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The American Water Spaniel
The American Water Spaniel (AWS) has been around since at least the mid 1800s. While its true origin remains a mystery it is generally accepted that its principal development occurred in the Fox River and Wolf River valleys of Wisconsin.
As with so many breeds, no one knows for certain just what breeds were used to develop the AWS. Doc Pfeifer, who originally campaigned for recognition of the breed in the 1910s and 1920s, believed that the breed was derived from a cross of the extinct English Water Spaniel and the Field Spaniel. However, since that time it has come to be suggested and is often reported that the breed is a cross between the English Water Spaniel, Curly Coated Retriever, and Irish Water Spaniel. In addition to these three breeds it has also been claimed that some Chesapeake Bay Retriever blood was introduced into the gene pool somewhere along the line. As we say, this is a breed who's origin is clouded in mystery.
Recently some have given rise to the idea that the AWS stems from the Tweed Water Spaniel, a breed that, like the English Water Spaniel, is now extinct. However, in researching the decades of written material on the AWS, in preparation for writing the AWS book, American Water Spaniel A Comprehensive Owners Guide, I have never seen any noted breeder or historian report or even speculate that the Tweed Water Spaniel was used in the breed's development. Much of the research material used in writing the book dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s and was written by some of the breed's earliest enthusiasts and breeders. Unfortunately it appears that some may be trying to revise history or, at least, present their own ideas as fact rather than the speculation for which it probably is.
Whatever the true origin of the AWS may be it is fairly obvious that the breed has contributed greatly to both the Boykin Spaniel and the Murray River Curly Coated Retriever, a breed found mostly, if not exclusively, in Australia.
The AWS is a dog of medium stature. An average male stands around 17" to 18" at the shoulder and weighs approximately 42 lbs. while females are normally smaller in size averaging in the area of 16" - 17" and weighing about 35 lbs. However, as all dogs are individuals, you will sometimes see AWS that are of lesser stature or even exceed these sizes. The breed’s coat is brown in color and may be either curly or marcel. If you are wondering just what a marcel coat looks like take a look at the picture to the right which shows the finger wave hairdo of the "flapper" girls from the 1920s. This is what a marcel coat will look like. Which is preferred? A curly or marcel coat? Actually it boils down to personal preference although some people try to claim that the curly is the preferred coat that is actually not the case. The coat's texture is often soft but may be a bit coarse on some individuals. The coat of an AWS will shed water well and helps to maintain body heat for those dogs working the cold water during late duck season.
American Water Spaniels have changed little since the breed's recognition by the United Kennel Club in 1920 and subsequent recognition by the Field Dog Stud Book in 1938 and American Kennel Club in 1940. However, since around the early 1980s there has been a surge in the promotion of the breed as a ‘show dog.’ While some believe that this promotion has and will likely continue to lead to breed changes, at this time, the breed appears to be maintaining its inherent field abilities.
Not unlike many of the purebred dogs developed during the 1800s the breed has been known as a "jack of all trades." It is probable that it was this trait and the breed’s relatively smaller size that lead to its use by the market hunters of the upper Midwest. The AWS is a spaniel through and through and, like most spaniels, excels as a flushing dog and retriever. In the uplands the breed does well when used to hunt pheasants, grouse, woodcock and even rabbit. When used as a waterfowl retriever the breed does best as a marsh dog; because of its size the AWS is not the best dog for big open water hunting. Do not let the American Water Spaniel's size fool you for the dog will do as well on geese as it will on ducks. While the AWS is a ‘natural’ hunter it is still a breed that is best trained for the type of field work it will be doing.
The AWS has a mind of its own at times and reaches peak performance with the owner that is dedicated to teaching the dog just what is expected of it. The breed takes well to training and especially excels at training that offers some variety rather than rote drills. Harsh training techniques will not work for the majority of AWS. In fact, such techniques will often cause a dog to become shy or even bite out of fear. This is a breed for the trainer that is consistent and fair when dealing with the dog.
American Water Spaniels do not have to hunt to be a happy and content companion. They make fine companion animals and because of their size they fit well in today’s cramped quarters. However, the breed does need exercise and training to mature into that loving friend we are all looking for. To avoid possessiveness, excessive barking, and a willingness to take over the household most owners will want to be sure that they attend a local obedience class and set aside daily play time for their companion.
For a more detailed account of the breed and its history read the book, "American Water Spaniel - A Comprehensive Owners Guide" published by Kennel Club Books and written by Paul Morrison. The book is available from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or many other such companies on the Web. You can also obtain an autographed copy of the book through us; just call or write for details.