American Water Spaniel
The state dog of Wisconsin is an enthusiastic water retriever and family friend.
- Dog Breed Group
- Sporting Dogs
- 1 foot, 3 inches to 1 foot, 6 inches tall at the shoulder
- 25 to 45 pounds
- Up to 32 pounds
- Life Span
- 12 to 15 years
Adaptabilitybased on 6 ratings
Trainabilitybased on 6 ratings
Health & Groomingbased on 6 ratings
All-around friendlinessbased on 4 ratings
Exercise needsbased on 4 ratings
See All Characteristic Ratings
The American Water Spaniel was bred to be an all-around hunting dog. Specializing in waterfowl, he's a skilled swimmer who will retrieve from small boats and has a water-resistant double coat. The dog breed has the high energy of a dog born to chase and retrieve game, but given enough exercise, he can also make an great family companion.
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Although he's not well known outside the Great Lakes area of the United States, the American Water Spaniel (AWS) has qualities that make him well worth your consideration, especially if you're outdoorsy and live near the water.
The AWS is a medium-size all-around hunting dog and retriever, so he's chock-full of energy and enthusiasm. Like other hunting dogs he needs plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, and so long as he gets it — whether it's from retrieving game out in the field or playing fetch with the kids — he's a well-mannered family companion.
Although the AWS is used to hunt all sorts of small game, he specializes in waterfowl, and is a natural swimmer as well as a skilled retriever and hunter. His versatility serves him well in many dog sports and activities such as agility, obedience trials, hunt tests, rally, therapy work, tracking, and search and rescue, as well as conformation.
If you're looking for an active dog who loves to swim and retrieve and can be trained for different sports and activities, the American Water Spaniel could be an ideal fit for you.
The American Water Spaniel will be friendly toward people if they have been properly introduced. He makes an excellent watchdog however, and will alert you with a warning bark if he hears any strange noises.
This is a rare breed, and very few puppies are born each year. If you're interested in an AWS, find a reputable breeder who can help you decide if the breed's a good match for you. And then settle in for a good wait — you may spend several months or even a year or more on a waiting list before a puppy's available. People who breed these unique dogs want to make sure they go to just the right homes, and they're able to pick and choose the families who'll take great care of their puppies.
- American Water Spaniels are active dogs and require daily exercise. Give him one to two hours a day of walks, runs, or games of fetch. You can break up exercise periods throughout the day — an hour here, a half hour there. Without it they may express their pent-up energy with recreational barking and excessive chewing.
- The AWS craves companionship, and if you leave him alone for more than a few hours, he may express his boredom and loneliness in destructive ways. The AWS is best suited for homes where someone's home during the day.
- American Water Spaniels can be stubborn and manipulative. You must show them that you mean what you say by establishing rules and being consistent in enforcing them.
- American Water Spaniels like to roam and may leave your yard or your side to go hunting on their own if they're not confined by a fence or restrained by a leash.
- AWS's may become one-person dogs but will be friendly toward family members. Don't expect them to fawn over visitors or strangers, though.
- Harsh treatment can make your AWS timid or stubborn. The breed responds best to a gentle touch and training techniques that use rewards for getting it right, rather than punishment for getting it wrong.
- Some American Water Spaniels are territorial and aggressive with strange dogs, although they get along with other family dogs and pets.
- They have a natural tendency for chewing, digging, and jumping, but you can overcome these behaviors with training.
- To get a healthy dog, never buy a puppy from an irresponsible breeder, puppy mill, or pet store. Look for a reputable breeder who tests her breeding dogs to make sure they're free of genetic diseases that they might pass onto the puppies, and that they have sound temperaments.
The American Water Spaniel was developed in the Fox and Wolf River valleys of Wisconsin during the mid-1800s. Reliable breeding records date to 1865. The AWS's ancestors probably include the Irish Water Spaniel, Curly-Coated Retriever, Field Spaniel, and the now-extinct Old English Water Spaniel.
Whatever his family background, the AWS we know today was bred to be a versatile hunting buddy. His dense, curly coat helps protect this natural swimmer from cold water as well as from briars in the woods; his small size allows waterfowl hunters to take him in a little boat or canoe; and he will tenderly retrieve grouse, quail, pheasant, and ducks. The AWS sticks close to his human hunting companion rather than ranging far afield.
