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Curlies Making Strides in the Field

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.

The Curly-Coated Retriever Club of America now offers three levels of Water Certificate titles, three Hunter Upland titles and the AKC’s Spaniel Hunt Test Program. Photographs by Bob Thompson.

The Curly-Coated Retriever Club of America now offers three levels of Water Certificate titles, three Hunter Upland titles and the AKC’s Spaniel Hunt Test Program. Photographs by Bob Thompson.

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.

The first Water Certificate hunt test for Curly-Coated Retrievers tests a dog’s innate abilities and potential for field work.

The first Water Certificate hunt test for Curly-Coated Retrievers tests a dog’s innate abilities and potential for field work.

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.”

Retrieving a fallen bird is just one skill that dogs must master for Hunter Upland titles.

Retrieving a fallen bird is just one skill that dogs must master for Hunter Upland titles.

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.”

Water retrieves are an important part of hunt tests. For the Spaniel hunt test, the dog must retrieve at least one bird in the water.

Water retrieves are an important part of hunt tests. For the Spaniel hunt test, the dog must retrieve at least one bird in the water.

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.

Curlies can take a look at an area and figure out where birds are likely to be hiding, according to Diann Tongco, president of the CCRCA.

Curlies can take a look at an area and figure out where birds are likely to be hiding, according to Diann Tongco, president of the CCRCA.

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.

A well-trained Curly can find a fallen bird even if it doesn’t see the bird fall. This camouflage fabric prevents the dogs from seeing where the bird is placed.

A well-trained Curly can find a fallen bird even if it doesn’t see the bird fall. This camouflage fabric prevents the dogs from seeing where the bird is placed.

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.

It’s never too early to start basic training as a young owner demonstrates here with her young Curly.

It’s never too early to start basic training as a young owner demonstrates here with her young Curly.

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 2012 registration statistics list at No. 153 of 175 breeds.

Although owners new to field work are sometimes squeamish about handling dead birds, they soon find out how much their dogs enjoy the sport. Here, three Curlies enjoy the day with their owners.

Although owners new to field work are sometimes squeamish about handling dead birds, they soon find out how much their dogs enjoy the sport. Here, three Curlies enjoy the day with their owners.

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.”

A young Curly-Coated Retriever plays with a bumper under the watchful eye of his handler.

A young Curly-Coated Retriever plays with a bumper under the watchful eye of his handler.

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.”

 Curlies are “excellent swimmers and should show no hesitancy to enter water,” according to the AKC “Hunting Style of Curly-Coated Retrievers.”

Curlies are “excellent swimmers and should show no hesitancy to enter water,” according to the AKC “Hunting Style of Curly-Coated Retrievers.”

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.”

It requires a lot of effort and people to put on a hunt test. Here, judges prepare to watch a Curly take its turn.

It requires a lot of effort and people to put on a hunt test. Here, judges prepare to watch a Curly take its turn.

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.”

Curly-Coated Retriever owners have more opportunities than ever before to test their dogs’ hunting skills.

Curly-Coated Retriever owners have more opportunities than ever before to test their dogs’ hunting skills.

Written by

Susan Chaney has been on the editorial side of publishing since 1990, starting her career as a newspaper features writer and editor. A lifelong lover of dogs, Susan has lived with German Shepherds, Labs, Yorkies, an Irish Setter, a Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, a Sheltie and currently a Chihuahua mix of unknown pedigree. She was the editor of Dog Fancy magazine, content editor of DogChannel.com and group editor of Dog World, Dogs USA, Puppies USA, Natural Dog, Cat Fancy, Cats USA and Kittens USA from March 2005 to December 2009 when she left her position to work at home, part-time. Susan lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her artist husband, Tim, that Chi mix and two big cats. As an editor and writer for Best In Show Daily, she is reveling in the amalgam of three loves: writing, editing and dogs.
Comments
  • Susan Chaney
    Susan Chaney March 3, 2013 at 8:06 PM

    I was so impressed with the effort that this club has put into making sure its breed remains capable of its original purpose. What’s your national parent club or local breed club doing to preserve your breed’s heritage?

  • RH March 4, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    Thank you for such an interesting story! It’s wonderful to see these beautiful dogs working.

  • Susan Chaney
    Susan Chaney March 5, 2013 at 9:34 AM

    Thanks for commenting, RH. They are stunning creatures, aren’t they? I had a difficult time choosing the photos because I had such a fabulous selection from Bob Thompson. He kindly gave me access to all of his shot from two different CCRCA hunt test events that took place last year.

  • Joan C Engel March 24, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    Thank you , Susan, for such a full, respectful article about our Breed Club’s success at encouraging and nurturing both interest, and participation, in field activities. I speak not only as a director on the Board but as a long time Club member; it was the friendship, encouragement and direction received from other Club members which sparked my husband’s and my interest in field work – AND introduced us to the fun of that and the other performance activities, as well. We came to love working with our dogs! Today, we are striving to build and improve our club further and, hopefully, your fine article will bring people our way! Thank you , again !

  • Mary Kay Morel March 26, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    I was surprised and delighted to find photos of me and three of my Curlies accompanying this nice article.

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