American Water Spaniel: Dog Breed Information and Owner’s Guide

What is an American Water Spaniel?

American Water Spaniel

Farmers and hunters alike have been breeding the American Water Spaniel since the 18th century, mainly in marsh and forest areas in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Great Lakes region is abundant with bodies of water, wildlife and fowl, and ice-cold temperatures. With ancestors including the Curly Coated Retriever and the Irish Water Spaniel, the American Water Spaniel was the first dog in the United States bred to both hunt on land and retrieve from boats. 

This is such a versatile dog that breeders argue whether it should be categorized as a spaniel or a retriever. When compared to spaniels, the American Water Spaniel is not as energetic as the English Springer Spaniel and the English Cocker Spaniel. But rather than seeing that as a disadvantage, potential owners should keep in mind that the calmer American Water Spaniel will be easier to train. Another advantage the American Water Spaniel has is a curly coat which protects it from freezing water more than most spaniels. 

Compared to the most popular retriever breeds, the American Water Spaniel will flush fowl out of underbrush with more skill and enthusiasm. Their size is slightly smaller than other hunting dogs, but that gives them the ability to crawl into dense underbrush to retrieve or flush out birds. Finally, the American Water Spaniel can mark the fall of a bird just as well as large retrievers do, sighting the kill more than one hundred yards away and then running directly to the spot to wait for its owner.

The American Water Spaniel will jump into icy waters without hesitation to retrieve fowl, unlike other retriever breeds that are wary of sub-zero temperatures. It is a dog that is big and strong enough to hunt for hours and carries the game home in its mouth, but also small enough to be able to jump on and off a skiff without causing the boat to take on water or capsize. 

The first settlers who lived in the Great Lakes region, and their descendants after them, relied on dogs to help them hunt for food. There was a time when you ate what you killed, and if nothing was killed there was nothing to eat! American Water Spaniels skillfully barked to alert their owners to hunters in trees, and flushed birds such as waterfowl, greater prairie chickens, quail, pheasant, and ruffed grouse out of their hiding places on the ground.   

Also, when hunters shot at birds in flight, the American Water Spaniel dove and swam in rivers and lakes to retrieve the game. There have also been cases of American Water Spaniels used to hunt rabbits and other small mammals. So there is really no one area where the American Water Spaniel excels above other hunting dogs – but it is a breed that can learn almost any task, adapt to almost any terrain and weather conditions, and learn to hunt whatever bird or small game you want. The key is in the training.

Credit for developing and promoting the breed goes to Doctor Fred J. Pfeifer of New London, Wisconsin. Identifying this breed’s value and potential, Dr. Pfeifer opened Wolf River Kennel in a conscious attempt to save American Water Spaniels from extinction. The largest number of dogs he ever had in his kennel at one time was 138. He sold female American Water Spaniels for $20 and males for $25.

Dr. Pfeifer wrote in an ad targeting potential owners: “The American Brown Spaniel is distinctively an American production. Hunters have been familiar with this type for years and it was through their efforts that this dog was propagated… For years we have bred only selective stock, breeding for gameness, stability, courage, intelligence, and beauty. They are dogs to admire and trust under all conditions whether in the home circle or in the field with the outdoor man.” [Smith, Steve (2002). The Encyclopedia of North American Sporting Dogs].

Dr. Pfeifer established standards for the American Water Spaniel, and due to his efforts, the United Kennel Club recognized the American Water Spaniel in 1920, and the Field Dog Stud Book had its first entry for this breed in 1938.

In 1940, the American Water Spaniel was recognized by the American Kennel Club and was permitted to compete against other dogs in show rings. But despite its status as an official breed, there are usually no more than about 3000 of these dogs in the world at any given time. In modern times, as people began to hunt less for food, and more for sport, there was no longer a need for every family to own a gun dog, let alone the unique American Water Spaniel.

In addition, after World War II more varieties of dogs became available in the US Northern states, such as spaniels, pointers, and setters. The American Water Spaniel was no longer the only breed in the neighborhood. And while the American Water Spaniel is not yet in danger of total extinction, its popularity and rate of reproduction have been on the decline for the last ten to fifteen years.

Though the American Water Spaniel has been Wisconsin’s official state dog since 1985, it never seemed to gain much popularity in other parts of the United States. In 2011, for example, the American Water Spaniel was in 157th place out of registered dogs from among the 173 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club.

