The American Water Spaniel is one of the few dog breeds specifically developed in the United States. The breed is generally considered an American dog created for and by American hunters. Being a member of the Spaniel family, however, his story surely begins prior to the documented history he has in the United States. Although the breed’s exact origin is questionable at best and unknown for certain, its ancestors are believed to include ancient breeds like the Irish Water Spaniel and the now extinct English Water Spaniel, and even unidentifiable dog breeds native to the early Americas. Other breeds commonly cited, that may have had a later influence on the American Water Spaniel are believed to be the Curly-Coated Retriever, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the Poodle, the Sussex Spaniel, and the Field Spaniel. There is; however, little in the way of evidence to definitively prove exactly which breeds were used in its creation and so the American Water Spaniel will remain, now and forever, a dog of some mystery.
References to Spaniel type dogs have historically been documented in early European records, and their early ancestors may have migrated into the European continent with nomadic hunter gatherers as early as 900 B.C. The development of the Spaniel family in England and Ireland as a hunting dog is well recorded throughout the pages of history and the type would eventually be split into two distinct groups, land spaniels and water spaniels.
The Water Spaniels of the British Isles have a long and abundant history in hunting and retrieving. These breeds were included in the kennels of the English aristocracy of old; and although the American Water Spaniel (like many other modern Spaniel breeds) may have initially descended from such noble lineage, this particular breed is believed to have had a much more humble beginning. Of the many theories that abound regarding the creation of the American Water Spaniel, there are reports that the first specimens of the breed may have arrived in the Americas on early ships sent to explore the “new world”. The story goes on to suggest that the original development of the American Water Spaniel as a hunter and retriever may well have been by Native Americans (who may have received the dogs in trade) hunting the lands prior to the extensive migration of white settlers into the area. This is speculative; however, as it is impossible to know for sure the true origins and true genealogy of the American Water Spaniel.
Other legends place the genesis of the American Water Spaniel around the time of the Civil War (mid 1800’s) in Wisconsin’s Fox and Wolf River Valleys. At this time in history, hunting was a main source of acquiring food, and the men hunting along these river valleys would often bring the game that they caught back to sell in the local markets. Due in part to this fact, the region of America surrounding these river valleys (the Great Lakes region) would be a most likely place for the breed to have originated and been developed with so strong an emphasis on field work.
The men hunting at this time and in this area of the country needed a compact dog who could flush and retrieve, was able to withstand the cold and harsh elements, and was compact enough to travel with the hunters on small boats; the American Water Spaniel, or “brown spaniel” as he was known then, was nicely suited to these requirements and regardless of the breed’s origin, it is likely to have been perfected by these hunters early on in its development.
The American Water Spaniel, popular only in the Great Lakes region, would become a well valued companion to the local hunters. At this point, the history of the breed reads quite similarly to that of the Boykin Spaniel which was bred and developed by American hunters in the Carolinas. It is thought by some that the American Water Spaniel may have been part of the lineage of the Boykin breed. The American Water Spaniel and the Boykin Spaniel are similar in appearance, purpose, and field ability; but whether or not they are ancestors is not known for sure. Regardless of their connection to one another, historically, the breeds correspondingly developed alongside one another but in different regions of the United States.
As the 19th century came to a close, time went on and lifestyles changed. The duck population began to decline in the region and the introduction of larger breed retrievers (such as setters, pointers, and other Spaniel type breeds) onto the American hunting scene; as well as a shift from hunting being a main source of providing food to a recreational activity, caused the American Water Spaniel to become less popular and as a result their population began to decline in numbers.
For breed enthusiast, Dr. Fred J. Pfeifer of New London, Wisconsin, this was an unacceptable fate for the American Water Spaniel. Pfeifer was the first to note that this multi-spaniel type was actually a unique breed, with its own distinguishable characteristics, and Pfeifer believed that the American Water Spaniel should be recognized as such. In an effort to preserve the breed, he established Wolf River Kennel and began petitioning registries of dog breeds to recognize the American Water Spaniel. His kennel held up to 132 dogs at a time and he began selling the pups (males for $25 and females for $20) to hunters across the United States, selling as many as 100 a year from his litters. Prospective buyers of the pups from his kennel would receive a mailer from Pfeifer, praising the breed saying: “The American Brown Spaniel is distinctively an American production…They are dogs to admire and trust under all conditions…”
His breeding efforts, along with his petitioning would lead to the recognition of the American Water Spaniel as a distinct and separate breed, by the United Kennel Club (UKC), in 1920. “Curly Pfeifer”, Pfeifer’s American Water Spaniel was the first specimen of the breed registered with the UKC. Pfiefer’s work would include the creation of a breed standard for the American Water Spaniel and an early studbook. He encouraged others to preserve and promote the American Water Spaniel, and in 1938, the breed was included in the Field Dog Stud Book.
