A popular duck hunting dog with early settlers along South Australia’s Murray River (for which the breed is named) during the early 19th century, the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever is a distinctly Australian breed that in many respects resembles the traditional Curly Coated Retriever. The main differences are that the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever tends to be smaller, with shorter legs, longer ears and a coat of much looser curl. That being said the early heritage of the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever is mostly unknown. There is no documented history of the breeds that went into it nor are there any records of the people that were involved in the development of the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever. This unfortunately leaves much to speculation and conjecture; an all too common occurrence with many older breeds or types of dog.
What we do know is that the development of this Murray River Curley Coated Retriever, like many others was fueled by a need. The need at the time was for a reliable retrieving breed with plenty of stamina capable of swimming out and retrieving waterfowl that had been downed by hunters along the Murray River. In order to fulfill this role, the breed would need to be intelligent, easy to maintain, eager to work but also capable of remaining calm and quiet while working from a duck blind, capable of dealing with the loud noise of gunshots and above all reliable. Out of this need and over the course of 100 years we ended up with the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever.
As previously stated the exact course of the breeds development is unknown, however; there are several theories. Some believe that the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever may have originated imported Flat-Coated Retrievers that may have been imported into Australia and bred with an unknown type of Spaniel. Others discount this theory by pointing out the distinctive curly coat that the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever possess which the FCR does not. It has also been suggested that the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever descended from dogs such as American Water Spaniels that may have been brought to Australia by American ship captains employed on the Murray River steamers during the early19th century. Although there is no definitive evidence that this is that case both the American Water Spaniel and Murray River Curly Coated Retriever do appear around the same time and share parallel development.
A more recent theory is that the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever may in fact be the long lost descendent of the now extinct Norfolk Retriever. The primary basis for this theory is the description of the Norfolk Retriever as given by author Dalziel, Hugh, in 1897, in his work titled "British dogs; their varieties, history, characteristics, breeding, management and exhibition" which states:
" For many a long year Norfolk has been celebrated for its wildfowl shooting. On broad, river, sea-coast, and estuary, wildfowl abound during the winter months, and unassisted by boat or dog the gunner would lose by far the greater part of the fowl he shot. In rough weather, when the fowl are most easy of access, the use of a boat in many instances becomes difficult, not to say dangerous and impossible, and some kind of dog, therefore, became necessary to the fowler of olden times. The old fashioned pointer, so steady and good after partridges in the long hand reaped stubbles, failed signally in most instances when the thermometer hung feelingly in the neighbourhood of zero and the beard of the shooter was white with icicles and hoar frost. It was not his trade, and he knew it. A hardier dog was necessary, and one with a rougher coat. The old-fashioned English water-spaniel was undoubtedly good at flushing the birds from reed-beds and the like, but for all-round work his impetuosity would be against him. Something more sedate than all spaniel blood was required, and yet the dash and resolution of the genuine spaniel should be retained. By continual crossing frequently accidental and still more frequently injudicious by a strong infusion of Irish water spaniel blood, with here and there a tinge of the Labrador, the necessary animal was by degrees manufactured.
" Such is my theory concerning the origin of the Norfolk retriever. Now for a description of the dog. The colour is more often brown than black, and the shade of brown rather light than dark a sort of sandy brown, in fact. Coat curly, of course, and the curls hardly so close and crisp as in the show retriever of the present day, but inclined to be open and woolly. The coat is not long, however, and across the back there is often a saddle of straight short hair. In texture the coat is inclined to be coarse, and it almost invariably looks rusty and feels harsh to the touch. This, however, may in some measure be due to neglect. The head is heavy and wise-looking, the muzzle square and broad ; ears large, and somewhat thickly covered with long curly hair. The limbs stout and strong, with large and well-webbed feet. The tail is usually docked like a spaniel's, but not so short. This seems to be quite a keeper's custom, and probably originated from the fact that, to an inexperienced eye, the tail of a puppy generally appears too long for the dog. However, although docking the tail improves the appearance of a spaniel, in my opinion it completely spoils the symmetry of a retriever. I remember once asking a Norfolk keeper's opinion of a very handsome flat-coated retriever I had. After examining the dog carefully, the man said, ' Well, sir, he would be a rare nice-looking dog if you only cut half-a-yard off his tail.' I need hardly add that I did not act on the suggestion.
