A breed of ancient, but unknown origins, the history of the Irish Water Spaniel is shrouded in mystery, just as the archaic land from which it hails. Also called the Whiptail, Rat Tail, and Shannon Spaniels, as well as Bog Dog, or more recently the initials IWS; Irish Water Spaniels originated in Ireland but are possibly descended from non-Irish breeds. Suggested in their lineage are such breeds as the Poodle, French Barbet, Portuguese Water Dog, Curly-coat Retriever, Irish Setter, and other types of Spaniels. It is however, not known if these other breeds are the origins of the Irish Water Spaniel, or if some of them may originate from him.
What is known for sure is that the Irish Water Spaniel is of very ancient ancestry. Roman ruins show evidence of a similar dog, and the lineage of the breed may include the Portuguese Water Dogs and Spaniel stock from the Iberian Peninsula. During archaeological expeditions done in Ireland in the 1930’s, canine remains very similar and in some cases nearly identical to the Irish Water Spaniel were discovered. These remains were dated to the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Spaniels are mentioned in Ireland as early as 17 AD, in laws that mention ‘water spaniels' as having been given as tribute to the king. The specific description given of a 'water spaniel' indicates that a diversion of types had probably already occurred between land spaniels and water spaniels at this time. Moving into the texts of the 1100's, we begin to find dogs in southern Ireland below the River Shannon being referred to as Shannon Spaniels or Irish Water Spaniels, among other names.
In the 1328 classic treatise on medieval hunting, "Livre de Chasse" (Book of the Hunt), Gaston de Foix (1331–1391), the 11th count of Foix and one of the greatest huntsmen of his day, notes that spaniels can be used when hunting with nets to retrieve birds that have fallen into the water. Roughly two hundred and fifity years later in 1570, the physician to Queen Elizabeth I, Dr. Joannes Caius (1510 – 1573), wrote the "Treatise of English Dogges, their diversities, the names, the natures and the properties", in which he also provided descriptions of "Spaniells" being used in capturing waterfowl:
"The common sort of people call them by one generall word, namely Spaniells. As though these kinde of Dogges came originally and first out of Spaine. . . . Of the Dogge called the water Spaniell, or finer, in Latine Aquaticus seuinquisitor. . . .That kinde of dogge whose service is required in fowling upon the water, partly through a naturall towardnesse, and partly by diligent teaching, is imbued with that property. This sort is somewhat bigge, and of measurable greatnesse, having long, rough and curled heare, not obtained by extraordinary trades, but given by natures appointment. . . .This kinde of dogge is properly called Aquaticus, a water spaniel because he frequenteth and hath usual recourse to the water where all his game & exercise lyeth, namely, waterfowles, which are taken by the helpe & service of them, in their kind.... We use them also to bring us our boultes & arrowes out of the water (missing our marcke) where at we directed our leuell [level], which otherwise we should hardly recover, and oftentimes they restore to us our shaftes which we thought never to see, touch or handle againe, after they were lost, for which circumstaunces they are called Inquisitores, searchers, and finders."
We also find reference to the "Water Spagnell" in Edward Topsell’s 1607 zoological encyclopedia, History of the Foure-Footed Beastes. An eleven-hundred-page treatise on zoology and a compilation of the earlier works of notable authorities, including the whole of Johannes Caius's earlier "Treatise of English Dogges...". Of the Water Spagnell he writes:
“Unto all these smelling dogs I may also add the water spagnell, called in French, Barbet, and in German, Wasserhund, who is taught by his master to seek for things that are lost. These dogs had their hindquarters sheared that they may be the less annoyed in swimming.”
The above works make it clear that by this time spaniels had already been divided into land Spaniels (later Springer and Cocker Spaniels) and water Spaniels (including the Irish Water Spaniel but also others –including Poodles). Entering the 1600s, we find various references to Rat-Tail Spaniels, Whip-Tail Spaniels, and even the actual name Irish Water Spaniel being mentioned in print. It is believed that the Irish Water Spaniel originally included two distinct varieties; one that originated in Northern Ireland and one from Southern Ireland. It is further theorized that from these two types the modern Irish Water Spaniel was developed sometime during the 1830’s, by a man from Dublin, named Justin McCarthy. The reason for the mystery surrounding the exact origin of the Irish Water Spaniel is that McCarthy kept no breeding records.