Hunters along the Mississippi flyway and its northern tributaries often used the versatile AWS, taking advantage of the dog's ability to work in varied terrain from marshes to uplands, his endurance, and his ability to retrieve many birds in a day.
But when larger retriever breeds from England became popular, the little brown spaniel began to fall out of favor. Fortunately, he had a fan in Doctor F. J. Pfeifer of New London, Wisconsin, who's credited with saving the breed from extinction. Pfeifer bred and sold American Water Spaniels, formed a breed club, and helped to develop a breed standard — a written description of how the AWS should look.
His efforts paved the way for the United Kennel Club's recognition of the breed in 1920, the Field Stud Book in 1938, and the American Kennel Club's recognition of the breed in 1940. One of Pfeifer's own dogs, "Curly Pfeifer," was the first registered American Water Spaniel.
The American Water Spaniel remains rare, with fewer than 3,000 in existence today. This rarity has probably saved the breed from splitting into two groups, one used for dog show competitions, and the other to continue the breed's traditional job as hunting companion, as seen in some other retriever breeds. He was named the state dog of Wisconsin in 1986.
SizeMales and females are 15 to 18 inches tall. Females tend to be slightly smaller than males, with females weighing 25 to 40 pounds and males weighing 35 to 45 pounds.
The American Water Spaniel is lively, alert, friendly, and obedient, as long as you provide fair, consistent training and leadership. Without it, he can become stubborn and manipulative. Make sure your training methods use rewards rather than punishment, though; when treated harshly the AWS can become sulky or timid.
He likes human companionship and may become a barker if he's home alone and gets bored. This isn't a dog you can leave alone for hours in the backyard. And although he makes a good family dog, he's likely to bond most strongly with whoever gives him the most time and attention.
Temperament is affected by a number of factors, including heredity, training, and socialization. Puppies with nice temperaments are curious and playful, willing to approach people and be held by them. Choose the middle-of-the-road puppy, not the one who's beating up his littermates or the one who's hiding in the corner.
Always meet at least one of the parents — usually the mother is the one who's available — to ensure that they have nice temperaments that you're comfortable with. Meeting siblings or other relatives of the parents is also helpful for evaluating what a puppy will be like when he grows up.
Like every dog, the AWS needs early socialization — exposure to many different people, sights, sounds, and experiences — when they're young. Socialization helps ensure that your AWS puppy grows up to be a well-rounded dog.
Enrolling him in a puppy kindergarten class is a great start. Inviting visitors over regularly, and taking him to busy parks, stores that allow dogs, and on leisurely strolls to meet neighbors will also help him polish his social skills.
American Water Spaniels are generally healthy, but like all breeds, they're prone to certain health conditions. Not all American Water Spaniels will get any or all of these diseases, but it's important to be aware of them if you're considering this breed.
If you're buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy's parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been tested for and cleared of a particular condition.
In American Water Spaniels, you should expect to see health clearances from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip dysplasia (with a score of fair or better), elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand's disease; from Auburn University for thrombopathia; and from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certifying that eyes are normal. You can confirm health clearances by checking the OFA web site (offa.org).
- Hip Dysplasia: A degenerative disease in which the hip joint is weakened due to abnormal growth and development. This disease is found in many breeds of dogs, not just the American Water Spaniel.
- Growth Hormone-Responsive Dermatitis: Causes skin changes due to a lack of growth hormone (somatropin). This hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland and is necessary for hair growth. Affected animals have varying degrees of hair loss but are otherwise healthy. The mode of inheritance is unknown. The condition is more common in male dogs between 1 and 5 years of age, with hair loss starting at puberty. The hair loss is symmetrical over dog's body, and the skin is markedly darker in color due to increased pigmentation. Without treatment, hairlessness and hyper pigmentation will eventually spread over the body except for the head and feet. It can be treated with growth hormone, but this is an expensive treatment and difficult to obtain. Neutering may resolve the condition in male dogs.