Another Wisconsin native, Karl Hinz of Oshkosh, began to rally for the American Water Spaniel. He used the studbook, as well as other records from Pfeifer’s kennel to convince the American Kennel Club (AKC) to recognize the American Water Spaniel as its own breed. Hinz was successful, and in 1940, the American Water Spaniel was recognized by the AKC, as a member of the Sporting Group; the breed had not been shown within the dog show circuit before this time.
In spite of these achievements, the American Water Spaniel would fail to regain the popularity it had once enjoyed. Registration numbers for the breed remained low, with only a few hundred being listed with the American Kennel Club (AKC) each year. It is considered a rare breed and a regional dog, little known outside of the Great Lakes area of the United States. Interest in, and breeding of the America Water Spaniel did, however, continue in these parts through the mid 1900’s.
In an article written by Michael Taylor (published in the 2007 July/August addition of AKC Family Dog) the battle to gain a further distinction for the American Water Spaniel breed in the 1980’s is documented. Taylor records the efforts of schoolteacher Lyle Brumm and his eighth grade class, to get the American Water Spaniel officially named the State Dog of Wisconsin. In 1981 Brumm noted that Governmental Studies were a particularly challenging subject to engage his students in. In order to stimulate their interest and help the students develop a true understanding of the system, Brumm gave the students an assignment; under his supervision, they were to draft a bill and present it for legislation. The students chose, with this bill, to attempt to get the American Water Spaniel recognized as the State Dog.
In the 1983 Wisconsin legislative session, Representative Francis Byers would receive the bill. It was passed by the state assembly; the vote was 74 to 24 in favor of the American Water Spaniel. However, in 1984, the students and their bill were not met with the same enthusiasm by representatives of the Senate Committee on Urban Affairs and Government Operations. These government officials greeted the students with harsh criticism of the American Water Spaniel breed, snide comments, and complete disregard for their bill and their efforts.
One of the harshest critics, Milwaukee Senator Mordecai Lee, stated, "We don't need any more symbols." That such bills would make the legislature a laughingstock and that sending such a ridiculous proposal to the senate floor would be "opening a can of worms on such measures."
"In fact," he continued adding insult to injury, "I believe the worm will be the next state symbol," in closing he continued his belittling attitude by adding, "We shouldn't pass bills because a high-school class wants it."
Jumping on the bandwagon of American Water Spaniel bashing, Senator Dan Theno, of Ashland, added his infantile dribble, calling the American Water Spaniel a "flea-bitten mangy mutt that has the propensity to be ornery," also adding that it had a tail that was "like a rat."
This lack etiquette and professionalism infuriated Brumm and his students. The media took up their cause and editorial articles criticizing the representatives appeared in local papers and even in the New York Times. The bad publicity led the senate majority leader to take note of the students’ cause and Governor Anthony S. Earl made a special point of visiting Brumm’s class. The students were encouraged to continue their campaign to make the American Water Spaniel the State Dog. On April 22, 1985, the bill was passed and the American Water Spaniel was made the official State Dog of Wisconsin.
This was a great accomplishment for the breed and for the students. Only 11 other dog breeds are currently recognized as State Dogs, making the American Water Spaniel a member of an elite group of dog breeds to be given such an honor. Other breeds listed as official State Dogs include the Alaskan Malamute for Alaska, the Catahoula Leopard Dog for Louisiana, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever for Maryland, the Boston Terrier for Massachusetts, the Chinook for New Hampshire, the Plott Hound for North Carolina, the Great Dane for Pennsylvania, the Boykin Spaniel for South Carolina, the Blue Lacy for Texas, and the American Foxhound for Virginia.
One thousand students were present to celebrate the American Water Spaniel’s success and recognition. Pfiefer’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren were invited to share in the celebration, and the bill-signing. Appropriately, a portrait of the late Pfifer hung nearby the bill-signing table.
Also in 1985, the American Water Spaniel Club (AWSC) was established. It is considered the parent club of the American Water Spaniel by the AKC. In spite of its success in becoming the state dog of Wisconsin, the 1990’s brought further reduction in the breeds registration numbers, dwindling down to just a couple hundred American Water Spaniels registered annually with the AKC. In 1993, the American Water Spaniel Field Association (AWSFA) was created and worked to get the American Water Spaniel officially listed as a flushing spaniel, which would enable it to take part in the AKC Spaniel Hunt Test program; this would not occur, however, until 2011.
Although never gaining the same kind of prestige as many of his Spaniel cousins, the American Water Spaniel as a breed would be less influenced by dog show standards. The American Water Spaniel underwent fewer breed changes because of this and it still generally displays the same hunting characteristics, skills, abilities, physical appearance, and mindset as it did at the peak of its popularity in the early 1900’s. The American Water Spaniel was then and is now primarily bred for the purpose of hunting, as they were originally developed to meet these needs, and are rarely seen on the dog show circuit today. This may be one reason that the American Water Spaniel has so few specimens of the breed registered each year.
