Learn All About the Irish Water Spaniel

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

Irish Water Spaniel

PAUL ELLIS / Staff / Getty Images

Also known as the Rat Tail Spaniel thanks to its distinctive, smooth tail, the Irish Water Spaniel is a medium to large gun dog used for retrieving waterfowl like ducks and geese, as well as flushing and retrieving upland game like quail and pheasant. Irish Water Spaniels love to do their original job—you can see them wagging their tails with joy when out in the field. They are solidly built, rugged, and athletic. The crisply curled coat comes may be rich liver (brown) to dark liver with a purplish tinge (a hue that’s sometimes called puce liver).

Irish Water Spaniels and loving, devoted, and affectionate with their families, but they can be standoffish with people they don’t know. They are alert and curious, preferring to be right in the center of the action rather than left alone out in the yard. The cascade of loose curls atop the Irish Water Spaniel’s head lends to their unique and charming appearance. 

Breed Overview

Group: Sporting

Weight: 45 to 68 pounds

Height: 21 to 24 inches tall at the shoulder

Coat: Dense, crisp and tightly curled; coat on the face and tail is short and smooth

Color: Liver (brown)

Life Expectancy: 10 to 12 years

Characteristics of the Irish Water Spaniel

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

History of the Irish Water Spaniel

As its name suggests, the Irish Water Spaniel originated in Ireland. Ancestors of the Irish Water Spaniel were known as far back as the Roman Era, but Dubliner Justin McCarthy, an avid sportsman, is credited with solidifying the Irish Water Spaniel’s breed type in the 1860s. His dog “Boatswain” was well-known in dog shows, and the breed took off in Ireland at this time. Although rare in the United States today, the Irish Water Spaniel used to be a more popular hunting dog. The breed was one of only nine breeds first recognized by the American Kennel Club when it was founded.

Painting (by Vero Shaw) of Irish Water Spaniels, 1881.
Buyenlarge / Contributor / Getty Images
Antique dotprinted photograph of dog: Irish water spaniel
Royalty-free /  Getty Images
Irish Water Spaniel Westminster 2016
Matthew Eisman / Contributor  / Getty Images

Irish Water Spaniel Care

The Irish Water Spaniel has a curly, water resistant coat that is comparable to that of the poodle. It requires frequent brushing to keep it untangled, as well as regular trimming from a groomer. Some Irish Water Spaniel owners learn to trim the coat themselves, with advice from their breeder or professional groomer. The goal of trimming an Irish Water Spaniel should be to neaten up the shape of the coat and remove any sun-damaged orange ends. The breed’s coat is not intended to be overly stylized. The hair on the face and tail is naturally short, but you might need to clean up whiskers and stray long hairs.

Although the Irish Water Spaniel’s coat requires frequent grooming, the upside to this is the breed doesn’t shed much (if at all) and is considered hypoallergenic, so might be a good breed for allergy sufferers. The term “hypoallergenic” means the breed tends to cause fewer allergies than other breeds. It does not mean the breed has a zero likelihood of causing allergies. Anyone with dog allergies should spend a good amount of time with adult Irish Water Spaniels to see how they react before bringing home a puppy. 

Irish Water Spaniels are high-energy dogs. They need lots of daily vigorous exercise. Hunting is a great outlet for expending the breed’s abundant physical and mental energy, but jogging, hiking, swimming, games of fetch, filled in with long walks, will also drain the energy bank. Many Irish Water Spaniels excel at competitive dog sports, including field trials, agility, flyball, dock jumping, tracking and obedience. 

The Irish Water Spaniel is highly intelligent, but somewhat sensitive, so you must use the right approach when training. Force and intimidation will get you nowhere. Use positive-reinforcement training methods and avoid excessive repetition. The Irish Water Spaniel is not a push-button dog that will do the same thing over and over—incorporate variety into your training sessions (and lots of treats, praise and toys). Irish Water Spaniels can be naturally wary of strangers and somewhat unpredictable with other animals, so it’s extra important to socialize them extensively as puppies. Introduce them to many different friendly adults, children and other dogs, keeping interactions positive with lots of treats and praise. Start as early as possible in puppyhood, and continue these efforts throughout the dog’s life.

Common Health Problems

The Irish Water Spaniel is typically a healthy breed. Responsible breeders perform certain tests on their dogs before breeding them. The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America, which is the national parent club for the breed in the United States, recommends that all Irish Water Spaniels be tested for hip and elbow dysplasia, eye disease, and thyroid health. Seizures have been reported in some Irish Water Spaniels, and skin or food allergies are somewhat common in the breed. 

According to the Irish Water Spaniel is sensitive to certain drugs, including “sulfa drugs” (sulfonamide), found in some antibiotics diuretics, eye medications, heart medications, and anti-seizure medications. A common sulfa drug used to treat coccida parasite infection in puppies is sulfadimethoxine. Irish Water Spaniels might also have an adverse reaction to the common heartworm medication ivermectin, as well as certain flea and tick preventives. 

In light of these concerns, always talk to your veterinarian about the potential for sensitivity before giving your Irish Water Spaniel any drug, whether prescription or over the counter (in the case of flea and tick preventives). Do this every time your dog is prescribed a new drug, and every time you switch veterinarians, to ensure your dog is not given something potentially dangerous. 

Diet and Nutrition

Some Irish Water Spaniels have a propensity to become overweight. To prevent this, feed your Irish Water Spaniel measured, regular meals using measuring cup or scale to weigh the food. Avoid free feeding (leaving food out all day), which can lead to weight gain. Too much weight exacerbates hip and elbow dysplasia, which the Irish Water Spaniel is predisposed to, and also contributes to other health conditions like diabetes. Ask your breeder or veterinarian to recommend a healthy food for your Irish Water Spaniels.

Pros

  • Affectionate and outgoing with family

  • Does not shed/hypoallergenic

  • Active companion

Cons

  • Needs a lot of exercise

  • Not always dog friendly

  • Can be wary of strangers

Where to Adopt or Buy

The Irish Water Spaniel is a somewhat rare breed. Some adults might find their way into rescue. More often, those looking to acquire an Irish Water Spaniel will be buying a puppy from a reputable breeder. The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America maintains a list of breeders on its website. Be prepared to get on a waiting list.

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

If you like the Irish Water Spaniel, you might also like these breeds:

Otherwise, check out all of our other dog breed articles to help you find the perfect dog for you and your family.