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rec.pets.dogs: American Water Spaniel Breed-FAQ
Posting-frequency: 30 days
Last-modified: 10 Nov 1997
There are nearly 100 FAQ's available for this group. For a complete
listing of these, get the "Complete List of RPD FAQs". This article
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This article is Copyright 1997 by the Author(s) listed below.
It may be freely distributed on the Internet in its entirety without
alteration provided that this copyright notice is not removed.
It may NOT reside at another website (use links, please) other
than the URL listed above without the permission of the Author(s).
This article may not be sold for profit nor incorporated in other
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without express or implied warranty.
American Water Spaniels
Steve Deger, November 1995
Copyright 1995 by Steve Deger
_all rights reserved
Special thanks to the following for their contributions:
* Craig Miller, Dick Newton, Chris Wilson, and participants in the
spanie-l and gundog-l mailing lists.
* The American Water Spaniel Club, Inc.
* The American Water Spaniel Field Association, Inc.
* Cindy Tittle Moore for her assistance in organizing and posting
* Paul Morrison
Table of Contents
* The American Water Spaniel Today
* Characteristics and Temperament
* Care and Training
* Frequently Asked Questions
* Health and Medical Problems
* Breed Clubs
* Breed Rescue
The American Water Spaniel (or AWS, for short) is one of only a few
breeds developed in America. Reliable records of the AWS date back to
1865. Although the dog's exact place of origin is in dispute, it is
widely believed to have first appeared along the Wolf and Fox River
valleys of Wisconsin, and was originally known as the Brown Water
Spaniel or the American Brown Water Spaniel. It is suspected that the
Curly Coated Retriever and the Irish Water Spaniel were among its
ancestors, and perhaps the Field Spaniel, or the extinct Old English
Water Spaniel as well.
Market hunters along the Mississippi flyway and its northern
tributaries were said to have made extensive use of the breed. These
people needed a versatile gun dog that would function well in both the
marsh and the uplands. The dense, curly coat helped shield the dog
from the cold waters and punishing weather common to the Upper
Midwest, and also protected against briars in the woods.
"Jump-shooting"---a hunting method in which the gunner creeps up to a
small body of water, startles and shoots the ducks, and then sends his
dog to retrieve---was also widely practiced along the many rivers and
"potholes" that dot the landscapes of northern Minnesota and
Wisconsin. The AWS lent itself to this practice, as its small size and
all-brown coat allowed it to blend into the autumn foliage while the
hunter made his silent approach. The dog's love of water also made it
a favorite among those who tended mink and muskrat traplines.
With the introduction of the larger British retriever breeds to the
American hunting scene, the little brown spaniel fell from favor.
Doctor F.J. Pfeifer of New London, Wisconsin, has been credited with
helping to save the breed. Pfiefer's kennels held up to 132 dogs, and
he sold as many as 100 puppies annually to hunters as far away as
Texas. He gave an unconditional guarantee on the dogs, but he claimed
no buyer ever took advantage of the offer. Pfiefer also formed a breed
club and helped develop a written standard, which paved the way for
recognition by the United Kennel Club in 1920, the Field Stud Book in
1938, and the American Kennel Club in 1940. Pfiefer's own dog, "Curly
Pfiefer", was the first registered American Water Spaniel.
The American Water Spaniel Today
Despite the early efforts of Dr. Pfiefer and many other enthusiasts,
the AWS has never regained its pre- World War II popularity. It
remains a rare breed with only approximately 3,000 in existence at any
given time. Only about 270 are registered each year with the AKC. All
specimens derive from a handful of remaining lines -- possibly as few
as three. The AWS is virtually unknown outside of North America. Even
in the United States, dogs and breeders remain concentrated mostly in
the Great Lakes region. The AWS was designated the official state dog
of Wisconsin in 1986.
The AWS has never been as popular in the show ring as many of its
sporting relatives. As a result, there has not been a significant
split in the appearance of field vs. bench lines, and the breed as a
whole has retained its inherent hunting abilities. The AWS excels over
most retrievers as an upland flusher, working methodically and well
within gun range. The dog has a strong "spaniel" nose and good
scenting abilities. Modern hunters use the dog to find and retrieve a
variety of upland game, including pheasants, ruffed grouse,
sharptailed grouse, mourning doves, woodcock, and even squirrels,
hares, and rabbits.
But it is its role as a skilled, economy-sized, cold-water retriever
that has helped the breed find a soft spot in the hearts of modern
waterfowlers. The AWS can be easily hunted from a canoe or skiff
without upsetting the boat. Despite its small size, the dog is
tenacious and capable of retrieving birds as large as Canada geese.
This assertiveness, combined with its protective nature the home, has
earned it a reputation of being "the Chesapeake among spaniels". Its
insulating coat makes it more suited to cold water conditions than any
other spaniel. In June 1992, an AWS became the first of its breed to
win a hunting title through the North American Hunting Retriever
The breed's versatility is reflected in the variety of activities in
which AWS owners and their dogs participate. In December 1993, an AWS
became the first of its breed to win the flyball championship title
FDCH from the North American Flyball Association. Other AWS'
participate in various activities including obedience competitions,
search and rescue, and even Schutzhund. In recent years, there has
been an increased interest in the AWS as a show dog.
