The president of the Curly-Coated Retriever Club of America had a hard time finding a puppy from a line with field experience back in 1986 when she first became involved with the breed.
Diann Tongco’s dad was getting ready to retire and wanted something to do with the extra time he would have. “My dad grew up with Chesapeake Bay Retrievers,” Diann explains, so he got a Chessie that he could work with in the field. She worked with her dad and his new dog, and wanted to do the same with her own canine. However, she says, she didn’t want to compete directly with her dad, so she needed a different retrieving breed. “I like things that are a little different,” she says. “We started asking about field ability in Curlies. It wasn’t that easy to find Curlies ‘in the field.’”
She finally found a litter with field potential in Seattle, and eventually took home Tika’s Nitro Express, aka ‘Nitro,’ who would become a show champion as well as earning his CCRCA Working Certificate.
Hunt Test Offerings Grow
Diann joined the national breed club, which at that time had two levels of field certification: Working Certificate, which allows “the basic natural ability of the Curly to be ascertained,” according to the club’s description of the program, and Working Certificate Excellent, which is more of a challenge and requires the dog to travel more distance. In the 1990s the club added a third level, described as: “The Working Certificate Qualified (WCQ) will not only test marking at the level expected of a finished dog, but also the ability to handle so as to determine trainability.”
Then, “a few years back, we added new certificates for upland hunting,” Diann says. The club summarizes the program: “The Upland Working Certificate test (UWC) consists of four parts, a walk-up test for gun shyness; quartering, where the dog works a field with a hunting party consisting of two gunners, the handler and the judges. This tests the dog’s natural instinct to hunt while being under control. The third part is the blind, [in which] the dog is walked to the area where a bird has fallen out of the dog’s sight and instructed to find the bird [and] the handler may encourage the dog with commands. The final test consists of trailing, which requires the dog to locate a bird by following a scent trail for from 40 to 70 yards.”
As if that weren’t enough, last year the club added the Spaniel Hunt Test Program in which the dog must find, flush and attempt to retrieve two birds on land and one in water. “The basic attributes of the test allow the dog to demonstrate its hunting abilities: ‘how to find ‘em,’ ‘how to flush ‘em,’ and ‘how to bring ‘em back,’” according to the program description. Dogs can earn Junior Hunter Upland, or JHU, Senior Hunter Upland and Master Hunter Upland titles.
An Independent, Thinking Hunter
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the breed well that the Curly-Coated Retrieve can excel in all aspects of hunting. After all, Curlies were created in England “to find and retrieve game with little direction or comment,” according to the American Kennel Club’s description of the Curly “Hunting Style.” That’s precisely what Diann loves about the breed. “They are wonderful,” she says. “I would not ever have another breed.” In fact, she says, four of the founding members of the parent club were “deeply involved with field activities with Curlies.” It’s the breed’s ability to do “critical thinking,” that separates it from other retrievers, Diann says. In fact, Curlies are a bit more like Spaniels than Retrievers.
She recommends the breed to both hunters and those who want to compete in hunt tests. “Hunters and people looking for field performance dogs should seriously consider Curlies for their outstanding drive, speed and style, perseverance, marking ability, nose and soft mouths.”
AKC’s “Hunting Style” says Curlies are “natural retrievers” who should “promptly retrieve the bird for the handler.” In addition, the dogs should not hesitate to pick up a bird and “should not demonstrate any tendency toward hard mouth.” For those outside the hunting world, this means a Curly picks up a bird gently and takes it to its handler without damaging it in any way.
Diann has hunted with her Curlies in the past, though since moving to Sunnyvale, Calif., she’s given that up due to lack of opportunity. “They’re really good hunting dogs,” she says. “They have great noses, and they’re smart. They can sit there, look at a field and probably figure out where the birds are.” When the hunter is ready, the dog will flush out the birds, scaring them from their hiding places so the hunter can fire.
A Curly What?
On the other hand, it wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve never seen a Curly other than at a dog show. Though registered with the AKC since 1924, the breed falls near the very bottom of the 2013 registration statistics list at No. 163 of 177 breeds.
In the past, Diann has certified all of her Curlies as therapy dogs, and she says that’s when it’s really clear how unknown the breed is to the general public. “Nobody knows what the dog is. People see a big black dog, and they’re like, ‘I don’t know what that is.’” Often she says, they don’t know whether to be afraid or not.
Because the breed is empathetic by nature, however, she says, they know who needs a visit. Also, “if somebody doesn’t like dogs, they recognize that. They’ll look at a person and decide whether they should go up to them.”
Once they know you, she says, “they’re all about going up to get petted. Some people say, ‘I don’t really like dogs,’ but they end up scratching the dog’s ears for half an hour.”
Three-year-old ‘Ozzy,’ Sun Devil Black Sabbath at Tika, isn’t certified as a therapy dog, nor does he have any CCR hunt titles. “I entered him in his first WC, and he almost passed, but he’s never seen a pheasant before. He picked up the pheasant and spat it back out,” Diann says, as if he thought, “What is this?”
Making Strides in the Field
Despite Ozzy’s status, Diann remains optimistic about the future of Curlies and the various hunting programs for them. Today, close to 30 years after she joined the Curly-Coated Retriever Club of America, fanciers have “a lot more outlets for Curlies in the field,” she says. That includes a scholarship for people who want to try for the Working Certificate, but have never tried anything like it. “They can see how much fun it is and how much fun their dogs have. The club is a big proponent of getting people out there to do field work with their dogs.”
The CCRCA National Specialty now includes hunt tests, and another major hunt test event is organized each year. Regional clubs often host tests too, Diann says.
Back when she first started in the breed, she says a lot of people “dabbled” in hunt tests, but she guesses that fewer than 5 percent did “serious field work. “Today I’d guess it’s a good 20 to 25 percent.”
A lot of it has to do with having enough people who can organize and judge the tests. A partnership with the Buckeye Retriever Club has helped a lot, Dianne says. “It takes more manpower than we have, but we’re getting that critical mass we need to really propel Curlies forward in the field.”
When she went looking for Ozzy, she says, “I found I had a lot more options than when I first started.
“We’ve made great strides. We’re emphasizing Curlies in the field and that [along with health databases] puts us all on the right path of taking this breed where we want it to go.”