The American Water Spaniel (AWS) is an energetic, curly-haired, all-round hunting dog from the United States. It is recognized as the State Dog of Wisconsin.
This purebred dog breed is also referred to as an:
- American Brown Spaniel,
- The American Brown Water Spaniel,
- American Brown Irish Water Spaniel,
- The Curly brown hunting dog,
- The Brown Curly-coated Retriever Spaniel,
- The Forgotten American Spaniel,
- Or simply the AWS
This medium-sized purebred dog loves to swim and is well-behaved around children, with a high affection level, and makes a great family dog.
It’s not stranger-friendly and can be stubborn but playful and makes a loyal hunting companion.
An American Water Spaniel puppy is fairly rare. Its water-resistant, brown curly coat gives it the appearance of a scruffy teddy bear.
A brief history of the American Water Spaniel dog breed
So where did the American Water Spaniel (AWS) dog breed come from?
The breed was originally known as the Brown Water Spaniel.
Regarded as an all American dog, the AWS is a rare dog breed that originated in the Mid-West of America, in the mid-1800s.
This breed remains fairly rare to this day and is not well known outside of the United States. It comes from the Great Lakes and River Valleys area of Wisconsin, where they were bred as versatile retrieving and hunting dogs; mainly to hunt waterfowl.
Hunters across Wisconsin, and neighboring Minnesota, needed a versatile gun dog that could hunt and retrieve in marshlands and uplands in harsh weather conditions.
This AWS was an excellent swimmer and had a dense, water-resistant curly coat that protected them when hunting, from cold conditions and injury from sharp branches and foliage in the uplands.
They were small enough to travel with waterfowl hunters aboard small boats and canoes to help retrieve waterfowl and fish. Their thick brown-colored curly coat helped them camouflage when ‘jump-hunting’.
FACT: ‘Jump-hunting’ is an old hunting method where the hunter creeps up on ducks, with a trusted retriever dog, and startles the prey who jump up in fright; Hunters then take aim and shoot. The AWS would then delicately retrieve the shot game when commanded.
On land, the AWS remained a close-at-hand gun-dog and companion for mainly hunting pheasant, grouse, quail, and ducks.
The gentle grip of the AWS’s mouth enabled it to retrieve the catch without further damage.
It is believed that the American Water Spaniel dog breed may have been developed from a variety of sporting and hunting dogs:
The Irish Water Spaniel, Curly-coated Retriever, English Water Spaniel, Field Spaniel, English Springer Spaniel and the Old English Water Spaniel (now extinct)
The American Water Spaniel breed dropped in popularity over time and numbers reduced; as the duck population in these areas dwindled and hunting changed from hunting for food to hunting different prey for recreation.
Larger hunting dogs gradually replaced the AWS.
The new hunting breed favorites were – Setters, Pointers, Spaniels, and Retrievers.
Doctor Fred J. Pfeifer, from New London, Wisconsin, loved the American Water Spaniel and realized numbers were reducing. Pfeifer did not want the breed to die out so he set out to maintain this rare breed of adaptable and capable hunting dogs.
Pfeifer continued to develop the AWS breed and established a Breed Club and a Breed Standard actively promoted the breed.
Pfeifer is credited with saving the breed but they’re not as popular as other hunting breeds and it is estimated that only 3000 AWS dogs exist today. This rare breed is virtually unknown outside of the United States.
The American Water Spaniel dog breed has achieved recognition by the following breed clubs and organizations:
- United Kennel Club (UKC) – 1902
- Field Stud Book – 1938
- American Kennel Club (AKC) – 1940
- American Water Spaniel Club of America (AWSC), established 1985
- American Water Spaniel Field Association, established 1993
FACT: As the AWS dog breed is not specifically classified as either ‘Retrievers’ or as ‘Spaniels’ the breed therefore cannot compete in the American Kennel Club, AKC field trials.
However, they can compete in the American Kennel Club, AKC hunt tests (Spaniel and Retriever tests) and American Water Spaniel Club (AWSC) sponsored Retriever hunting tests.
The American Water Spaniel is classified by the AKC as part of the ‘Sporting Group’.
The American Water Spaniel dog from Wisconsin
The American Water Spaniel, from the Great Lakes area of Wisconsin, was named the State Dog of Wisconsin in 1986.
Although this dog breed remains popular in Wisconsin, it is not highly popular in the AKC dog breed popularity rankings and in 2019 only ranked 164th out of the 193 dog breeds recognized and listed.
What does an American Water Spaniel dog look like?
The AWS is a medium-sized, dark-colored, thick-coated hunting and retrieving dog breed.
It has an alert expression and is very self-confident. It’s easily recognized by its dark chocolate curly coat, with curls that range from uniform waves, known as ‘marcel’ through to tight curls.
The hair on its face and nose is short like a Retriever’s but its long floppy pendant-shaped ears are completely covered in curly hair.
The AWS body is slightly longer than tall and its tail is a moderate length that’s tapered and covered in hair with moderate feathering. Its tail is never docked as the shape and the thick hair covering its tail allows it to function as a rudder in fast-flowing water when hunting.
The AWS tail is part of the breed standard.