- Pattern Baldness (Saddle Alopecia): This condition causes a gradual, symmetric thinning and loss of hair (alopecia) that usually begins by 6 to 9 months of age and progresses until affected areas are completely bald. Saddle alopecia causes hair loss underneath the neck, on the back of the thighs, and on the tail. Method of inheritance is not known. There is no treatment to cover the hair loss.
- Cataracts: A cataract is an opacity on the lens of the eye, which causes difficulty in seeing. They eye(s) of the dog will have a cloudy appearance. Cataracts usually occur in old age and can be treated by surgically removing the cataract.
- Retinal Dysplasia: Retinal Dysplasia is an abnormal development of the retina resulting in retinal folds. This can lead to a variety of vision problems for the dog ranging from a small blind spot to total blindness. It's most commonly seen as a hereditary disease, but a number of environmental factors including trauma can also cause it. There is no known treatment for Retinal Dysplasia but many dogs with it live full lives, their other senses compensating for the visual impairment.
- Allergies: Allergies are a common ailment in dogs. Allergies to certain foods are identified and treated by eliminating certain foods from the dog's diet until the culprit is discovered. Contact allergies are caused by a reaction to something that touches the dog, such as bedding, flea powders, dog shampoos, or other chemicals. Contact allergies are also treated by identifying and removing the cause of the allergy. Inhalant allergies are caused by airborne allergens such as pollen, dust, and mildew. The appropriate medication for inhalant allergies depends on the severity of the allergy. Ear infections are a common side effect of inhalant allergies.
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): A degenerative eye disorder that affects many breeds. Blindness caused by PRA is a slow process resulting from the loss of photoreceptors at the back of the eye. PRA is detectable years before the dog shows any signs of blindness. Reputable breeders have their dogs' eyes certified annually by a veterinary ophthalmologist.
- Epilepsy: A disorder that causes seizures in the dog. Epilepsy can be treated with medication, but it cannot be cured. A dog can live a full and healthy life with the proper management of this hereditary disorder.
- Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is caused by deficiencies of hormone produced from the thyroid gland, which is found in the neck. The mild symptoms of the disease may be infertility. The more apparent signs of this disease are obesity, mental dullness, lethargy, drooping of the eyelids, low levels of energy, and irregular heat cycles. The dog's fur becomes coarse and brittle and begins to fall out, while the skin becomes tough and dark. It can be treated with a daily thyroid replacement and usually requires a lifetime of treatment. A dog that is having daily treatment can live a full and happy life.
If he gets lots of exercise and playtime, the American Water Spaniel can do well in smaller living situations such as an apartment or condominium, but he's a country dog at heart, and is happiest when he's got plenty of open space to run off his natural energy.
Smart and trainable, the AWS responds best to short, motivational training sessions. Avoid heavy-handed techniques that use punishments for getting it wrong instead of rewards for getting it right — they could make him sulky or withdrawn. And train him yourself rather than sending him off to be tutored by a stranger. He'll work much better for someone he knows and loves.
He may chew when his people aren't home, so crate training is a must to keep your possessions safe and your AWS out of the doghouse.
Recommended daily amount: 1 to 1.5 cups of high-quality dry food a day, divided into two meals.
NOTE: How much your adult dog eats depends on his size, age, build, metabolism, and activity level. Dogs are individuals, just like people, and they don't all need the same amount of food. It almost goes without saying that a highly active dog will need more than a couch potato dog. The quality of dog food you buy also makes a difference — the better the dog food, the further it will go toward nourishing your dog and the less of it you'll need to shake into your dog's bowl.
Keep your AWS in good shape by measuring his food and feeding him twice a day rather than leaving food out all the time. If you're unsure whether he's overweight, give him the eye test and the hands-on test.
First, look down at him. You should be able to see a waist. Then place your hands on his back, thumbs along the spine, with the fingers spread downward. You should be able to feel but not see his ribs without having to press hard. If you can't, he needs less food and more exercise.
For more on feeding your AWS, see our guidelines for buying the right food, feeding your puppy, and feeding your adult dog.
Coat, Color and Grooming
This is what's known as a double-coated dog. A dense undercoat protects the American Water Spaniel against weather, water, and scratchy underbrush. The outer coat may have uniform waves — called a marcel coat — or tight curls. The amount of curl or wave can vary from one area of the dog's body to another. The forehead is covered with short, smooth hair, and moderate feathering adorns the tail and legs.