Characteristics and Temperament
The American Water Spaniel is a medium-sized dog with a moderately
long tail. The average AWS is 17" tall and weighs about 38 lbs. The
brown coat ranges from liver to dark chocolate, and is curled closely
like a Curly-coated Retriever's, or in a loose, undulating pattern
known as a "marcel".
The AWS is intelligent, trainable, and loyal to its master. It is
generally gentle with animals and children, and makes an ideal family
pet. The dog is friendly with strangers who have been properly
introduced. It makes an excellent watchdog, alerting is owners to
strange noises on the premises. Its relatively small size makes it
suited to smaller living quarters such as urban homes and even
apartments. But like most sporting breeds, it deserves a fair amount
of exercise and socialization for it to be well-adjusted.
The AWS is not as eager-to-please as some of the other spaniel breeds.
It tends to be a one-person dog. It matures slowly and bores easily.
It is emotionally sensitive and may become timid or begin
"fear-biting" if treated with undue harshness. The dog has a tendency
to bark, but this can be discouraged with proper training. Many AWS'
"yodel" when excited. Some need ongoing training to curtail their
natural tendencies for chewing, digging, and jumping. A few are
territorial and aggressive with strange dogs.
Care and Training
The AWS should receive formal obedience training. Because it tends to
be a one-person dog, it often does not respond well to professional
training unless extensive socialization is undertaken early in life.
The dog is highly people-oriented and should be raised in the home.
The dog's temperament, slow rate of maturity, and high-pain tolerance
can make certain strong-handed training methods ineffective; short,
daily, ongoing training sessions are the best way to bring out the
potential of an AWS. Crate training is highly recommended.
Frequently Asked Questions
_Aren't Water Spaniels those big, curly-haired dogs with rat-like
The AWS is sometimes confused with the Irish Water Spaniel---a
similar, rare breed with a curly topknot on its head, larger
size, and a thin, "rat" tail.
_Why do they have long tails? Aren't spaniel tails usually docked?_
The longer tail is part of the breed standard. It is said to
function as a rudder in rapidly flowing water.
_So, are they spaniels---or retrievers?_
This very question has split AWS fanciers into several
divergent ideological factions.
In order to compete in AKC-sanctioned hunting tests and trials,
the AWS must be classified as EITHER a spaniel OR a retriever.
The AKC looks to the breed's parent club (in this case, the
American Water Spaniel Club of America) to make the
classification decision. Wishing to showcase the breed's
versatility in the marsh as well as the field, the AWSC once
requested dual classification. Such a classification would have
opened a pandora's box for the AKC---undoubtedly resulting in
other breed clubs seeking the same status for their dogs. The
AKC rejected the request. The parent club ultimately chose to
keep the breed unclassified.
Another group of AWS fanciers---the American Water Spaniel
Field Association (AWSFA)---was formed in 1993, and is actively
promoting their preference for spaniel classification.
_If it makes such a good housepet and hunting companion, why isn't it
Many feel that the AWS is not as handsome as the comparable
English Springer Spaniel, and it lacks the Springer's strong
nose and lively dash. The dog generally isn't as biddable as
the Labrador and it may have more trouble handling rough surf,
large waterfowl, long retrieves, etc. Its coat can be a magnet
for burrs, and requires more maintenance from the upland hunter
than that of some of the more flat-coated breeds.
The lack of AKC classification may play a role in the dog's
rarity---the breed certainly isn't a prospect for the avid
field trialer. This lack of exposure, in turn, keeps the AWS
out of the adoring eyes of many sportsmen and women. Few dogs
appear in AKC bench competitions, which limits the
opportunities for pet owners and dog show enthusiasts to become
familar with the AWS.
_Are there other hunting tests or trials for showcasing the breed's
The AWS is eligible to compete in events of the United Kennel
Club, the North American Hunting Retriever Association, and
tests conducted by the parent club and the AWSFA. Contact the
respective organizations for details on tests or test dates.
_Are they healthy?_
A lack of popularity (and hence, lack of indiscriminant
breeding) has helped the AWS escape many of the genetic
ailments that plague other breeds. Some long-time owners have
stated that their dogs have never required veterinary care for
illnesses. A list of other known diseases and disorders appears
_Do they shed?_
Like other retrievers, the AWS has a double coat which protects
it from the elements. The inner coat is finer and serves as
insulation. The outer coat is more coarse, repelling water and
protecting the dog against briars in the uplands. This coat is
shed in the spring, but comes out easily with moderate
_Do their curly coats require a lot of grooming?_
The average AWS coat is actually only about 1/2" inch longer
than that of the Labrador Retriever. Brief, once a week
brushing is sufficient to keep it in decent shape. Some owners
periodically have their dogs trimmed to keep them from looking
too ratty. Frequent bathing is recommended for those dogs that
swim regularly, in order to control "wet-dog" odor. Some
hunters/field trainers keep their dogs clipped short during the
season so that the coat does not pick up as many burrs. Still
others rub oil into the coat prior to going afield in order to
facilitate burr removal.
