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Complete Breed Guide to the Rare Irish Water Spaniel

The amber eyes and curly locks of an Irish Water Spaniel.
The amber eyes and curly locks of an Irish Water Spaniel. (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

What is an Irish Water Spaniel?

An Irish Water Spaniel is a breed of gun dog that was originally developed in Ireland. The exact origins of this breed are not well known, but there is evidence to suggest that it is quite an old breed. The first well-known individual and likely founder of the breed belonged to a Dublin breeder, Justin McCarthy, and came to prominence in the 1830s. 

Efficiently catching and retrieving game on both land, as well as water was the main purpose of this dog. Its enthusiastic and eager to please nature, keen swimming abilities and weather-proof coat made it very well accomplished at these tasks. 

What other names does an Irish Water Spaniel have?

In terms of appearance, the Irish Water Spaniel, or sometimes even just the Irish Spaniel, is certainly striking. It has long loose curls and a hairless tail that comes to a point. It is not therefore all that surprising that some of its alternative names include its distinct tail feature, such as “Rat Tail” and “Whip Tail Spaniel”. 

The “Shannon Spaniel” is another name for this dog, this name may refer to an old type of the dog which was found south of the River Shannon in Ireland and is thought to resemble the current breed.

Due to the dog’s love of water and all things wet, as well as suitability to the Irish countryside, it has also earned itself the nickname of the “Bog Dog”. 

Also known as the “Clown of the Spaniel Family”, the Irish Water Spaniel is playful and has slightly unconventional antics that are bound to raise a smile.

Portraits of Irish Water Spaniels in grass
Portraits of Irish Water Spaniels in grass (Photos: (l) Slowmotiongli, (r) CaptureLight both via Canva)

Interesting Facts about the Irish Water Spaniel

  1. The Irish Water Spaniel is the tallest spaniel breed 
  2. Irish Water Spaniels have a unique hairless tail that somewhat resembles the tail of a rat
  3. Webbed feet enable the Irish Water Spaniel to swim better in water
  4. While this dog was a very popular hunting dog, particularly in the United states in the 19th century, its popularity declined and is not a very rare dog breed.
  5. The coat of the Irish Water Spaniel is considered to be hypoallergenic 

Irish Water Spaniel Breed Characteristics

How tall is an Irish Water Spaniel?

Generally, male and female Irish Water Spaniels are about 51-59 cm (20-24 inches) tall. The Irish Water Spaniel size stands out in terms of the spaniel dogs. As this breed is the largest spaniel, it is able to go over and not just under dense vegetation while out hunting, which is a clear advantage. 

What does an Irish Water Spaniel weigh?

Irish Water Spaniel with its distinctive color coat and hairless tail.
Irish Water Spaniel with its distinctive color coat and hairless tail. (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

Between 25-30 kg (55-67 lbs) is considered to be a typical Irish Water Spaniel weight.

What does an Irish Water Spaniel look like?

The Irish Water Spaniel is a medium to large sized dog that has a dark brown, liver-colored double coat consisting of loose curls and ringlets and a distinctive hairless tail. On the top of its head, the dog has a topknot of curls that very often flops into its eyes. According to the breed standard, it is a well built dog that is compact or cobby in form.

Irish Water Spaniel Ears

The floppy ears of the Irish Water Spaniel lie next to the head. They require plenty of maintenance to keep clean and prevent any ear infections, especially if the dog has been in water.  

Irish Water Spaniel Eyes

Under the locks of curls, the Irish Water Spaniel has small, expressive eyes, typically described as being almond shaped and either brown or amber in color. The rest of the face is also free of hair and is covered in a short brownish fur that does not need to be trimmed. 

Irish Water Spaniel Top Knot

There is a topknot of curls on the head of the irish Water Spaniel.
There is a topknot of curls on the head of the irish Water Spaniel. (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

On the top of the Irish Water Spaniel’s head lies a curly mass of hair in the form of a top knot. This unruly hair requires consistent maintenance to prevent it getting matted or leading to dirt and related eye problems. 

Irish Water Spaniel Coat

The thick coat of the Irish Water Spaniel is not only fabulously curly, it is also water resistant and tends to dry quickly. (This is a clear advantage for a dog that loves to spend a lot of time in water.)

Typically, the Irish Water Spaniel colors are usually liver color, puce or dark and light brown tones with a reddish, purple tinge. Occasionally, the dark brown color can almost make the dog look like a black Irish Water Spaniel The coat consists of a double layer that does not shed much like the other gun dog, the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon (other spaniels such as the English Cocker Spaniel does shed though). Regular grooming is required to avoid tangles and matting. As it continues to grow, a trim every few months is also necessary to keep it in good shape.