An AWS coat can be solid liver, brown, or dark chocolate, and will occasionally have a small amount of white on the toes or chest.
Some hunters clip the coat to make it easier to remove burrs. Family dogs can be left au naturel, or you may want to trim the coat or shave the ears to neaten the dog's look. The coat is naturally oily to help with water resistance, so be prepared for oily spots on your wall or furniture if the dog rubs up against them.
Brush the coat weekly to keep it in good shape.
Water Spaniels shed in the spring, but frequent brushing will help keep too much loose hair from piling up on your carpets and furniture. Frequent baths will remove the coat's natural oils and diminish its ability to repel water and keep the dog warm, so bathe him only when he's dirty or smelly and really needs it.
All breeds with pendant, or hanging, ears tend to have issues with ear infections. Check your AWS's ears weekly and wipe them out with a cotton ball moistened with a cleanser recommended by your veterinarian. Never stick cotton swabs or anything else into the ear canal or you might damage it. Your AWS may have an ear infection if the inside of the ear smells bad, looks red or seems tender, or he frequently shakes his head or scratches at his ear.
Brush your AWS's teeth at least two or three times a week to remove tartar buildup and the bacteria that lurk inside it. Daily brushing is even better if you want to prevent gum disease and bad breath.
Trim nails once or twice a month if your dog doesn't wear them down naturally. If you can hear them clicking on the floor, they're too long. Short, neatly trimmed nails keep the feet in good condition and prevent your legs from getting scratched when your AWS enthusiastically jumps up to greet you.
Begin accustoming your AWS to being brushed and examined when he's a puppy. Handle his paws frequently — dogs are touchy about their feet — and look inside his mouth and ears. Make grooming a positive experience filled with praise and rewards, and you'll lay the groundwork for easy veterinary exams and other handling when he's an adult.
As you groom, check for sores, rashes, or signs of infection such as redness, tenderness, or inflammation on the skin, in the ears, nose, mouth, and eyes, and on the feet. Eyes should be clear, with no redness or discharge. Your careful weekly exam will help you spot potential health problems early.
Children and other pets
The American Water Spaniel is gentle with children. Nonetheless, as with every breed, you should always teach children how to approach and touch dogs, and always supervise any interactions between dogs and young children to prevent any biting or ear or tail pulling on the part of either party. Teach your child never to approach any dog while he's eating or sleeping or to try to take the dog's food away. No dog, no matter how friendly, should ever be left unsupervised with a child.
Some American Water Spaniels are territorial and aggressive with strange dogs, but they generally get along well with family dogs and cats.
American Water Spaniels are often purchased without any clear understanding of what goes into owning one. There are many American Water Spaniels in need of adoption and or fostering. There are a number of rescues that we have not listed. If you don't see a rescue listed for your area, contact the national breed club or a local breed club and they can point you toward an AWS rescue.
All Breed Characteristics
Measures how well this breed potentially adapts to different environments
Measures the amount and difficulty of training potentially required for this breed
Health & Grooming
Measures how much effort this breed potentially needs to keep a tidy hound and home
Measures this breed's potential to get along with other dogs and humans
Measures this breed's potential to require lots of physical activity
Adapt well to apartment living
Contrary to popular belief, small size doesn't necessarily an apartment dog make -- plenty of small dogs are too high-energy and yappy for life in a high-rise. Being quiet, low energy, fairly calm indoors, and polite with the other residents, are all good qualities in an apartment dog.
Affectionate with family
Some breeds are independent and aloof, even if they've been raised by the same person since puppyhood; others bond closely to one person and are indifferent to everyone else; and some shower the whole family with affection. Breed isn't the only factor that goes into affection levels; dogs who were raised inside a home with people around feel more comfortable with humans and bond more easily.
Amount of shedding
If you're going to share your home with a dog, you'll need to deal with some level of dog hair on your clothes and in your house. However, shedding does vary greatly among the breeds: Some dogs shed year-round, some "blow" seasonally -- produce a snowstorm of loose hair -- some do both, and some shed hardly at all. If you're a neatnik you'll need to either pick a low-shedding breed, or relax your standards.
