A sporty dog from the US Midwest, the American Water Spaniel is rarely found both in Europe and its country of origin.
American Water Spaniel
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A typical Spaniel, the American Water Spaniel has floppy ears, an attentive gaze and a strong though by no means hulking stature. Its build is slightly longer than it is tall and it weighs around 20kg and reaches a shoulder height of up to 46cm. Females are somewhat smaller and lighter. The fur is wavy – undulating, according to dog experts – to tightly curled and brown, with the tone varying between liver-coloured and chocolate brown. Small white markings on the paws and chest are permitted. The American Water Spaniel's undercoat protects it from the effects of bad weather and when it spends time in the water. It's also remarkable that the breed's appearance hasn't changed since it emerged in the 19th century.
You can see the roots of these American dogs: they presumably descend from British Spaniels like the Irish Water Spaniel, Field Spaniel or Old English Water Spaniel. There were already depictions of these dogs as early as the middle of the 19th century, but official breeding began in 1940 when it was registered as an independent breed. This is largely due to the efforts of the dog lover Dr. Fred J. Pfeifer, who had bred the American Water Spaniel since the 1920s and developed the standard. From the beginning, the breed was deployed as a hunting companion – especially for hunting ducks or other waterfowl. In this sense, it combines the characteristics of Spaniels and Retrievers. Thanks to its medium-sized stature, the American Water Spaniel fits well in a boat from which it can retrieve. But as ducks became fewer, people turned to other hunts and therewith to other breeds, leading to the American Water Spaniel now rarely being found. Although it is suited to hunting ashore, it faces extremely specialised competition from other dogs. As the state dog of Wisconsin, it still enjoys a higher level of popularity than its prevalence would suggest. Outside of America, it is rare to find this breed. Although some specimens reached Europe in the 1920s, the American Water Spaniel did not spread significantly here. For instance, there are no active breeders in the United Kingdom.
The American Water Spaniel is fond of people and a keen hunter, although it remains easy to control as long as it has been expertly trained. The breed makes a suitable family dog and is playful and fond of children. It doesn't necessarily have to be part of a hunter's household if the owners can offer it plenty of alternative outdoor activity. These attentive dogs like to bark profusely and act distanced towards strangers. They need a high level of activity with their two-legged pack in order to be stimulated. Otherwise, these hunters will soon get bored and seek out their own entertainment – usually not to their owner's liking. A well-stimulated American Water Spaniel also enjoys quiet time at home. If it has already got used to them as a puppy, it copes well with fellow dogs and other pets like cats if they belong to the same pack.
Training the American Water Spaniel
The American Water Spaniel's strong will to please makes it willing to learn and obedient, which makes training straightforward – provided that you are consistent and skillful. Variety and sensitive leadership without harshness are the key to success with the American Water Spaniel. They aren't the quickest learners, but they do retain information once they have internalised it. Puppy play sessions and dog schools are well suited to let Spaniels make friends with fellow dogs and to learn basic commands under expert guidance. These primitive hunting dogs are of course also in good hands with hunting dog training – this in turn has a positive effect on control in forests and fields and in any case is a prerequisite if you want to hunt with your four-legged companion. Another key focus of training is controlling barking, because American Water Spaniels otherwise tend to bark.
Health and diseases typical of the breed
A responsible breeder provides the foundation for a healthy canine life. With this breed, it's necessary to avoid high levels of inbreeding, since there is only a small number of dogs. They have a genetic disposition for ocular diseases like cataracts as well as progressive retinal atrophy, which almost always leads to blindness with the degeneration of the retina. In addition, hypothyroidism, diabetes and epilepsy affect some lineages. Hip dysplasia doesn't occur frequently with American Water Spaniels, but like with all sporty dogs from a certain size, it's particularly important to ensure gentle movements with puppies of this breed. Don't overwhelm your dog and with adult dogs, always stick to exercise adapted to its training condition, which allows your companion to keep fit into old age. A healthy body weight is also part of preventing hip dysplasia. Otherwise, American Water Spaniels are considered robust and can reach up to 14 years of age if well cared for.
