Irish Water Spaniel

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Irish Water Spaniel

One of several native Irish breeds, the Irish Water Spaniel is a tall, sporting dog that is often mistaken for a Poodle at first glance. However, unlike the modern Poodle, this is a breed that has retained its abilities as a hunting dog, and still has a loyal following from those that appreciate its many skills in the field. However, with the decline in the popularity of hunting, the breed has become quite rare over recent decades. Like many of the spaniels, it has an innate eagerness to please that makes it an especially endearing pet. This, coupled with great intelligence, means that the Irish Water Spaniel is usually very easy to train, although it remains a hunting dog, and can never be fully trusted with smaller pets.

It is a fun-loving and energetic breed, and is kind with children, making it an ideal playmate. However, while kids may help the Water Spaniel expend some of its energy in the garden, it does need a lot of structured exercise in the form of walking, running, or ideally swimming. As its name suggests, it is very comfortable in the water, and should be allowed access to a lake or river whenever possible, as this also helps maintain the health and condition of its unique water-resistant coat. The breed is generally healthy, and has an average life expectancy of 10–12 years.

About & History

The Irish Water Spaniel is one of a number of breeds considered native to Ireland, including the Irish Wolfhound, Irish Setter, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, and Kerry Blue Terrier. While its exact origin has been lost in the mists of time, it is accepted that forerunners of the modern breed were being used by the native Celts at least 1000 years ago, though it seems unlikely that these dogs were spaniels. Other spaniel breeds are known to have descended from native Iberian breeds, which in turn, may have been brought to Spain and Portugal from Persia. However, these “espaigneuls” only began to appear in France and further afield from around the twelfth century, with the advent of the King Charles Spaniel and other defined breeds. The fact that an ancient indigenous Irish breed contributed significantly to the modern Irish Water Spaniel is not in dispute, largely because of the breed’s unique “whip tail”, but it is believed that imported spaniels, and possibly Poodles, were used in its later development. Justin McCarthy, a Dublin native, is credited with the improvement and standardisation of the breed during the nineteenth century, and the Water Spaniel was among the breeds to be shown at the first Westminster Kennel Club show in 1877.

As a working dog, the breed possesses many strengths. It is sometimes likened more to a retriever than a spaniel, as it has a soft mouth and is eager to return felled game to its master from land or water. However, with practice it will also learn to set, point, and spring as directed by its owner, and so can fill roles that would otherwise require a small pack of dogs; for example, a Golden Retriever, English Springer Spaniel, and Irish Setter. For this reason, it remains a popular hunting dog, and is a regular in the show ring, but it has never made a massive impact on the pet-owning public, and is listed by the American Kennel Club as one of the rarest breeds on its register.

Appearance

Irish Water Spaniel Large Photo

The Irish Water Spaniel is unique and unusual in its appearance. Despite its passing similarity to a Poodle, it is a far sturdier dog, and its fussy-looking curly coat serves the very important functions of repelling water and aiding buoyancy. The breed has quite a large head with a rounded dome and a long, strong and square muzzle – the two blending together in elegant lines. The lips are quite conspicuous and thick, and the nose is liver in colour. The ears are large and set on the head, falling against the cheeks with abundant frills of hair. The Water Spaniel has small, brown eyes that are almond-shaped.

Feeling below the dense coat reveals a neck and back that are strong and broad, particularly in the loins. The ribcage is well-sprung and deep, as befits a sporting dog, and the belly is slightly tucked up. The tail, unique to the breed, is short, straight, and tapering, with either very short, fine hair or bare apart from the base. It is set below the level of the back, and is sometimes referred to as a “rat tail” or “whip tail”. The Water Spaniel’s strength and power is evident in its limbs, which are well angulated, muscular, and have strong bone structure. The paws are large and have very well-developed interdigital webbing – features that aid the breed when swimming.

The coat is oily and consists of tight, dense curls, with plenty of fringing. The long curls on the crown of the head give the breed a somewhat comical appearance, but the muzzle is free of curls, and is covered in short, straight hair. The coat is always a rich liver colour throughout. Males are 53–58 cm (21–23 in) tall at the withers, and weigh between 25 and 30 kg (55–65 lb). Females are generally leaner, and while they may measure 51–56 cm (20–22 in) at the withers, weigh less, at 21–26 kg (45–58 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Irish Water Spaniel is a fun-loving breed, and though its curious hairstyle may influence perceptions, it is often described as a humorous dog that enjoys clownish behaviour. Like any breed developed to return game to its master’s hand, it lives to please, and is a very biddable and loyal pet. It is tolerant and gentle towards children, particularly if it is raised with them, and will enjoy playing games and retrieving toys with even the very young. Its hunting instincts are strong, and though most will get along well with other dogs in the same household, many are unreliable with cats or other small pets, and so should always be supervised. Although very rarely aggressive, the Water Spaniel is reserved in its approach to strangers, and makes a good watch dog.