People are often interested in particularly attractive dogs, or pets that make waves in competitions. The American Water Spaniel is a good, old-fashioned, practical gun dog, but nothing more. If you can imagine why so many people prefer a prestigious BMW or a fast Jaguar to a no-nonsense Ford Fusion, you can understand why American Water Spaniels are not the first choice for people interested in getting a dog. Until today, most American Water Spaniels owners and breeders live in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and the surrounding region. 

Appearance

With an attractive, intelligent face and a handsome coat, the American Water Spaniel is a dog anyone would be proud to be seen with. This breed has a square, broad head, with wide-set, slightly rounded eyes. An American Water Spaniel can have eyes that are hazel, light brown, or brown – but never bright yellow. It has tight lips and a scissor or level bite. The American Water Spaniel’s ears or long and wide. It has a dark brown or black nose with wide nostrils to enhance its smelling capabilities.

The American Water Spaniel’s body is slightly longer than it is tall, and is well proportioned to give it balance and agility when hunting in rough terrain. This is a solid, muscular breed. Its tail is used as a rudder while swimming, and its powerful hind legs function as propellers in the water. The American Water Spaniel has close-set toes that are well-padded and webbed. Just as its coat protects it from getting injured by thorns and bramble, its feet are protected from getting hurt by sharp rocks.

Most of the American Water Spaniel’s power is in its hind legs. It has parallel hocks and muscular thighs and hips, and its bones are dense and strong, giving it the ability to persevere in a hunt without tiring.

American Water Spaniel Weight and Size

The American Water Spaniel is a medium-sized dog. In terms of height, there is no significant difference between males and females. Males reach a height of 14 – 19 inches (36 – 46 cm), and females 13 – 18 inches (34 – 44 cm). With regard to weight, the males are bigger, weighing between 30 and 45 pounds, while the female weighs 25 to 40.  This breed is fully grown by age 16 months.

Common Colors

American Water Spaniels are brown, dark chocolate, or liver-colored. These are good camouflage colors for a breed that has to hide in brush and flush fowl out for hunters.

If the dog has a small amount of white on its chest or toes, it is still recognized as a pure-bred American Water Spaniel.

Coat

An American Water Spaniel’s water-resistant coat can have thick, dense curls, or be wavy, with the extent of curls or waves varying from one part of the dog’s body to another. This breed also has an undercoat to protect it from cold temperatures, water, and thick underbrush. As further protection from being poked or scratched by branches and thorns, the American Water Spaniel has extra fur around his neck and rear end. And as extra protection in the water, this breed’s coat has an oily feel to it, which also gives off a rather strong “doggy” smell. 

Personality and Temperament

American Water Spaniel

While you might imagine that hunting dogs are fierce and frightening, the American Water Spaniel is everything but. This breed is cheerful, friendly, and eager to please. These dogs adore their humans and will do almost anything asked of them just for some praise. If given the chance, your American Water Spaniel will lie on the couch with his head in your lap, or on the floor at your feet. Anything to be physically close to you.

American Water Spaniels don’t like to be left alone and should spend all their downtime indoors with their owners. Outside, they will be more interested in completing an assigned task to your satisfaction than in running away or chasing cats and cars. 

Full of energy, the American Water Spaniel can easily be trained to obey numerous commands, and are loyal, intelligent partners for hunters on land or in the water.

While they aren’t by nature aggressive towards people or other animals, American Water Spaniels will bark if a stranger approaches, and will also become extremely vocal when ignored for too long.

Behavior around other dogs

American Water Spaniel is a “one person dog”, and may behave aggressively towards strange dogs. This is a territorial breed, and a watchdog, and doesn’t have any need to play with other canines. However, if you socialize your American Water Spaniel, he can learn to tolerate other dogs in his vicinity and will get along with any other dogs you own.

Historically, American Water Spaniels were raised in groups or packs of other hunting dogs, so if they are socialized early they will make friends with other canines.

Is an American Water Spaniel a good Family Dog

American Water Spaniels are wonderful family dogs because they love being the center of attention. They are very affectionate with their owners, but usually, choose one family member to become closest and most obedient to.

This is a breed that needs to live inside with the family. They are outdoor dogs when it comes to hunting – real or pretend, but can’t bear being left alone outside while “off duty”. American Water Spaniels love the water and are excellent companions on trips to beaches, lakes, and streams.  They are very playful and are so enthusiastic they will jump and knock little children down if not taught to be gentle around them.

