Irish Water Spaniel dog
Irish Water Spaniel dog
Irish Water Spaniel dog
Irish Water Spaniel dog
Irish Water Spaniel dog
He may look and act like a curly-coated clown, but the Irish Water Spaniel is a serious water retriever with excellent hunting skills. Given plenty of exercise and training, he can also be a wonderful family companion. Choose him if you enjoy running, hiking, water sports, or other activities that he can do with you. His coat is high maintenance but sheds little. Although he’s called a spaniel, the Irish Water Spaniel is primarily a water retriever and has a fine reputation as a hunting dog among those in the know. The IWS is a fun and interesting dog, no doubt about it, but his high energy level and potential for health problems are factors to consider before acquiring one.

The IWS has a lot going for him: personality, trainability and a touchably soft coat. He’s smart, responsive and active. He’s a typical sporting dog in his love of family and people-pleasing nature. The IWS isn’t indiscriminate in his affection, though. He tends to be reserved around strangers and sometimes is downright shy or easily spooked. Early and frequent socialization is a must. A normal IWS should not be shy or aggressive.

Like most dogs, Irish Water Spaniels become bored when left to their own devices. They can easily become noisy or destructive if they don’t have other dogs to keep them company and don’t receive much attention from their people. A people-loving dog like the Irish Water Spaniel needs to live in the house. It’s an unhappy IWS who is relegated to the backyard with little or no human companionship. But when the IWS lives with a family who is willing to spend plenty of time training and exercising him, he thrives.

Other Quick Facts

  • Among the distinguishing characteristics of the IWS are a topknot of long, loose curls; the crisply curled, liver-colored coat; and the smooth "rat tail," which is hairless except at the base where it is covered for two to three inches with curls.The face is entirely smooth and the feet are webbed between the toes.
  • When an Irish Water Spaniel’s feet are properly conditioned, the tough pads allow the dog to go over sharp saw grass or river rocks without injury.

The History of the Irish Water Spaniel

The IWS is one of those breeds said to have an ancient history, supposedly dating to the Stone Age or the Bronze Age, based on dog skulls found by archaeologists at sites in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. The truth is that while there may have been dogs that resembled the IWS throughout the ages, we don’t really know much about their beginnings. The breed we know today is, like most purebreds, a more recent development.

Mentions of smooth-tailed spaniels from Ireland include a gift of one from Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Robert Cecil to the King of France in 1598. A book published in 1607, Historie of the Four-Footed Beastes, described a “water spagnel” with long, rough, curled hair and a bare naked tail. A century and a half later, a Captain Thomas Brown remarked on the Irish Water Spaniel’s long ears and the crisp, curly texture of its coat.

The dog who has the best claim to being the first modern Irish Water Spaniel was named Boatswain. He lived from 1834 to 1852, an incredibly long lifespan for the time, and sired many excellent hunting and show dogs. His breeder was a man named Justin McCarthy, but his pedigree is unknown. Boatswain stamped the breed with a particular look, and his son Jack, born in 1849, appears in many early pedigrees. Rake, one of Boatswain’s descendants, was born in 1864, and in a picture of him we begin to see what the breed will eventually come to look like.

The American Kennel Club recognized the IWS in 1884. The Irish Water Spaniel currently ranks 148th among the breeds registered by the AKC.

Irish Water Spaniel Temperament and Personality

The smiling Irish Water Spaniel is a clown of the highest order. He does everything with enthusiasm, including making his people laugh.

That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s always fun to live with, nor is he necessarily the best choice for a first-time or inexperienced dog owner. The IWS is a serious hunting dog, which means that he is smart, bold, curious and eager. Those are not always easy qualities in a dog; just the opposite, in fact. And the IWS does not have the same “Hail fellow, well met” personality as the Golden or the Lab. He’s loyal to his family but not especially welcoming to strangers. He doesn’t always get along well with cats or other dogs unless he is brought up with them from an early age. His alert nature makes him an excellent watchdog, but he is not known for being a barker.

The IWS enjoys mental challenges as well and is a quick learner, but expect this sly devil to put his own spin on whatever you’re trying to teach. He can also be stubborn, so it’s important to find out what motivates him. For best results, be firm and consistent, and use positive reinforcement techniques such as play, praise and food rewards.

Like any hunting breed, he’s tireless and needs daily exercise. Check with your vet before starting any exercise program with your dog — especially anything strenuous. That said, if your vet gives the green light, daily regular activities for your IWS can include one to two hours of walking, running, hiking, or other vigorous activity, which can be broken up into several sessions. If you’re not a hunter, channel his energy into dog sports such as agility, flyball and flying disc games, or take him on as your jogging or bicycling buddy. He’ll also do well in competitive obedience.

In the field, the IWS retrieves well on land and, naturally, from water. He has a talent for finding downed birds thanks to his excellent eyesight. His curly coat can be a liability in areas with lots of brush, though.

Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at 8 weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Never wait until he is six months old to begin training, or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. Get him to puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, so you can start building a strong working relationship, 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 Irish 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 Irish Water Spaniel 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.

Irish Water Spaniels have some health conditions that can be a concern, especially if you don’t take time to screen breeders. They include hip and elbow dysplasia; eye problems such as distichiasis (ingrown eyelashes), progressive retinal atrophy and cataracts; epilepsy; hair loss; and hypothyroidism. Ear infections can also be a problem, which is not unusual in a dog who loves getting wet. And the breed’s bare “rat tail” is easily injured or bloodied.

The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America is working to protect the breed’s health by participating in the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) database. Before individual Irish Water Spaniels can be issued a CHIC number, the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America requires them to have hip, elbow and thyroid certifications from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and certification by the Canine Eye Registry Foundation that their eyes are healthy. The eye exams on your puppy’s parents should have been performed when they were 2 years old. You can search the OFA and CHIC websites yourself to see if a pup’s parents are listed. Breeders should also be willing to discuss the typical lifespan of dogs from their lines.

The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America is also supporting research to identify the gene or genes linked to the development of canine epilepsy, particularly in the Irish Water Spaniel, in the hope of devising DNA marker assays that can detect epilepsy-causing mutations and allow breeders in the future to produce puppies free of the disease.

Report any serious disease to your dog’s breeder. If breeders don’t know that a health problem has cropped up in their line, they can’t take steps to eradicate it.

The Basics of Irish Water Spaniel Grooming

The Irish Water Spaniel’s dense, tightly curled double coat is short and thick next to the skin, for warmth, and topped with a long outer coat for extra protection. The coat sheds slightly, but it doesn’t cling to the fabric of furniture and clothing quite as much as other types of hair.

Comb the coat one to three times a week, as needed. Be sure you comb all the way down to the skin to remove any mats or tangles. Use a slicker brush to remove dead hair. For a neat look, the coat must be scissored every six to eight weeks, including trimming the fur around the foot pads. Ask the breeder to show you how to do this, or take your IWS to a professional groomer who is familiar with the breed or willing to learn how to achieve the proper look.

Any time your IWS goes in a pool, lake or ocean, give him a thorough freshwater rinse to remove chlorine, algae, and salt, all of which can dry and damage the coat. He doesn’t need frequent baths, which could dry out his protective oily coat, but getting wet helps to ensure that the coat has those pretty ringlets that give the IWS his distinctive look.

The rest is basic care. Keep the ears clean and dry, especially if your IWS goes swimming a lot. Trim the nails as needed, usually every week or two. Brush the teeth frequently with a vet-approved pet toothpaste for good overall health and fresh breath.

Finding an Irish 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 Irish Water Spaniel Breeder

Finding a good breeder is a great way to find 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.

There are few Irish Water Spaniels and consequently few puppies available on a regular basis. The parent club keeps a listing on its website of available litters, but plan on waiting several months to a year or more for one to be available. You may have to make a deposit and be placed on a waiting list.

Look for more information about the Irish Water Spaniel and start your search for a good breeder at the website of the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America. Choose a breeder who has agreed to abide by the PCA’s code of ethics, which prohibits the sale of puppies to or through pet stores and calls for the breeder to obtain recommended 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. 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 Irish 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 Irish Water Spaniel 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 Irish Water Spaniel Rescue or a 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 and can have you searching for an Irish Water Spaniel 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 Irish Water Spaniels 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 IWS. 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 Irish Water Spaniels love all Irish Water Spaniels. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America’s rescue network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other IWS 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 Irish Water Spaniel 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 dog. 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 Irish Water Spaniel, 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, take your IWS 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.