Trainability

This is among the most intelligent of the pedigree breeds, and is capable of being trained to a very high standard, whether for field work, competition, or general obedience. However, many Water Spaniels are also stubborn and independent-minded, and will try to take advantage of an owner from whom they sense uncertainty or inconsistency.

Despite their many appealing qualities, Water Spaniels are not necessarily the best choice for a first-time dog owner, as training and discipline are important to manage any tendency to unruly or inappropriate behaviour. For an experienced handler, the sky is the limit when it comes to training an Irish Water Spaniel, but novices may find themselves struggling to master the basics with a breed that is capable of dreaming up all sorts of mischief.

Health

Because of its long history, working background, and genetic diversity, the Irish Water Spaniel is a very healthy breed. However, like any other pedigree dog, it is prone to certain problems, which are listed below:

  • Cataracts – These dense deposits, which are often milky or crystal-like in appearance, appear in the lens of one or both eyes, and can cause significant visual impairment. In most dogs, these develop as an age-related degenerative change, but in the Irish Water Spaniel there is an inherited form in which both eyes begin to degenerate from as early as five years of age. Because of the hereditary nature of this condition, affected dogs should not be used for breeding, though many will have had several litters before signs manifest.
  • Follicular Dysplasia – Like the Portuguese Water Spaniel, to whom the Irish Water Spaniel is likely to be related, the breed may suffer significant hair loss from around two to four years of age. While this may first appear as small patches of hair loss, it often extends to affect the entire trunk, and is the result of degenerative changes within the hair follicles. It appears to be a strongly hereditary condition.
  • Hip Dysplasia – A report by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association some years ago indicated that the Irish Water Spaniel has the seventeenth worst hip score results of any breed. This is a significant finding, indicating that many dogs suffer a loss of mobility and joint pain from as young as six months of age. For this reason, all breeding dogs should be radiographed and have their joints scored, and prospective buyers should insist on seeing results from both parents before purchasing a Water Spaniel puppy. While genetics play a major role in the development of the condition, so too do nutrition and exercise, and young dogs should be fed a good-quality diet and not be exercised too vigorously while growing.
  • Malocclusion – Oral malformations may be seen in some Water Spaniel pups with unequal length in the upper and lower jaws causing teeth to come into contact and prevent the mouth closing normally. This will be especially apparent with the eruption of the adult dentition from around five months of age. While drastic corrective surgery may be possible, selective extraction of problem teeth offers a more reasonable and humane approach to managing this deformity.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – While not a major problem in the breed, some dogs are affected by this condition, in which the light-sensitive retinal tissue at the back of the eye begins to degenerate in middle age, resulting in full or partial blindness.
  • von Willebrand’s Disease – This disorder can arise spontaneously or may be inherited, and is due to impaired function of tiny white blood cells, called platelets. Platelets are responsible for plugging holes in blood vessels and initiating the clotting cascade, and so are important in stemming blood loss following injury. Affected dogs may be asymptomatic until being involved in an accident or undergoing minor surgery, in which circumstances they may bleed profusely.

Exercise and Activity Levels

These are extremely active dogs, and will not be happy if confined indoors or deprived of exercise for any length of time. Two hours should be considered their minimum exercise allowance each day, and this should ideally include plenty of opportunities to swim, for the Water Spaniel is comfortable in the water like few other breeds.

When off the lead, it should be carefully supervised, lest its hunting instincts lead it in pursuit of another animal. Once sufficiently exercised, most Water Spaniels are relaxed in the home, but they do also benefit from having access to a decent-sized garden.

Grooming

The tightly curled coat needs regular brushing to prevent matting, but also to distribute the abundant oils secreted from the skin that are important in maintaining the health of the water-resistant hair. Regular exposure to water, either while swimming or through bathing is also important. The breed sheds very lightly, and may be considered relatively hypoallergenic.

Like other spaniels, the Water Spaniel is prone to developing ear infections, as its long pendant ears, weighed down by their heavy curls, are poorly ventilated, and tend to accumulate a lot of wax. Regular cleaning with a wax-removing cleanser recommended by a veterinary professional is the best way to prevent this problem.

Famous Irish Water Spaniels

As an Irishman, I may be accused of having a chip on my shoulder, but the Irish Water Spaniel does not seem to get the credit it deserves when appearing in the media. Though the breed appears in the television series The Irish R.M. and in The Long Kiss Goodnight, starring Samuel L. Jackson, the names of the dogs involved have never been revealed.

Cross-Breeds

While the breed is a rare one, its crosses are even more so, but the following may sometimes be seen for sale:

  • Irish Russian Spanterrier – Cross between an Irish Water Spaniel and a Black Russian Terrier
  • Irish Water Collie – Cross between an Irish Water Spaniel and a Border Collie

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