" When white appears on the chest it is more frequently in the form of a spot or patch than a narrow streak. They are usually rather above than below the medium size and are strong compact dogs. As a rule, they are exceedingly intelligent and tractable, capaple of being trained to almost anything, both in the way of tricks and with the gun. In temperament they are lively and cheerful, making excellent companions ; and it is very rarely that they are found sulky or vicious. When only half -trained they are apt to be headstrong and impetuous, and, though naturally with a strong retrieving instinct, are often a little inclined to be hard-mouthed. This defect can be traced to two causes. It may be the rusult of injudicious breeding from hard-mouthed parents, or it may arise from careless or slovenly handling in their young days.
"However, when they are wanted almost exclusively for wildfowl shooting, this failing is not of so much moment, for they will be principally used for retrieving birds that fall in the water, and, as fowl are for the most part very tough birds, the rough grip as a dog seizes a duck will not cause much mischief, and while swimming the most inveterate " biter " will seldom give his birds a second nip. For wildfowl shooting they are admirable. Their resolute nature renders them most determined in hunting coots, moor-hen and half -fowl, as the gunners call many of the smaller members of the anas tribe, for which their too limited knowledge of natural history cannot supply a name. When accustomed to sea-shore shooting they will face a rough sea well, and they are strong swimmers, persevering, and not easily daunted in their search for a dead or wounded fowl."
The above given description by Hugh Dalziel of the Norfolk Retriever mirrors many of the attributes found today in the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever. He describes the Norfolk Retriever as a brown-colored dog, or what we would today call a rusty liver colored dog with a coat that is curled, but not as closely curled as that of a Curly-Coated Retriever. He describes the ears as “large and somewhat thickly covered with long curly hair”; that the breed is "usually rather above than below the medium size and are strong compact dogs" and that "when white appears on the chest it is more frequently in the form of a spot or patch than a narrow streak". Dalziel was also of the belief that the Norfolk Retriever derived from crossing English water spaniels, the Labrador or St. John’s water dog, and the odd Irish water spaniel.
If the Murray River Curly Coated Retreiver is in fact the modern version of the Norfolk Retriever, that would mean that the Norfolk Retriever was at some point imported into Australia. Once there it was outcrossed with other breeds such as Flat-Coated Retrievers and/or unknown Spaniels resulting in the preservation of the breed as the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever. Although this is possible, there is unfortunately no proof beyond this 100 plus year old description of an extinct breed and its similarities to the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever to substantiate this. Even the white spot on the chest cannot be considered proof positive or as the proverbial nail in the coffin to substantiate the claim as it is a trait shared almost universally amongst all retriever breeds; a likely throw back to their widely accepted common ancestor the Saint John's Water Dog of Newfoundland.
Another popular theory and one that seems to dovetail nicely with the known history of another breed is that the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever was either intentionally or unintentionally created by hunters along the Murray River from the crossing of Curly Coated Retrievers and Irish Water Spaniels. This does seem to fit as we know that during the mid to latter part of the 1800’s the Curly Coated Retriever had became somewhat popular for use as a gundog following the Old English Water Spaniel. It was also around this time that the Curly Coated Retriever starting making its way to other countries around the globe, the first being New Zealand in 1889 and subsequently Australia. We also know that during the first part of the 19th century, as word of the Curly Coated Retriever spread across the Atlantic to North America, Australia began exporting dogs to the United States and Canada, as well as to other countries like Germany, New Guinea and New Zealand. Although this may not prove the connection between the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever and the Curly Coated Retriever it does at the very least prove that prior to the existence of the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever in Australia the Curly Coated Retriever which it closely resembles was already there.
