American Water Spaniel dog breed walking on dunes
American Water Spaniel dog
American Water Spaniel dog
American Water Spaniel dog
The American Water Spaniel is highly energetic, loves children and is an excellent watchdog. He has a curly brown coat that sheds little. The AWS is appealing for his rarity, appearance, and size, but his assertive personality and potential for health problems are factors to consider before acquiring one. Known as the "little brown dog,” the curly-coated American Water Spaniel is the classic “big dog in a small package.” With a weight range of 25 to 45 pounds, he looks small and cute, but he’s a tough hunting dog who’s known for having a stubborn streak. Although he’s called a spaniel, the AWS is primarily a water retriever and has a fine reputation as a hunting dog among those in the know. His claim to fame is that he is the state dog of Wisconsin, where he was developed in the mid-19th century in the Wolf and Fox River Valley region.

The AWS has something of a dual personality. He’s tough-minded, independent (read: likes to do things his way) and will take any opportunity to be top dog with people or other dogs, but he is also a smart dog who responds well to gentle, consistent training techniques. With the right owner, he is willing to please. For best results, use positive reinforcement techniques such as play, praise, and food rewards. Begin training and socialization early to ward off problems such as food-guarding, shyness, and aggression toward unknown dogs.

Like any retriever, he’s tireless and needs daily exercise. A long walk will do, but you can also channel his energy into dog sports such as agility and flyball. He’ll love anything that involves getting wet and is an excellent choice for boaters, including canoers and kayakers, seeing as how he was developed to hunt from a boat.

Last but not least, it should go without saying that a people-loving dog like the American Water Spaniel needs to live in the house. It’s an unhappy AWS who is relegated to the backyard with little or no human companionship.

Other Quick Facts

  • The American Water Spaniel is a highly versatile hunting dog on land and in water. His job is to hunt, flush and retrieve all kinds of game.
  • The AWS stands out for his solid liver or dark chocolate-colored coat.

The History of the American Water Spaniel

The American Water Spaniel’s origins are a mystery, but he may well be a descendant of the now-extinct English water spaniel, which is known to have been brought to America. The descriptions of that dog and the appearance of the modern American Water Spaniel indicate that the two bear a close resemblance.

Settlers who headed west out of necessity brought their hunting dogs with them to help ensure that they would be able to provide food for themselves and their families. In Wisconsin, small brown spaniels that could retrieve in any conditions, fit comfortably into a small boat and be a good companion in the home were popular and had become an established type by the end of the 19th century. A breed club was formed in 1881, but the dogs began to fade from the scene when hunters started to prefer more specialized dogs rather than the little all-rounders. Fortunately, they found a champion in breeder Fred J. Pfeiffer, who led the breed’s recognition by the United Kennel Club in 1920 and in 1940 by the American Kennel Club. Other fans of the breed also stepped up to help save it. The American Water Spaniel is still little-known, but he’s no longer in danger of extinction. He ranks 143rd among the breeds registered by the AKC.

American Water Spaniel Temperament and Personality

The friendly American Water Spaniel wants very much to be a part of the family. This is a dog with an easygoing, pleasant attitude; like other spaniels, he’s often described as being merry. Calm and loving with his family, he has an alert nature that makes him an excellent watchdog. He can be a barker, though, so be prepared to teach him to moderate his voice. He may be aggressive toward other dogs.

This is an active dog who needs plenty of daily exercise. If you don’t hunt, give him some other job to do, such as being a jogging companion, training for a dog sport, going swimming or playing ball with the kids. American Water Spaniels have been successful in agility, rally, tracking, hunt tests and obedience, and they can also be found doing therapy dog work.

The AWS is a good playmate for children and can even be trained easily by them. Speaking of training, he responds best to positive reinforcement techniques. He can sometimes be stubborn and may be possessive of food. Harsh words or treatment will just make him shut down, but do be firm and consistent with him, and don’t let him get away with bad behavior. American Water Spaniels can be slow to mature, so be patient and eventually you will be rewarded with a great dog.

Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at eight weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Don’t wait until he is 6 months old to begin training or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.

Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality. Whatever you want from an American Water Spaniel, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.

What You Need to Know About AWS Health

All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.

Health problems that can affect the American Water Spaniel are eye problems, such as cataracts and entropion (the eyelids roll inward), as well as adult-onset growth hormone-responsive dermatosis, which can result in hair loss.

Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it is impossible to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible.  They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for common defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.

The American Water Spaniel Club of America participates in the Canine Health Information Center, a health database. Before individual American Water Spaniels can be issued a CHIC number, breeders must submit hip and heart evaluations from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and eye test results from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). CHIC recommends that eye exams be performed every two years until the dog is six years old, so be sure that CERF certifications are up to date when you look at them.

Breeders must agree to have all test results, positive or negative, published in the CHIC database. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents.

Don’t fall for a bad breeder’s lies. If the breeder tells you he doesn’t need to do those tests because he’s never had problems in his lines, his dogs have been "vet checked," or any of the other excuses irresponsible breeders have for skimping on the genetic testing of their dogs, walk away immediately.

Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live a good life. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.

Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping an American Water Spaniel at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of your preventive abilities to help ensure a healthier dog for life.

The Basics of American Water Spaniel Grooming

Expect to comb and brush this breed’s curly double coat two or three times a week.  Comb it first to prevent or remove mats and tangles. Do this every time your dog has been outside and picked up burrs or other debris. Use a slicker brush to remove dead hair. You may need to trim the coat every once in a while to give it a neat appearance. The AWS rarely needs a bath, but be sure to give him a thorough freshwater rinse after he has been in saltwater or a lake or pond with algae.

The rest is basic care. Trim the nails as needed, usually every couple of weeks. Clean the foot pads, and keep the ears clean and dry to prevent bacterial or yeast infections. More tips on grooming are available from the American Water Spaniel Club.

Finding an American Water Spaniel

Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.

Choosing an AWS Breeder

Finding a good breeder is the key to finding the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as possible. He or she is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than making big bucks.

Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances and what the dogs are like to live with and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps she takes take to avoid those problems. A breeder should want to be a resource for you throughout your dog’s life.

Look for more information about the American Water Spaniel and start your search for a good breeder at the website of the American Water Spaniel Club. The AWSC offers good advice on what to look for in a breeder. Choose a breeder who has agreed to abide by the AWSC’s ethics guidelines, which prohibits the sale of puppies to or through pet stores and recommends that breeders obtain health clearances on dogs before breeding them.

Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. Breeders who offer puppies at one price “with papers” and at a lower price “without papers” are unethical and should be reported to the AWSC and the American Kennel Club. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.

Lots of reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated  with reputable breeders.

Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies. 

The cost of an American Water Spaniel puppy varies depending on the breeder’s locale, whether the pup is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show) and, ideally, field titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.

Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult AWS might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive and demanding than a puppy. With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.

Adopting a Dog From an AWS Rescue or Shelter

There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.

1. Use the Web

Sites like can have you searching for an AWS in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the AWSs available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.

Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.

2. Reach Out to Local Experts

Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for an AWS. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.

3. Talk to Breed Rescue

Most people who love American Water Spaniels love all American Water Spaniels. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The American Water Spaniel Club’s Rescue Networkcan help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other AWS rescues in your area.

The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring an AWS home with you to see what the experience is like.

4. Key Questions to Ask

You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:

What is his energy level?

How is he around other animals?

How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors and children?

What is his personality like?

What is his age?

Is he housetrained?

Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?

Are there any known health issues?

Wherever you acquire your AWS, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter, or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Puppy or adult, a breeder purchase or a rescue, take your AWS to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.