The American Water Spaniel — What to Expect of This Dog Breed

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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 a few hundred are registered annually.

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 Association.

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 tails?

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,, or—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 more common?

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 talents?

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 below.

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 brushing.

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.

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.

  • Alopecia
  • Allergies
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Hermaphrodites
  • Hip Dysplasia (HD)
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)
  • Retinal Dysplasia-folds
  • Cataracts

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