Since they aren’t as large as popular retriever breeds, the American Water Spaniel does well living in apartments. You don’t have to worry about your pet knocking over the furniture with his wagging tail every time you walk into a room.

See Related Topic: Welsh Springer Spaniel: Dog Breed Information and Owner’s Guide

How to Train an American Water Spaniel

As much as the American Water Spaniel is a one-person dog who wants to follow through on tasks you give him, he is also somewhat of a stubborn dog, and not as eager to please as other hunting breeds. On the other hand, the American Water Spaniel is an intelligent breed, and it isn’t difficult to train if you know what you are doing. First-time owners will have trouble getting an American Water Spaniel to obey them – this breed performs best with experienced dog owners.

It is possible to teach your American Water Spaniel quite a lot of commands and tasks, but the secret to success is to start often, to engage in frequent and varied training sessions, and to be patient and let your dog set the pace. Never push your American Water Spaniel to perform, never try to rush him to learn something new, and never react harshly when he makes a mistake or fails to obey you. Also, this is a breed that doesn’t appreciate numerous repetitions of a particular command or boring drills. Once an American Water Spaniel learns a command or a task, he will remember it and is ready to learn something else new.

The American Water Spaniel Club organizes events and competitions especially geared for this breed, and the American Kennel Club also sponsors events your American Water Spaniel can participate in. This is a breed that loves any activity requiring agility, retrieving, and hunting, and it views training and preparing for these events as one long, fun, game. 

The best competition to prepare your American Water Spaniel for first is the American Canine Club’s Good Citizen event. The purpose of this unique training program is to teach your pet good manners at home and in public. By teaching your American Water Spaniel the basics of this two-part program, you essentially prepare him for future events testing agility, obedience, performance, and tracking skills. The American Kennel Club will issue a certificate to your American Water Spaniel if he passes the ten-point Good Citizen test.

Agility events involve guiding your dog through an obstacle course, using only treats or verbal encouragement. You aren’t permitted to touch the dog or the obstacles during the timed event. You can create your own agility course in your backyard and teach your American Water Spaniel to jump over poles or bushes, crawl through large pipes, run along raised planks, and climb up and down ramps. If you enter your American Water Spaniel into an agility competition, he will compete against dogs of similar height to give him a fair chance when it comes to jumping over hurdles.

In Rally events, you and your dog move together through a course of ten to twenty activity stations. At each station, you command your dog to perform a certain task. Rally events allow you and your American Water Spaniel to work together as a team and demonstrate how well you communicate with your pet, and how well he understands and follows your lead.

“Barn Hunt” is a fun activity that tests a dog’s ability to locate and mark rats in a barn-like setting.  Bales of hay or straw are arranged so that the dog has to tunnel and climb in his search for the “prey”. While many breeds love the barn hunt game, American Water Spaniels are particularly good at it. This activity tests a dog’s agility, speed, and surefootedness. Live rats are placed in PVC tubes throughout the course – the dogs find them but don’t hurt them, and care is taken to ensure the safety of the rats during these competitions. Barn Hunt is a trademarked company that invented this game, and its website offers more information about this activity.

Additional activities and events your American Water Spaniel can participate in include conformation events (traditional dog shows focusing on a particular breed’s skills), hunting and tracking tests, and obedience competitions. Information about these skill sets can be found on the American Kennel Club and American Water Spaniel Club websites. 

The most important thing to remember when training your American Water Spaniel is that the ultimate goal of the training and skill activities is to keep your pet healthy and happy. Don’t get too caught up in the idea of creating a champion dog, that gets high scores in every competition. You don’t want to lose sight of the fact that first and foremost, your American Water Spaniel is your loyal pet and friend. Having fun with your dog should also be more important than winning and earning certificates and awards.

See Related Topic: American English Coonhound: Dog Breed Information and Owner’s Guide

How To Care For an American Water Spaniel

Exercise Requirements

Bred to work as gun dogs (dogs that help hunters find and retrieve game), American Water Spaniels need mental stimulation along with a lot of exercise. Variety is the key when deciding how to help your American Water Spaniel burn off energy. One day you can take him to the park to run and play fetch, and another day he will enjoy going for a swim. Just keep in mind that this dog is a short distance swimmer, and shouldn’t be taken along to paddle at your side for hours across a lake.

