigh 70-90 pounds. Females are 23-25 inches tall, and weigh 50-70 pounds. However, you will find small, so-called “condo-sized Curlies” from 21 inches and 50 lbs. to some really large dogs that are up to 30 inches tall and weigh over 100 lbs. The ideal Curly should carry size and bone without losing its elegance or agility.

“To work all day, a Curly must be balanced and sound, strong and robust, and quick and agile. Outline, carriage and attitude all combine for a grace and elegance somewhat uncommon among the other retriever breeds, providing the unique upstanding quality desired in the breed. In outline, the Curly is moderately angulated front and rear and, when comparing height to length, gives the impression of being higher on leg than the other retriever breeds. In carriage, the Curly is an erect, alert, self-confident dog. In motion, all parts blend into a smooth, powerful, harmonious symmetry,” according to the Meeks.(2) “The coat, a hallmark of the breed, is of great importance for all Curlies, whether companion, hunting or show dogs. The perfect coat is a dense mass of small tight, distinct, crisp curls.”

The coat on the face, front of the legs and feet is smooth. Curls start at the top of the skull and form either a “V” shape or a curved shape called a “bonnet.” A Curly with uncurled areas on its back or sides is not suitable for the show ring. Another serious coat fault in Curlies is coat patterning – a hereditary trait characterized by bare patches and/or stripes on the back legs and in a triangular area under the neck.

Coat patterning should not be confused with a severely blown coat or a juvenile coat. Intact females blow coat – often shedding a majority of their hair at the time in their hormonal cycle when they would be having puppies. A nursing bitch might be virtually bald after whelping – which can be distressing to prospective puppy buyers who don’t understand that it is normal. When young Curlies lose their puppy coat and grow their adult coat – some exhibit “juvenile coat patterning” which might or might not ever occur again.

Although some consider them to be a low-shedding breed, all Curlies shed to some extent. Their dark curls – that Curly owners refer to as “public hairs” – have an amazing way of ending up in the butter dish. Males and spayed females generally shed much less than intact females.

Curly colors

Curlies are either solid black or solid liver (a medium to deep mahogany brown color). According to the AKC standard, “a few white hairs in an otherwise good dog will not be penalized.” However, a blaze or large white spot on the chest would be penalized in the show ring.

Black is the dominant color. A black dog can carry recessive genes for liver color, or may carry only black genes.

Eyes should be almond-shaped and dark brown in black dogs and liver dogs. However, somewhat lighter brown eyes are acceptable in liver Curlies, but yellow eyes are considered a fault in both black and liver dogs. Noses should be dark, not pink.

The curly coat is the breed’s most unique and distinguishing feature. A Curly’s coat requires little maintenance. Even for dog shows, usually all that is needed is a bath, toenail clip, and some trimming to the tops of the ears, underside of the tail, and any stray wisps. A Curly’s coat should not be brushed, or it will become frizzy. Unlike a Poodle’s coat that keeps growing and requires frequent grooming, a Curly’s hair grows to a certain length and then stops. They are “wash and wear” dogs.

You might think that a Curly’s coat would be a magnet for burrs, leaves, dirt, and other debris, but quite the opposite is true — most debris comes off with a quick shake. Only the little green burrs seem to be able to really take hold. A little baby oil can help remove these burrs.

A proper Curly coat is so dense that it is hard to get completely wet. Likewise, it is hard to get all the shampoo out of the coat after a bath. If you think you’ve gotten all the soap out, rinse four more times. A Curly needs only an occasional bath. Too much bathing can make the coat brittle and can cause dry, itchy skin.

Many Curlies are highly allergic to flea bites, so it is important to use anti-flea products to prevent bites that can lead to development of hot spots.


Personality is so important to Curlies that it is part of the standard. Curlies have mistakenly been called “aloof” because they can be reserved with strangers when first introduced. These lively, fun-loving dogs are extremely loyal to their owners and generally very good with children. Curlies have a deep bark that might frighten strangers, but they are not aggressive by nature.

From the time it is a young pup, a Curly should be exposed to many different situations so it can grow into a well-socialized, well-adjusted adult.

Curlies need a securely fenced yard and a chance to really run at least three times a week. As long as they get enough exercise, Curlies are laid-back companions at home. If they don’t get enough exercise, Curlies will find ways to amuse themselves that won’t necessarily amuse their owners. Most Curlies love to swim, and it is great exercise for them.

Curlies are a slow-maturing breed, which means they might act like puppies until they are three or four years old – or sometimes their entire lives. The average life span of a healthy Curly is 12-14 years.

Unique multi-purpose dogs

Curlies are wonderful companions and pets, and they excel in the field. They are bred to work more independently than other dogs. Coupled with their excellent noses and generally soft mouths, they are excellent multi-purpose retrievers.

Curlies also enjoy dog agility and flyball. Both sports give them the chance to run, and use their brains, while having fun with their owners.


Training a Curly can be a challenge. Curlies are extremely intelligent and learn quickly. However, they tend to get bored quickly with repetitive training. Short, fun sessions work best.

Curlies like to please their owners – as long as what the owner wants coincides with their primary goal in life, which seems to be maximizing fun. A Curly’s idea of what constitutes fun might not be the same as yours. Once a Curly figures out how to escape from a crate, open a door or gate, or dig under a fence, they will never forget it. The owner must take special care to fortify things to keep their Curlies out of trouble.

