American Water Spaniel: Dog Breed Profile

Characteristics, History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

american water spaniel

NIKON / Flickr / CC by 2.0

The American Water Spaniel (AWS) is a rare breed that originates from the Great Lakes region of the United States. They are known for their strong water retrieval skills. Despite their lack of popularity, they can make excellent family pets providing they get enough exercise to meet their high energy levels. Smart, cheery and enthusiastic, they develop strong bonds with their family members.

Group: Sporting
Height: 15 to 18 inches
Weight: 30 to 45 pounds (male); 25 to 40 pounds (female)
Coat and Color: Their thick double coat, which can be wavy or tightly curled, comes in three shades of brown; solid liver, brown or dark chocolate. Sometimes they have white on toes and/or chest too.

Life Expectancy: 10 to 14 years

Characteristic of the American Water Spaniel

Affection Level High
Friendliness  High
Kid-Friendly  High
Pet-Friendly  High
Exercise Needs  High
Playfulness High
Energy Levels High
Trainability High
Intelligence High
Tendency to Bark High
Amount of Shedding Low

History of the Breed

Given all the great qualities of this little hunting dog, it is a surprise to know that the breed has never been hugely popular.

Their exact origins are unclear. They are believed to have been developed from a mix of other working breeds, like the Irish Water Spaniel and the Curly Coated Retriever. They are one of only a few dogs that are indigenous to the United States and were first used by hunters around the Great Lakes area in the mid 19th century. Their dense and warm coats, fantastic swimming abilities, intelligence, loyalty and enthusiasm made them the perfect dogs for retrieving waterfowl from the icy waters around the region.

The demand for these little workers waned as the bigger retrieving dogs coming from England, like the Labrador, grew in popularity. If it hadn't been for an avid AWS enthusiast from Wisconsin, Dr F.J. Pfeifer, the breed may have become extinct. Pfeifer formed a breed club, and the American Kennel Club officially recognized the American Water Spaniel in 1940.

In 1985 they were named as the official state dog of Wisconsin.

They are still a rare breed; it is believed that there are currently no more than 3,000 American Water Spaniels worldwide. This makes them a special and unique little dog.

American Water Spaniel Care

The AWS, with their working background, is a very active breed that needs a lot of exercise and stimulation to ensure that problem behaviors do not surface as a result of boredom. They would suit an energetic family that enjoys being in the great outdoors. They also adore being in the water. If you live near a lake or the sea - all the better.

They develop strong attachments with their owners and are affectionate and friendly. They tend to get along with other dogs and, although not as effusive with strangers, they will still usually give a warm welcome to visitors. They are not a dog to choose for their guarding traits.

If they are not given enough attention or enrichment, they can become stressed and destructive and can be known to bark and howl. They would be best suited to a home where they have company for most of the day.

American Water Spaniels are highly motivated, eager to please, and very intelligent, and this means that they respond very well to positive reinforcement training methods. They love to have a 'job' to do and can make excellent dog sports competitors.

These dogs can sometimes have a stubborn streak though. Making sure you have a treat bag full of goodies to encourage them positively could be helpful.

The American Water Spaniels coat does not require too much maintenance. They are minimal shedders, but their thick coat can become matted and tangled if it is not given a regular brush out. Some working dog owners choose to keep the coat clipped down close to avoid it becoming adorned with burrs after a run through the undergrowth. Their coat is oily too, and it should not be washed too frequently. Overbathing can strip the coat of its natural insulating and waterproofing qualities.

A litter of American Water Spaniel puppies
A litter of American Water Spaniel puppies. Wendy M Allen -

Common Health Problems

The AWS is generally regarded as being a healthy breed, but, as with all purebred dogs, there are a few genetic conditions that they are more susceptible to. A good breeder will always health screen prospective parents to help minimize the chances of puppies developing known inheritable conditions.

Some of the conditions they can be prone to include:

Hip Dysplasia: This is when the hip joints develop abnormally, and it can cause pain and lameness. Treatment can include administration of anti-inflammatories and pain medications, physical therapy, changes to exercise regimes and weight loss programmes. In extreme cases, surgery may be required.

Eye Problems: Including Progressive Retinal Atrophy, Cataracts and Retinal Dysplasia

Degenerative Myelopathy: This condition involves a deterioration in the spinal cord. Symptoms tend to show in dogs older than eight years of age. A common initial symptom is the dragging of toes, and this progresses gradually to a complete loss of use of the hind legs.

Alopecia/ Pattern Baldness: This usually appears in young AWS and is seemingly random, rather than being associated with other allergies or skin conditions. Ongoing studies are being conducted to understand more about this breed specific condition.

Diet and Nutrition

All dogs should be fed a high quality and carefully portion-controlled diet to help them keep in good health and to avoid obesity. The American Water Spaniel is no exception. Regular weigh-ins with the vet and checking to ensure that they have a visible waistline can help. If they are a particularly active dog, you may also wish to consider feeding them a diet designed for working or active breeds. This will ensure they are getting enough nutrients to meet their energy levels.

PROS

  • Affectionate and eager to please

  • Suited to a family that enjoys being active and outdoors

  • Highly intelligent and responds well to training

CONS

  • Can become vocal and destructive if left on their own

  • Can have a stubborn streak

  • Not suited to a sedenatary home

Where to Adopt or Buy an American Water Spaniel

Because they are such a rare breed, they are not easy to come by. There are only a handful of registered breeders. You should think long and hard about whether you can offer the right home to the breed. You could have to be on a waiting list with a breeder, and you potentially may have to travel a further distance to find your puppy.

Always do your research to ensure that you are getting a puppy from a reputable and ethical breeder. They should allow you to visit mum and the litter in a nurturing home environment. The pups should all have been vet checked, and they should not go to their new homes until they are at least eight weeks old and fully weaned.

A good place to start your research would be with the American Water Spaniel Club.

It would be unlikely to find an AWS in rescue. If you are looking for an affectionate, high energy companion, don't forget, there are lots of other deserving dogs in shelters all across the country waiting to be adopted.

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

If you are interested in similar breeds, why not check out the following:

There are lots of fantastic dog breeds out there, all with their own distinctive traits. With a little research, you can work out which type may be best suited to your lifestyle and family.