More Options For Retrieving

Though you rarely hear about them, there are breeds other than Labrador and golden retrievers that hunters can use. Let's look at some of these dogs.

Fall bird hunts bring out all sorts of hunters and all sorts of dogs. Most of the retrievers you see are familiar, like elegant goldens, and Labs that are wildly enthusiastic.

A black flat-coated retriever like Chloae first attracted the author's attention to the offbeat retrieving breeds. Photo by Christopher Butler.

One fall, however, I saw a dog that was unforgettable -- one that sparked my weakness for retrievers into a full-blown fascination. He had all the grace of a golden, with the same long, thick winter coat, but he was a glossy, shining black. He looked like a big golden someone had dipped in an inkwell.

I asked the owner if he was a black goldador crossbreed, or a cross with something like a Newfoundland.

"No," the owner said. "He's a flat-coated retriever."

Having never heard of the breed, I looked it up. That led to my discovery of not only flat-coats, but also curly-coated retrievers and that "little red dog" known as the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever. Those three, plus the Chesapeake Bay retriever, make up a foursome of lesser-known breeds that are rarely discussed, but just as versatile as their better-known cousins.

The place to begin any discussion of lesser-known retriever breeds is with the curly-coated retriever. In fact, this breed probably should be the starting point of any discussion about any of today's retrievers. Most historians say that this is the oldest of all the retrievers, and it figured significantly in the development of most related breeds. Thus, this breed deserves more recognition than it gets.

The exact lineage of all the retrievers probably will never be known exactly, since early breeders didn't keep the kinds of records or follow the same scientific approach that breeders do today. However, some generalizations are possible.

Flat-coated and curly-coated retrievers sprang from a common ancestry based on longhaired breeding producing the former and the shorthaired version becoming the curly-coated.

Flat-coated -- and even more rarely, curly-coated -- retriever breeding occasionally yielded a yellow-colored offspring. Early on, those pups were destroyed, but eventually some were bred, leading to today's golden retriever.

The Labrador retriever probably came from a cross between curly-coats and Newfoundlands, and some other breeds thrown in.

The Chesapeake Bay retriever is probably a mixture of curly-coats with some other breeds as well.

"Some of this is educated guesses," explained Jim Crosby, who has professionally trained more curly-coated title winners than anyone in the U.S., and is president of the Curly-Coated Retriever Club of America. "We're not really sure about a lot of it. Once you get back a couple hundred years, it's hard to say what really happened. But what we do know is that the curly-coated retriever has been a recognized breed for a very long time."


The curly-coated retriever is about the same size as the other retrieving breeds and built very much like its cousins. Their average size is 60 to 85 pounds. However, its coat is quite different. The hair is short, very tightly curled and may be black or liver-colored.

"The curly-coat, as a purebred, goes back between 400 and 500 years," Crosby noted.

In terms of personality, curly-coats share many family traits with their cousins.

"They're very friendly, but they can be a little reserved if they don't know you," he said. "Once they realize you're good for cookies, though, forget it. You're a friend forever.

"They're more laid back than a Labrador," Crosby continued. "It's like having all the good characteristics of a Lab in a dog you don't have to try not to kill for the first two years. They aren't serious by any means, but the puppies aren't quite as silly as flat-coats. And they don't have the 'edge' that the Chesapeakes do."

Curlies often were used by gamekeepers in old England, but not as guard or protection dogs. Rather, they were good trackers for finding poachers and the game they had stashed.

One aspect of the curly-coat's personality that's different from other retrievers is its apparent ability to "think through" a situation.

"Curlies think way too much," Crosby agreed. "The best illustration I can give you is the first hunt test I ever did with one of my dogs, Sam. It was on a day that was very cold, when the wind was blowing very strongly from left to right. The bird was thrown out into a pond about 40 yards beyond the bank and the weeds. All the Labs were splashing and swimming through the cold water and chasing the duck down and struggling back through the wind and the cattails.

"When I sent Sam after the bird, he went to the edge of the water and stopped. He looked at the bird, sniffed the wind, and ran directly around the right side of the pond and stopped in one place and sat down. The bird blew up right to his feet. He brought it back to me in the same amount of time it would have taken him to swim it down, but he stayed dry. That's a dog that's thinking."

Of course, Sam failed the hunt test, because that's not what the judges wanted to see, but it illustrates just how smart a curly-coat can be.

"Curlies make horrible kennel dogs," Crosby concluded. "They need that human companionship. They do best when they're part of the family."

Check out the Curly-Coated Retriever Club of America online at for more information about this breed.


Look at a flat-coated retriever and it appears to be a streamlined golden with a black or liver coat. At best, they are unusual and not many are seen. This is partly because they have a very small gene pool. Aficionados of the breed plan out matings years in advance to be certain the dogs don't become so inbred as to produce unhealthy animals. Breeders also are very selective about the homes their puppies go to. If you decide one of these dogs is for you, expect to go through a bit of an "adoption" process to get approved.

This is not hubris or a form of elitism, but simply necessary in the face of very limited genetic d

iversity in the breed. When you get a puppy from registered mating, you're getting the best of what the breed has to offer in the way of a hunting dog that meets the breed standard.

