Murray River Retrievers

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

The Murray River Retriever is an Australian icon and Australia's only home grown Gundog. The earliest reference has been traced back to early to mid 1800's and they have breed true ever since. However, because they have never been recognised as a Pure Breed, they have been known by various names, including the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever, Murray River Curly, Murrays, Curlies, Murray Curly Retriever, Murray Reds and in SA, Murray River Duck Dogs, Murray Reds as well as numerous other names.

Recognition of an Iconic Australian

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

There is a rich historical connection between the Murray River Retriever and the river after which it was named. Murray River Retrievers were used as both retrievers and protection dogs on the paddle steamers.

For 10 years, the Murray River Retriever Association Inc has been corresponding with the ANKC attempting to gain recognition as a pure breed. This has been continually stalled, despite compliance with all ANKC Regulations during that time. Later this year, at the ANKC Annual Conference 2021, we are hoping the ANKC vote to make the Murray Australia's latest pure breed.

The Exploration of the Murray River

Murray River Retriever 1878Murray River Retriever 1878

Almost 40 years after Australia was first colonised by the British, in 1827 the Murray River system began to be explored as it wandered through kilometres of barren land.

To understand how and why the breed we now know as the Murray River Retriever is so iconic, it is essential to understand how and why Irish immigrants developed our early settlements along the banks of the Murray and its other connecting river systems.

Irish Immigration to Australia

Irish Water Spaniels 1859Irish Water Spaniels 1859

Between 1845 and 1852, while the Murray River exploration was taking place in Australia, the potato famine was at its worst in Ireland. The most affected regions were Ireland's west and south. As the Irishman's staple diet was potatoes, when their crops failed, the Irish farmers were then forced to pay exorbitant rent to the wealthy landowners. To exacerbate matters, England put such a high tariff on grain and alternative foods like corn and bread, these became prohibitively expensive. Consequently, an estimated one million Irish people, around 25% of Ireland's total population, died from starvation. To escape these dreadful conditions, another estimated one million people emigrated to other countries particularly Australia and USA, accompanied by their beloved Irish Water Spaniels.

Early Development of the Murray River Retriever

Between 1859 to 1889, the Irish Water Spaniel had changed in external appearance as the two accompanying drawings demonstrate. Once in Australia, they developed further into the Murray River Retriever.

Irish Water Spaniels 1889Irish Water Spaniels 1889

Australia was attractive because it offered sponsored passages to free settlers. This resulted in 300,000 Irish Free Settlers arriving in Victoria from 1840 making up a quarter of all overseas-born immigrants. Certainly, some sought their fortunes during the gold rush of the 1850's around Ballarat and Bendigo. But others chose to develop the countless kilometres of barren land around the Murray River system. Many founded small settlements along the river systems of NSW, Victoria, and South Australia. By 1853, with no connecting roads or railways, more than 200 river boats had become the only inland highway for settlers and trade.

Irish Water Spaniels Bred for Function

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

With survival being the top priority of the Irish people escaping the potato famine, the wild ducks and other water birds and game along the banks of the Murray River system provided these early settlers with essential food. Their Irish Water Spaniels were described as 'a little hard mouthed and headstrong, but a Jack of all trades'. The early Australian settlers called them 'Murray River Retrievers'.

Meanwhile, by 1864 in Britain, the Irish Water Spaniel was already an established pure breed. Their unique external features had been accepted when they were listed in the First English Stud Book.

American Water Spaniel

American Water SpanielAmerican Water Spaniel

It is likely that both the American Water Spaniel and the Murray River Retriever were developed from Irish Water Spaniels brought to USA and Australia respectively by Irish people escaping starvation. When the American Water Spaniel is compared to our Murray, the likeness is striking! From the 1850's there was a Gold Rush in both counties. In USA this all-round hunting dog was used to retrieve game in the Fox River Valley region of East-Central Wisconsin. In the late 1800s, the rivers and large lakes were a waterfowl hunter's paradise! These sturdy little dogs not only fitted into small boats, but could also work in marsh cover and shake off the cold. Registered as a pure breed by the UKC (United Kennel Club) in 1924, they were granted pure breed status by AKC in 1990.

The American Water Spaniel differs from the Murray in the following 4 ways:

  1. His is smaller than the Murray, being 15-18 in high whereas the Murray is 18-21ins
  2. He can be liver, brown or chocolate whereas the Murray can only be liver coloured
  3. His wavy coat differs from the Murray's which is less wavy, tending more to curls
  4. His feet, although still webbed, are smaller more compact than the moderately large and spreading feet of the Murray.

