American Water Spaniel

Catharine Hennessy
Dr Catharine Hennessy (DVM, North Carolina State University)
Photo of adult American Water Spaniel

The American Water Spaniel is a rare, sporting breed that developed in the state of Wisconsin in the United States. It is a gundog, and a member of the spaniel family. Developed specifically for flushing and retrieving game in the upper Midwest, this hardy dog is well suited for outdoor activities in colder climates. While somewhat popular among hunting enthusiasts in this region, these beautiful dogs are relatively obscure elsewhere.

As with most sporting dogs, American Water Spaniels are active and energetic. However, due to early selective breeding, they are blessed with an even temperament that makes them suitable for smaller houses and apartments, as long as they are provided with vigorous daily exercise. This trait makes them excellent with children and as therapy dogs. The American Water Spaniel lives a moderately long life of 10 to 13 years.

About & History

The American Water Spaniel was developed as a sporting dog in the Midwest during the early to mid-1800s. Development of the breed is thought to have occurred primarily in the Fox River and Wolf River valleys in Wisconsin. Initially, hunting was a way of life and provided sustenance for early settlers in the cold climate of this region. These dogs are equipped with a double waterproof coat, enabling them to work on both land and in water. They are strong and skilled at bringing in different types of game, but are compact enough to fit in a small boat. Breed progenitors are thought to include the Irish Water Spaniel, Curly Coated Retriever, and the now extinct English Water Spaniel

During the early 1900s, Dr. Fred J. Pfeifer of New London, Wisconsin, began to collect and breed these dogs. Known at the time as American Brown Spaniels, Dr. Pfeifer set up Wolf River Kennels for the purpose of breeding and selling these dogs. He bred selectively for hunting and retrieving ability, intelligence and even temperament. Following World War II, the use of these spaniels declined due to the reduction in hunting as a means of providing sustenance, and the influx of other breeds (setters and pointers) that were more specialised for recreational hunting. Without the efforts of Dr. Pfeifer, this breed may well have become extinct. Instead, the breed was recognised by the American Kennel Club in 1940, and became the Wisconsin state dog in 1985. It has been speculated that the American Water Spaniel contributed to the development of the Boykin Spaniel, a popular hunting breed in the southern United States.


American Water Spaniel Large Photo

American Water Spaniels are compact, medium sized dogs that are solid in build and well-muscled, but maintain gracefulness in movement. The head and square muzzle are both moderate in length, with a broad skull and a moderate stop to the forehead. The lips are tight, and the nose is usually dark in colour. The eyes are set apart, with tight eyelids that do not droop. Eye colour is brown, hazel or yellowish brown. The ears, set slightly above the eyes, are lobe-shaped and large. The breed’s overall expression is cheerful and intelligent.

This spaniel has a medium length, muscular neck that is not arched. The topline is either level, or slightly sloped, without prominent withers. The chest is well developed but not too wide, leading to a slight taper in the waist. The legs are strong with moderate bone, with no tuck noted in the rear legs. The tail is of moderate length and feathering, carried slightly below or above the topline.

Males and females are similar, with males ranging from 14 to 21 kg and females from 11 to 18 kg. The breed ranges from 38 to 46 cm in height. The coat colour is solid liver, brown, or dark chocolate. The double coat includes an undercoat for warmth, and a course, slightly oily outer coat for waterproofing and to prevent damage from briars when in the field. The coat is either marcel (wavy) or curled with coverage of all areas for protection. The legs are moderately feathered. The gait is strong, steady and deliberate, with movement parallel to the ground. This spaniel typically works the field in a sweeping fashion, similar to an English Springer Spaniel, but prefers to remain closer to the handler.

Character & Temperament

Typical of sporting breeds, American Water Spaniels are energetic but controlled. They have been bred specifically to hunt within gun range and work closely with the hunter in flushing and retrieving game. Outside of sporting, their even temperament allows these dogs to be excellent family pets, and in fact, were bred with this in mind by Dr. Pfeifer.

While this breed can be kept in an apartment or small home, a large garden or nearby park is ideal for exercise, which needs to occur daily. A long walk, while helpful, will not be sufficient to properly exercise the American Water Spaniel. Without this outlet, they can display destructive behaviors, and are prone to separation anxiety if left alone for long periods of time (similar to most spaniels bred to be hunting companions). They are typically vocal, and tend to bond with a single family or individual within a family. Their social nature makes them sweet family pets that generally do well with children and adults, and with early introduction, can be safe with cats.


American Water Spaniels are very intelligent and eager to please. Training must begin very early in life, and may progress more slowly than other spaniel breeds due to stubbornness. These dogs often have an innate wariness of strangers. Exposure to a variety of people early in life can help. Once trained, they have excellent recall due to their eagerness.