Purchasing a flat-coat from a litter that's not registered with the FCRSA, runs the risk of getting a pup with genetically based health issues.

At one time, flat-coats were much more common than they are today.

"Flat-coats were used a lot a long time ago," said Patty McClain, owner of Jubilee Kennel. "But because of the fun-loving attitude that flat-coats have and because they like to frolic, many believed they were breaking down the spirit of the dogs if they trained them to hunt. So they went to using Labradors instead.

"You can't train a flat-coat like you do a Lab," she continued, "but you also can't train a golden like you do a Lab. A flat-coat isn't as soft as a golden, but you may have to say 'no' more times to a flat-coat. They're more independent than goldens and they're thinkers.

"But if a flat-coat is trained correctly, you'll have a hunter that's as good as any Lab. You just can't let them play before they work. They have to work and then play, in that order," McClain added.

Like other retrievers, flat-coats love the water, but can be used for waterfowl and upland birds. If you don't introduce them to water correctly, they won't like it. If acclimated to water the way you would any other retriever, you have trouble keeping them on dry land.

For more information about flat-coated retrievers, contact Joan Dever of the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America at (904) 268-0325, or visit their Web site at


The Chesapeake Bay retriever comes in a variety of colors, from a very light tan to a dark chocolate brown. The American Chesapeake Club has a page on its Web site showing eight color variations, with descriptive names such as "deadgrass" and "sedge." These dogs are about the same size as more common retrievers. The have a "double coat," that is dense and wooly underneath, then wavy and oily on top. This protects them from the harsh winter conditions of the Chesapeake Bay region from which they originated.

"Chessies are very rugged in cold, icy water," said Shirl DeVore, who with her husband, Phil, owns Chesagrove Kennels. "Sometimes water forms icicles on them when they come out of the water onto the boat, and they still go back for more."

Despite their cold tolerance, Chessies also do well in warmer climes.

"We've never had any problem with the heat," she offered. "I've seen Labs have a problem with the heat, but never a Chesapeake."

Although Chessies are water dogs, they also do well on upland birds.

"We use them all the time for dove fields, and they'll pick up snipe or whatever else you're hunting," DeVore assured. "You can teach them to quarter or to hunt an area. And they'll stay out longer than a golden. They're strong willed."

That strong personality translates into a dog that has a little bit of a mind of its own.

"They're very laid back in the house, but they need to think that they're doing things themselves," DeVore added. "They're very trainable and very intelligent, but they really don't like being forced to do things."

This breed is also very versatile. Smaller, lighter Chesapeakes can do agility training, and well-trained dogs can go from show-ring work one day to a hunting test the next day with no problem.

"What's unique about the Chesapeake is that they observe everything in their surroundings," DeVore pointed out. "When you change something, they'll let you know. They'll bark at it or growl at it. Once you go up to whatever it is and tell them it's OK, they'll never pay any attention to it again."

This attentiveness to little things is part of the Chessie's protective personality toward its human family as well.

"What you have to remember about Chessies is that they were developed by the market hunters on Chesapeake Bay," Phil DeVore said. "They lived in shacks on the bay, and they would take ducks into town to sell them. They couldn't take their guns into town with them, so they needed a dog they could leave to protect their things while they were gone. That's where the 'edge' of the Chessie comes from. They're more of a one-person dog.

"They're not at all aggressive," he added. "They just are protective of the people they love."

To learn more about Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, visit the American Chesapeake Club Web site at


Compared with the other retrievers, the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, or "Toller," is a little guy. Males stand only 18 to 21 inches tall at the shoulder, and the females are even smaller. They have a double-layered water-repellent coat that can be any shade of red, from golden red to dark copper. They also may have white markings on the feet, the tip of the tail, the face and the chest. Despite their small size, Tollers are able to handle ducks and even geese with no trouble, Shirl DeVore said.

"They have some Chesapeake in them," she said. "They also have some spaniel, some farm collie, and some Irish setter."

Even though some people refer to Tollers as "little goldens," DeVore argued that they are not at all alike.

"The Toller isn't a totally true sporting breed because they have farm collie in them, and they do have a little tendency to herd," she said. "It's not much, but now and then you can see it."

The Toller originated in Nova Scotia early in the 19th century to toll -- or lure -- and retrieve ducks. The dog runs and plays along the shoreline, with its feather-like, fluffy tail waving in the air.

"You sit in a duck blind, in a position so the dog can work along the shoreline," DeVore explained. "I like to use a bumper for the dog to fetch. You throw it out along the shoreline and the dog runs out with its flashy, feathery tail -- like a fox -- and that tail mesmerizes the ducks on the pond."

The dog runs along the shoreline to retrieve the bumper and the ducks get curious and come closer to see what's going on, and in doing so end up within gun range. Then the Toller goes out and retrieves them. They are also great on upland birds.

The Toller's laid-back personality makes it a great pet. It has a high-pitched bark that makes a good alarm for the presence of an intruder, but they're not protective like the Chessie.

For more informat

ion on these little dogs, contact Mary Palskowski, the Public Education Coordinator for the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Club. Her telephone number is (847) 680-4852. The club's Web site is.

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