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The American Water Spaniel

The American Water Spaniel

Easy To Love...Hard To Classify

Like Julius Caesar's Gaul, the AKC Sporting Group is divided into three parts, more commonly known as "Classifications": pointing breeds, retrievers, and flushing spaniels. This division facilitates three distinct formats for AKC field trials and hunting tests to meet the different needs of each type dog.

The happy AWS here may not be smiling, but he put a big smile on owner Mike Raemaeker's face.

For a breed to participate in these field events, it must be both AKC-recognized and classified as one of the three. Each breed's parent club determines its breed's classification. Of course, for most breeds, the appropriate classification is obvious, not a matter of intra-club controversy.

Not so for the American water spaniel (AWS), a breed made up of equal parts of retriever and flushing spaniel. Because of this duality, although the AWS was AKC-recognized in 1940, it wasn't classified until 2005, and then only after decades of agonizing debates and verbal donnybrooks within the parent club, the American Water Spaniel Club (AWSC).

During that 65 years sans classification, AWSs could be AKC registered, and could participate in the various "generic" AKC events, like conformation shows, obedience trials, and agility trials. But they couldn't participate in AKC field trials or hunting tests, for which classification is required.

Granted, in their hunting skills, few breeds are purists, although some are purer than others. Many pointing dogs retrieve, with greater or lesser enthusiasm, usually even from water. Many retrievers "hunt to the gun" in the uplands, some flushing, others pointing. Many flushing spaniels retrieve waterfowl, at least under reasonable weather and water conditions. Even so, when operating outside of their classification, most such animals don't measure up to the specialists.

Again, not so the AWS. A properly bred and trained AWS not only hunts the uplands with spine-tingling "spaniel-esque" style, enthusiasm, and (when necessary) reckless abandon, but he also operates like the best of the retriever breeds in waterfowling, regardless of the weather and water conditions. The breed is truly half-retriever and half-spaniel.

The Breed
Simply put, the AWS is physically tough and mentally tenacious. Physically, the breed is a medium-sized spaniel, and a small retriever. Solidly built and muscular, they stand 15 to 18 inches at the withers, and weigh 25 to 45 pounds, with the females averaging smaller than the males.

The coat may be liver, brown, or chocolate, with or without a dash of white on the chest and feet. This practical double coat has a wavy or curly outer coat overlying a wooly undercoat. The outer coat protects the dog from cover and is reasonably water-repellent. The undercoat provides insulation for warmth.

Unlike flushing spaniels but like retrievers, the AWS has a full (non-docked) tail, which is helpful in water work. Clearly, the breed is equipped physically to handle the most punishing conditions both in the uplands and in the marshes. Their relatively small size makes them ideal for waterfowling from a boat. Granted, in the uplands the coat picks up burrs, in typical spaniel fashion.

The AWS temperament is uniquely American: bold, self-confident, fearless, sometimes saucy and truculent, and yet surprisingly sensitive, tenderhearted, and fiercely loyal. Watching an AWS work in the field always reminds me of James Cagney's legendary performance as George M. Cohan in the movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy. (This movie, available on DVD and VHS, will tell you a lot about the AWS character, as well as a lot about your own American character.)

An AWS bringing in a mallard.

Classification Problem
Clearly, the AWSC had a stem-winder of an "issue" on their hands when they started trying to decide whether to seek classification as a retriever or a spaniel. Back in the late 1980s, when I first became aware of the AWSC's classification agonies, opinions within the club were split three ways: Some favored spaniel classification; others favored retriever classification; still others opposed either classification as too limiting for the breed.

None of the three could muster a majority, so the debate went on within the AWSC, year after year. Feelings ran so high that they occasionally had to eliminate all discussion of classification for a period of time, once for two full years!

The prod that kept them struggling with this problem was the desire of many members to participate and earn titles in AKC field events, especially hunting tests. The impediment that prevented a decision for so many decades was the fear that either classification would unduly influence future breeders to the detriment of the breed's current dual capabilities.

If the AWS was classified as a retriever, future breeders might gradually increase the breed's size and decrease its bouncy animation, thereby making it more of a retriever than a flushing spaniel. If the breed were classified as a flushing spaniel, future breeders might give the breed a less water-resistant coat, lighter bones, and less musculature, thereby making it more of a flushing spaniel than a retriever.

AWSC members are as mentally tenacious as the breed they love so passionately. Thus, this debate went on for decades with little give from anyone. (I didn't research whether they are also as physically tough as the AWS. I could handle the "classroom discussions," but I'm too old and fragile for the "lab sessions.")

Classification Committee
The debate just wouldn't go away. The "prod" (AKC field events) kept pushing and the "impediment" (potential loss of duality) kept blocking. In the late 1990s, the AWSC formed a five-member ad hoc committee to address and resolve this issue.

The committee discussed "dual classification," that is, AKC classification as both a spaniel and a retriever. That sounded too good to be true, and of course it was. AKC field titles (FC, AFC, JH, SH, MH) are the same for all three classifications. The breed's classification indicates in which format a dog's titles are earned. For example: A pointing dog earns its MH (Master Hunter) title in pointing breed hunting tests; a retriever earns its MH in retriever hunting tests; and a spaniel earns its MH in spaniel hunting tests.

