A Very Murray History


04_Frank (Last of the Ballarat Tribe)
Ballarat Historical Society Photograph Collection No. 367.79


The origin of the Murray River Retriever has been traced back as far as early to mid 1800s in Australia and appears to have been breeding relatively true to type since 1894. The origins of the Murray are obscure as Murrays have been the dog of the working class which evolved from the needs of the land. This was the case for many working breeds, which have great vagaries in their histories prior to the mid 1850s when breed development and showing of dogs became a pastime for the British Gentry.


The Murray River Retriever (MRR) was known by various names depending on where along the Murray-Darling people settled and worked. These names including Murray River Curly Coated Retriever, Murray River Curlies, Murrays, Curlies, Murray Curly Retriever; in SA they were known as Murray River Duck Dogs, Murray Reds and numerous other names. The Murray is also believed to have been popular with Australian indigenous people as a hunting companion as evidenced by the photo of Mullawallah of the Ballarat region taken before 1896 and among the First Nation people on the Coorong and Lake Alexandria regions in SA.



From British and Irish Heritage

Southern County Spaniel & Northern Water Dog,
 The shotgun and sporting rifle and the dogs, ponies, ferrets, &c. 

John Henry Walsh (Stonehenge)

Our best information is found from looking at published information and photos throughout the years and identifying similarities between the dogs in images. The tale that could be woven to bring these ideas together is many and varied and there may even be some fact in it, but alas we can never be sure! Putting these images together with the information received from the DNA project helps to steer the direction of the likely history potentially closer to what may have been the actual situation. But, let’s see how we go!

In the early 1800’s in England, Scotland and Ireland, there are a number of dogs that have similar characteristics to what we now know as the Murray River Retriever. Of these dogs, two noted by John Henry Walsh, who wrote in the mid 1800s under the pseudonym “Stonehenge”, stand out for their similarities to the Murray as it has developed throughout history to today

“Of the Irish Spaniels there are two kinds: the North of Ireland dog, which is given in the annexed engraving; and the South Country water spaniel, of which I have never seen a well-marked specimen. Both are of a liver colour, but the former has often more or less white, while in the latter this is entirely absent. The northern dog is also longer on the legs, with short ears, having little or no feather on them, and both the legs and tail being also almost free from this ornament, and covered instead with a short curly coat, as is also the rest of the body. The southern dog, on the contrary, has long and well-feathered ears, tail round also, and pointed, never being carried above the back; head covered with a perfect top-knot, coming down over the forehead in a peak. These dogs are valued very highly in Ireland, but they are little known out of that country. The northern Irish spaniel is, however, common enough in England and Scotland.” John Henry Walsh.


02_TweedSpaniel BB Wadham 1855
Tweed Water Spaniel - BB Wadham 1855

It is the Northern Water dog that catches the attention most in our journey to Murray River Retrievers, particularly as the trade between Northern Ireland and Scotland was high during those times. It was noted by John Henry Walsh in his book The Shotgun and Sporting Rifle from 1859 that “the Northern Irish Spaniel is, however, common enough in England and Scotland”. Other breeds from England having similar traits are the Norfolk Retriever which was also referred to as the Irish Retriever [The Encyclopaedia of Sport, Volume 1 edited by Henry Charles Howard Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire, Hedley Peek, Frederick George Aflalo] and Tweed Water Spaniel (pictured). It is believed that all of these breeds have been extinct since between the 1880s and early 1900s.

Stepping back through time with historical documentation, we know that the British settlers brought dogs with them from the First Fleet onwards to assist them in settling and surviving as they established settlements in Australia. Given the importance of the water retriever to return ducks and other water fowl in England, Scotland and Ireland presumably when creating their packing list of important tools and work animals, the brown curly water spaniel was going to be an essential to help them catch a feed!




03_PRG-67-54-58 Ayers SA Archives
Mary Elizabeth Ayers circa 1870-1
SA State Library

Development of The Australian Gundog

05_cal21_Barnes, Elsie & George Barnes with their dog Ingham 1912
Elsie and George Barnes
with their MRR pup, Ingham 1912

We can continue to follow the development of what is now known as the Murray River Retriever from early photos. We see a consistency in form from the 1850s right through until today. The lack of written documentation is typical of many landrace dog breeds -breeds which developed due to dogs being selected for the function they performed rather than their looks. This practice saw the development of "specific breed types" over time as dogs who were similar in ability and physical type were bred to each other. This is where the term "function developed form" is used. These breeds were rarely seen in dog shows as they had work to perform.

