Murray River Retrievers

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

The Murray River Retriever is the latest ANKC recognised pure breed. An Australian icon, it is also 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. Historically they were popularly known as the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever, Murray River Curly, Murrays, Curlies, Murray Curly Retriever, Murray Reds and in SA, Murray River Duck Dogs. As a recognised pure breed, they have but one name, the Murray River Retriever.

History of the Murray River Retriever

Murray River Retriever 1869Murray River Retriever 1869

The history of Murray River Retriever began in 1827 with the exploration of the Murray River system as it meandered through kilometres of barren land. In the absence and roads and railways, by the 1850s around 200 paddle steamers were responsible for trade by means of this river. These boats brought essential stores to early settlers that were traded for wool and the fresh food products being transported back to the cities to be sold.

Consequently by 1853, the Murray River had become the main highway for settlers and trade between the three Australian States of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. On board the paddle steamers, Murray River Retrievers became watch dogs for the families who lived on paddle steamers but more importantly made it possible for the early settlers to survive on wild ducks for food.

Irish Water Spaniel Influence

Irish Water Spaniels 1859Irish Water Spaniels 1859

Between 1845 and 1852, when the Murray River exploration was taking place in Australia, the potato famine was at its worst in the west and south of Ireland. Meanwhile, in England during this period, the Irish Water Spaniels' the external appearance we know today was developing. This is demonstrated in the two historical drawings under this heading.

The most important feature the Irish Water Spaniel developed was its waterproof oily, curly, coat. This helped it cope with the harsh, cold, wet conditions of the barren Irish marshes. These dogs also had to have large feet and powerful bodies capable of working in the bogs and swamplands. As well as these physical characteristics, the developing breed had to have the ability to make the unilateral decision to kill and retrieve wounded birds and animals rather than allowing them to escape. Dogs with these characteristics helped many Irish people survive on the ducks these dogs caught when their potato crops failed.

Irish Water Spaniel 1889Irish Water Spaniel 1889

Additionally, during the potato famine, the poor Irish farmers were also 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.

Development of the Murray River Retriever

Murray River Retriever c 1947Murray River Retriever c 1947

Between 1859 to 1889, Australia was an attractive destination because it offered sponsored passages to free settlers. This resulted in some 300,000 Irish Free Settlers arriving in Victoria from 1840 making up a quarter of all overseas-born immigrants. Certainly, some of the immigrants 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 surrounding the Murray River system. Hence small settlements became established along the river systems of NSW, Victoria, and South Australia.

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, wild ducks and other water birds and game along the banks of the Murray River system also 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 had become an established pure breed. Their unique external features were accepted and they were listed in the First English Stud Book.

American Water Spaniel

Meanwhile, Irish immigrants went to USA as well as Australia. Consequently, it is interesting to take a look at the American Water Spaniel which developed from a similar gene pool but quite separately from Murray River Retriever. When  compared, the likeness is striking! Their development was also the 1850's where  there was also a Gold Rush. In USA this all-round hunting dog was used to retrieve game in the Fox River Valley region of East-Central Wisconsin. The rivers and large lakes were a waterfowl hunter's paradise! However, their purpose and development was different. In Australia, they lived on paddle steamers. However, in USA these sturdy little dogs had to fit into small boats as well as work in marsh cover and shake off the cold.

American Water SpanielAmerican Water Spaniel

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

The Murray River Retriever becomes as a Pure Breed

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

For 10 years, the Murray River Retriever Association Inc corresponded with the ANKC attempting to gain recognition as a pure breed. At their October 2021 Conference, the ANKC not only unanimously agreed to this, they chose to retain their iconic name, the Murray River Retriever.

Consequently, from April 1st 2022 the ANKC accepts Murray River Retriever registrations that comply with all their criteria so Murrays can not only gain titles in Championship Dog Shows, but also in ANKC Sporting activities designed for Gundogs like Retrieving Trials and Utility Field Trials.

Characteristics of the Murray River Retriever

Murray River RetrieverMurray River RetrieverThe Murray River Retriever, popularly called "the Murray" is the only Gundog whose country of development is Australia. The Murray has a soft mouth as well as natural ability to find, flush and retrieve small and large game. The Murray's carriage and attitude is that of a confident, energetic, focussed dog who loves water. A "Jack of all Trades", its outline is rectangular, it has a liver-coloured curled coat and distinctive webbed feet. His height at shoulder is 46-53cm (18-21ins).

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 covered with sufficient hair to frame the face. The moderate stop rises from the strong muzzle  and parts the skull as it dies away towards an inconspicuous occiput. The cheeks should be flat.

The well chiselled muzzle should be deep, without excessive flews and houses 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 and range from amber to light brown in colour.

Murray - Incorrect ExpressionMurray - Incorrect Expression

During its development as a pure breed, incorrect elongated heads with low set spaniel type dropped ears like the dog on the right, often occurred. If the ears are set too low on the skull, sometimes the hair on the skull grows so long it even forms a topknot! Hair framing the face is a breed characteristic. If the dog has low-set ears, and long instead of short hair on the skull, not only does the head appear to look incorrectly too long, but also the Murray loses its typical expression.

Neck and Body

Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

The neck is strong, of sufficient length to enable the dog to pick up game on the move when retrieving. The well-laid shoulders should be approximately equal in length to the upper arm.

The height from withers to ground is shorter than the length of body from point of shoulder to buttock. This means the body is longer than it is high. The chest is moderately deep, the ribs well sprung, extending into a deep, powerful loin with a slight tuck-up of flank.The straight well boned 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. The large, round and spreading feet have webbing between toes and brown nails.

Murray River Retriever gaitingMurray River Retriever gaiting

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 straight or sabre-shape on the move.The Murray is quick and very agile, moving freely without lumber.


Murray River RetrieverMurray River Retriever

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 loosely curled. There may 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 and punishing cover while retrieving.

References and Further Reading

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