American Water Spaniels need homes with large yards, so they have room to run whenever they feel the urge. Long walks are as beneficial as activities that require more exertion, and sessions of field training or obedience training provides an outlet for this breed’s active mind.

Between the ages of six and eighteen months, your American Water Spaniel will need more exercise than he will need at any other time of his life. So if you find yourself getting exhausted by the amount of effort you need to help your dog burn off all his energy, just keep in mind that the older he gets and the more he learns, the less time you will have to spend actually participating in his exercise activities.

Grooming and Shedding

If you own an American Water Spaniel, you will need to keep two kinds of dog brushes in your house. For the cold winter months, and especially during your pet’s shedding season, you should use a slick brush to release dead hairs from the undercoat. In the summer, when temperatures are high, your American Water Spaniel’s coat is sparse. You can use a rubber-tipped pin brush to keep his coat looking neat and clean, and to prevent it from getting tangled or matted.

American Water Spaniels don’t need to be bathed very often, but if he spends any time in saltwater or an algae-filled pond or lake, you should rinse your pet off with a hose when you get home.

Compared to other breeds with curly, thick coats, the American Water Spaniel hardly shed at all. There is no need to trim your American Water Spaniel’s fur. But if you notice hairs growing into his ear canal, they should be cut short.

What to Feed an American Water Spaniel

Young American Water Spaniels need to eat between half a cup to one cup of dry kibble every day, supplemented by treats while training. Adults should be fed three times a day, and the size of the portions depends on the dog’s activity level. The average amount of food a full-grown American Water Spaniel needs is one cup of dry food at each meal.

The more active your American Water Spaniel is, the more calories he will need each day. If you regularly take your pet on real hunting expeditions, he will need more food than a dog that only goes on daily walks for exercise. Food with meat-based protein as the main ingredient is important for American Water Spaniels, and it is perfectly acceptable to occasionally feed them raw meat.

Fish oil is another ingredient you should look for in the dog food you buy, and the Omega 3 in the oil helps keep an American Water Spaniel’s coat shiny and healthy. Finally, however tempting it might be to give your American Water Spaniel a bowl of milk or cottage cheese, too much calcium is not healthy for him. It can cause bone problems, rather than strengthening bones – as it does for humans.

The strangest food fact about American Water Spaniels is that they apparently love bananas. This is a healthy treat for your pet and is both natural and inexpensive.

Known Health Problems

The American Water Spaniel is fortunate in that it doesn’t suffer from hereditary conditions that most other popular breeds do. For example, only about 8% of this breed develops hip dysplasia, and no cases of elbow dysplasia have ever been reported.

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American Water Spaniels are known to suffer from eye problems such as progressive retinal and atrophy and cataracts. These conditions are usually inherited and are diagnosed before the dogs are a year old.

There are, however, general health problems that can affect this breed, as they affect other dogs. Take your pet to visit a vet at least once a year for a checkup, and to make sure it doesn’t need treatment for allergies, diabetes, hypothyroidism, or glandular conditions that can cause fur loss and bald patches.

In general, the American Water Spaniel is a healthy, hardy dog that lives for 10 to 13 years.

Buyer’s Guide

How to Choose an American Water Spaniel Puppy

American Water Spaniels are so rare that in the United States there is only one club for this breed. The American Water Spaniel Club has ethics standards for the breeders registered on the club’s site. When searching for a breeder to buy a puppy from, try to find one with a good reputation. The more recommendations you can get about a specific breeder, the better your chances of getting a well-socialized puppy with a good temperament.

Ensuring a puppy’s health is also extremely important. The American Water Spaniel Club recommends requesting the following certificates before purchasing a puppy:

  • OFA hip rating
  • OFA cardiac rating
  • CERF – eye examinations

You can also ask to see health clearances for both a puppy’s parents and can verify the validity of those clearances directly by viewing them on the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) websites.

When applying to purchase a puppy from an American Water Spaniel puppy, the breeder you approach will probably ask you a lot of questions before approving you as a buyer. But you should also ask the breeder some questions of your own. You want to make sure that the puppies are socialized and introduced to different outdoor environments and stimuli before you take one home.

  • When do you introduce your litters to water?
  • When do you introduce your litters to birds and bird scent?
  • Do you have a puppy’s dew claws removed before closing a sale?
  • How do you go about socializing the puppies with people before they leave the kennel?