Many of the Scottish and Irish found themselves setting up home and business along the Murray and Darling Rivers. This was the major inland trade route through the Murray – Darling River system and offered settlers many opportunities to live, thrive and survive in this new land. Their dogs needed to be good retrievers, able to cope with loud shot gun noises, intelligent, able to swim well, have large amounts of stamina and be small enough to work from duck punts.

Murrays were also part of the family and were great protectors of their family and property. 



06_Cal22_250 via email John A Lineen with 2 mates and their dogs 1920
The Lineen’s with their Murrays Circa 1920



Although the Murray River Retriever has often been likened with other breeds with brown curly coats, namely the Curly Coated Retriever and the Irish Water Spaniel there is evidence in early Australian newspaper articles to indicate that there were very few of these dogs in Australia until the early 1900s. In addition to this, the histories of these breeds indicating that they were being developed during the latter half of the 1800s in England and Ireland.

1949 Murray sitting on a tractor at Robinvale   08_Monty Murray Down Swan Hill 1951
Robinvale 1949   Monty Filby 1951


DNA testing undertaken in 2014 has shown that the pure Murrays are not related to any other modern breed of dog. The closest markers to another breed are to the Chesapeake Bay Retriever. It is uncertain whether this mix may have come from a common ancestor in Britain or whether these breeds were mixed in the 1850-1900s along the banks of the Murray in the interests of expanding the genetic diversity or to improve water endurance. The DNA testing also showed that the Murray River Retriever had one of the lowest incidences of hereditary diseases amongst the modern dog breeds.

1968 Monty 2   Wheatly Tammy Wheatly Clancy 1985
Monty2 Filby 1968   Wheatley Tammy and Wheatly Clancy 1985



12_WhelanC Jack 2020
WhelanC Jack -  2020

Throughout the years, there have been breeders have dabbled with trying to “improve” the Murray River Retriever for their own hunting needs. In Gippsland around 1960 there was a breeding program that was trialled crossing Murray’s with Curly Coated Retrievers to increase the leg length for retrieving in the longer grass and marshier areas. This is what resulted in consideration that there was a larger and smaller Murray for a period of years. The same breeders who undertook this trial admitted that they had made a mistake and the effect did not yield a better performing gundog. The trial was fazed out and their breeding focussed on the original sized Murray.

In 2006-2008 as the popularity for the breed increased due to social media influence, there were also some other indiscriminate crosses by a few breeders to increase the supply of pups available. The most common crosses were to the Irish Water Spaniel and Curly Coated Retriever; however we are aware that in 1943 there was also one known outcross to a Daschund. The influence of these crosses can still be seen in some Murray River Retrievers today with a topknot forming instead of smooth fur on top of the head, a rounded skull, a whip tail rather than feathered and much longer ears than can be seen from photos throughout history. From the Daschund cross there is a need to be aware of Murrays whose legs are too short for their body and have turned out feet. This is an undesirable genetic fault which can now be detected by DNA Health testing and should be intentionally bred out of Murray River Retrievers.


152 Patten Jack
Cardell Jack – 2017


Today Murrays are still used for retrieving. Murrays are used for retrieving game, ducks, flushing and retrieving quail also for tracking deer, foxes and pigs. Murrays have also been trained in many other areas including Tracking, Search and Rescue, Assistance Dogs, Companion animals, Protection and Bomb Detection work. Murrays have also become beloved family pets.

It is important to note that the Murray River Retriever development until recently has been largely driven by the working needs of the hunter. As the purposes for which people own Murray River Retrievers move from an active gundog to another training or a family pet it is crucial that owners seek out breeders who are actively breeding to the breed description as published by Dogs Australia, so that Murrays can remain true to their history well into the future.

The Murray was recognised as a purebred gundog by Dogs Australia (ANKC) from 1 January, 2022. The Murray River Retriever Association is proud to be the sponsoring breed club.