Posts Tagged ‘cur’

Bred to be coyote hounds!


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The brindle ones aren’t as common in West Virginia, where they are all called mountain curs.

I’m not going to state the breed, because the cur breeds are just now being established as “improved breeds.”

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This is a mutual bark off! (Yes.  The fox is barking back– very raspily!)

Remember that gray foxes and their close cousins, the island foxes, aren’t really foxes. They are actually the most primitive of all wild dog species.  The lineage to which these creatures belong is estimated to be around 10 million years old, the oldest of all extant canids.

The Kemmer cur in this video is of a strain of the greater mountain cur type. There are several strains of mountain cur that are well onto their way to breed formation. They still have an open registry system, which registered all dogs that can be proven to have 75 percent Kemmer ancestry with white papers. However, they still allow dogs with less than 75 percent Kemmer ancestry to be registered with green papers. And the green paper dogs can breed to the white paper dogs.

Curs are often called hounds, but it’s slightly in error. They may have hound ancestry, but they are actually meant to be multipurpose hunting dogs in ways that beagles, foxhounds, and coonhounds typically aren’t. And many of these curs can be used to herd livestock and hunt and retrieve birds. Their ancestry includes whatever dogs could live on the frontier, including those of the Native Americans, those of British and Irish working farm dog and hound stock, and those of German working farm dog and hound stock. (I’ve noted how much some of these dog look like rustic pinscher-types, like the rare Austrian pinscher.)

These two animals are truly made in the USA. At one time, most Americans knew what gray foxes were, and they hunted them with dogs very similar to this Kemmer cur.

But now they both might as well be from Siberia.

Curs are often thought of as mongrels, which is the result of a terrible bastardization of the English language. Curs were the dogs of small farmers in the British Isles. They weren’t standardized or “improved” within the nineteenth century dog fancy system, so they were considered dogs of “low breeding.” Because they weren’t within this system, they might as well have been totally randomly-bred mongrels. But they weren’t.  Some strains of these dogs have been established and maintained for many generations, and many breeders were very careful in selectively breeding their dogs.

The most famous cur was the dog in Fred Gipson’s novel Old Yeller. That particular dog was probably more of a black mouth cur, which is the cur-type that was common around the Gulf Coast states and Texas. The dog in the film version of Gipson’s novel was a Labrador cross named Spike.

No one really seems to know much about either canids in this video. Four of the six small canids native to North America are gray. Two of these, the swift and the kit fox, are actually foxes– that are very closely related to the arctic fox.  The gray and island foxes aren’t in that lineage at all, and where gray foxes and kit and swift foxes live near each other, it is very common for people to misidentify them.

So curs aren’t mongrels, and gray foxes aren’t foxes.

What a confusing language we have!





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You could be forgiven for thinking that these puppies were yellow Labradors or Labrador crosses.

They are blackmouth curs, just without the classic black mask.

Here an adult maskless blackmouth cur. It very strongly resembles a yellow Labrador:

(Source for image.)

The typical coloration for this type of cur isn’t pure yellow. Normally, it is a sable or clear yellow dog with a black mask.

(Source for image)

However, they also come in brindle with a black mask and solid black. A solid black one would be very hard to distinguish from a Labrador or Labrador mix.

There are several different strains of blackmouth cur, but I am not going into it for the purposes of this piece. They vary greatly in appearance and size, with the smallest individuals weighing about 30 pounds and the largest approaching a hundred pounds.

There are several different strains of cur that are native to the US, all of which are in various stages of standardizing into definite breeds. The blackmouth variety is native to the Gulf Coast states from Florida to Texas.  These are true landrace dogs, which descended from English curs dogs, various shepherds and mastiffs, and perhaps the dogs of the Native Americans.

It is very hard to classify the cur. They can be used as stock dogs,  feral hog dogs, coonhounds, squirrel dogs, and just about anything else one can image. I believe some of these dogs have retrieving instinct and could easily be turned into decent bird dogs.

(Source for image)

Curs are not mongrels, but they weren’t exactly breeds as we know them until recently. Different strains and types interbred, and different families established their own strains. Curs were the dogs of the common people, and these dogs were generally not considered for registration into the large kennel clubs. The term “cur” came to reflect a dog that was owned by the blue-collar set, and it got mixed up with the term mongrel.

These dog are generally very biddable and eager to please, although each dog is an individual and certain strains may have not been selected for trainability. And they are generally good with children.

Curs were the dogs of English settlers to the North America. These dogs were particularly common in the North of England and the West Country, which is also where many English settlers to the South came from.  The West Country is also the place where many Newfoundlanders of English descent settled.

It seems likely that one of the dogs that the English in Newfoundland would have brought would have been working cur dogs. These dogs likely were ubiquitous across the English colonies in North America.

In Newfoundland, the dogs crossed with various other strains that managed to make it in Newfoundland, including water dogs from Iberia. The dogs were put to work setting nets and hauling lines.

If the yellow coloration were endemic to English curs, then this breed is a likely source for the yellow color in retrievers. The yellow or red coloration occasionally popped up in various dogs with origins on Newfoundland.

Because of the addition of other breeds and because working in the water off the coast of Newfoundland requires a different coat from dogs working on farms in the subtropical South, the St. John’s water dog evolved a much thicker undercoat.

The dog below is Nell, a St. John’s water dog who was born in 1856 in Scotland. Her ancestry was solely from Newfoundland.

And she does bear a resemblance to the blackmouth cur dog, just she is predominantly black in color.

Therefore, it may be more instructive to think of the St. John’s water dog as the endemic cur of Newfoundland that unfortunately went extinct. However, this cur breed went on to found all the extant retriever breeds.

Mark Derr was the first person to postulate this classification for the St. John’s water dog. He suggested this classification in Dog’s Best Friend, and even though I read that book years ago, it has taken me years to finally accept the merits of classifying this extinct breed as a cur.

In the end, I resisted this classification because of my own biases. Subconsciously, I was harboring a bias against dogs that were native to my own country but were not being maintained in an actual registry. But once I’ve pruned away these biases, I think this classification works.

So the St. John’s water dog and the ancestral Newfoundland were the curs of their island homeland.


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Abraham Lincoln ran using the image of himself as a frontiersman.

And while he and his family lived in Springfield, Illinois, he kept a frontier dog named Fido.

He was a mid-sized, yellow-colored dog that looked something like a small Labrador retriever.

Many have conjectured about what his breed was, but mid-sized yellow dogs from that region at that time in history could only be one thing: Fido was a cur.

More specifically he was part of the cur landrace that range from the Appalachians to the Ohio Valley into the lower parts of the Midwest. This is the gene  from which the now-standardizing mountain cur breed is derived.

Curs were not and are not mongrels. They are multi-purpose farm dogs that had a great utility in parts of British Isles. When they arrived in America, they were used hunting and herding, and bloodlines that included German and Dutch dogs mixed with those British and Irish curs. A few strains may even have a bit of Native American dog sprinkled in, and in some other strains of cur, like the Lacy dog of Texas, wolf ancestry is often claimed.

Fido was not a working dog of any sort. He was a beloved house pet. He often accompanied Lincoln as he walked the streets of Springfield, often carrying a newspaper in his mouth. He occasionally engaged the time tested canine activity of tail chasing. When Lincoln stopped by the barber for a trim, the Fido would wait on him outside the shop.

So loved was Fido that Lincoln gave him a rolling horsehair sofa on which he could lounge. Not bad work for a cur.

Lincoln deeply loved Fido, but when he was elected president in 1860, he decided to leave Fido with friends in Springfield. Lincoln was going to arrive in Washington, D.C., via train, and as his train went through the various towns, church bells and cannons were going to be fired.

Poor Fido was gun shy, and he doubted that he would enjoy the trip that much at all.

Because Fido enjoyed playing with the LIncoln children, it was decided that Fido should stay with the Roll family. The Rolls had two young boys that would give Fido all the attention he needed. According the Poodle and Dog Blog, the Rolls were given the following instructions for caring for Fido:

  • He was not to be scolded for entering the house with muddy paws.
  • He was not to be tied up alone in the backyard.
  • He was to be allowed into the Roll home whenever he scratched at the front door.
  • Since he was accustomed to being fed by members of the family during mealtime, he was to be admitted to the dining room during those times.

I don’t know of too many curs on the frontier who got that kind of attention or  were given those special privileges.

Fido lived with the Rolls while Lincoln was in Washington. However, poor Fido met as tragic a fate as his master. Within a year of Lincoln’s assassination, a drunken man stabbed him to death.

Such a terrible fate for such a great dog.


For those of you who doubt that Fido was a cur. I need only to point you to photos of modern curs, like this one or this one, to make make my case.

One strain of cur, developed in Kentucky, often produces yellow dogs that look so much like Fido. It is called Mountain View Cur. From the photos on its breed club’s website, many of these dogs look a lot like Fido.

I don’t know why curs are not more celebrated in our national history. These dogs were ubiquitous on the frontier, and in some parts of the country, they are quite common.

They are not standardized breeds in the way that AKC dogs are. That’s probably how the term cur got confused with a randomly-bred dogs.  They are also not specialized in the way many working breeds are and didn’t really fit into the culture of stock dog trials or coonhound night hunts.

They were the dogs that the settlers knew. Natural selection and the necessity of having a versatile dog on the frontier drove their breeding.

It is only recently that they have begun to standardize into distinct breeds, which is a mixed blessing. As standardized breeds, they may be recognized and appreciated more fully in their country of origin, but also as standardized breeds, they will cease to exist within the framework that maintained them as a working landrace.

I have always admired these dogs. My neighbor growing up had one that he used as a coonhound, and he was a tough little dog.

I have often thought that if West Virginia should ever need to declare a state dog, it should be the Mountain Cur. This was he dog of the mountaineer, the frontiersman, while the foxhound remained mostly the purview of the Tidewater Tuckahoes in the Old Dominion. Virginia’s state dog is the foxhound, and our should be a true creature of the mountains.

For they are every bit as much a part of the wildness that was once the frontier as black bears and coonskin caps.

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From AllenFilm

These dogs are mountain curs, but feists are also widely used.

You could see the utility of using a golden retriever when the squirrel is shot.

Mountain curs are multi-purpose hound-type dogs that have lots of other things in them, including terrier and Native American dogs. This was once the landrace farm dog in West Virginia, and I think they ought to be West Virginia’s state dog.

The feists are a terrier-type dog. The rat terrier is either a feist or a close relative (It depends upon who you ask). They are not like Jack Russells. They are generally game dogs, but not so game that they’ll go to ground and get their faces torn to bits fighting game (which you have to control for  if you’re using an earth dog.) Generally, a pack of feists won’t easily engage in interdog combat in the way that Jack Russells do. That’s why if you have three Jack Russells in the same room, you’d better watch them like a hawk.

Now, those are the two common breeds used as squirrel dogs. Where I grew up, squirrel hunters used Norwegian elkhounds (my grandpa’s favorite dogs), collie-types of all sorts, and even beagles and other scenthounds. Today, some squirrel hunters are using Jack Russells as squirrel dogs.

But no one has come up with using a golden retriever as a squirrel dog. Maybe I’m the only one.

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