Friendliness toward dogs and friendliness toward humans are two completely different things. Some dogs may attack or try to dominate other dogs even if they're love-bugs with people; others would rather play than fight; and some will turn tail and run. Breed isn't the only factor; dogs who lived with their littermates and mother until at least 6 to 8 weeks of age, and who spent lots of time playing with other dogs during puppyhood, are more likely to have good canine social skills.
Drool-prone dogs may drape ropes of slobber on your arm and leave big, wet spots on your clothes when they come over to say hello. If you've got a laid-back attitude toward slobber, fine; but if you're a neatnik, you may want to choose a dog that rates low in the drool department.
Easy to groom
Some breeds are brush-and-go dogs; others require regular bathing, clipping, and other grooming just to stay clean and healthy. Consider whether you have the time and patience for a dog that needs a lot of grooming, or the money to pay someone else to do it.
Easy to train
Easy to train dogs are more adept at forming an association between a prompt (such as the word "sit"), an action (sitting), and a consequence (getting a treat) very quickly. Other dogs need more time, patience, and repetition during training. Many breeds are intelligent but approach training with a "What's in it for me?" attitude, in which case you'll need to use rewards and games to teach them to want to comply with your requests.
High-energy dogs are always ready and waiting for action. Originally bred to perform a canine job of some sort, such as retrieving game for hunters or herding livestock, they have the stamina to put in a full workday. They need a significant amount of exercise and mental stimulation, and they're more likely to spend time jumping, playing, and investigating any new sights and smells. Low-energy dogs are the canine equivalent of a couch potato, content to doze the day away. When picking a breed, consider your own activity level and lifestyle, and think about whether you'll find a frisky, energetic dog invigorating or annoying.
Some breeds do fine with a slow evening stroll around the block. Others need daily, vigorous exercise -- especially those that were originally bred for physically demanding jobs, such as herding or hunting. Without enough exercise, these breeds may put on weight and vent their pent-up energy in ways you don't like, such as barking, chewing, and digging. Breeds that need a lot of exercise are good for outdoorsy, active people, or those interested in training their dog to compete in a high-energy dog sport, such as agility.
Friendly toward strangers
Stranger-friendly dogs will greet guests with a wagging tail and a nuzzle; others are shy, indifferent, or even aggressive. However, no matter what the breed, a dog who was exposed to lots of different types, ages, sizes, and shapes of people as a puppy will respond better to strangers as an adult.
Due to poor breeding practices, some breeds are prone to certain genetic health problems, such as hip dysplasia. This doesn't mean that every dog of that breed will develop those diseases; it just means that they're at an increased risk. If you're buying a puppy, it's a good idea to find out which genetic illnesses are common to the breed you're interested in, so you can ask the breeder about the physical health of your potential pup's parents and other relatives.
Good for novice owners
Some dogs are simply easier than others: they take to training better and are fairly easygoing. They're also resilient enough to bounce back from your mistakes or inconsistencies. Dogs who are highly sensitive, independent thinking, or assertive may be harder for a first-time owner to manage. You'll get your best match if you take your dog-owning experience into account as you choose your new pooch.
Dogs who were bred for jobs that require decision making, intelligence, and concentration, such as herding livestock, need to exercise their brains, just as dogs who were bred to run all day need to exercise their bodies. If they don't get the mental stimulation they need, they'll make their own work -- usually with projects you won't like, such as digging and chewing. Obedience training and interactive dog toys are good ways to give a dog a brain workout, as are dog sports and careers, such as agility and search and rescue.
A vigorous dog may or may not be high-energy, but everything he does, he does with vigor: he strains on the leash (until you train him not to), tries to plow through obstacles, and even eats and drinks with great big gulps. These dynamos need lots of training to learn good manners, and may not be the best fit for a home with young kids or someone who's elderly or frail. A low-vigor dog, on the other hand, has a more subdued approach to life.
Being gentle with children, sturdy enough to handle the heavy-handed pets and hugs they can dish out, and having a blasé attitude toward running, screaming children are all traits that make a kid-friendly dog. You may be surprised by who's on that list: Fierce-looking Boxers are considered good with children, as are American Staffordshire Terriers (aka pit bulls). Small, delicate, and potentially snappy dogs such as Chihuahuas aren't so family-friendly.