The American Water Spaniel has a moderate lifespan of 10 to 13 years. Variability in early breeding programs has helped reduce the occurrence of genetic disorders commonly seen with other rare breeds of less genetic diversity. Even so, some heritable disorders still occur.

Eye Disorders

Three distinct eye disorders can occur in this breed:

Retinal Dysplasia

Retinal dysplasia is characterised by folds or clumps in the retina of the eye. This can lead to blind spots, or complete blindness if the retina detaches. This is not a progressive disease, and may only affect one eye. There is no treatment.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Progressive retinal atrophy is a progressive, untreatable disease that causes loss of photoreceptor cells in the retina of the eye. Evidence of this disease can be detected prior to onset of clinical signs, so all breeders are recommended to have their breeding stock checked annually by a veterinary ophthalmologist.


Cataracts in this breed can occur in under a year of life (heritable) or later in life either spontaneously or as a result of retinal dysplasia. A cataract is an opacity in the lens and can lead to blindness. This condition is potentially treatable with surgery by a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Hip Dysplasia

As with many purebred dogs, hip disease can occur in the American Water Spaniel, although the incident is much lower than most of the other sporting dog breeds. This disorder can lead to severe arthritis later in life that may need to be addressed surgically.

There may be no symptoms of the disorder early in life, so all breeders are recommended to have dogs and bitches radiographed by a veterinarian, with expert review of the films prior to breeding.

Adult Onset Hormone-Responsive Dermatosis

This heritable condition causes a symmetrical pattern of hair loss of the neck, torso, thighs, and abdomen. It is not harmful, but is unsightly. Male dogs are more frequently affected. This condition generally responds to hormone replacement therapy, but can be costly to treat. Affected animals should not be bred.


Many purebred dogs are affected by allergies, and the American Water Spaniel is no exception. Dogs can be allergic to proteins in foods, environmental triggers, and insects. A thorough examination by a veterinarian, along with good record keeping of timing and duration of outbreaks and response to treatment, may help eliminate triggers. Genetics may be a factor in the development of allergies.

Ear Infections

As with all breeds with hanging ears, American Water Spaniels are prone to developing ear infections. Routine cleaning weekly, and especially after swimming, will help reduce the number of infections. If poorly controlled, these infections can lead to chronic inflammation, ear hematomas, and stenotic ear canals.


This neurologic disorder can affect American Water Spaniels and may lead to seizure-like activity. It can be severe and disruptive enough that treatment is warranted. Examination by a veterinarian to rule out other causes should occur prior to starting lifelong seizure control medications.


While possibly not genetic, this condition occurs following an immune-mediated destruction of the thyroid gland. It occurs more frequently in female dogs than male dogs, suggesting a heritable pattern. Signs can include weight gain despite appetite loss, lethargy and skin issues. It is easily treatable with inexpensive, lifelong hormone replacement.

Exercise and Activity Levels

American Water Spaniels are energetic, enthusiastic dogs that thrive in an environment where they are mentally and physically stimulated. They are natural retrievers due to their historical breeding as sporting and retrieving companions. They thrive with a lifestyle that includes retrieving activities and time to romp and play off leash. Daily walks will likely not be enough to satisfy this breed’s exercise needs.

There are many organised activities that these spaniels enjoy. Agility, flyball, and barn hunts are all excellent options. Obedience and rally competitions can also be considered. And, of course, swimming is a great outlet, as American Water Spaniels are natural swimmers. When considering this breed as a family pet, vigorous activity will need to be a mandatory part of daily life to prevent boredom leading to destructive behaviors.


The ears and coat of the American Water Spaniel will need regular care to maintain optimal health. As with all dogs with large, hanging ears, weekly cleaning will be required, as well as flushing and drying after swimming. This will help reduce the number of ear infections that require medical intervention. These dogs shed heavily twice a year, and weekly brushing will help remove dead hair and reduce loose hair in the house, especially during shedding season. Trimming is not required but the coat may be trimmed for neatness. Bathing only when dirty is recommended, as removal of natural oils with frequent baths may cause drying of the skin. Nails should be trimmed monthly, especially if not worn while exercising.

Famous American Water Spaniels

The American Water Spaniel is a rare breed and has not made a debut in show business. However, this breed is the Wisconsin state dog, and as such, has notoriety with dog enthusiasts in the Midwestern United States. For photos of the breed, check out a great selection of every day Water Spaniels on Instagram, many of whom are famous in their own rite.


There are no known American Water Spaniel cross-breeds.

User comments

There are no user comments for this listing.