Michigan Curly owner Susan Wolf-Sternberg’s aptly named Curly, Ch. Fairways XTC Running Free – aka Zeus the Moose – regularly jumped their six-foot high wooden stockade-style fence to sneak next door for a swim in their neighbor’s pool. They ended up having to run an electric wire along the inside perimeter to curb his surreptitious skinny-dipping.

Curlies can be somewhat stubborn and self-willed. However, a Curly rarely needs more than a harsh word when a correction is needed. Negative reinforcement causes some Curlies to “shut down” and refuse to work. Even a well-trained Curly will sometimes “give their owner the paw” if it decides that doing something else might be more enjoyable, and they will always do it with a smile.

In general, the more activities you do with your Curly, the happier it will be. They like to be busy and spend a lot of time with their owners. CCRs are much happier as house dogs than as kennel dogs.

Well-known Curlies

The most well-known Curly in the US is AKC and UKC Ch Ptarmigan Gale at Riverwatch, CD, WC, TT, CGC, TD (Tempest) owned and shown by Mary and Gary Meek of Holland, Michigan. This nine-year-old female has won Best of Breed at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club dog show seven times – an accomplishment that only one other dog has ever achieved. Tempest’s show career includes countless Best of Breed ribbons, four National Specialty wins, and 106 Sporting Group placements, including 11 Group One placements.

Another record-setting Curly in field circles, Sue Shaw’s now six-year-old female, Chocca-Shaw’s Winter Wonder, MH (Jade), became the first Curly to qualify in the AKC Master Hunter Invitational in September 1999. Sue and Jade qualified again in September at the 2000 Master Hunter Nationals in Syracuse, Indiana. Jade completed all five series of difficult land and water tests. If Jade qualifies again next year, she will be become the first Curly inducted into the Master National’s Hall of Fame.

All Curlies are treasured pets and many are wonderful hunting companions. Quite a few Curlies compete at advanced levels in dog obedience. As of April of last year, 15 Curlies had earned Utility Dog titles and 46 had Companion Dog Excellent titles. An increasing number of Curlies also work as certified therapy Dogs. A female Curly was employed as a drug-sniffing dog in the Nebraska prison system, but she is now retired. Curlies have also worked as service dogs for handicapped individuals and as search and rescue dogs. A busy Curly is a happy dog.

Curly Health

Like any large breed of dog, Curlies are subject to hip dysplasia. Litter parents should be OFA-certified for hips, eyes, and hearts. Bloat and/or stomach/intestinal torsion can be a problem with Curlies, so it is a good idea to feed a Curly two or three smaller meals a day and to not let him drink an excessive amount of water or exercise heavily after a meal.

Epilepsy (seizures), eye problems such as Progressive Retinal Atrophy, and entropia or ectropia (eyelids that turn in or out), and allergies and auto-immune problems occur in some lines. Sub-aortic stenosis is an inherited heart condition that can be mild or can be serious enough to cause death.

Finding a Curly

Before buying a Curly, do as much research as possible about the breed in general. Carefully check out the pedigrees of the sire and dam and ask for copies of OFA clearances for hips, elbows, and hearts, and CERF clearances for eyes. Ask about health problems in the parents and other closely related dogs. As with any breed, a responsible breeder should be up-front about health problems in their lines and in related dogs. If a breeder tells you they have never had a serious health problem in any of their dogs and have never heard of any problems in related dogs – look for another breeder.

Potential puppy-buyers should ask breeders for multiple references and check with other people who own Curlies before buying one. Expect to be checked out in return as a potential Curly owner. These dogs are wonderful, but they are not the right breed for everyone.

You might have to wait a year or more to get a puppy from a reputable breeder. You should expect to sign a contract regarding breeding rights, required health certifications, and intended use. Many Curlies are sold as co-ownerships to ensure the breeder more control over the dog’s breeding rights, a necessity given the breed’s small gene pool. All contracts, including those for dogs sold under limited registrations (as non-breeding stock) should also include a guarantee against certain inherited health problems and provide terms for return of the dog in the case of a problem. Because they are rare, you will almost never see a Curly advertised in the newspaper or find one in a pet store. If you do – beware.

While you do your research, it is a good idea to subscribe to one or more of the Curly e-mail chat lists and join the national breed club. If you are looking for a Curly as a pet, the club’s breed rescue program might be able to find a dog that is right for you.

[More on finding a breeder]

Contact information

For more information on Curly Coated Retrievers, check out the AKC website at, visit the Curly Coated Retriever of America’s website at, or try the Curly links at Working Retriever Central (

(Author Mary Kay Morel Morel’s four-year-old female Curly, SR CH Soft Maple Kyrabean Queen, CD, JH, NAJ, NA, WC, CGC, TDI (Kyra) is active in conformation, field, obedience, and agility. Riverwatch Destiny’s Dream (Destiny) is 17 months old and is just getting started in conformation and training in field work. “Kyra and Destiny both love being ambassadors for this unique and wonderful breed,” Morel said.)


(1) The Curly Coated Retriever, Mary and Gary Meek, TFH Publications, 1999

(2) Ibid

Mary Kay Morel

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