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The American Water Spaniel
Field Association, Inc.

Helping to train hunting spaniels since 1993

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June18, 2011

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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.

Old PictureThe 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 measure.

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 excitement.

AWS pupsAs 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 hunting dogs. 

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 behavior.

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.

Training retrieveWhen 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?

Boy trainingThat 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.