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Breeder Buzzwords – The American Water Spaniel

The “American Brown,” as the American Water Spaniel has been called, worked alongside market hunters on the lakes and rivers of the upper Midwest beginning in the 1880s, supplying game for sale to the public. The breed was developed as an all-purpose hunter, equally at home on land and in the water, and exceptionally equipped to flush and retrieve both feather and fur with equal proficiency.

The American Water Spaniel is considered a native breed in the U.S., though its origin is generally accepted as a blending of several Old World water dogs. Various English and Irish breeds are the likeliest ancestors of today’s small Sporting powerhouse.

In her booklet How to Raise and Train an American Water Spaniel, Constance Rutherford acknowledges the contributions made by those imported dogs. “While the exact origin of the breed must forever remain more or less shrouded in mystery, there can be little doubt that his principle ancestor was the old English Water Spaniel, now extinct.”

Rutherford mentions the frequency with which the English dogs were imported during the 19th century. She notes their similarity in color and size to the modern breed, although she acknowledges the frequency of “black specimens,” denoting a “Cocker cross.” Later introductions, the author notes, were made with the Curly-Coated Retriever (some sources suggest the Flat-Coated Retriever and the Field Spaniel) and Irish Water Spaniel to improve performance.

The dogs that resulted proved particularly useful for performing in the conditions found along the waterways of Wisconsin’s Wolf and Fox River Valley region. Their small size was suitable for working from the small boats called “skiffs,” and their noses were just as reliable on muskrat and mink as on wigeon, a type of duck, and woodcock.

The Mississippi Flyway  that extends from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian tundra, includes portions of the upper Midwest where conditions are hospitable for migratory birds needing to rest and refuel. It is in this area that market hunters and their dogs exploited the bounty to help feed a growing nation.

By the early 20th century, the systematic methods employed by market hunters threatened the survival of many bird and mammal species throughout North America. Conservation efforts led to the establishment of hunting seasons and, together with the importation of British retrieving breeds and the creation of field trials, the survival of the American Brown itself was soon in jeopardy.

According to the United Kennel Club, the first American Water Spaniel was registered in 1920. “Curly Pfeifer” was owned by Fred J. Pfeifer, M.D., of New London, Wis., who is credited by some with saving the breed from extinction. During the drought that decimated the nation’s interior in the 1930s, Pfeifer’s kennel managed to keep the breed alive.

The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1940 and, as noted by the American Water Spaniel Club Inc., several fanciers of the day took up Pfeifer’s cause of preservation. Thanks to the efforts of its supporters, approximately 3,000 individuals of the breed are estimated to exist today.

Although some enthusiasts were originally concerned that the American Water Spaniel’s entry into the show ring would result in the breed’s ruination, their fear has been proven unwarranted. The breed is eligible to compete in both the AKC Spaniel and Retriever Hunting Tests, and it continues to excel in the field.

Titles on both ends of a dog’s name are not unusual in the breed, and several individuals have been awarded Group and Best in Show wins in all-breed competition.

The official state dog of Wisconsin, the American Brown enjoys the continued support of fanciers who appreciate the breed’s simple beauty, eagerness to please and love of the hunt.

Registrations in 2012 place this eager and energetic gun dog 141st among the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.

Ch. Game CRK-Waterway Kylends Joyia CDX RE OA NAJ pictured winning BOB at the American Spaniel Club in 2003 under judge Elliot Moore. Photo by Ashbey. All photos courtesy of Bo Bengtson.

An All-Around Hunting Dog
The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes the breed, in part, as an “all-around hunting dog, bred to retrieve from skiff or canoes and work ground with relative ease.” As a Sporting dog, the breed is not entirely a flushing Spaniel, nor is it exactly a Retriever. Its classification is most closely that of an all-purpose gun dog rather than a specialist.

According to the AKC breed parent club, “There is no shortage of field events for the American Water Spaniel.” The breed remains an ideal hunting companion, an exceptional hunt test competitor, and an all-around capable hunting dog with several activities available to measure performance while enjoying the breed’s versatility.

“Active” and “muscular” in appearance, the American Brown was developed for work, not for sport. The breed lacks the frills and flourishes of many other hunting breeds. Instead, its physical beauty is expressed through its “symmetrical relationship of parts.”

Every part of the American Water Spaniel, from head to tail, facilitates the breed’s usefulness on a wide variety of game. The head, “in proportion to the overall dog,” presents an “alert, self-confident, attractive and intelligent” expression. (A yellow eye color “like that of a lemon” disqualifies.) The neck is “strong and muscular,” although the arch is “not accentuated.” The body is described as “well-developed” and “sturdily constructed, but not too compactly coupled.” Ribs are “well-sprung,” and loins are “strong.” Forequarters are “clean and muscular” with “strong” pasterns and “well-padded” feet, and the rear assembly indicates plenty of “strength and drive.”

Size should be given emphasis in the breed. Ideal height is measured from 15 to 18 inches “for either sex.” Males weigh between 30 and 45 pounds, and females between 25 and 40 pounds. Although bitches are described as tending to be “slightly smaller” than dogs, no preference for size exists within the acceptable range “providing correct proportion, good substance and balance [are] maintained.” The AKC breed standard defines correct proportion as “slightly longer than tall, not too square or compact.”

Strength of construction may be the American Brown’s most pronounced characteristic.

Ch. Woods-N-Water’s Hunters Secret, a multiple Westminster BOB winner, pictured winning BOB at the Garden in 2001 under judge Annette Davies, handled by Karen Mammano.

A Tail ‘Curved in a Rocker Fashion’
One of the breed’s distinguishing characteristics is its tail. Described by the AKC breed standard as “moderate in length,” it curves from base to tip “in a rocker fashion.” Perhaps only a simple little American breed could be described in such a charming way as using a rocking chair as metaphor.

The tail of the American Water Spaniel tapers along its length and is “covered with hair,” according to the AKC breed standard. This distinguishes the breed from its rat-tailed Irish cousin. The hair presents “moderate” feathering along its length and should be neither bare nor smooth.

As noted by the breed’s parent club, the tail may be trimmed “shorter near the rump…in a carrot shape or curved to show off the rocker tail our standard requires.

Carried “either slightly below or above” the level of the back, the action of the tail is described by the AKC breed standard as “lively.” In this description there’s no mistaking the breed’s Spaniel ancestry.

Ch. Wish’N Well’s Tarheel Marksman CD, pictured winning BOB at Westminster under judge Houston Clark.

A Marcel to Curly Coat
The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard emphasizes the American Water Spaniel’s coat texture and color in addition to its size and symmetry. The breed’s coat differs from that of its cousins in several key areas.

Unlike the Irish Water Spaniel, the double coat of the American Brown may appear in an acceptable range of textures and shades of brown. The standard’s section on coat requires an undercoat “of sufficient density to be of protection against weather, water or punishing cover, yet not too coarse or too soft.” The throat, neck and rear of the dog are “well-covered” with hair, whereas the forehead is covered with “short smooth hair and without topknot.”

The outer coat may present “marcel (uniform waves)” or hair that is “closely curled.” The texture of the waves or curls may vary “from one area to another on the dog,” although the ears are “well-covered with hair on both sides of the ear canal,” and the legs have “moderate feathering with waves or curls to harmonize with” the coat on the body.

Correct coat texture is never flat like that allowed for another little American original, the Boykin Spaniel.

Whereas the Irish Water Spaniel is partially defined by its rich, dark, liver color with a “purplish tinge,” the American Brown may be “either solid liver, brown or dark chocolate.” The standard’s rather broad range of acceptable shades of brown emphasizes the breed’s utility as a functional gun dog in need of camouflage under a variety of land and water conditions.

Like the Boykin, the American Water Spaniel may display a “little white” on the toes and on the chest. Otherwise both breeds are solid-colored.

An all-around hunter favored by generations of sporting men and women, the American Water Spaniel remains wonderfully equipped to flush and retrieve before settling in for the night with its family.

Written by

Dan Sayers started “in dogs” through a chance encounter with a Springer Spaniel in 1980. A student of dogs ever since, he’s shown Spaniels and Hounds in the conformation ring and breeds Irish Water Spaniels under the Quiet Storm prefix. A dog lover with a passion for the creative arts, Dan has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator for many years. His feature articles and columns have appeared in Dogs in Review, Dog World and the AKC Gazette, and his design work has appeared in dozens of publications in North America and abroad. An interest in all things “dog” brought Dan to Best In Show Daily, where he gets to work with the most dynamic group of fanciers every day. He lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his partner, Rudy Raya, Irish Water Spaniel, Kurre, and the memory of Oscar, a once-in-a-lifetime Sussex Spaniel.
  • Paul Morrison July 22, 2013 at 5:18 AM

    Kudos to Mr. Sayers. This is a very good article leaving little area for dispute. I do take issue with the idea that Dr. Pfeifer saved the breed from extinction in the 1930s. With prolific 1930s AWS breeders like Scanlon, Shelberg, and Scofield producing numerous pups each year it is a bit of a stretch to say that Dr. Pfeifer saved the breed as described. The breed did not begin to see a major decline in popularity until World War II and the rise of field trials and the Labrador as a favored breed amongst retriever enthusiasts. That puts the decline after the 1930s not prior to or during it. I appreciate Mr. Sayers emphasis on the breeds use as an all-around hunting dog; not simply just another retriever nor only a flushing dog. Overall though, this is a great article that deserves to be read by new and established AWS fanciers alike. Once again, great job!

    • Dan Sayers
      Dan Sayers July 22, 2013 at 12:20 PM

      Hello Paul,

      Thank you for reading Best In Show Daily and thank you for posting a comment. Your note is a terrific reminder that we are all simply caretakers of the breeds we love, and their survival depends on fanciers working together to ensure that they thrive for future generations to enjoy.

  • Teresa Marley July 25, 2013 at 8:20 PM

    Thank you for adding “Marky” Ch. Wish’N Well’s Tarheel Marksman CD to your story. He was a multi group winning AWS and was always handled by is owner Teresa Marley.

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