However what we do know is that McCarthy had a dog called Botswain, born in 1844, who would become the “prototype” and credited progenitor for the Irish Water Spaniels of today. Botswain, is rumored to have lived to be 20 years old, and during his time known to have fathered many successful field and champion Irish Water Spaniels. These dogs would bring a distinct and consistent style to the modern Irish Water Spaniel breed. McCarthy’s breed of Irish Water Spaniels (McCarthy’s Spaniels) were at one time the most widely known and highly treasured strain in existence, in fact, most of the best dogs of latter days are descendants of his famous kennel. It is said that Botswain descended from a Southern Irish Water Spaniel whose ancestry was noted in Irish history as far as 1000 years before Botswain’s time. The modern Irish Water Spaniel is said to have changed little since the time of Botswain; a likely result of the special care given in gene selection and close adherence to the standards by breeders.
Originally bred as a gun/hunting dog, the Irish Water Spaniel is suited equally for performance on land or in water, working especially well in a marshy terrain. The Irish Water Spaniel is a great swimmer and excels at retrieving waterfowl and other small game birds. The Irish Water Spaniel was among the first breeds to be included at dog shows. The first such occurrence taking place at the Birmingham show in 1862. In 1866, Doctor, the great-grandson of Botswain won Best of Breed. This win and the growing popularity of the breed led to their appearance in America where four Irish Water Spaniels appeared in the Westminster Kennel Club Show of 1877. Noted for being a reliable and skilled hunting dog, the popularity of the Irish Water Spaniel quickly rose and by 1877 the breed was the third most widely used sporting dog in America. Its widespread use and acceptance by both the hunting and show community led the American Kennel Club (AKC) to officially recognize the breed in 1884. This well earned reputation brought with it the first inclusion of an Irish Water Spaniel in a field trial (a competitive event in which hunting dogs compete against one another) in 1899.
Although the breed had been recognized for a number of years, the Irish Water Spaniel was still lacking a formal breed standard and a club dedicated to both preserving and promoting this amazingly versatile hunting breed. This problem was solved in 1937 when Mr. Thomas C. Marshall of Fairfield, Connecticut, and Mrs. Henry T. Hall of South Sudbury, Massachusetts, founded The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America (IWSCA). Today there are several more clubs dedicated to the breed. They include The Irish Water Spaniel Association of Canada (IWSAC) in 1997, The Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club (SIWSC) (UK) which was originally formed in 1908 and reformed in 1989, The Irish Water Spaniel Association ( IWSA) Birmingham National Show in 1926 (UK), and The Irish Water Spaniel Club of Puget Sound (IWSCOPS) (USA) in 1990.
Although the breed’s popularity would remain strong in its home country of Ireland, more widespread use of breeds such as the Labrador Retriever would slowly eat away at the Irish Water Spaniel’s popularity in America. Leaving the Irish Water Spaniel of today near the bottom of the American Kennel Club’s list of “Most Popular Dogs of 2010”, which ranks the Irish Water Spaniel in 148th place out of 167 breeds.
The Irish Water Spaniel is the one of the oldest, the rarest, and the largest of the Spaniels. He is characterized by coat of dense curls that covers his entire body except for his face and tail, which are covered in a very short, smooth hair. This signature smooth thin tail led to the “rat-tail” description of this breed. The coat of the Irish Water Spaniel is solid in color and a deep, puce liver, which has a purple hue to it. This shading is very unique to canine coats and adds to the rare nature of this breed, as the Irish Water Spaniel is one of the only breeds to have this characteristic in their coloring.
The Irish Water Spaniel’s coat consists of a dense undercoat, with a longer top coat. This construction makes the Irish Water Spaniel’s coat water resistant and kept him warm in the harsh winters of his native Ireland. He has a curly topknot on his head, a peak of hair running between his eyes, and long loose curls covering his ears, with a beard of loose curls on his neck sometimes continuing to grow up his face giving the appearance of sideburns. The Irish Water Spaniel sheds very little leading to this breed being known as “hypoallergenic” (although no canine coat can be completely hypoallergenic in the truest sense of the word).