_Are they hyper?_
The breed is generally mild-mannered when given a reasonable
amount of regular exercise.
_Are they friendly?_
Most dogs are friendly, although they are not as known for
their tail-wagging as some of their retriever cousins.
Occasionally one may find a snippy or ill-tempered AWS, but
this is not characteristic of the breed. The AWS temperant
typically falls somewhere between the ingratiating English
Springer Spaniel and the more independent Irish Water Spaniel.
_When do they grow up?_
Maturation varies from one individual to the next, but it may
take two years for an AWS to "settle in" to a training program.
The average AWS will probably take longer to complete its
training than would a typical Labrador. However, with patient,
on-going training, the dog is generally capable of attaining a
level of sophistication comparable to that of similar sporting
_Are they hard to find?_
Most dogs and breeders are concentrated in the American
Midwest, although there are other AWS breeders scattered
throughout the U.S. in states like California, Nebraska, New
York, Oregon, and Texas. The dog is virtually unknown outside
of North America. Finding fully-trained adult dogs for sale is
nearly impossible. Many AWS breeders run small kennels; you may
have to wait six months to a year for a litter. And if you are
looking for a female, you may have to wait even longer---the
ratio of females to males is only 3:7.
Health and Medical Problems
For many decades, AWS were "pack-bred" on Midwestern farms, and were
often left to fend for themselves. This resulted in a certain degree
of natural selection where only the most hardy survived. Even today,
the AWS remains a remarkably healthy breed as far as dogs go.
Nevertheless, prospective puppy buyers should deal with only those
breeders who obtain CERF eye clearances and OFA or PennHip hip
evaluations on their breeding stock. Although the incidence of
Progressive Retinal Atrophy and Hip Dysplasia among AWS is believed to
be low compared to similar breeds, both diseases are debilitating in
nature. OFA, PennHip, or CERF clearances on your puppy's parents do
not *guarantee* that your puppy will not inherit the diseases, but
such testing is currently the best methodology available for reducing
the overall incidence of these diseases in the general dog population.
The following list of diseases and disorders was obtained by a survey
of the nation's AWS breeders. Some of these conditions are common
among all dog breeds (e.g. allergies or hypothyroidism). Others
obviously occur VERY infrequently (e.g. hermaphroditism). Still
others, such as alopecia (hair loss), are neither debilitating nor
life-threatening. For an eye-opening list of the diseases known to
afflict various dog breeds, see "Successful Dog Breeding: The Complete
Handbook of Canine Midwifery" by Walkowicz and Wilcox.
_Hip Dysplasia (HD)_
_Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)_
_The American Water Spaniel Club of America, Inc._
_(Formed in 1985. AKC-recognized parent club of the AWS.)_
Ann Potter, Secretary
HR 3 Box 224
Johnson City, TX 78636
_The American Water Spaniel Field Association, Inc._
_(Formed in 1993. Dedicated to AKC Spaniel Classification.)_
P.O. Box 160
Union Lake, MI 48387-0160
Both of the breed clubs have placed rescued dogs. Write them
for more information.
American College of Veterinary Opthamologists. "Ocular
Disorders Proven or Suspected to be Hereditary in Dogs." 1992:
American Water Spaniel Club of America, Inc. _American Water
American Water Spaniel Club of America, Inc. _Breeder's
Directory._ Anoka: American Water Spaniel Club of America, Inc.
American Water Spaniel Field Association, Inc. _American Water
Spaniel Field Association, Inc. Information Packet_. Union
Lake: American Water Spaniel Field Association, Inc., 1994.
Bignami, Louis. "American Water Spaniels." _Fur, Fish, & Game_
Aug. 1990: 40-41.
Collins, Laura. "Meet the American Water Spaniel." _Dog World_
Apr. 1992: 73-75.
Duffey, Dave. "All American Water Spaniels." _Bird Dog News_
Nov./Dec. 1992: 30-34.
Fergus, Charles. _Gun Dog Breeds: A Guide to Spaniels,
Retreivers, and Pointing Dogs._New York: Lyons & Burford, 1992.
Flamholtz, Cathy J._ A Celebration of Rare Breeds, Volume II_
Fort Payne: OTR Publications, 1991.
Green, Mark. "The American Water Spaniel---Truly Versatile."
_AWSC Newsletter_ Apr. 1995: Page 3.
Morrison, Paul and Jim Cope. "The Great American Water Spaniel
Debate." _Bird Dog News_ Sept./Oct. 1995: 33-34.
Morrison, Paul. "It's a First!" [AWS wins flyball championship]
_The Journal of the AWSFAA_ Feb. 1995: 7+
Spencer, James B. _Hup! Training Flushing Spaniels the American
Way_. Fairfax: Denlinger Publications, 1992.
Suesens, Lara. Letter to Prospective Puppy Buyers. 1990.
Walkowicz, Chris, and Bonnie Wilcox, DVM. _Successful Dog
Breeding: The Complete Handbook of Canine Midwifery_. New York:
Prentice Hall, 1985.
Wolters, Richard A. _Duck Dogs: All About the Retrievers_. New
York: Dutton, E.P., 1990.
American Water Spaniel FAQ
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