Skip to main content Skip to main content

Breed Profile: The American Water Spaniel

Breed Profile: The American Water Spaniel
An AWS puppy retrieving a live clip-wing pigeon in a training session.

Finally — although unexpectedly — the decades-long classification controversy within the American Water Spaniel Club (AWSC) has ended with an almost beyond-belief win-win outcome. To appreciate this happy ending, you need to know the history of this breed, within which this intense controversy developed.

For better insight into all of this, I interviewed three AWSC members: Paul Morrison, Debra Parker and Nick Wansha.

Developed by 19th-century market hunters in the Upper Midwest, the American water spaniel has always been a dual-purpose dog, equally talented for waterfowl and upland gamebird hunting. From the beginning and continuing to this day, AWS owners have been determined to maintain the breed's dual résumé. Ironically, that determination has prevented them from displaying the AWS' versatility in the field events of the American Kennel Club (AKC).

These events come in three distinct formats: one for pointing breeds, one for retrievers and one for spaniels. Thus, for a breed to participate, it must not only be AKC-recognized as a Sporting Group breed, but must also be grouped in one and only one of AKC's three classifications: pointing breed, retriever or spaniel. AKC doesn't allow dual classifications.


AKC requires that the national breed club sponsoring the breed request one specific classification. AWSC sponsors the AWS, but for decades after AKC's 1945 recognition of the breed, members could not agree on a single classification for their dogs. Some would accept classification as a spaniel; others would accept classification as a retriever; but down deep, most felt that only dual classification as spaniel and retriever would help breeders maintain the dog's many talents. However, dual classification wasn't on AKC's menu.

Consequently, although recognized by AKC as a Sporting Group breed, the AWS wasn't classified and therefore couldn't participate in AKC field events.

"All along," Paul Morrison said, "since dual classification wasn't possible, I would've accepted either classification as better than remaining unclassified. Of the two, I would've preferred spaniel because I feel that fits our breed slightly better than retriever."

"My husband Frank and I," Debra Parker said, "favored spaniel classification. The AWS' work ethic and talents lean slightly more in that direction."

"I preferred spaniel classification," Nick Wansha said, "because in AKC hunting tests, the spaniel format fits the duality of the AWS better than the retriever format. The spaniel format includes both upland game flushing/retrieving and waterfowl retrieving, but the retriever format lacks upland game flushing."

The Breed

A brief look at the AWS will help you understand the breed's duality. The AWS stands 15 to 18 inches at the withers and weighs 25 to 45 pounds. Such a dog fits nicely into a small boat or canoe and rides comfortably in a car or truck.

The AWS has a double coat, with a downy, insulating undercoat for warmth and a wavy or curly outer coat that protects the dog from cold water and rough cover. The color, which may be liver, brown, or chocolate with perhaps a little white on the chest and toes, blends in with almost any background.

Unlike most other spaniel breeds — but like all retriever breeds — the AWS has a full-length tail. Overall, the breed looks like he's made up of equal parts spaniel and retriever, a "spantriever," if you will.

His temperament supports this dual-dog assessment. When quartering in the uplands, he bounces back and forth quickly like a spaniel. When challenged by a hostile crippled honker, he tackles and body-slams it like a miniature Chesapeake.

Above all, he's an all-American dog, resembling in temperament the market hunters who developed the breed: independent, strong-willed, persistent and fiercely loyal. He's both territorial and protective, ergo a good watchdog. And yet he'll accept anyone the boss accepts, and once he does, he's all spaniel charm.

60-Year Controversy

AWSC members debated the classification question passionately and almost constantly from 1945 until 2005. Year after year it was the principal subject in club meetings, board meetings, newsletter articles, telephone conversations and Internet interactions. The debates occasionally heated up so much that the Board of Directors had to call a truce, sometimes for a year or two, to let everyone calm down.

But they couldn't drop the issue permanently because most members wanted to run their dogs in AKC field events. This prod became especially painful after 1985, when AKC began initiating non-competitive hunting tests for each Sporting Group classification. The AWS, being the only unclassified breed in the Sporting Group, was the only breed unable to participate in any of these new hunting tests.

Through the early 2000s, AWSC members gradually worked out a compromise that a majority initially found acceptable. They decided to seek classification as a spaniel, provided that AKC would allow them to add an appropriate Retriever Certification Test (RCT) to the title requirements for each level of spaniel hunting test. A majority felt that this RCT would prevent the breed's retriever talents from atrophying. Not all agreed, of course.

"I so objected to the RCT," Wansha said, "that I dropped out of AWSC when it was approved and didn't rejoin until the club voted to drop it."

"I opposed the RCT concept from the beginning," Morrison said, "but after it was accepted, I embraced the program and even helped write the rules."

"Initially we felt that the RCT was an acceptable compromise," Parker said, "for obtaining spaniel classification."

