The English Water Spaniel was a type of Spaniel used to flush waterfowl from their hiding places and to retrieve them once they had been shot. The breed existed since at least the 16th Century and is one of the only dog breeds to be mentioned by name in the works of William Shakespeare, who is thought to have owned the breed. The English Water Spaniel’s popularity began to fade as a result of the introduction of other water dogs into England such as the Labrador Retriever and the dog became extinct sometime in the first half of the 20th Century. The English Water Spaniel was also known as the Water Spaniel, Water Dog, Water Rug, English Water Spaniel, English Water Dog, and the Old English Water Spaniel.
The English Water Spaniel was one of the oldest of all Spaniel breeds. The Spaniels are a group of gundogs characterized by long, feathered coats, small to medium size, and a keen nose. The Spaniel family also includes the Setters, which are the Spaniels’ direct descendants. Spaniels are native to Western Europe, and most breeds are native to England, France, or the United States. The history of Spaniels is one of the most highly debated among all dog types. Developed hundreds of years before written records were kept of dog breeding, almost nothing is known for sure about their ancestry. There are however a number of theories.
The name Spaniel come from the French word Epagnuel, which is frequently translated to mean either, “Spanish,” or, “Spaniard.” Due to this translation, it is widely assumed that Spaniels originated in the modern nation of Spain. There are a number of serious problems with this theory. First, there is absolutely no evidence of any kind other than linguistics to support it. An even greater difficulty is the fact that conclusive records of the existence of Spaniels goes back several hundred years before the Kingdom of Spain even existed. Prior to the late 1400’s, Spain was divided into four countries, Castille, Aragon, Granada, and Navarre which were subsequently unified through diplomatic agreements and wars. Records of the existence of Spaniels are very strong for several hundred years before this. In fact, it is suggested that Spaniels were well known in France and England prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French terms first entered the English language. There is another possible translation of Spaniel which may make more sense. The word could relate to Hispania, a Roman Province that occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula where Spain is located.
At one time, it was commonly believed that Spaniels were descended from East Asian companion breeds that were introduced to Europe during the time of the Roman Empire. There are a number of breeds such as the Tibetan Spaniel and Japanese Chin that closely resemble European Spaniels. However, recent genetic tests have shown that the two groups are not closely related and that their similarities are a matter of coincidence rather than an actual relationship. This theory also does not take into account that the first Spaniels were working hunting dogs. It is also commonly suggested that the ancient Celts developed the Spaniels. Those who prescribe to this theory point generally believe that the Welsh Springer Spaniel is the ancestral Spaniel form.
There is numerous documentation confirming that one of Britain’s major exports during the Roman period was small hunting dogs. Many claim that these dogs were in fact Spaniels, although it has also been suggested that they were Terriers or Beagles. It is also true that the majority of Spaniel breeds come from those countries with the strongest Celtic influences, France and the British Isles. It is very possible to link a Celtic origin and a Spanish location. Prior to the Roman Conquest, much of Spain was inhabited by a people closely related to the Celts known as the Celtiberians. Perhaps the Celtiberians kept Spaniels and gave them the name of their homeland. Of all theories perhaps the most likely is that Spaniels are descended from dogs brought back from the Middle East by Crusaders. Among the Middle Eastern nobility, no breed is held in as high regard as the Saluki. The coats of many Salukis are very similar to that of Spaniels, especially with regards to the feathering on the ears and tails. The majority of the Crusades took place between the 11th through 13th Centuries, the period of greatest Norman influence on the English language. The name Spaniel may even fit in with this theory. From the 700’s until the 1400’s, large portions of Spain were occupied by Islamic Moorish invaders from North Africa. It is very possible, and perhaps likely, that some of the Moors possessed Salukis. The French possibly first encountered the breed in Spain and mistakenly thought that it belonged to the native Spaniards.
However and whenever the first Spaniels were developed, they became some of the world’s first bird dogs, and possibly the first to specialize on that quarry. Spaniels are so old that they predate the invention of hunting guns by several centuries. Prior to the introduction of guns, Spaniels were used to locate birds in dense brush and flush them out by barking and jumping. Hunters would then capture the flying birds in one of two ways. They would either throw nets over them or release trained falcons to kill them. One of the earliest mentions of a hunting Spaniel comes from 1387, when the Frenchman Count Gaston de Foix described the breed. The Count details how Spaniels would not only flush game out, but that they would also retrieve it from the water. This seems to imply that the even the earliest Spaniels were used as water dogs.
Initially, all Spaniels were probably of one type. However, that changed over time as different breed members became specialized. The first division was probably between working Spaniels and the Toy Spaniels found across Europe in the laps of wealthy Renaissance women. The next split was almost certainly between the Land and Water Spaniels. It is unknown when Land and Water Spaniels was completed, but it was many centuries ago. It has been suggested that Land and Water Spaniels were different breeds when they were introduced to England, as even the earliest mentions of the dogs seem to separate the two, although most researchers believe that the split happened in England. Although descended from the same stock, the English Land Spaniel (which eventually developed into almost all other Spaniel breeds) and the English Water Spaniel became quite different animals.
