When the subject of dogs used for hunting from antiquity to the present comes up, a number of breeds spring immediately to mind, mainly the sight hounds. But if historical analyses, records, and Irish folklore are accurate, the Irish water spaniel may also belong in that group of ancient breeds: The IWS is believed to be more than a thousand years old. It is an absolute certainty that they are more than 400 years old because “water spagnels” are both described and illustrated in the mid-1600s book Historie of the Foure-footed Beastes.
Several centuries ago, there were three types of “water spagnels”: the English, the Irish, and the now-extinct Tweed water spaniel. The Irish was further divided into south country and north country types, and has also been called whiptail, Shannon spaniel, rattail spaniel, and bog dog. Ultimately, the breed came to resemble most closely the southern type, with a solid liver-colored coat, long ears, and short, crisp curls on the entire coat. It has retained its abilities in the field, effectively hunting both upland birds and waterfowl.
“The Irish water spaniel is the largest of the spaniels, and it has the size, power, dash, and pure heart to go into very heavy cover that would cause many other dogs to hesitate,” said Renae Peterson, who with her husband, Rod, lives and hunts in Washington, with three Irish water spaniels. She is the breed rescue contact for the Puget Sound chapter of the Irish Water Spaniel Club. “In my view, the best description of the breed is a dog with a bold, dashing eagerness of temperament. These dogs learn very quickly and retain everything they learn—which can be problematic, as they will learn all the things they shouldn’t just as quickly as the things they should. They are animated, relentless, and energetic in the field. They also have an abundance of courage.”
Fans of the breed say that Irish water spaniels are more methodical hunters than some of the other spaniel breeds, and have excellent noses. With experience, they will work a field appropriate for the wind direction—for example, working cornfields on the downwind side of the corn rows. “They will often hesitate when they get ready to flush a bird, and the stiffly vibrating tail tells you there is a bird there and you had better get the gun up,” said Susan Sarracino-Deihl, the Midwest representative for the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America. “I really love watching their excitement and intensity when they catch bird scent, while trailing and flushing the bird, and finally their pride in successfully making the retrieve.”
An IWS with hunting experience seems to know where the birds will hide. They will circle an area of likely cover to pick up any available bird scent and push in when they catch scent to flush the bird. “Once you learn the body language of an IWS, it is easy to know when they are getting ‘birdy,’” said Russ Dodd, who with his wife, Patrice, owns and hunts with several Irish water spaniels in Boise, Idaho. In addition to hunting in southwest Idaho, they are just a day’s drive from other favorite locations (and hunting partners) in Montana, Washington, and Oregon.
“Several of our males have shown their enthusiasm for hunting by getting extremely animated when they are turned loose to hunt. While this can be cute with a smaller dog, a 70-pound dog bouncing at heel when you are carrying a loaded shotgun is a serious safety issue. However, I have to admit that their enthusiasm is contagious.”
Another quality IWS admirers cite is persistence. “Once they detect a bird, they will scour the cover and simply not give up until they do find it,” Dodd says. “This trait is also a tremendous asset when a shot bird falls in heavy cover. When they disappear into heavy cover after a bird has fallen in that area, they rarely come back without it.”
According to Peterson, Irish water spaniels take it personally when you fail to make a shot: “One time we happened on a large covey of quail in a small valley. Duffy flushed them, then waited for one of us to bring down a bird so he could retrieve it. But Rod was so stunned by the sheer number of birds in the covey he couldn’t decide which one to try for. As a result, no shot, no bird. Duffy did not take kindly to our failure to provide him with a retrieve after he’d found the covey. He slowly turned his head and gave Rod a stare that could have stopped a grizzly bear in its tracks. We had to be very contrite before he was willing to forgive us. Most Irish water spaniels have a very keen sense of working as a team early in their hunt training—so you’d better uphold your end of the teamwork. We have found that they are best trained with motivational methods such as the use of toys, food, and lots of praise. Heavy-handed techniques do not work well with the Irish water spaniel.”