In 2005 AKC accepted this proposal and classified the AWS as a spaniel, adding the RCT to the hunting test title requirements for AWSes only. AWS owners began running their dogs in AKC spaniel hunting tests — and they did quite well, thank you.

However, hunting test titles still eluded their dogs. Why? Because of the scarcity of RCT opportunities. Since only the AWS needs to pass the RCT, other spaniel clubs had no reason to add these time- and resource-consuming tests to their regular hunting tests. Only the AWSC held them regularly, and those only a few times a year. Thus, finding an RCT proved to be much more difficult than passing one.

"Our experience with the RTC," Parker said, "has been negative, primarily because of the lack of availability. The clubs we've contacted about adding the RTC to their spaniel hunting tests didn't want to take on the added time and work. We had to travel several hundred miles and use up most of our vacation time just to run our dogs in RTCs."

"I've found," Morrison said, "several problems with the RTC. First, they're too few and far between. Traveling to them is usually time- and money-consuming. Then, too, why should AWSes have to do this extra work that other spaniel breeds don't have to do to earn AKC titles?"

"On principle," Wansha said, "I refused to participate in spaniel hunting tests while the RCT was in place, so I have no personal experience with it. However, what I've heard from those who have participated has been mostly negative."

Few AWS owners continued running AKC hunting tests, and AWSC members became disillusioned with the RCT "solution" to their classification problem. In February 2011 AWSC voted on whether to retain the RCT requirement. Seventy-four percent of the voting members favored eliminating it.

Shortly thereafter, the AWSC Board met with representatives of the AKC Performance Events Department to request dropping the RCT requirement. AKC's response exceeded not only their modest hopes, but even their wildest dreams, as you will see.

[nggallery id=11]


First, a little seemingly unrelated AKC history. In 1996, AKC permitted standard poodles to run in AKC retriever hunting tests. This was an unprecedented decision, for poodles not only aren't classified as retrievers, they aren't even in AKC's Sporting Group!  No, poodles are in the Non-Sporting Group.

Then in 2007, AKC permitted Airedales to run in AKC spaniel hunting tests. Airedales are in the Terrier Group.

These two group crossovers succeeded nicely, so in early 2011 AKC made another unprecedented decision by permitting the Irish water spaniel (IWS), which is classified as a retriever, to run also in spaniel hunting tests. This was the first Sporting Group breed AKC allowed to run in two hunting test formats.

To distinguish between the IWS spaniel and retriever titles, AKC added the letter "U" (Upland) to the former: JHU, SHU and MHU, while leaving the retriever titles the same: JH, SH and MH.


Consequently, when the AWSC Board met with AKC to discuss dropping the RCT, AKC offered to let the AWS cross over into retriever hunting tests. The overjoyed AWSC Board accepted immediately (and then probably went out for a long and memorable celebration).

This crossover program allows AWSC to do what they have wanted to do since 1945 — participate in both AKC retriever and AKC spaniel field events. To distinguish between AWS spaniel and retriever hunting test titles, AKC is adding the letter "R" (Retriever) to the latter: JHR, SHR and MHR, while leaving the spaniel titles the same: JH, SH and MH, because the AWS is classified as a spaniel.

"Allowing AWSes to run in both hunting test formats is great!" Wansha said. "Had AKC allowed this back in 2005, no one would have suggested the RCT. Now, we can run our AWSes in either format or in both formats. This is a real compliment for the breed and a wonderful opportunity for AWS owners."

"This is a fantastic development," Morrison said. "By pigeon-holing each breed in a specific classification, AKC has been missing the boat. This crossover gives AWS owners more venues in which to participate. Each owner can pick and choose whichever format he wants to concentrate on and at what level. Or he can run his dog in all levels of both formats."

"It's wonderful!" Parker said. "It gives AWS owners the opportunity to run their dogs in whichever format interests them most, or in both if they wish. It allows them to tailor their hunting test participations in the way that best matches their hunting habits."

Incidentally, AKC also agreed to drop the RCT from the AWS requirements for spaniel hunting test titles.

"Dropping the RCT," Parker said, "makes sense. First, it wasn't working out too well, and second, we no longer need it now that we can run our dogs in both formats."

"We should have dropped the RCT a few years back," Morrison said, "when we first realized it was holding the breed back rather than helping it advance."

"From its inception," Wansha said, "I've opposed the RCT on principle. It duplicates the water work already in the spaniel format, and its extra cost has been little more than a 'tax' on AWS owners. AWS participation in hunting tests will surely increase substantially now."

Since then, AKC has permitted similar category crossovers to two other breeds: The wirehaired pointing griffon and the Spinone Italiano. These two pointing breeds may now run in AKC retriever hunting tests as well as pointing breed tests. Where will the crossover thing end? Who knows — and who cares, as long as each crossover breed can do the work expected.


To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Get the Newletter Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Gun Dog articles delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now