**All dogs are individuals. Our ratings are generalizations, and they're not a guarantee of how any breed or individual dog will behave. Dogs from any breed can be good with children based on their past experiences, training on how to get along with kids, and personality. No matter what the breed or breed type, all dogs have strong jaws, sharp pointy teeth, and may bite in stressful circumstances. Young children and dogs of any breed should always be supervised by an adult and never left alone together, period.
Potential for mouthiness
Common in most breeds during puppyhood and in retriever breeds at all ages, mouthiness means a tendency to nip, chew, and play-bite (a soft, fairly painless bite that doesn't puncture the skin). Mouthy dogs are more likely to use their mouths to hold or "herd" their human family members, and they need training to learn that it's fine to gnaw on chew toys, but not on people. Mouthy breeds tend to really enjoy a game of fetch, as well as a good chew on a chew toy that's been stuffed with kibble and treats.
Potential for playfulness
Some dogs are perpetual puppies -- always begging for a game -- while others are more serious and sedate. Although a playful pup sounds endearing, consider how many games of fetch or tag you want to play each day, and whether you have kids or other dogs who can stand in as playmates for the dog.
Potential for weight gain
Some breeds have hearty appetites and tend to put on weight easily. As in humans, being overweight can cause health problems in dogs. If you pick a breed that's prone to packing on pounds, you'll need to limit treats, make sure he gets enough exercise, and measure out his daily kibble in regular meals rather than leaving food out all the time.
Dogs that were bred to hunt, such as terriers, have an inborn desire to chase and sometimes kill other animals. Anything whizzing by -- cats, squirrels, perhaps even cars -- can trigger that instinct. Dogs that like to chase need to be leashed or kept in a fenced area when outdoors, and you'll need a high, secure fence in your yard. These breeds generally aren't a good fit for homes with smaller pets that can look like prey, such as cats, hamsters, or small dogs. Breeds that were originally used for bird hunting, on the other hand, generally won't chase, but you'll probably have a hard time getting their attention when there are birds flying by.
Some dogs will let a stern reprimand roll off their backs, while others take even a dirty look to heart. Low-sensitivity dogs, also called "easygoing," "tolerant," "resilient," and even "thick-skinned," can better handle a noisy, chaotic household, a louder or more assertive owner, and an inconsistent or variable routine. Do you have young kids, throw lots of dinner parties, play in a garage band, or lead a hectic life? Go with a low-sensitivity dog.
Dogs come in all sizes, from the world's smallest pooch, the Chihuahua, to the towering Great Dane, how much space a dog takes up is a key factor in deciding if he is compatible with you and your living space.
Tendency to bark or howl
Some breeds sound off more often than others. When choosing a breed, think about how the dog vocalizes — with barks or howls — and how often. If you're considering a hound, would you find their trademark howls musical or maddening? If you're considering a watchdog, will a city full of suspicious "strangers" put him on permanent alert? Will the local wildlife literally drive your dog wild? Do you live in housing with noise restrictions? Do you have neighbors nearby?
Tolerates being alone
Some breeds bond very closely with their family and are more prone to worry or even panic when left alone by their owner. An anxious dog can be very destructive, barking, whining, chewing, and otherwise causing mayhem. These breeds do best when a family member is home during the day or if you can take the dog to work.
Tolerates cold weather
Breeds with very short coats and little or no undercoat or body fat, such as Greyhounds, are vulnerable to the cold. Dogs with a low cold tolerance need to live inside in cool climates and should have a jacket or sweater for chilly walks.
Tolerates hot weather
Dogs with thick, double coats are more vulnerable to overheating. So are breeds with short noses, like Bulldogs or Pugs, since they can't pant as well to cool themselves off. If you want a heat-sensitive breed, the dog will need to stay indoors with you on warm or humid days, and you'll need to be extra cautious about exercising your dog in the heat.
Some breeds are more free-spirited than others. Nordic dogs such as Siberian Huskies were bred to range long distances, and given the chance, they'll take off after anything that catches their interest. And many hounds simply must follow their noses, or that bunny that just ran across the path, even if it means leaving you behind.
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