While all breeds have certain quirks, the one most frequently associated with the IWS is a stubborn streak that often surfaces when they do not understand why you want them to do something in a certain way. “An example would be that they tend to take what they think is the quickest way to a retrieve, even if it means running the bank on a water retrieve,” noted Sarracino-Deihl. “They also do not tolerate harsh correction well. Judicious use of the e-collar is okay with some Irish water spaniels, if they have been properly introduced and it is used correctly. But high-stimulation settings do not work well with an IWS. If the correction is too high or they don’t understand what’s being asked of them, they will shut down. One other thing that’s important to keep in mind is that IWS usually do not make good kennel dogs. They want to be with people, and when the hunting season is over, they are great family pets.”
Despite their many positive attributes, the Irish water spaniel is not the perfect hunting dog. According to Dodd, their top three drawbacks for upland bird hunters are the coat, the coat, and the coat. “You have to keep their coats short and take grooming gear with you when you are hunting with an IWS,” he cautions. “While burrs are annoying, grass awns from foxtails and cheatgrass can be devastating. A heavy-coated dog like an IWS is like Velcro to these pernicious weeds.
“We often avoid early season hunts with warm weather just to avoid grasses, snakes, and ticks. We live in an area with plenty of rattlesnakes, who also live in the same territory as chukar and quail in western Idaho. While aversive training techniques should only be reserved for the best trainers and the toughest dogs, the one exception is snake-avoidance training, where we use the e-collar to convince our IWS that snakes are to be avoided at all costs. I have collar-conditioned all my dogs, and they wear them when we’re hunting because I need a foolproof recall to avoid roads, cliffs, and fast-moving rivers, especially when they’re trailing a wounded bird.”
Both Peterson and Sarracino-Deihl agreed with Dodd’s comments about coat. “Their curly coat attracts every form of burrs, weeds, twigs, and scum from the ponds,” said Peterson. “We cut their coats very short for hunting season, and after every hunt, it’s important to check carefully for thorns or anything that can get in their feet, especially in the webs.” Owners say that PAM, the cooking spray, helps remove stubborn cockleburrs.
This is a relatively rare breed, so finding a quality IWS may require some work. “If you want an IWS for hunting, you have to do your homework. Look for a puppy from a breeder who places a high value on working dogs and who actually does work their dogs. Many wonderful working Irish water spaniels do and have done very well in the show ring, but not all IWS who are good show dogs make good hunting dogs,” said Sarracino-Deihl. “There are many dedicated breeders devoted to maintaining the working ability of the breed who have also worked to breed to the standard. The breed standards for the sporting breeds were written by people who actually hunted with their dogs and knew how the dog needed to be put together to do that job.” While the IWS is not divided between field and show—evidenced by the number of excellent working Irish water spaniels that are conformation champions—the driving hunting instinct is not present in all show dogs. It is important to make sure you get one with working dogs close up in the pedigree,” Sarracino-Deihl said.
Although the American Kennel Club classifies the IWS as a retriever, these dogs are equally comfortable as spaniels. According to Dodd, while Labradors are often taught to take orders and not think, spaniels are often revered for working autonomously, at times to the extent of ignoring instructions from their handlers—which means they may second-guess you and try other approaches until they learn the benefits of doing a task the way you desire. “All three of our dogs presented training challenges,” Dodd said. “Cooper, for example, had high energy and drive, so it wasn’t easy to keep him under control. Tooey was not interested in drills—they bored her, especially when compared to hunting real birds. Carlin is still not confident that when I send him on a blind retrieve across water there will really be something over there to retrieve. But, when well trained as both a retriever and a spaniel, Irish water spaniels strike a wonderful balance between taking remote commands and thinking for themselves to solve problems and find game.”
Some traditional spaniel trainers do not emphasize the handling skills seen with a good retriever. But, say those who love the Irish water spaniel, if you include handling drills with upland field training, the result can be a great all-around team player with a lot of personality.