Many people wonder whether it is better to get a male or female American Water Spaniel puppy. Breeders often keep more females than males, so they can continue to produce new litters. But in terms of hunting performance, there is no real difference between the sexes. In general, male puppies tend to be more outgoing and confident and end up approaching visitors to kennels more readily. Thus, it often happens that people end up buying male puppies more than females.

It is highly unlikely that you will find an American Water Spaniel puppy or adult dog for adoption through a rescue organization. And when you do find a breeder you want to deal with, you will probably have to be added to a waiting list for a puppy.

It is almost impossible to find American Water Spaniel puppies outside of the United States. But American breeder Paul Morrison helped introduce the dog to breeders in Finland and the Czech Republic.

How Much Do American Water Spaniels Cost?

American Water Spaniels cost on average between $1000 and $1500 dollars. They are rare dogs, and you will probably need to wait for a litter to be born after you contact a breeder requesting to purchase a puppy.

Different breeders charge different prices for American Water Spaniels, and it is wise to research a number of breeders before you make a final decision of who to buy your new pet from. Usually, puppies with parents that have the most health clearances cost the most. A puppy that is selling for just $1000 may have parents with only one or two health clearances available.

The American Water Spaniel Club provides a list of breeders that is updated every year. The Club takes no responsibility for the reputations or integrity of the breeders who advertise on the website. Ask for references before handing anyone such a large sum of money to take a puppy home.  

Quick Breed Summary Table

American Water Spaniel
dog of breed American Cocker Spaniel swimming in the water

If you want to buy a hunting dog that loves the water, there are several different breeds to choose from. The table below explains the differences between the American Water Spaniel, two other retriever type dogs. Knowing what your options are should make the decision-making process easier.

American Water SpanielLabrador RetrieverEnglish Springer Spaniel
Size13-19 in. (34 – 46 cm)21-25 in. (55 – 62 cm)
Weight24-45 lb (11 – 20 kg)55-75 lb  (25 – 34 kg)40 – 55 lb (18 – 25 kg)
TemperamentAffectionate, loving, loyal, alert, friendly, likes to snuggle, protective, willing to please, territorial, quiet, does not like being aloneAffectionate, loving, loyal, alert, friendly, likes to snuggle, affectionate, willing to please, social, cheerful, playfulAffectionate, loving, loyal, alert, friendly, affectionate, social, outgoing, cheerful, playful
Family DogExcellent family dog, but more of a one-person dogExcellent family dogA very good family dog
Behavior around ChildrenGreat with childrenGreat with childrenVery good with children
TrainabilityEasy to train, average intelligence, stubborn – not good for first-time ownersVery easy to train, one of the most intelligent breeds, stubborn – not good for first-time ownersEasy to train, very intelligent, stubborn – not good for first-time owners
Exercise NeedsHighHighHigh
WatchdogGood watchdogsAverage watchdogsAverage watchdogs
Lifespan10 – 14 years10 – 12 years10 – 14 years

See Related Topic: American Mastiff: Dog Breed Information and Owner’s Guide

Summary

If you want a pet that can simultaneously perform as a show dog, help you hunt, and compete in “dog sport” events, an American Water Spaniel is a great breed to choose from.

This is a dog that can be trained to excel in hunting, retrieving, obedience, and agility tests. But it is also a dog who makes a wonderful family pet and will be a perfect companion for people of any age who live alone. American Water Spaniels are playful and affectionate, and will willingly take your cue and join you in almost any activity you can think of. 

This is a dog that is so eager to complete a task, that almost nothing will deter him. One owner of an American Water Spaniel relates, “My dog encountered a porcupine and received a snout full of quills, 15 to be exact. While trying to remove them, someone shot a bird. My dog saw the bird fall about 60 yards away. He broke free, ran the bird down and with a leap, caught it in the air, and then delivered it to hand.”

While the American Water Spaniel may not be the largest, the most trainable, or the most popular hunting dog, there is something to be said for its determination and loyalty. This is a dog that knows who he is, and knows what he can do, and does it without any pomp and show. As dog owners, and as people, we can learn a lot from the American Water Spaniel about how we should behave in life!

About Thomas Woods 183 Articles
Thomas has been a dog lover since he was 6 years old when his parents got him a rescue Labrador. Since then his love for dogs has lead him to study Animal Behavior & Welfare. He now keeps a six year old English Bullmastiff and educates pet parents through his online publication Perfect Dog Breeds.

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