"Beannaithe" (Blessed) is how the old Gaelic hunters in Ireland viewed the Shannon spaniel that later became known as the Irish water spaniel. Developed to retrieve waterfowl and upland game, the breed proved to be so versatile it could do just about anything except dance Irish jigs and reels. But there are those who contend that given proper instruction and the appropriate music, an IWS could probably master these intricate step dances, also.
Imported to the U.S. in the 1870s, the IWS quickly became a favorite of waterfowl hunters in this country until, like many of the early retriever breeds, it was caught in the undertow of a tidal wave of Labradors that possessed the same skills, but, unlike the IWS, required almost no grooming.
The result was the relegation of the Irish water spaniel to "rare" status among hunters and pet owners alike — in 2012 the breed was ranked 154th on the popularity list of the 175 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. Yet despite the breed's low numbers, as is the case with other rare sporting breeds, there are people who wouldn't consider having anything but an IWS as their personal hunting dog.
"Versatility is the main virtue of an Irish water spaniel," says Russ Dodd. "They retrieve waterfowl on big water and in heavy marshes, flush and retrieve upland game and then curl up with the kids at night. Not as robotic as Labradors or as compulsive as springers, their versatility is perfect for people like me where the dog's top job is to be a family companion during the week and then go after birds on weekends.
"Unlike a lot of jacks-of-all-trades, the IWS can actually master a few. They have great noses and prey drive. They can be great markers and persist on birds. If they detect a bird in heavy cover, they will stay on it until they make contact. If the bird is not quick to take off, they're happy to trap it and deliver a wild bird. I get about six birds every year that never get off the ground and at which I have not fired a shot."
Susan Sarracino-Deihl concurs. "The IWS has traditionally worked as both a retriever and a spaniel," she says. "Because of their retrieving ability, keen noses and bird desire, they can work as a retriever and do upland work like a spaniel, which means the hunter has the best of both worlds. They are bigger than other spaniels, which means that instead of going under the cover, they go through it and naturally work close when quartering, so they stay in run range.
"They are highly trainable and thrive in an environment where they are challenged to work. They are good family dogs that have a relatively hypo-allergenic coat, which is a plus for people who have allergies and they do very well when they are trained by their owners."
Says Elissa Kirkegard: "Irish Water Spaniels have excellent noses and they exhibit a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for training and working. They are smart dogs, which means they love mental stimulation and games. Mine have always had a great attitude and eagerness.
"Many people at dog events have remarked that the Irish water spaniels' tails never stop wagging and I can attest that this is true whether they are hunting, training, trialing or at a hunt test. To an IWS, life is a party and all you have to do is show up."
While the IWS has many attributes in its favor, the breed also has a few drawbacks. "The coat is an issue for many of today's hunters who want a 'wash-and-wear' type of dog," notes Colleen McDaniel. "They're also slower to mature than many of the other retrievers and they don't tolerate fools for owners. They're not particularly good kennel or backyard dogs. They need more contact than that with people.
"They are intelligent, but they're also sensitive. They have an excellent nose that can find birds often missed by other retrievers, but that same nose will get them in trouble — they are inclined to tune you out if they have their noses tuned into something they feel needs their attention.
"They are also very capable of being creative if the situation calls for something other than just a straightforward retrieve," McDaniel adds. "This can be good or bad, depending upon what you are trying to get them to do."
Control can be a problem with this breed, according to Kirkegard. "Irish water spaniels have an independent streak and control can be a problem. They're smart enough to know when they can take advantage of a situation and they sometimes believe a command is optional.
"Another problem, especially in hunt tests or field trials, is that they have such good noses they have a tendency to want to hunt on their way to a blind retrieve. It can take some convincing to get them to go straight until stopped and cast rather than honoring their noses.
"Something else to keep in mind is that they won't give you much, if any, effort if they get bored with what you are doing with them," Kirkegard continues. "You need to emphasize obedience and hold an IWS to a high standard. It's important to get them socialized. The IWS also has some health issues. There is a lot of cancer in the breed and since the breed is so rare, we have a pretty small gene pool."
Rudd Dodd adds, "On really long blind retrieves, an IWS has to be really confident that the handler knows where to send the dog or the dog will start hunting on his own. The IWS is also very social with humans and many don't thrive with a professional trainer where they may be relegated to the kennel or the truck for most of the day. They love to train and work with their owners but they can get depressed or dispirited if left with a pro trainer too long.
"It's been said that an IWS has a hard head but a soft heart," Dodd says. "Once they get a lesson and understand the mission, it will not be forgotten. But they can crumble under pressure that doesn't make sense to them. You can use an e-collar if your timing is absolutely impeccable and the lesson has already been learned. But if you are a bit late or the collar is being used to reinforce a lesson that is not fully learned, it can cause problems.
"I know of a couple of high-drive Irish water spaniels that simply gave up under the pressure of a training program for field trials and hunt tests. And these dogs were with highly qualified professional trainers. The breed seems to have a limit on how much pressure they can take and still have fun. For a family hunting dog this is no problem, but for the hunt test and field trial circuit, well, there's a reason why Labradors dominate these events."
As is the case with many of the less popular sporting breeds, you may have to wait for a pup, and that wait can be fairly lengthy. It is important, says Sarracino-Deihl, to contact a breeder who hunts with their IWS.
"In the past, there were a number of breeders who sold pups that were not suitable for the show ring as 'field dogs' whether the pup showed any ability or interest in field work or not," she states. "When picking an IWS pup as a hunting partner, you want to look for a pup that has
the natural drive for birds when first exposed to them. You should also look for a pup that appears to use its nose well."
"A pup that has too much drive and doesn't require input from a human is a joy to watch but hell to live with," says Dodd. "A dog that worships the ground you walk on is cute, cuddly and fun but probably will be hard to train. Finding a pup that checks in but shows prey drive is a nice balance.
"Many top breeders use impartial temperament testers for each litter because placing the right pup in the right home is good for everyone. Pedigree is an important first step but it doesn't guarantee you will get the perfect field dog.
"They're all so damn cute that the first lick on the face usually makes the sale and everyone is momentarily happy but if you get a great field dog, it probably was luck. Go for a balanced temperament!"
Finding a good pup is never an easy task and with a rare breed like the IWS, the job can be considerably tougher. A great place to start is the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America.
Dodd notes that IWS breeders are generally incredibly helpful and a pretty tightly knit group. "Because it is such a small breed and there is not a significant split between 'show' and 'field' lines, going to a major dog show can be useful because the handlers and breeders know virtually everyone in the breed and can steer you to other breeders, especially those who value field work."
Kirkegard adds, "Go to the national or regional specialty and talk to owners who hunt and work their dogs in the field. They can help put you in contact with breeders who do field work and place their dogs in working homes."