The English Water Spaniel was the either the first British water dog to be developed or a close second to the ancestors of the Otterhound. The breed was found throughout England, especially in close proximity to rivers and lakes. All sources agree that its primary quarry was ducks, although many have suggested that it was also used to hunt geese, swans, herons, and other waterfowl as well, and a few seem to indicate the breed may also have been used against otters and minks. The English Water Spaniel was apparently both very well known and quite common, as virtually every book describing British dogs from the 16th to the 19th Centuries includes the breed. At one point, the breed was so ubiquitous that it became known simply as the Water Dog or the Water Rug. Among the first clear descriptions of the breed comes from the first major work written about British dogs, published by Johannes Caius in 1570. According to Caius, the English Water Spaniel was, “that kind of dog whose service is required in fowling upon the water, partly through a natural towardness, and partly through a diligent teaching, is endued with that property. This sort is somewhat big and of a measureable greatness, having long, rough, and curled hair, not obtained by extraordinary trades, but given by Nature's appointment." This description of the breed was remarkably similar to almost all others for the breed’s entire existence even those written three centuries later.
The great William Shakespeare was also evidently quite familiar with the breed because he apparently mentioned it in at least two of his works, Macbeth and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Written in the first two decades of the 17th Century, the breed is referred to as a, “Water rug,” in Macbeth and as a, “Water Spaniel,” in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The fact that Shakespeare mentioned the breed by name is incredibly strong evidence that the breed was extremely common and well known. Shakespeare wrote his plays so that they could be understood by anyone from the poorest commoner to the wealthiest king. He was obviously of the opinion that everyone in England would know what an English Water Spaniel was and what it was like. It is actually believed that Shakespeare himself may have owned the breed. A convicted poacher, Shakespeare may have used English Water Spaniels to illegally kill the waterfowl of the nobility.
Descriptions of the English Water Spaniel often mention that it was very similar to a Poodle or a Collie. In fact, it is very likely that both of these breeds were introduced into English Water Spaniel lines to improve its coat, trainability, and intelligence. The dog may also have been influenced by several Epagnuels (French Spaniels). In turn, the English Water Spaniel was used to develop a number of other breeds. Until very recently, it was a very common practice to interbreed all Spaniel varieties together. As a result, all English Spaniel breeds are almost certainly at least partially descended from the English Water Spaniel, including the English Springer Spaniel, English Cocker Spaniel, and Field Spaniel. It is actually thought that the dog may have introduced the Liver and White coloration to other Spaniel breeds. The English Water Spaniel was very popular during the entire Colonial Period and a sizable number of breed members made their way to the New World. Although it is unclear, it is generally agreed that the English Water Spaniel factored prominently in the ancestry of the American Water Spaniel and the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and possibly the Boykin Spaniel as well. Back in England, the English Water Spaniel was probably used in the development of the most Setter and Retriever Breeds, especially the Curly Coated Retriever. It is very widely assumed that the English Water Spaniel is also the primary ancestor of both the Irish Water Spaniel and the now-extinct Tweed Water Spaniel of Scotland, but there is no proof.
There is some confusion as to what the true nature of the English Water Spaniel was. Earlier sources usually describe a largish, Collie-like Spaniel, and later ones tell of a smaller, more traditional Spaniel-looking dog. This likely is an indication that the breed’s appearance changed over the centuries and that later examples had been heavily crossed with other Spaniels. Until late in the 1800’s, the breed was almost universally described as having a curly coat and being liver and brown in color. Examples of the breed from the late 1800’s often had smooth coats and other coat patterns. This may be further evidence of appearance change.
Until the 1800’s, the English Water Spaniel was essentially the only water dog used in England, and as a result the breed remained quite popular and secure. However, starting in that century, St. John’s Water Dogs began to be introduced into England from Newfoundland. These dogs proved to be extremely adept at hunting and retrieving, as well as being highly skilled at a number of other tasks and extraordinarily good natured. The English crossed the St. John’s Water Dog with a number of other breeds including the English Water Spaniel and its probable descendant the Tweed Water Spaniel, to develop the Retrievers. As the decades went by, the Retrievers came to completely dominate waterfowl hunting in England and Scotland. The English Water Spaniel was almost completely forgotten by sportsmen, and fewer and fewer of these dogs were bred every year. At the same time, the breed was being heavily crossed with Retrievers and other Spaniels, which further reduced its purebred population. English Water Spaniels became increasingly like other Spaniels as a result of cross-breeding and the breed started to lose its uniqueness.
The English Water Spaniel was apparently very rare by the time that the Kennel Club was founded in 1873. The Club initially offered two categories for Water Spaniels, one for Irish Water Spaniels and another for “other Water Spaniels other than Irish.” This shows that interest in the English Water Spaniel as a distinct breed had already passed at that point. For the entire time that the Kennel Club allowed the registration of English Water Spaniels, few were registered, and most of these were probably crosses. In 1897, the venerable British dog writer Hugh Dalziel was extremely critical of British dog fanciers who had allowed the English Water Spaniel to lose its stature. Dalziel was of the opinion that at the time of his writing that there were enough surviving purebred English Water Spaniels remaining to save the breed, but that they were widely scattered throughout Eastern England. “I have come across many specimens, and owned one many years ago, which would fairly represent the breed as described and portrayed by our older sporting writers.” Other writers of the time did not share Dalziel’s optimism. Just six years later, W.D. Drury wrote British Dogs, Their Points, Selection, and Show Preparation. Drury admitted that purebred English Water Spaniels were still to be found, but that only one man possessed them. It was Drury’s opinion that the only surviving purebred line of English Water Spaniels was owned by Sir Thomas Boughey of Aqualate. Supposedly, Boughey’s dogs were a family heirloom that had been bred by them for generations. Although there is a dispute between Dalziel and Drury as to the population of English Water Spaniels, both agreed that the breed was very rare and disappearing.
Unfortunately for the English Water Spaniel, efforts were not made to save it and the breed eventually became extinct. It is unclear as to exactly when this happened. From 1891 until 1903, only fourteen were registered with the Kennel Club, and none thereafter. The last few of these dogs probably died of old age, or possibly during the hardships wrought by World War I. Some claim that the breed existed into the 1930’s, but it is unclear if there is any evidence to support this claim. It is possible that the last few English Water Spaniels were crossed with other Spaniels, but it is equally possible that they simply died out. The blood of the English Water Spaniels continues to live on in its many descendants, but it has been highly diluted. Although it is impossible to be sure, it is most likely that the most closely related breed to the English Water Spaniel is the American Water Spaniel.
The appearance of the English Water Spaniel changed substantially over time. Until the mid-1800’s, the breed was medium-to-large in size, probably approximately the size of a small Labrador Retriever. The breed had very curly hair, but not quite as curly as that of the Poodle. This fur covered most of the dog’s body, but was probably shorter on its feet and face. The breed had longish legs and a long, straight muzzle. The breed was supposedly quite collie-like and may have looked like a cross between a Spaniel, a Poodle, and a Collie. The breed may have come in a variety of colors, but most describe it as being liver and white, or sometimes solid liver, solid black, and black and white. It is quite possible that the earliest English Water Spaniels were extremely variable in appearance, as was common for dogs of the day.
After the mid-1800’s, the English Water Spaniel was heavily crossed with other Spaniels and began to lose its uniqueness. The breed’s size shrunk considerably until it was roughly the same size as an English Springer Spaniel, although a somewhat large one. The breed also became much more like other Spaniels in appearance. By the end of the Century, the breed was almost identical to other Spaniel breeds. It maintained a slightly longer muzzle than most, and a more pronounced stop. The breed also possessed longer legs and larger feet than was the case with other Spaniel breeds as well. The ears were quite long, and well-covered with hair. The tail of the English Water Spaniel was traditionally docked to the short length found among other Spaniels, but its natural tail was apparently quite long. By the time the breed went extinct, its coat had lost most of its curliness. Some of these dogs still possessed a wavy coat, but the coats of many were entirely straight. The last English Water Spaniels were apparently all liver and white, as the last authors to describe the breed mention that they had only heard about breed members found in other colors, and had never seen one themselves. The fate of the English Water Spaniel was shared by almost all other British water dogs. With the exception of the Retrievers, all British Water Dogs are now extinct except the Irish Water Spaniel (unless the extraordinarily rare Otterhound is considered a water dog).
The English Water Spaniel was known to be an excellent water dog. The breed was said to be a very skilled retriever with a strong natural instinct to do so. The English Water Spaniel was a very strong swimmer and supposedly greatly enjoyed being in the water. Multiple sources claimed that the dog had the ability to enter the water slowly and without making a sound, in order to avoid frightening its quarry until the proper moment. The dog was among the most trainable of all early modern breeds. Multiple authors write about its willingness to do its master’s bidding. The high degree of trainability exhibited by the breed seems to be strongly indicative of high intelligence, and it is very likely that the English Water Spaniel was a very mentally capable dog. Based on what has been written about the dog, it can be inferred that the breed was quite people oriented and very affectionate. The English Water Spaniel was said to be the most energetic of all Spaniels and also extremely eager and driven. This dog was capable of engaging in rigorous physical activity for long hours on a daily basis. It appears that those who owned the breed were immensely fond of them, and those writers such as Dalziel and Shakespeare who had firsthand experience with the English Water Spaniel were usually extremely complementary of its nature and abilities.