The titles are the same; only the breed cla

ssification indicates in which format each dog has earned its title. If AKC allowed dual classification for AWSs, people reading a pedigree couldn't tell whether a specific title was earned in spaniel or retriever events. Knowing that is critically important for anyone selecting breeding stock or purchasing a puppy. Thus AKC didn't allow dual classification, and rightly so.

The committee discussed another proposal that had merit, namely, acceptance of AKC spaniel classification while also participating in retriever events conducted by UKC and NAHRA. That would give each AWS opportunities to earn meaningful titles as both a spaniel and a retriever. This argument made converts among AWSC members, but not enough. So back to the drawing board the committee went.

A good specimen of the AWS. The breed not only is half retriever and half-spaniel, but even looks that way.

The Compromise
The committee gradually developed a compromise that a majority of AWSC members could accept, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In this compromise, AWSC would seek and accept AKC classification as a spaniel, provided that AKC would modify their spaniel hunting test rules to accommodate the AWS's dual talents.

This modification would specify that, to earn any hunting test title (JH, SH, or MH), in addition to qualifying in the required number of AKC spaniel hunting tests, an AWS must also pass (twice) a "Retrieving Certification Test" (RCT) of the appropriate level. This rule change would apply only to the AWS, not to other spaniel breeds.

AKC accepted this proposal in 2003 and it went into effect in 2005. Thus, the AWS has been classified as a spaniel, and is permitted to participate in AKC spaniel hunting tests under more demanding requirements than any other spaniel breed. To earn a JH title, an AWS must not only qualify in the same number of AKC junior level hunting tests as any other spaniel, but must also pass (twice) the junior level RCT, which involves a 40-yard water retrieve.

To earn an SH title, an AWS must not only qualify in the same number of AKC senior level hunting tests as any other spaniel, but must also pass (twice) the senior level RCT, which involves a 50-yard water double marked retrieve.

To earn an MH title, an AWS must not only qualify in the same number of AKC master level hunting tests as any other spaniel, but must also pass (twice) the master level RCT, which involves a 60-yard water triple marked retrieve, an honor, and a 60-yard water blind retrieve. For full details on RCT rules, see the AWSC website,

What an unselfish decision! With the dominant media devoting so much attention to the wrong kinds of people, namely, those who take unfair advantage, work an angle, stretch the rules to and sometimes beyond the breaking point, it's refreshing to learn that the AWSC membership has done the opposite. They have deliberately put themselves at a disadvantage relative to other spaniel owners because they believe with every fiber of their collective being that doing so is best for their breed and therefore the right thing to do.

This stubborn conscientiousness is typical of the seldom publicized and often maligned American character, the character that made this country great.

Another Problem
If the AWS were as popular as, say, the English springer spaniel, I could end this story with "and they all lived happily ever after." But although the AWS is Wisconsin's state dog and reasonably popular there, elsewhere they're few in number and widely scattered. Unlike the springer, the AWS doesn't have numerous local and regional clubs all over America, clubs that conduct dog shows, field trials, and hunting tests.

So how does the dedicated AWS owner earn any of the now-available AKC spaniel hunting test titles? Granted, like owners of other spaniel breeds, he can pick up the required qualifying scores in hunting tests conducted all over the country. But where can they find the required RCTs?

An AWS retrieving a large Canada goose.

In its annual national specialty, the AWSC offers back-to-back RCTs. But this is normally held in the upper Midwest, which means that many AWS owners would have to travel a long way to attend.

With AWSC approval, retriever and spaniel clubs may conduct RCTs. But why should they? Most days at retriever and spaniel hunting tests are already full enough. Then, too, an RCT requires RCT-knowledgeable judges, several helpers (bird throwers, guns, and blind planters), and suitable water. Why should a retriever or spaniel club go to all that extra trouble for perhaps only one or two AWSs?

With AWSC approval, an individual may conduct an RCT. Paul Morrison (see sidebar) intends to conduct one this fall. He told me that he has already spent over $300 for birds and leasing the grounds. He still must arrange for judges and helpers. As far as he knows, only three dogs will be entered, which means that the cost per dog will be a something north of $100!

It's not surprising, then, that after three years of spaniel classification, only three AWSs have earned MHs, only four have earned SHs, and only 14 have earned JHs. These numbers do not indicate a lack of talent in the breed, but a lack of sufficient RCT tests.

The Future
The good news is that the AWS is now classified as a spaniel and can earn AKC hunting test titles as a spaniel. The bad news is that earning these titles, although possible, is still beyond the reach of many AWS owners. Thus, AWSC faces a non-trivial challenge. However, AWS owners are resourceful, dedicated, and extremely tenacious people. I can't predict how they will do it, but I'm sure they will resolve this knotty problem. Don't bet against them!

On the other hand, it's a good bet that the AWCS intramural debates won't be for the faint-hearted!

For more information on the AWS breed and its parent club, AWSC, go to the club website,

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