The Irish Water Spaniel is of a strong build and is tall compared to other Spaniels. They stand 22 to 24 inches in height. Average weight for the breed is 55 to 68 pounds, with females coming in a bit smaller all around (shorter and lighter). Of the Irish Water Spaniel, “The Sportsman’s Repository” written in 1820, by author John Scott notes, “There is no doubt we believe, that generally, the darkest coloured animals are the most hardy.” The Irish Water Spaniel has even teeth with a level bite. The eyes, set almost flush, are small with tight eyelids, medium/dark brown or dark amber in color. A unique characteristic to the breed are a slightly webbed foot which is covered in thick hair.
The father of the modern breed of the Irish Water Spaniel, McCarthy contributed an article to a field newspaper describing the appearance of the ideal Irish Water Spaniel. It has been referred to by subsequent writers since. A summary of McCarthy’s article can be found in John Henry Walsh’s book "Dogs of the British Isles" which states:
"The Irish Water Spaniel should be from twenty-one to twenty-two and a half inches high (seldom higher when pure-bred), head capacious, forehead prominent, with his muzzle and head from the eyes downward smooth ; ears from twenty-four to twenty-six inches from point to point. There should be a distinct top-knot on his head, which comes down his forehead in a peak. The body should be covered with crisp curls, and the tail round and stiff. The colour, a puce liver, with no white. a large dog such as the Irish Water Spaniel really is benefited by large feet, which, acting as paddles when he swims, must naturally afford a greater resistance to the water than small ones could possibly do, and we therefore should prefer the larger foot, of course on the understanding that they are properly formed and clothed with hair."
Centuries of breeding have contributed to the temperament of the Irish Water Spaniel. He is highly intelligent, energetic, and very eager to please. He is a creative problem solver. The Irish Water Spaniel can have an independent streak, almost to the point of mischievous, which can make him a challenge to train, but overall he is fairly easy to train, for the right owner. He is best suited to a skilled dog owner (not for the new dog owner)as he can be a free-thinker and quite head strong. The Irish Water Spaniel is a loyal family companion, often choosing a favorite, although he is not prone to being overly affectionate. He behaves well with well behaved children. The Irish Water Spaniel is relatively quiet in nature, reserved around strangers, but is an alert and devoted watchdog. He is not usually an aggressive dog but the Irish Water Spaniel may possess a deep, forceful bark. He is an active breed, requiring much exercise and is not well suited to apartment living.
The Irish Water Spaniel has a fun-loving attitude and is known as the clown of the Spaniel family. When describing the spirit and personality of the Irish Water Spaniel, it has been written that he is “not content with his striking looks and hunting talents, he’s an entertainer as well. The IWS is known for his clownish behavior. He often makes a game out of a simple task and always seems to be having a wonderful time.” And “Whether he’s splashing after ducks or showing off in the agility ring, the Irish Water Spaniel does everything with a sense of fun…(he)makes an excellent companion for active and experienced dog owners…” The Training the Irish Water Spaniel requires much positive reinforcement. He is a quick learner but can be stubborn and head strong. Early socialization is important when training an Irish Water Spaniel.
The Irish Water Spaniel is often still used in the same capacity as he was originally purposed, that of being a hunting dog, and The Sportsman’s Repository said of training the Irish Water Spaniel:
“The first objects in training the Water Spaniel are, to teach him to fetch and carry, and to give him a tender mouth. Without the first qualification he can be of no use, and with it, if hard mouthed, half his usefulness is lost: for in bringing us the fowl he will so tear and deform them, that they will be scarcely fit for the table.” The Irish Water Spaniel is “Ebullient, energetic, and enthusiastic…among the most playful of breeds. He has a non-stop sense of humor, and always seems to be working on a joke—sometimes a joke of impressive complexity.”
The Irish Water Spaniels coat is made of a dense undercoat and long, curly top coat, so there is some need for regular grooming to keep him looking good and free of matting, which can be uncomfortable for the dog. The Irish Water Spaniel’s coat is composed of hair as opposed to fur and it makes this breed great for allergy sufferers as they shed little and produce low amounts of dander.
The Irish Water Spaniel’s coat should be brushed regularly, two to three times per week. The natural oils of his coat attract and hold dirt and debris. The regular brushing will help remove the debris and distribute his natural oils. Occasional trimming maybe required to remove tough knots and mats.
The average life span of an Irish Water Spaniel is 10 to 13 years. This breed, like many dog breeds are prone to certain illnesses and health concerns. One of the most serious is that Irish Water Spaniels can have severe, life-threatening reactions and side effects to certain medications, including Ivermectin and Sulfa drugs.
Other problems that have been reported in this breed include: