They absolutely live to hunt," says Charlie Schlatter, of New Brighton, Minn., and a director of the American Water Spaniel Club. "I believe their independent nature makes them very effective hunters once they have learned the game.
They have amazing scenting ability and develop excellent bird sense with experience. Their tenacity when going after wounded game, be it running rooster pheasants or giant Canada geese, is truly amazing to see.
"In the uplands, they work methodically, close to the gun and slowly enough so that one doesn't have to hurry. They don't waste energy and thus can hunt all day.
They are tough and can handle cold and wet conditions well. At home, they are excellent watch dogs and are very comfortable just hanging around the house."
The American Water Spaniel, recognized by the AKC in 1940, number only around 3,000 with a heavy concentration in the Midwest. The AWS is the state dog of Wisconsin. The breed's small numbers often make it difficult to find a puppy.
David McCracken of Wedgefield, S.C., who gave up Boykins and Chessies for the AWS, put this spin on why the spaniels are not more popular:
"The American Water Spaniel was more popular from the 1880s until the 1940s, then the Labs became more available. Labs are a little easier for the average person to train. That's part of the reason [the AWS is less popular].
"The other is that until 2005 the American Water Spaniel was unclassified as a hunting breed, neither spaniel or retriever, by the AKC. Therefore, they were not allowed to participate in any AKC hunt tests or field trials. No one got to see what great field dogs they were."
Other reasons cited for the lack of interest in the American Water Spaniel include being hard to train and short distance swimmers, lacking flashiness afield and requiring extensive grooming. They also are considered stubborn, sensitive and independent.
"Their personalities vary quite a bit. But one thing most of them have in common is a strong need to understand where they fit in the pack. If they sense a void in leadership, they will try to fill that void so it is important that humans maintain the leadership role by being firm and consistent."
The AWS stands about 15" to 18" at the shoulder and weighs 25 to 45 pounds. Their medium size makes them ideal for working out of a boat.
Their wavy or curly coat is either solid liver, brown or dark chocolate. Eye color ranges from light brown to hazel. Yellow eyes are considered a fault.
The breed originated in the Great Lakes region of the United States in the mid 1800s. The AWS generally is recognized as the first sporting dog developed in America as an all-around hunter that could retrieve from boats.
Ancestors include Irish water spaniels and curly-coated retrievers.
The AWS was recognized by the UKC in 1920, the Field Dog Stud Book in 1938 and AKC in 1940. They are classified in the sporting group, which includes retrievers, spaniels and pointing dogs. They rank near the bottom in AKC registration.
The AWS, often tagged a dual purpose dog, is also seen in the conformation ring, easily jumping from the role of hunting dog to show dog. Very little, if any, split in the breed standard exists between the show and field dog.
"The AWS is small enough (in numbers) that many who show them also hunt them," says Schlatter.
"Breeders are usually careful to breed according to the AKC standard of which there is only one. This produces dogs that are well built and healthy, a requirement for strong hunters. I have seen no evidence that showing dogs reduces their hunting drive.
"As with most breeds, training for hunting and hunting experience are key ingredients to making a good hunting dog." Both McCracken and Lienohn have garnered multiple titles from the field and show ring.
This is not uncommon and, according to fanciers, demonstrates how the breed adapts to different fields of endeavor.
"My two AWS have conformation championships and the highest regular title in each of several organizations' hunt tests so they can do it all," says Lienohn.
"They are master hunters in AKC retriever, AKC spaniel and NAHRA tests. They have hunting retriever titles in HRC and working dog superior titles in the AWS Club. I'm saying this not to brag, but to show how versatile the breed is."
"My dog encountered a porcupine and received a snoutful of quills, 15 to be exact. While trying to remove them, someone shot a bird. My dog saw the bird fall about 60 yards away.
He broke free, ran the bird down and with a leap, caught it in the air and then delivered to hand."
AWS are hardy souls without any unusual health problems. Their fitness is attributed to careful breeding and health screening.
"They don't have any problems as a breed in general," says McCracken. "Hips are usually good and there is no EIC (exercise induced collapse) in the breed. Most health issues are with individual dogs and not breed specific."
AWS owners view the size of their dogs as one of several advantages over larger retrievers, especially when hunting out of a boat.
"I wanted a small dog that would hunt everything well, be easy to keep in the city where I live, and be a companion for my sons as they grew into hunters. I use a canoe exclusively, so a larger dog was out of consideration," says Schlatter.
"The compact size is a great advantage when the owner lives in a house in town. They make good pets and companions. They're more easily portable and consume less food; however, the size difference also means they are not as powerful as the larger retriever breed.
Heun thinks the AWS's abilities as an upland hunter give it several advantages. "They tend to quarter naturally and in some instances with little training€¦with a little experience, they seem to learn very quickly what type of cover to hunt and they have good noses.
As an adult, I have owned and hunted springers, pointers, setters and a Lab, all great breeds, but I really enjoy the AWS. I don't think you can beat them for their versatility."
As for the AWS' future, breeders do not predict a surge in popularity. They see a continuation of a versatile, healthy dog that functions well afield and in the show ring.
Schlatter sums up the AWS's future this way: "I think the breed is well positioned to continue to be a very effective hunting breed. Breeders have been very careful to improve on the overall health of and maintain the great hunting drive that characterizes the breed.
One of the risks is that there are not enough litters to supply the demand for these dogs."