The American Water Spaniel is as of 2010, ranked 143rd out of 167 breeds in the AKC’s most popular dog breeds list. The breed has seen a steady decrease in popularity since the year 2000 when it was ranked 125th on this list. According to statistics there are roughly 3000 American Water Spaniels in the United States, and the vast majority of those remain in their region of origin (the states surrounding Wisconsin).
The ancient history and true origin of the American Water Spaniel may never be known for certain, but Kerrin Winter Churchill, in an article entitled Spaniel of the Lakes, published in the December 2006 AKC Gazette, beautifully described the American Water Spaniel’s past when she wrote: “The American Water Spaniel (AWS) is uniquely woven into the rich tapestry of our country but, like a well-worn family heirloom, its history is lost to time.”
The American Water Spaniel is a medium sized, muscular dog of the Spaniel type. Both sexes should stand between 15 and 18 inches at the withers; weight range for males is 30-45 lbs, and 25-40 lbs for females. The breed is generally less tall than it is long. The American Water Spaniel should be of good substance, and adequately able to perform its function as a hunter and retriever.
The American Water Spaniel has a moderately long head that is symmetrical and in proportion to the body, with a wide skull. The stop is average, and the American Water Spaniel boasts a mid-length muzzle that is square and deep; a nose that is dark and wide with well developed nostrils, tight lips, and teeth that present a scissors bite or are level.
The slightly rounded eyes are set apart; never bulging, the eyelids do not droop and the eye color, being compatible with that of the coat, can be yellow-brown, dark brown, or hazel. The American Water Spaniel’s self-confident expression is that of a dog that is intelligent and watchful. In typical Spaniel fashion, the ears are long and lobular in shape; set just above the level of the eyes, they are wide and full.
Carrying the head with distinction, the American Water Spaniel’s neck is rounded and muscular, but not overly long. An insignificant arch in the neck leads into a slight sloping in the back, giving the top line a level look. The American Water Spaniel is moderate in girth through the chest and the muscles are well-developed. Strong shoulders, giving way to lean, average length front legs make the American Water Spaniel ideal for field work.
The Hindquarters are strong and straight like the front legs, and display structure and drive. The overall shape of the American Water Spaniel is distinguishing, and alludes to his abilities, strength, and stamina in the field. In consideration of the body size of the American Water Spaniel, the feet are balanced and well padded; with toes that are closely positioned and webbed for swimming.
The tail of the American Water Spaniel is of moderate length, lively with a slight curve and ample feathering. It is not customarily docked like many other Spaniel breeds. It is carried below or just above the line of the back. As a hunter and retriever, the American Water Spaniel uses its tail to propel it through the water. Used like a rudder on a boat, this unique tail allows the dog to alter his course and change directions more easily than many other breeds. The American Water Spaniel is a uniquely gifted swimmer in either calm or unstable waters.
The American Water Spaniel is generally a solid color through the coat; liver, brown, or dark chocolate. White spots on chest and toes are sometimes present. The breed sports a double coat, with the undercoat providing much protection from the elements. For this purpose, it should be dense and thick. The oily outer coat makes the American Water Spaniel slightly water and dirt repellent, and can range from tightly curled to only slightly wavy; and may be consistent in appearance or its texture can vary on differing parts of the dog. Smooth, short hair is found on the head, with the throat/neck, legs, tail, and ears covered in longer hair that is well feathered.
A proper hunting dog, bred to work the field, the American Water Spaniel is true to the Spaniel type. He is enthusiastic about his work, and is a disciplined and precise hunting companion. The American Water Spaniel moves deliberately and is eager to please, but also is stable and controllable in the field. Stanley Coren, in his book The Intelligence of Dogs, lists the American Water Spaniel in 44th place for intelligence level. This means the breed is considered of “Average Working/Obedience Intelligence”, understanding new verbal commands in 25 to 40 repetitions, and obeying first commands 50% of the time or better.
The American Water Spaniel is eager to learn and when properly handled, the dog makes a wonderful addition to any family. Leadership must however, be clearly established early on, as the breed has a tendency to display “alpha dog” characteristics. The American Water Spaniel can be stubborn or even manipulative when proper pack order is not firmly recognized. Because of its sensitive nature though, constructive and mild training is the only kind encouraged for the breed, so the dog does not become distrustful.
The American Water Spaniel will hunt and fetch naturally, and does not need further training after the basics in this area; however, the challenge of advanced training can be beneficial to the breed to keep the dog mentally and physically satisfied. A variety in the training an American Water Spaniel receives will keep the dog from becoming bored.