Registration of Pure Breed Dogs in Australia

Murray River Retriever 1947Murray River Retriever 1947

Australia never had a Stud Book in any way comparable with America, England or even NZ until 1976 when ANKC installed an Australia-wide computerised database. Prior to this, registering a dog here relied on haphazard arrangements in each State. In Victoria, a completed application form and fee was all that was necessary. Until 1933, Victoria had 3 such bodies of which the Kennel Control Council was just one! So, unless the dog had an English Pedigree, naming the breed depended on the person paying the fee! With no process in place to prove a dog was a registered pure breed in Australia, today we must rely on facts surrounding the Murray River Retriever's origin.

Curly Coated Dogs that Retrieved

Pedigree 1932Pedigree 1932

This is one of the 700 odd historic Pedigrees dating from the 1920's, contained in the Dogs Victoria Library. They prove that Murray River Retrievers have been registered here since at least in 1933. One of these pedigrees is shown. The owner/breeder was from Rutherglen, near the Murray River. Called a 'Black Curly Retriever of Murray Valley', the words 'Curly Retriever' at that time was likely to be a generic term meaning a dog with a Curly Coat that retrieved game.

There has always been a breed in Victoria commonly called the Retriever(Curly). This was regularly interbred with what is now called the Murray River Retriever. The Irish Water Spaniel was also certainly in the mix. Remembering that the Breed Standard of the early Curly Coated Retrievers in England described them as 'moderately low on leg' and only 24" height until 1984[1], it is highly likely these short-legged Curly Coated Retrievers had an influence on the development of the Murray River Retriever. But the Murray has essentially retained its original shape, despite some interbreeding with the Curly Coated Retriever that occurred along the way.

Today, to preserve Murray's identity, it is imperative the ANKC puts checks and balances in place by recognising the Murray as pure breed.

Today Murray's are still used for retrieving. Unlike other breeds which specialise in a particular style or game type, Murray's can be trained to point, flush and retrieve and are used for retrieving ducks and tracking deer and pigs. Around 2018, extensive DNA profiling of the 206 internationally profiled breeds showed that today's Murray River Retriever is not related to any other modern breed of dog.

The Murray River Retriever Association Inc.

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

The Murray River Retriever Association Inc was founded on June 13, 2010, pre-dated by various letters and photographs. Currently there are almost 500 members on its books with approximately 770 dogs registered on their database, 'Breed Mate' This information easily satisfies the requirements of previous ANKC Regulations 10.2.4.1 and 10.2.4.3. We should be proud of the importance the Murray River Retriever played in the early development of Australia. For all these reasons, surely it is time that the Murray is included on the ANKC pure breed register.

The Murray River Retriever Today

Although there is no official Breed Standard recognised by the ANKC, the following description is presented here for comment which can be to the Murray River Retriever Association Inc.

General Appearance:

Murray River RetrieverMurray River RetrieverThe Murray River Retriever, popularly called "the Murray" is the only Gundog whose country of development is Australia. A "Jack of all Trades", he is stocky in build, has a liver-coloured curled coat and distinctive webbed feet. His height at shoulder is 46-53cm (18-21ins).

Coat

The coat is always liver in colour, the hair on the head is smooth until level with the ear set. From the back of the skull to tail tip, the coat is curled, ranging from the crisp tight curls of the Curly Coated Retriever to the dense ringlets of the Irish Water Spaniel. There may also be slight feathering on the back of the forelegs, the front of the legs being smooth. The coat feels oily but never harsh, and sufficiently thick to protect the skin from cold water.

Characteristics:

The Murray River Retriever's carriage and attitude is of a confident, energetic, focussed dog who loves water.

Head:

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

The head is of medium length to balance the body. The skull should be broad and flat with high set ears framing the face. The moderate stop becomes fluting as it rises from the strong muzzle to the stop between the brows and dies away towards an inconspicuous occiput. The cheeks should be flat.

The strong, well chiselled muzzle should be deep, without excessive flews and house a normal scissors bite. The nostrils should be large and open and match the coat in colour. The hazel eyes are almond shaped, medium sized, and set underneath brows.

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

Ears

The moderately large, dropped ears are covered in long, wavy hair.

Forequarters

The well-laid shoulders should be approximately equal in length to the upper arm. The straight forelegs should be set well under body. The bone is round and the pasterns strong, but very flexible. The ribs are well sprung with moderate width and depth and an obvious prosternum. The neck is of medium length

Feet

The large, round and spreading feet have webbing between toes and brown nails.

Body Proportions

The height from withers to ground is shorter than the length of body from point of shoulder to buttock. So, the body is longer than it is high.

Hindquarters, Topline and Tail

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

The deep, muscular loins and strong hindquarters should balance the overall structure of the dog. The thighs are powerful with muscling down to the moderately long and well-developed second thighs. Well-turned stifles and strong hocks are also essential for the dog's extension and drive when moving either on land or in water.

The straight and level topline ends in a tail that may be carried in a sabre-shape on the move.The Murray is quick and very agile, moving freely without lumber.

References and Further Reading

[1] Audrey Nicholls, 'The Curly Coated Retriever' Published River Media Services, Hereford England 'The Breed Standard' Pages 73 - 75


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