What to Know About American Water Spaniels

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on June 13, 2022
6 min read

With roots in the Great Lakes region, the American water spaniel is the official state dog of Wisconsin. For years, lovers of the breed kept it out of dog shows, hoping to preserve it purely as a hunting dog. 

Today, American water spaniels are both prized hunting companions and beloved family pets. With a population of only a few thousand, the American water spaniel is a rare but well-loved breed.  

American water spaniels are compact in size, the better to fit in canoes and hunting skiffs. According to the breed standard of the American Kennel Club (AKC), they should measure 15 to 18 inches at the withers. Males should weigh from 30 to 45 pounds. Females should weigh from 25 to 40 pounds. They should be solid and muscular in build.

The pride of the American water spaniel is its unique coat, featuring close curls or the regular waves known as marcels. The undercoat provides protection from the weather, water, and harsh vegetation. Light feathering adorns the tail and legs. 

Acceptable colors for American water spaniels include brown, liver, and chocolate. 

The American water spaniel's temperament is friendly and eager to please. Their expressions are intelligent and alert. Eyes are wide-set and can be brown or yellowish-brown but should not be lemony yellow. Webbed feet help the dog in the water.

American water spaniels are versatile hunters. They have good noses and a strong prey drive, making them excellent flushing birds. They are also good swimmers and excellent retrievers. 

The American water spaniel's lifespan is typically from 10 to 14 years.

American water spaniels require regular grooming. During the cold months, when the coat is dense, you may need a slicker brush to remove dead hairs. In the summer, the coat will be sparser and easier to groom. 

American water spaniels aren't bad about shedding. Although they aren't entirely hypoallergenic, they shed less than many other dogs. 

An American water spaniel that hunts will need more frequent grooming. You can trim their coat to make it less likely to pick up debris. After taking your dog out, you'll need to look for burrs. A product that contains a light oil can make burr removal easier. Use a conditioner with sunscreen on the coat to prevent bleaching.

Because of their dense coats, American water spaniels sometimes have a "doggy" smell. Don't try to get rid of the smell with frequent bathing, though. Bathing strips the natural oils from the coat and can also cause skin irritation. Brushing your dog should freshen the coat somewhat. When you bathe your dog, use gentle pet shampoo and rinse well.

Your dog's paws need care, too. Trim the hair on their paws to keep your dog from picking up debris that could cause sore feet. Brush hair upward and push the hair from between the toes. Trim it with scissors or thinning shears. 

Your dog's toenails must be clipped regularly. Nails that are too long can affect your dog's gait. Trimming them can be challenging. It's easier, though, if you raise your dog to your level. Put your dog on a table or other raised surface, with carpet or a rubber mat to prevent slipping.

All spaniels need regular ear care, especially if they go into the water. Use a special ear cleaning solution and massage the ear for a minute before allowing your dog to shake it out. Use cotton to clean the outer ear canal.

Just like humans, dogs need their teeth brushed daily to prevent gum disease. You can get your dog used to the process by rubbing the teeth with a cloth before progressing to a toothbrush. Be sure to use a brush and toothpaste created for dogs. Human toothpaste could be harmful.

American water spaniels need regular exercise. They love to fetch in the water, but they are also happy fetching in the backyard. They can retrieve a frisbee, but don't teach them to jump for it, as that can harm their joints. 

If you have a large fenced area, they will follow scent trails and exercise themselves. You can also go for walks together. 

The thick coat of the American water spaniel equips them for colder climates. They can do well in warmer areas, but you should not let them work too hard in the heat.

All dogs should visit their veterinarian at least once a year. Puppies and senior pets should go more often. Your veterinarian can prescribe preventive treatments for fleas, ticks, heartworms, and other parasites. Your vet can also advise you about feeding your dog

Your dog should be vaccinated against certain diseases. All dogs should receive core vaccines. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends:

  • rabies
  • distemper
  • parvovirus
  • canine adenovirus-2 (hepatitis)

Your vet might suggest that your dog get noncore vaccines such as ones for kennel cough and Lyme disease. Recommendations for noncore vaccines depend upon your location and other variables.

The American water spaniel is a healthy breed with a tendency to have a few health issues. Responsible breeders will check their stock for health problems before breeding them. Still, the breed can suffer some disorders, including: 

  • Hip dysplasia. Many breeds are at risk of hip dysplasia. A too-loose hip joint eventually causes joint disease. American water spaniels have a lower rate of hip dysplasia than most sporting class dogs. About 8% of American water spaniels will have hip dysplasia, according to one survey.
  • Eye problems. American water spaniels are at risk of several eye conditions, including progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). In cases of PRA, the photoreceptor cells in the eye deteriorate. The dog will first have night blindness and, eventually, total blindness. There is currently no treatment for PRA. The condition is not painful, though, and dogs can manage fairly well using their sense of smell. 
  • Degenerative myelopathy. A disease of the nervous system, degenerative myelopathy is similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) in humans. It usually appears as a weakness of the hindquarters when a dog is from 8 to 11 years old. There is no cure, but therapy can help dogs stay mobile longer.
  • Hair loss. Some American water spaniels have hair loss (alopecia) at an early age, usually before they are 1 year old. The loss can occur anywhere but happens most often on the back legs, tail, neck, or eye area. An infection or a parasite does not cause the condition, and the hair often regrows on its own. Veterinarians sometimes treat resistant cases with glucocorticoid or cyclosporine. 

American water spaniels make excellent pets for several reasons: 

  • They are great companions and enjoy being with people.
  • They are good with children. 
  • They get along fairly well with other dogs. 
  • They enjoy pleasing their owner, so training is easy. 
  • They are easy to housetrain.
  • Shedding is minimal.

Like most breeds, though, they also have a few drawbacks.

  • They need attention and exercise, or they may tear things up.
  • They are vocal dogs and can bark a lot.
  • They can be aloof with those outside their circle. 

European immigrants who settled in Wisconsin and Minnesota needed a special dog. They wanted a breed small enough to ride in a canoe or skiff without rocking the boat. They also needed a dog with a water-resistant coat, immune to cold weather. A good nose and the ability to retrieve rounded out their wish list. 

This was no idle wish list. The settlers relied upon waterfowl for much of their food. In order to bag birds in harsh conditions, they needed a dog as tough as they were. Eventually, they achieved the breed they needed, probably by crossing various spaniels with their curly-coated retrievers. 

In 1906, Dr. Fred Pfeifer of New London, Wisconsin, became interested in the curly brown spaniels. He founded a breed club and established a breed standard. The AKC recognized the breed in 1940. In 1986, Wisconsin chose the breed as its state dog. 

Although they are popular as family pets, American water spaniels are also highly desirable as hunting dogs. They often compete in hunting trials and tests. Besides AKC spaniel field tests, they can compete in a variety of tests offered by the breed club. The breed club tests show the American water spaniel's versatility in the field. American water spaniels also compete in canine sports, including: 

  • Trick competitions
  • Dock diving
  • Agility
  • Skijoring (a sport where dogs pull their owners on skis over snow)

The breed hasn't built much of a reputation as a show dog, although some owners say they are a joy to show. They are still rare, not well-known, and must compete with flashier sporting dogs but they are more than up for the challenge.