FACT: At one time it was common for various hunting and working dogs to have their tails docked in case they got damaged while working. Over time this practice was deemed a cruel style-procedure and it was banned in certain countries.
However, some breed standards still require a docked tail in certain breeds of dog
What are the main characteristics of an American Water Spaniel?
The AWS is an adaptable and intelligent dog that was bred as a gundog to be agile on land and water while hunting in the Great Lakes area of Wisconsin.
The weather can be extreme in Wisconsin and this breed is equipped with a dense, marcel, or curly-type waterproof coat to help it withstand the cold and the sharp obstacles in the terrain where it worked.
This is an agile and highly alert dog. It’s loyal to its master and always maintains close contact. It has resilience, endurance, and a strong hunting focus. It likes to keep active and needs lots of exercise and activities to stop it from becoming bored and mischievous.
Loyalty and companionship:
The AWS dog was bred to be the perfectly skilled gun-dog and loyal hunting companion; Man and dog working as one. They have extremely acute senses and are obedient and hard-working to please their master.
The AWS is not a widely recognized dog outside of the United States. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Forgotten American dog’ as it now rarely competes on the dog show circuit.
Where known, it is respected for its ability as a hunting dog and its companionship without being clingy. This breed could make a good family dog, as it is not known to be aggressive.
But remember it is important to treat all dogs with respect otherwise it might feel challenged and react in a negative or aggressive way.
With proper behavior and obedience training and early socialization, the AWS can be trusted and be good-natured around children and other family pets.
They can be playful and affectionate if brought up as a family pet.
The American Water Spaniel is not a well-known dog and is still concentrated around the Great lakes and states of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
It lost popularity, last Century, as larger hunting dogs took over and numbers dwindled so with an estimated 3000 in existence, it doesn’t feature highly on the competition circuit or in AKC rankings; in 2019 it ranked as the 164th most popular dog in the US.
The AWS was bred to be a hunting companion and trained to hunt and retrieve birds and small game and follow orders.
They’re intelligent and adaptable and traveled with waterfowl hunters on small boats to locate and retrieve prey delicately when instructed. Their high level of discipline meant that they could be used on water or in upland terrain with the same precision and success.
The American Water Spaniel was bred as a hunting dog to follow orders and obey so training should be relatively straightforward as long as it is kept interesting. AWS can be stubborn so instructions with encouragement, specific tasks with a solution, and positive reinforcement will work best. Crate training is also recommended.
Training will need to be consistent with this breed.
Harsh training tactics are not recommended with this dog as it might rebel in an aggressive way or become timid and not cooperate.
This breed is active and curious and used to locating prey in various situations so early leash training is strongly recommended in the early years of life for this determined working type dog.
Power and intelligence:
American Water Spaniels are intelligent, alert, and aware of everything around them. They have a good sense of smell, sight, and hearing and work on instinct to locate, flush out, and retrieve prey.
They have great resilience and energy, and their thick curly coat helps protect them from inclement weather conditions and keeps them afloat when hunting in water. The AWS breed is an excellent swimmer and field scout.
To follow orders, hunt, locate, flush out, and retrieve for its owner on land or lake. The AWS has a great scent nose and inherent hunting skills which could be used for tracking, search and rescue or as a therapy dog. Its loyalty, alert nature, and ability to bond to its family would make it a good family watchdog.
When this breed of dog is socialized and obedience trained properly as a puppy it will make a loyal companion or affectionate and protective family pet.
Early leash training is a must to keep them under control. AWS dogs know how to hunt and chase and they get bored easily so walking on a leash will be needed as the puppy grows and gets used to its surroundings; crowded public places, dog parks, and local traffic.
When socialized properly this dog will demonstrate a high affection level and playfulness, but would not thrive in a small apartment environment.
The American Water Spaniel is a very obedient dog breed and its trainability will be manageable for any level of dog owner.
The AWS puppy is slow to mature and bores easily.
It’s relatively easy to train, as long as it has a purpose and will be eager to please their master. They can become a one-person dog.
They need to be properly socialized and obedience trained early.
They don’t bark excessively but they are alert to noises and will bark or become destructive if bored or don’t get enough stimulation and exercise. It is therefore important to make sure this dog gets enough exercise; typically two hours of daily exercise and play.
Physical Characteristics of an American Water Spaniel
The AWS is a medium-sized purebred dog with a super curly dense brown coat. Both male and female dogs can be expected to grow to a height of up to 15-18 (38-46cm) and a weigh of 25-40lb (11-18kg). The average lifespan is 10-12 years and you can expect an average of between 4-6 puppies in a litter.
Coat: A dense, water-resistant, double coat with marcel (undulating waves) or curly hair, and a protective finer undercoat, for insulation against the cold.
Color: A solid shade of Brown – Liver to Dark Chocolate Brown
Eyes: A Shade of brown, to match its coat color. Yellow is not breed standard, therefore not recommended.
Temperament: It’s friendly and well-mannered and good around children. Its temperament falls in between the independence of the Irish Water Spaniel and the affection of the English Springer Spaniel ancestors.
How should you train an AWS puppy?
An AWS puppy has a high energy level and should be trained early to learn how to use its energy and enthusiasm positively; if it’s not going to be used as a hunting dog.
AWS dogs can be stubborn and curious. They will want to investigate rather than be told what to do. Training must be consistent and firm but not aggressive or harsh, as it can become timid if chastised and may refuse to cooperate.
This puppy will need ongoing positive-reinforcement and little food-based treats will work well during training but it needs to be taught how to manage its food intake as it is prone to being possessive over its food.
Praise for good behavior and gentle reprimands for not behaving will work best. It will need to be able to go out in public and needs to know how to follow orders – for its safety and to follow the rules in public.
There are various types of recommended training: obedience, discipline, agility, and socialization.
So, if you are not going to use a professional dog trainer:
1) Develop your basic command words: Find keywords such as Stop, Sit, and Wait, etc. and be consistent each time you use them.
2) Crate – Buy a crate and get this active and curious puppy used to going into it. This will eventually become its nest and it will sleep there. You will have to lock the cage in the early days so it knows it has to sleep there and it’s a useful experience for bladder control and when transporting this breed.
3) Potty training – This may be hit and miss for a new puppy who gets easily excited and lacks control, however products are available, such as mats and odor sprays to attract puppy go to the same spot each time
4) Walking on a leash – Voice commands and road awareness is important for this nosey puppy’s safety, as they may want to dart off to explore.
Health problems and health issues
Any purebred dog breed, like the American Water Spaniel, can inherit certain genetic health problems; although this breed is generally healthy possibly due to limited breeding.
Hip Dysplasia – an abnormality where the ball and socket of the hip joint are not a neat fit. Excessive movement can lead to further damage to the limbs, extreme pain possible bone disease such as arthritis. Dogs with known Hip Dysplasia should not be bred.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) – a degenerative disease, affecting the retinal visual cells at the back of the eye. PRA can progress to blindness unless treated.
Retinal Dysplasia – is an abnormal development of the eye retina, resulting in folds in the retina, which can lead to incurable blind spots or full blindness.
Cataracts – a jelly-like growth on the lens of the eye which affects vision, but can be removed by surgery.
Alopecia – Alopecia means hair loss. This breed can suffer from specific pattern baldness, like Saddle Pattern Alopecia, which is a gradual, but systematic, thinning of the hair along the saddle, it can also cause hair loss on the neck, thighs and the tail.
This condition is incurable, but not life-threatening, and further skin infections and inflammation are possible, needing medication.
Growth hormone-responsive Dermatitis – a lack of the hormone (Somatropin) causes skin changes and affects hair growth for male dogs more than females; Neutering can help. The condition leads to hair loss and darker pigmentation of the skin.
Other health issues include Hypothyroidism – a thyroid gland disorder, Epilepsy – fits and seizures, and allergies.
Caring for your American Water Spaniel – what’s needed?
As part of the AKC ‘Sporting’ group they are active and will need about two hours of exercise a day, they love to swim, have playtime, and fetch the ball and chase-type activities. They would suit a fenced yard where they can exercise themselves, but not where they can escape!
Feed as a medium-sized dog, 1-2 cups of high-quality Kibble per day, split into 2 feeds; the amount depends on size, build, metabolism, and activity level.
This dense double coat sheds moderately and needs moderate maintenance; brushed 2-3 times a week, to remove debris.
A slicker brush will remove dead hair. This breed is not hypoallergenic.
This is a ‘Water’ dog with an oily water-resistant coat that will get smelly and be greasy to touch when wet. Bathing is not needed often as its natural coat oil, can be stripped with over-bathing. However, after swimming, it will need a freshwater shower down.
Certain dog formulated shampoos have a double effect of cleaning the dog coat and protecting it against fleas and insect bites.
Cleaning teeth, nails, and ears
Check teeth to prevent a build-up of plaque and avoid gum disease. Nails need to be trimmed regularly and ears checked for dirt build-up, and debris collected in and around the furry parts of the ear that can lead to infection.
Positives and Negatives of AWS ownership
- An Outdoor-type
- Attractive brown curly hair
- A loyal and protective companion
- Alert and obedient, makes a good watchdog
- Adaptable and fun-loving
- Bonds strongly with owner
- Child friendly
- Stubborn and manipulative
- Wanderlust tendencies
- A recreational barker, craves companionship
- Mischievous and destructive if bored or left alone, will chew, dig, jump
- High exercise needs
- Some territorial issues
- Needs fenced space to run, not for apartment life
Commonly Asked Questions:
Q. How much does an AWS puppy cost?
A. Budget approximately $1200- $1500, from a reputable breeder, do not buy these dogs if they’re vaguely described, as they are a very specific and rare breed.
Q. Why is an AWS puppy so expensive?
A. They’re rare and only around 3000 exist. Each litter only produces 4-6 puppies so there is usually a waiting list. They are usually fully vaccinated, chipped, and should be passport and name registered. This all adds to the overall cost.
Q What other costs should I expect?
A. A good quality dry dog food, Kibble, will cost around $100 per month, plus Vet’s fees, vaccinations, medications and accessories and toys, collar, leash, grooming equipment.