Whatever its true origin the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever is a truly Australian product and a breed of dog endemic to South East Australia. What it is not, as some have recently claimed it to be, is a designer breed like a Labradoodle, Shitzupoo or Schnoodle. The Murray River Curly Coated Retriever unlike the term designer breed now implies was not a recent creation for the sake of fashion like a purse or pair of shoes. Another clear difference is that unlike the fashionable designer dogs we have today the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever was not intentionally bred for singular use as a companion and pet. Additionally this breed is not cursed with a portmanteau name made up of syllables (or sounds) mashed together from the breed names of the two purebred parents such as is all the rage with designer breeds today. It was however, like most working and hunting breeds deliberately crossbred for a particular working purpose. In this case as an effective and reliable retriever of downed waterfowl and game along the Murray River.
Like the Koolie, another Australian working dog, the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever is not an officially recognized breed. In response to this one owner a Ms Karen Bell started a Yahoo Group dedicated to the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever in July of 2006. By 2010 the group had amassed 181 members with an estimated 400 dogs; however, the breed was still devoid of Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC) recognition or an official breed club or association. It was at this point that Ms. Bell along with some other owners held a meeting in June of 2010, to found the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever Association (MRCCRA) with the goal of " Preserving and Promoting the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever" . The MRCCRA is unique among breed clubs in that it is not interested in showing, it will allow occasional outcrosses as required to maintain a strong gene pool, and that its recognition goal is rather ambiguous stating that it would like the breed to receive " recognition by the relevant statutory authorities". This is due to the fact that like the club dedicated to the preservation of the Koolie, the MRCCRA and its members want their breed preserved as a working dog, not a show dog that must conform to a rigid set standards. It is the belief of many that its long history of use and its unique development in Australia as the only Australian developed retriever afford it the right to be officially recognized as a breed.
Although once a very popular Australian breed, today the popularity of the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever has waned as a result of technological advancements in agriculture, the advent of supercenters and other large scale grocery stores which has curbed the need for hunters to hunt to put meat on the table. Additionally bag limits and other hunting restrictions have made duck hunting less popular which in turn has lessened the need for meat dogs such as the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever. Currently the MRCCRA is actively promoting the breed through its website. Additionally there are also 3 Facebook groups and a twitter site dedicated to the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever. It is this authors sincere hope that the MRCCRA is successful in its effort to preserve the breed in pure form as it would be a shame for the breed to die out like so many before it just because it isn't a registered breed.
Although it resembles a smaller version of the traditional Curly Coated Retreiver, the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever differs in a number of ways. Namely the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever is always a liver brown color with the occassional white patch on the chest while the Curley Coated Retriever is always either entirely brown or black. Additionally the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever which weighs around 55lbs tends to be smaller than the Curly Coated Retriever. Much smaller variations exist as well with some Murray River Curly Coated Retriever's weighing no more than 25 lbs. Although no standard exist on average an Murray River Curly Coated Retriever should be between 20-24 inches tall at the withers. The Murray River Curly Coated Retriever also has longer ears, shorter legs, distinct yellow or golden-yellow colored eyes and the curls of the coat are much looser than what would be found on a traditional Curley Coated Retriever.
Like most retrievers this breed possesses webbed to aid with swimming. Other unique traits of the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever are that they have rather large paws in proportion to the rest of their body and large floppy lips to prevent them from bruising the bird on the retrieve. They also tend to be rather stocky in build with a deep chest. As a working retriever breed Murray River Curly Coated Retrievers are known for having a well muscled and athletic physique.
Today the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever is blessed with a loyal following of dedicated owners that believe the breed to be one of the most loving, loyal, amiable and all around best companion dog that they have ever owned. As a naturally bred hunter the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever will chase after birds and perhaps other small animals such as cats, rabbits etc. Though with proper socialization from a young age and kind but firm discipline they will quickly learn to interact peacefully with these animals in the home. This breed is also known for being rather energetic so providing an adequate amount of exercise to keep them both physically and mentally happy is a must.
Like many retriever breeds the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever wants to be a part of the family and feels that part of its mission in life is to be your buddy. This is why they do not tend to do so well when locked away or secluded from the family and may have a tendency to suffer from separation anxiety. This can result in the dog acting out its frustration in ways that we as humans view as destructive or annoying such as digging, chewing, excessive barking or otherwise making a mess of things. The close affinity that this breed has towards humans is also the reason that they tend to make very loving and loyal house pets. They are generally good with children and with the high level of energy both possess they tend to keep each other amused, occupied and on the go while playing, romping and rough housing together. However as with all play between smaller children and larger dogs, it needs to be closely supervised to ensure this boisterous breed does not inadvertently topple smaller children and that the children are treating the dog in a respectful and non torturous way.
Murray River Curly Coated Retrievers also tend to get along well with other dogs, regardless of sex and regardless of whether or not they grew up together. This breed also seems to do well with larger animals such as horses, cows and other livestock. This breed also like to swim, so it should come without saying that if they can, they will find and utilize any large enough body of standing water for their own personal amusement and swimming pleasure. This is partly due to them being a retriever and partly due to the fact that in its natural climate, the hot dry environment of Australia where summer temperatures range between 90-104 degrees Murray River Curly Coated Retriever's have become accustomed to swimming to cool off.
In the distant past some Murrays were reputed to have personality problems, such as aggression similar to cocker rage. Although today this does not seem to be the case and was likely the result of improper socialization and at the time, a smaller gene pool.
All in all the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever is a rather low maintenance breed as far as grooming is concerned. Although their hair is curly like a poodle, unlike a poodle the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever does shed. As with many working breeds the coat was designed to serve a purpose and is generally best served with minimal grooming. They weekly brushing should suffice to keep shedding to a minimum. Bathing should be done no more than once a month or when absolutely necessary to prevent stripping the coat of the natural oils that both keep it healthy and aid in waterproofing the dog. Generally a damp wash cloth or its equivalent can be used to wipe down the dog and remove excess grime from the coat. During the hot summer months the tips of the dog's coat will tend to turn golden in color as they are bleached by the sun. This is common and some owners choose, for aesthetic purposes to trim out and brush away these lighter tips. Additionally Murray River Curly Coated Retrievers do not have a second undercoat as is present with some other breeds so they will feel the cold if exposed to water in a cold environment.
To date is unknown whether or not the self professed parent club for the breed, the MRCCRA has sent out a health survey to its members to try and gauge the overall health of the breed it promotes. Additionally no links could be found on its website advising potential owners of known health issues within the breed; which is fairly unusual among professional parent breed clubs. Thus we can only assume that based on its physical attributes this breed would be subject to the same illnesses and diseases that befall other similarly built and sized dogs.
As with many floppy eared dogs it is likely that the ears of the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever are prone to infection; a problem that may be caused or exacerbated by swimming. This is more than likely due to the fact that there is inadequate airflow between the ears and the head due to ear size and the amount of hair to allow them to properly dry out. Other problems that could be expected would be diseases such as hip or elbow dysplasia which effect many similarly sized breeds.
Unfortunately for the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever the MRCCRA does not readily enforce or mandate that its member breeders screen breeding pairs for disease and report back the results. Instead it appears to have adopted a rather weak policy intended not to offend anyone that states:
"It is the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever Associations policy on breeding that Breeders are to adhere to the relevant State Legislation and Codes of Practice applicable to the State in which they reside."
Although this may keep the breeder members happy while allowing them the freedom to do their own thing. It does little for informing the public of potential problems or for promoting or ensuring the health and stability of an already rare breed of dog.