American Water Spaniel diet
As active dogs, American Water Spaniels need a suitable diet with high protein content and plenty of meat. Make sure that meat is the first item on the ingredients list for any potential food. It should not contain wheat or even sugar. Adapt portions to your dog's actual energy requirements and weigh adult dogs regularly in order to adapt the amount of calories in good time if your dog is gaining too much weight. A special diet food is generally not necessary. Ensure that your American Water Spaniel can have a siesta after meals – sport or quick walks are forbidden on a full stomach. Treats can be healthy too: dried chunks of meat for dogs or dental care snacks don't just make them happy, but keep their teeth clean too. Many owners of this breed claim that their companions have a fondness for bananas. Feel free to put this to the test to see whether your dog also has exotic tastes and if so, give it half a banana as a treat every now and then. When it comes to all extra treats, don't go over the top otherwise your dog will gain weight. Only its main food guarantees a balanced diet. However, fresh drinking water should always be freely available. On journeys or longer trips, a portable water bowl for dogs serves its purpose if you are not sure whether your dog can quench its thirst in the meantime.
Grooming these water lovers
The medium-length fur is made up of two layers and should be brushed twice a week to prevent it from getting tangled. American Water Spaniels love the water, but you should still get puppies used to bathing and showering carefully and step by step. This is only necessary with adult dogs if dirt cannot be brushed out of the fur, which is rarely the case. Then use a mild dog shampoo. Regularly check the lop ears and clean them with a special ear cleanser for dogs. You should also keep an eye on the claws – especially with older dogs or those which mainly walk on soft surfaces. Use claw clippers for dogs to cut claws that have got too long before your dog painfully catches them. Some dog owners swear by daily dental care with a dog toothbrush and toothpaste. If you slowly introduce your dog to this ritual when it is still a puppy, this will provide a good basis for it having clean and healthy teeth into old age.
Activity under water and ashore
As might be expected from its origin, the American Water Spaniel is nowadays still a versatile hunting companion, distinguished in particular by its skillful hunting in water. For instance, it retrieves prey from ships or canoes, but is also enthusiastic about retrieving games ashore. It shines less with speed than with endurance. It enjoys long trips out and if suitably trained, makes an excellent companion for jogging or cycling in adult age. If you've done everything right when it comes to training and your dog doesn't have an above-average hunting instinct, it can stay under control even off its lead on hiking tours and other excursions. These sporty companions are also suitable for agility or other types of dog sports like flyball or dog frisbee and as water dogs, obviously enjoy swimming too.
Is an American Water Spaniel right for me?
Although the breed was originally bred for hunting, it isn't just suitable for hunters. These exercise-loving dogs are a good fit for you if you enjoy spending time outdoors and are able to and enjoy offering your American Water Spaniel long hikes. Other suitable options are families, including with children, and singletons with enough time for shared activities. And this really does mean 'activities', because these nature lovers are no lazy office dogs. They are best off living in a house or apartment in the countryside offering them access to a fenced garden, where they can frolic and sniff around undisturbed. Neighbours shouldn't be too sensitive to noise or ideally should live somewhat further away, since the American Water Spaniel is a good watchdog but does tend to yap. Despite training, a quiet housemate cannot be expected in most cases. Along with the time and financial commitment, you should also plan holiday arrangements in advance – or simply take your Spaniel with you – such as on a hiking holiday. More and more hotels now welcome well-trained dogs too.
Where do I find my American Water Spaniel?
On a worldwide basis, there are only around 3,000 dogs registered belonging to this rare breed, which are mainly in the US, where most American Water Spaniels are found in the Midwest: more precisely in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. If you live in Europe, it will therefore be difficult to impossible to come across an American Water Spaniel. Research online whether there is a breeder in your region or in neighbouring countries. However, if the search is still unsuccessful, European Spaniel breeds offer some very good alternatives, especially for fans of hunting. French Epagneul breeds can also be suitable, especially because they are good family dogs as well as being deployed for hunting. If you're solely looking for a family dog, you have the choice of various other breeds which are often even better suited than these rare American dogs. You can of course also weigh up whether to import an American Water Spaniel from the US, though this does involve a good deal of effort. In addition, you should visit the breeder at their home before making a purchase in order to see how the young dogs are growing up. Hence, adopting overseas should be well prepared and subject to long-term planning.
You will most likely not find an adult American Water Spaniel looking for a new domain within Europe. Visit your local animal shelter, which may be rehoming similar dogs, or make contact with Spaniel associations that also rehome adult dogs if they lose theirs.
We wish you plenty of joy with your four-legged water lover!
Also read our articles on settling in puppies: basic equipment & tips!