It’s a cool, crisp Wisconsin morning and the sun is golden and bright, as a photographer and her dog walk quietly through the natural world. Suddenly, the curly-coated brown dog rushes into a thicket and a ruffed grouse flies out from its place of hiding. Quickly the photographer lifts the camera to her eye, as the intense spaniel sits watching the bird glide to a high branch of a nearby tree.
Helping a photographer capture a bird in flight may not be a traditional job for an American Water Spaniel, but in the words of legendary gundog trainer and writer Dave Duffey, “The best dog is the one that can get the job done.”
As the photographer reviews her digital screen, she smiles, knowing she has bagged her picture. “Well done,” she says, as she scruffs the spaniel’s head, and the two move on for more.
Sailed the Ocean Blue?
The American Water Spaniel (AWS) is uniquely woven into the rich tapestry of our country but, like a well-worn family heirloom, its history is lost to time. The breed is a true enigma.
Some say these dogs were on the Mayflower. Others think they were already here, passengers on one of the ships that brought Columbus to the New World. But there are no definitive records.
What is known is that the breed was developed to be tough enough for hunting in the American frontier. By the mid-18th century, pioneers had settled in the upper-midwest regions of Wisconsin known as the Wolf River, Butte de Morte, and Winnebago areas. This is Great Lakes territory, where the marshland is thick, the water cold, and hunting both waterfowl and furred game is confined to the deep woods and narrow river passes.
The footing is treacherous and, to this day, hunters rely on “marsh skis,” which look like oversized cross-country skis, to glide over marsh grasses rather than sink into the muck. Most, however, stick to the winding rivers where they use canoes and small boats called “skiffs” to travel up and down the waterways.
To work this harsh terrain, early settlers needed a small but sturdy dog-tenacious, independent, and indifferent to miserable weather.
Hardy Curly-Coated Retrievers, though willing workers, were too big to fit into the skiffs. The English Water Spaniel, despite its excellent ability as a marker of game, couldn’t put up with the frigid conditions.
So somewhere in the 1800s, the settlers crossed their Curly-Coated Retrievers to the old English Water Spaniels. To refine the nose, they may have added a dash of Field Spaniel. And, while some consider it “just an old rumor handed down,” most fanciers agree that, at some point in the breed’s development, Irish Water Spaniel genes were introduced to enhance the coat conditions for the frigid northern waters.
The end result was a dog who swims like a seal, is small enough to jump into and out of a skiff, hardy enough to tolerate freezing rain, and tough enough to stand down strangers and varmints.
Though no specific date survives, it is commonly believed among AWS historians that the breed we know today has bred true to type since the 1870s. But essentially, the “American Brown Water Spaniel,” as he was known, was simply a dog of the region. People kept them around because, whatever the task, they got the job done.
Daguerreotype photographs from as far back as the 1850s show that individuals of this early regional breed were prized enough to sit for portrait lenses. In the days when photography was formal, expensive, and gravely respected, a dog who had his picture made was either highly valued or much loved.
Plenty of early American photographs present a dog iden tical to the modem American Water Spaniel, but there is no record of one being kept for breeding until 1906.
That year Dr. Fred Pfeifer, of New London, Wisconsin—who would become known as the “Father of the American Water Spaniel”—decided to pursue the scientific breeding of the curly brown dogs.
Pfeifer kept meticulous records, proving within a couple of generations that the “strain” was really a breed that consistently bred true to type. Indeed, from his earliest experiments, pups from selected matings of this regional breed looked like each other. No markings or unusual ear-sets were produced which would indicate a mating of mixed breeds.
When Pfeifer developed his studbook for the American Water Spaniel he began speculating on the breed’s heritage. He remembered seeing them with Native Americans in his father’s day, and so he theorized that the breed might have been bred and maintained by the tribes of the region.
Pfeifer pressed for the breed’s recognition with the United Kennel Club and gained it on February 8, 1920, with the registration of the first American Brown Water Spaniel, Curly Pfeifer. Registration in the Field Dog Stud Book followed in 1938.
By 1940, Pfeifer was pursuing a passion for Labrador Retrievers but a fellow American fancier, Karl Hinz, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, had taken up the torch for the little brown spaniel.
Hinz presented evidence and studbooks to the American Kennel Club, and the breed was granted AKC recognition in 1940. The dog officially became known as the American Water Spaniel.
Fast-forward 46 years. Trainer David Duffey was at a Ducks Unlimited meeting in his hometown of New London, Wisconsin.
As a kid growing up in New London, Duffey had the opportunity to meet Pfeifer. The exuberant youth and the old doctor became fast friends. While he has worked with practically every kind of hunting dog, Duffey has a soft spot for the curly brown dogs of his youth.
So it is little wonder that he spoke up for the AWS when he had the chance. During the Ducks Unlimited meeting, the discussion turned to finding a state dog for Wisconsin. Someone suggested the Dalmatian.
Duffey countered that Wisconsin sportsmen should honor something a little closer to home.
“I said if you want to get behind something, why not consider the breed that has literally touched many of you in the audience? Why not consider Doc Pfeifer’s dog, the American Water Spaniel? Well, they agreed,” he says. “In the audience was a friend of mine who happened to be the assemblyman for the district. I talked to him after the meeting and, in turn, he discussed the idea with a civics teacher from New London. We all got together and the teacher proposed to use the idea to teach his students how a bill gets passed in the state legislature.”
After a long political fight, the AWS officially became Wisconsin’s state dog in 1985.
Today, the American Water Spaniel has a small but fiercely loyal group of admirers who tend to be outdoorsy in their recreational tastes.
“I love the outdoors,” says Lara Suesens, who has had the breed for over three decades. “Thirty years ago, I was doing the corporate thing and drove a BMW. But I wanted to get back to the outdoors.”
Changing her lifestyle completely, Suesens went back to school to study canine behavior, eventually receiving her MS in biology. While in school, Suesens lived in an apartment and found herself, for the first time in her life, dogless. Her first love, the Golden Retriever, seemed too big and robust for her lifestyle as a full-time student.
“Why not take home one of my Americans?” asked Duffey, a friend of Suesens’. “They’re great dogs for an apart ment. In fact, they’re ‘Townhouse Chessies.’”
Suesens has had an American ever since. “I hope to always have them,” she says. “They’re not for everyone, and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that people all over the country should get an American if they live in an apartment, but the breed suited me right from the beginning.”
Duffey says that “the American is a dog of compromises.” Suesens agrees. “If you really want a fast-moving, exciting spaniel that hunts in a window-wiper pattern, you will be unhappy with an American. I would describe them as upbeat, moderate workers who happily go along as land spaniels, but they’re certainly not Springers,” she says. “They’re not Labradors either, so if you love the bold water entry of a Labrador, you probably will not be pleased with the American.”
A True Spaniel?
With their roots planted firmly in the dual paths of both retriever and spaniel, it’s little wonder that the breed has suffered an identity crisis.
Although their name suggests the breed to be a member of the spaniel family, they were for many years undesignated by the AKC and unable to participate in hunt tests. Arguments raged over the breed’s status. Were they retrievers or spaniels? It depended on whom you asked.
Finally, however, the American Water Spaniel was given official status as a spaniel, allowing fanciers to promote them in the field in an official capacity.
But all was not yet settled and arguments continued by those who coveted the breed for his skills as a retriever. And so, the American Water Spaniel Club (AWSC) penned an addendum specific to the breed. In order to pass an AKC hunt test, any AWS is required to first pass two club-sponsored water tests.
“The test is designed to keep the retrieving instincts alive for the breed,” says Suesens. “It’s not a hard test for an American Water Spaniel.”
The AWSC is also preserving the breed’s heritage by creating a Juniors program for kids to run dogs at AWSC-sponsored events.
“I have been going to the American Water Spaniel national for many years, with various dogs being awarded BOB, BOS, first place in veterans obedience, and a number of AWSC hunt test titles,” says longtime AWS fancier Patty St. Onge. “All are wonderful memories, but to me, none are as special or as precious as watching the junior field-handlers work.”
The club started with an informal testing of youngsters and their AWSs (at that time their parents had done all the training) field-handling work. It was done to give the children something to do, as all the field events were geared toward adults.
Then two years ago it became a specific event for children up to age 16. This was to encourage the children to train and work with an AWS.