The American Water Spaniel is not only a superb hunter, but a great pet as well. The breed is very active and enjoys being the center of the family’s attention. The American Water Spaniel is full of excitement and energy. He is inclined to follow scents, and should be kept in an enclosed yard and walked on a leash. The American Water Spaniel will require daily exercise including regular walks and outdoor playtime. Once these requirements are met, the American Water Spaniel will be mild-mannered and calm; happy to enjoy the simple pleasures of life like time spent at home enjoying the company of family and friends.
The American Water Spaniel is friendly, with a pleasant demeanor. A charming breed, the American Water Spaniel craves human companionship and enjoys attention. The breed thrives as part of an active family and will insist on being included in activities, especially outdoor ones. The breed is known as a good watchdog, as they are vocal and will often alert the family of arrivals or activity in the area.
The American Water Spaniel, like many Spaniel breeds, can be emotionally sensitive. Kenneling is not recommended. When left alone the dog may develop separation anxiety and if bored, the breed has a tendency to bark, whine, or howl; as well as to display destructive behaviors like chewing and digging. The American Water Spaniel is best suited to a family with a stay-at-home parent or someone with a flexible work schedule and plenty of time to spend with the dog. The size of the American Water Spaniel allows it to thrive in an apartment, just as easily as in a larger home, providing there is room enough for exercise and play.
Generally (and when properly trained and socialized) the American Water Spaniel is outgoing, making him friendly with strangers, good with children, and gentle with most non-canine animals. The breed can at times be distant with strangers, and is an instinctive hunter that may be inclined to chase smaller animals if not properly trained and socialized at a young age.
In the early years of the development of the breed, the American Water Spaniel was bred and allowed to live in packs or groups, and the need to establish their status among the other group members was ever present. This is a concern when the American Water Spaniel is among unfamiliar or new dogs, and helps to explain their alpha-dog mentality, and their propensity for being aggressive and protective of their territory. As with all dog breeds, early exposure to new people, places, and things will assist in the reduction of this type of behavior in the American Water Spaniel’s temperament.
The American Water Spaniel is however, a versatile breed of dog and has been known not only as a wonderful housemate and family member, but also has had great success in activities such as hunting, retrieving, swimming, agility tests, obedience trials, therapy work, and even tracking/search and rescue work.
The American Water Spaniel has a medium length coat that twice yearly sheds heavily with the seasonal changes, and sheds slightly throughout the rest of the year. For this reason, the American Water Spaniel should be groomed regularly. Brushing is required twice a week to remove loose, dead hairs. Matting may be shaved out of the coat, or carefully trimmed out with scissors. Further trimming can be done to even out the feathered areas of the American Water Spaniel’s coat.
Occasional bathing is adequate, and should only be done as needed because the American Water Spaniel’s coat is oily and will naturally repel dirt on its own. Bathing the breed too frequently will only strip the natural moisture from their coat, and may irritate their skin. The ears should be trimmed and kept dry and clean to prevent infection.
The toenails should be clipped or trimmed regularly. The fur between the toes should also be neat and trimmed, with care being taken to avoid injuring the natural webbing that occurs in the feet of this breed. As the American Water Spaniel is a breed used often in the field, adequate care of the feet is important to ensure correct function and use of the feet, and should not be neglected.
Because the American Water Spaniel’s early development included their being bred and kept in packs, natural selection may have been present, eliminating many inheritable imperfections in the breed. This may account for the American Water Spaniel breed, as a whole, being quite healthy with a long life span, averaging 10-15 years. The breed does suffer from some health issues, however. Among them are Hip Dysplasia, eye disorders, and cardiac abnormalities. Testing for these conditions is suggested by the AWSC and care should be taken when acquiring an American Water Spaniel pup to ensure that responsible breeding has taken place.
Although more common in other Spaniel breeds, Hip Dysplasia is still a concern for the American Water Spaniel. According to research conducted by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, 8.3% of the breed specimens surveyed suffered from the condition. Among the Sporting breeds, this is considered low, but American Water Spaniels should still be tested for Hip Dysplasia.
Eye Problems common in the American Water Spaniel breed are Cataracts and Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA). Both are assumed to be inheritable conditions. These eye conditions can vary in severity and some treatment may lessen symptoms, however, affected dogs often adapt moderately well to any loss of their sight.
One heart conditions seen in the American Water Spaniel is Pulmonic Stenosis, which is a narrowing of a valve in the heart. The condition can be managed through treatment and surgical procedures. Another more serious heart concern for the breed is Mitral Valve Disease, which is a disorder seen in older dogs and is a result of a plaque build-up. Symptoms are often insignificant at first and the disease can leads to Congestive Heart Failure.
Other health concerns for the American Water Spaniel include:
Additional health concerns generally associated with Spaniel breeds and which may or may not be seen sporadically in the American Water Spaniel as well are: