According to family lore, when I was a baby, my mother would take me outside for a bit of air and place me on a blanket out on the lawn. The family dog, a water spaniel, of course, would watch over me and whenever I crawled off the blanket, the dog would tug me back on. As I grew older, that same dog would meet me on my way home from school each day and walk me back home. But it was the next American water spaniel, Pal, that really got to my heart.
Pal was in her prime when she saved my life, and I was in my prime when I saved hers. It was back in the 50s when it happened. My father was friends with the local live bait man, and he took me along with the two of them to seine Emily Creek one spring day. The creek runs into Lac qui Parle Lake on the prairies of Western Minnesota. Every spring, the two men would drag their net along the creek and harvest live bait for Earl’s business. They were old friends who knew when the bait fish would be thick in the fast-moving water of the rain-swollen creek, and they were taking a good haul with their net.
Pal and I were left to ramble, and we found ourselves on a bluff that ran along the creek. It was a dewy morning, and before I knew it I was sliding on the wet grass downhill and into the creek. We were quite a ways ahead of the men, and when I hit the water I knew they weren’t close enough to help me, and it looked like I was on my own and in a world of trouble. Struggling as hard as an eight-year-old boy could, I was making no progress toward shore and the current was sucking me along fast. That’s when a jolt of pain ripped through me. Pal had swum up behind me and sunk her teeth into my arse. She none too tenderly pulled me to shore and saved her boy. I bare the teeth marks to this day.
So, the years passed before I could pay her back, and I can still remember well the morning in the cafe when it all began. Patsy Cline was singing “Crazy” on the jukebox, and old Pal was lying behind the oil burner in the back of the cafe on a cold November day. Pal was getting up in years then, but when the bells jingled on the door and my dad and his old cronies were leaving, Pal and I were both on our feet and ready to hunt ducks. It was just getting light out when the shooting on Long Lake got started. Dad’s buddies were all old-timers who knew how to shoot, and there was a lot for Pal to do. She would trot along over the ice shelf and dive into the lake to fetch each duck, and then have to scramble up onto the ice with her prize and head for shore.
It was a great day for gunning, and the birds were coming down in bunches. That’s when it happened. All of a sudden, Pal wasn’t able to pull herself up onto the ice shelf, and she was hanging on by her toenails and whining for help. Well, those old men were veterans of World War I, and it looked like it was up to me. It was payback time. I remembered the rope in the trunk of my old man’s Chrysler, and ran to get it. When I got back with it, I tied it to my ankle and slid out on my belly to where old Pal was clinging. It wasn’t easy, but those pleading eyes and that pitiful whine kept me going. I reached for her collar and gave a mighty tug. The old dog lifted up and ran over the top of me to shore, dunking my head and upper body into the freezing water. The old men pulled me in, got everyone into the cars, produced a bottle of whiskey to help warm me up, and we sped back to town. Pal and I both ended up behind the oil burner in the cafe that day. Pal lived for some years longer, and I still feel good about being able to pay her back.
The Secret Weapon
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. When I look at my present spaniel, Sheba, I see all of the American water spaniels I’ve known. I’m in my 60s now, so that line goes back a ways. They’ve all been good hunters, and most have been even more. The only male I’ve had was useful in my dark house. If a pike came in, Irish would warn me by growling. I could take a nap or read, knowing that my pal would warn me if a fish came in. Sheba will actually bark when a pheasant is in front of her. My hunting buddies all call her the secret weapon. When she’s in cover and can’t even be seen, all guns come up and we’re ready to shoot as soon as we hear the first bark. That’s hard to beat.
There was a time back when I was young, when Labradors were rare here on the prairies. Now they’re common. We’ve forgotten the American water spaniel, and the reason they were developed. My family came to Minnesota in the 1890s from the Fox River area of Wisconsin. They brought their water spaniels with them, and we have continued to own them to this day. There are reasons why we cling to this breed. They are extremely intelligent, and will hunt anything we put them to. As a youngster, Pal would assist me on squirrel hunts by circling the tree, which moved the squirrel around to my side so it could be shot. When the squirrel fell, Pal would retrieve it for me. Rabbits were easy as well, because Pal ran them in a circle back to me.
An All-Around Hunting Dog
But of course, the main thing these little retrievers do is hunt from small boats. That’s the reason the breed was developed. Their diminutive size allows them to exit a kayak without swamping the hunter, and they can be easily lifted into the kayak when their retrieve is done. Oddly, it has been found that they will use their tail like a rudder to make sharp turns when in fast water like a river.
American water spaniels are double-coated like a Chesapeake Bay retriever to endure the cold as well. As for their sense of smell, the dog of my boyhood was still hunting for years while completely blind. I can well remember my father sending her into the thick cattails, where we could hear her snorting the water for scent until she found her bird.
Also amazing is what happens when we go pheasant hunting in the late season. With snow covering the cattails, I can send Sheba in underneath the snow cover and, being short, she will run around low to the ground and roust the pheasants from this heavy cover. Bigger dogs will plow through the stuff as long as they can, but she’s scooting and squirming around along with the pheasants, which takes a lot less energy, that I can tell you. All that’s required of the hunter is to send her in and stand by for the barks, which tell you that a bird is about to come up.
For sure, Sheba’s favorite hunting is doves. These birds are easy to pick up for her, unlike geese that she drags in as best she can. Doves are tough for most retrievers, because their dusty feathers come off in their mouths and irritate them. Not a problem for her. It’s an easy job in a nice short-cut wheatfield. Thirty retrieves for myself and a companion is nothing in those conditions. These rugged little dogs have a lot of stamina, and Sheba gets plenty of exercise to keep her full of energy. Her daily routine includes two miles of trotting behind the pickup on back country roads. She’s 13 now, and hasn’t slowed down yet.
Sheba and all my water spaniels are biddable, and none have had to be trained to crawl alongside me in the field. What a tool to have as we stalk together down to our favorite honey hole of wood ducks. I have no worries that she will bolt at the wrong time. She knows the game, and never forgets it. This breed is called stubborn by some, because they don’t take to a lot of training. If I can get Sheba to bring in over 10 thrown dummies, it’s a miracle. She’s too smart, and gets easily bored with repetition. As I see it, she’s a “gamer,” as they say in baseball. The only game she really gets into is when I tie an empty plastic pop bottle to my spinning rod and cast it out in the water. It’s a chase then, and that’s what she likes.
The Vest-Pocket Retriever
The American water spaniel requires some special treatment in certain areas. I learned early on that you don’t want these dogs to be jumping off or onto the tailgate of your truck. Their short legs don’t need that kind of abuse. It’s not that much trouble to lift them on and off. They seldom weigh more than 40 pounds. As to their curly coats, they do pick up burrs easily, but cutting the coat down early in the season takes care of a lot of that problem. By the time the weather gets cold, the coat has grown back. Here’s a plus: Water spaniels don’t shed as much as most breeds.
The “Vest-Pocket Retriever,” as they were called back in the old days, makes a great gun dog. People want a close-hunting upland dog and a duck retriever, and the water spaniel is just that. It’s hard not to like a dog that needs very minimal training and has such strong hunting instincts. The American water spaniel will give you everything it’s got in terms of effort, and if you have one like I do, you’ll want to end every hunt with a warm embrace.