A Little Information About the AWS
A look back
The American Water Spaniel is one of only a few breeds
developed in the United States with a history that is cloaked in mystery.
Sometimes said to have been on the first ships to discover
North America or to have been developed by Native American's before
the white man learned of its great abilities; the truth can never be known.
The standard belief of today is that the breed
originated in the 1800's, about the time of the Civil War, and
probably in the area of the Wolf and Fox River valleys of Wisconsin.
No, it is not possible to know for certain as to whether or not this
is true but it is as good a starting point as any and Wisconsin has
long been one of the breed's bastions. The setting, a haven for
market hunters in the late 1800s and early 1900s, also allows for the recognized development of the
AWS as a market hunters dog. These men worked from small boats,
skiffs, or canoes and needed a smaller dog that took up little room
on their travels. The AWS certainly fit that need while it also
possessed a good nose, sufficient coat, and tenacious spirit.
What breeds went into the development of the
AWS is still in question today but here are some pretty safe bets.
Doc Pfeifer, the breed's foremost promoter and founder in the early
1900s believed that the breed was probably a descendent of a cross
between the Curly Coated Retriever and the Field Spaniel. Since he
had known a lot of AWS and owned them from as far back as 1894, the
good Doctor probably had a better idea than most as to just what
breeds were involved. However, today most accounts say that the
breed is a mixture of the extinct English Water Spaniel, Curly
Coated Retriever, and Irish Water Spaniel. Some even profess that
there has been a little Chesapeake Bay Retriever thrown in for good
The breed is not as popular today as it was
back in the early part of the 20th century but it is holding its
own. The popularity that lead to its recognition by the United
Kennel Club in 1920 and subsequent recognition by the Field Dog Stud
Book in 1938 and the AKC in 1940 probably will never be seen again.
Today there are generally less than 200 dogs registered with the AKC
each year; down from nearly twice that many just about twenty years
ago. The cause of the decline is unknown but the AWS community is
determined to keep the breed alive and well.
Some breed characteristics
The American Water Spaniel is a friendly
outgoing breed that loves to be the center of attention. While some
tend to be a bit allusive upon first meeting a stranger most greet
with tail wagging, mouth barking in glee, and legs bouncing in pure
As an intelligent breed they take well to
training although they may not do as well with rote training drills as
some of the other breeds. Variety in the training process usually
keeps the breed from becoming bored and makes things a bit more
interesting for the trainer as well. As a breed that likes to
please, the AWS trains quickly but requires constant and consistent
training to hone the skills needed or desired in many of today's
The breed has been described as a barker and
certainly this can be the case. In fact it is not unusual to hear an
AWS bark while chasing a rabbit in the field or when sent on a
retrieve. Training can help to curb this tendency but, if you have
one of the more vocal AWS, it will take some effort to reduce this
It is better to house an AWS with the rest of
the family rather than keep it housed outside in a pen or backyard.
This is a breed that will excel when given the proper attention and
made to be a part of the family. Professional trainers, breeders,
guides, and the like that know how to raise a dog in a kennel
environment and consistently work with such a dog can achieve
success with an AWS raised in a kennel but the average owner is best
off to raise the dog as a member of the family.
In the field
The American Water Spaniel is an
all-around hunting dog capable of spending a day in the field or
sitting patiently in a duck blind. As a hunting dog the AWS has the
energy needed to put pheasant, grouse, or rabbit before the gun and
the ability to sit quietly in a duck blind waiting for the next
flight to come in. As a retriever the American Water Spaniel is more suited to working
marshes, rivers, small lakes, and potholes for waterfowl. The breed
marks fallen game well and normally retrieves with great enthusiasm.
When hunting in the uplands the AWS shows
the power of its exceptional nose with many representatives of the
breed demonstrating the ability to scent game out of gun range. Such
a nose makes the breed especially adept at tracking a wounded bird
or chasing down a running pheasant. While the breed's manner of
flushing is soft verses hard it will, nevertheless, get the birds in
the air and give the gunner some great shooting.
A dog's ability as a hunting companion is not
built on instinct alone though. Owners need to recognize that the
better dog - the one that more consistently puts birds in the game
bag - is the one that is trained to exhibit a degree of control
whether working as a retrieving or flushing dog.
Is it a Spaniel or a Retriever?
That answer is probably never going to be made
definitive. The breed has a long history as both but if you consider
a retriever to be only a dog that excels at that - retrieving - and
little more, then this breed is definitely a spaniel. No matter how
you choose to use your AWS in the field, as a flushing dog, a
retriever, or a combination of the two, the AWS will probably meet
and beat your expectations. Whatever the type of hunting you do for
upland birds and waterfowl the AWS will likely fit the bill...
regardless of how you choose to label it.