Irish Water Spaniel Tail

The long tail is typically held level with the body and with the exception of the base, which has small tight curls, the rest of the tail has no hair (just short fur). No other Irish breed of dog has a tail like this breed making it quite a unique and peculiar feature. 

Due to the active nature of the dog, the hairless rat tail can sometimes get injured or cut when out and about. 

When do Irish Water Spaniels stop growing?

At about the age of 10-11 months, the Irish Water Spaniel reaches adult size. The first 8 months of puppyhood see the greatest spurt in growth, after which the paces slowly slightly. 

When a dog is about 18 months, it has reached full maturity with regards to its mental capacity, sexual maturity is reached earlier at around 9 months

What dogs are similar to the Irish Water Spaniel?

There are some obvious similarities between poodles and Irish Water Spaniels. They physically resemble each other to a degree that in some cases, Irish Water Spaniels are even mistaken for poodles due to their long curly hair. Both breeds have strong hunting instincts and have excellent noses. 

As the origin of the Irish Water Spaniel is not clear, it is possible that there may have been some poodle heritage in this breed. Other suggestions of ancestors to this breed include the Barbet and the Portuguese Water Spaniel. There is supposedly also a similarity to the now extinct English Water Spaniels and Tweed Water Spaniels.

Irish Water Spaniel Maintenance

The coat of the Irish Water Spaniel requires a lot of maintenance.
The coat of the Irish Water Spaniel requires a lot of maintenance. (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

The identifiable coat of the Irish Water Spaniel requires regular maintenance to keep it in good condition. 

As one of this breed dog’s favorite activities is to be immersed in water, it is important that its ears are very regularly checked, cleaned and dried. Damp hair can lead to hygiene problems and infections. 

Regular weekly dental care is also required to prevent the build up of plaque and other dental issues. 

Nails need to be checked frequently and clipped when too long. As the Irish Water Spaniel also has hair covering the paws and between the pads of their feet, it is important not to forget to clean and maintain this area, especially after a swim or muddy walk.

Does the Irish Water Spaniel grooming?

The coat of the Irish Water Spaniel requires considerable grooming. Irish Water Spaniel coat care involves brushing it 2-3 times a week, ideally with a natural hair brush to help bring out the shine and remove dead hair and debris from the coat. This action will help to reduce matting and tangling. 

The topknot of hair, as well as the sideburns and chin hair of this breed need to be constantly brushed and cleaned. While the tail of the dog is hairfree, the curls at the base of the tail must also be cared for and dirt or tangle should also be removed from here. 

As the dog gets older, the amount of hair and maintenance increases, so be sure that you are able and willing for this commitment for your dog care. You can either learn how to groom your dog yourself with help from an expert or simply get your dog professionally groomed. 

Please Note: 

There is a condition known as post-grooming furunculosis that this breed can suffer from. It is a deep skin bacterial infection that causes painful skin lesions on the back and neck area that can arise after bathing and vigorous brushing, typically appearing about 24-48 hours afterwards. The good news is that most dogs recover fully with therapy. Some useful information about this skin condition is available here

Do Irish Water Spaniels shed a lot?

No, Irish Water Spaniels do not tend to shed a lot, especially when they are bushed a few times a week. Given the curly nature of the hair, it also doesn’t tend to get embedded in fabric as much as other dog hair and is easier to remove. 

Is the coat of the Irish Water Spaniel hypoallergenic?

The double coat of the Irish Water Spaniel is considered to be hypoallergenic and does not typically trigger strong symptoms in allergy sufferers. 

If you do have allergies, it is always worth checking with medical and veterinary professionals to get the best dog breed information and make sure you opt for a breed that suits your particular requirements. 

How long do Irish Water Spaniels live for?

Irish Water Spaniels also need good dental care.
Irish Water Spaniels also need good dental care. (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

The average life expectancy for an Irish Water Spaniel is between 10-12 years.  They retain their puppy-like playfulness and eagerness to take part in trials and canine sports well into old age. 

This life expectancy is quite normal for a dog of this size, although other larger sporting dogs like the German Wirehaired Pointer, German Shorthaired Pointer and the German Longhaired Pointer for example tend to live to about 14 years.

Are Irish Water Spaniels healthy?

Irish Water Spaniels are robust dogs but are known to suffer from some health problems. Like many dogs of their size, hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia can occur. It is best to get the dogs x-rayed to see if this is likely to be a condition that affects them.

Other occasional issues include otitis externa (inflammation of the ear canal), especially if the hair around the ears is not dried properly after being in water. 

Nail-bed disease and seizures also tend to appear with some individuals of this breed. 

Warning: Sulfa antibiotics (those containing Potentiated Sulphonamide) can cause adverse reactions in Irish Water Spaniels and may ultimately lead to death. It is important to ensure that any medications prescribed to this breed do not contain these pharmaceutical products. 

What do Irish Water Spaniels eat?

Irish Water Spaniels thrive best on a well varied diet of high quality dog food. A diet that is very high in grains can occasionally cause digestive issues.

Getting the right amount of food for the dog’s nutritional needs is important. Vets can help determine the right quantity for the dog based on the sex, age and activity level. Too much food is likely to lead to obesity, this is also true when it comes to giving treats and rewards. Try to ensure that these do not make up more than 10% of the dog’s food intake each day.

Every Irish Water Spaniel needs plenty of fresh clean drinking water available at all times. 

How much exercise do Irish Water Spaniels need?

Irish Water Spaniels love to be active and enjoy adventure.
Irish Water Spaniels love to be active and enjoy adventure (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

As Irish Water Spaniels were bred to be hunting dogs, they have a lot of energy that they must burn off through exercise every single day. 

This breed needs at least 1 hour of strenuous activity daily to be well balanced, sometimes 2 hours. (Destructive behavior and constant barking are some possible signs that the dog may not be getting as much stimulus as they need.)

Luckily, Irish Water Spaniels enjoy a wide range of sports and are happy to accompany their owners on jogs, walks, hikes, cycles and of course swims too. 

Exercises should be b. It is advisable to start training the dogs to go for walks at a young age so they know how to behave when out and about on a leash. The length and duration of the walks can steadily increase as the puppy grows. 

Very strenuous activities that put pressure on the joints should be b as this can damage the developing bones. 

Irish Water Spaniels Training

Irish Water Spaniels are known for the eager to please attitude. They were bred to assist the hunter flush out and retrieve game and are very keen to be involved in action. As reliable dogs who enjoy task orientated activities, it is best to keep them occupied with new challenges. 

Given their high energy levels, it is really important to channel the dog’s attention into acceptable behaviors. Clear rules and early discipline training are essential for well behaved Irish Water Spaniels, without this the dogs tend to be disruptive and unbalanced. 

Dog training is certainly a bit of a challenge, as these intelligent and observant dogs can be easily distracted during early training sessions. Irish Water Spaniels like other intelligent dogs breeds, such as the working Wirehaired Fox Terrier, tend to get bored with repetition.  Short sessions with plenty of variation, such as learning new tricks, will help to keep Irish Water Spaniels engaged. 

They can follow commands very well once they know what is being asked of them. Other spaniels, such as the Welsh Springer Spaniel and the English Springer Spaniel tend not to follow commands as well. 

Patience and positive reinforcement are very important throughout the training of an Irish Water Spaniel. If the tone and level of criticism is too harsh, the dog may develop trust issues so it is necessary to strike a firm, fine balance. 

Irish Water Spaniels Canine Sports

Irish Water Spaniels have webbed feet and are keen swimmers.
Irish Water Spaniels have webbed feet and are keen swimmers. (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

As athletic dogs that thoroughly enjoy action, Irish Water Spaniels are well suited to dog sports. This breed regularly participates in agility and obedience trials, rally, tracking, flyball, as well as dock diving competitions. 

Do Irish Water Spaniels bark a lot?

Generally speaking, Irish Water Spaniels are not known for incessant barking. Excessive barking only tends to occur when they do not receive enough mental or physical exercise. This breed usually only barks when it is alerting its owner to something. A dog that barks much more frequently, may have other issues such as an imbalance in its daily needs that may possibly be looked into. 

Irish Water Spaniels Temperament and Personality

Irish Water Spaniels are known as the "clowns of the spaniel family".
Irish Water Spaniels are known as the “clowns of the spaniel family”. (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

Irish Water Spaniel temperament differs from dog to dog, but they are naturally curious by nature, they are typically highly energetic and bouncy. When it comes to going out for a walk or playing games they can get very excited. The combination of high intelligence combined with their sometimes clownish behavior can lead to funny, interesting outcomes even for menial tasks. 

While Irish Water Spaniels can be described as being confident and strong willed, they also have a reserved or even shy side, especially when it  comes to strangers unlike some other friendly gun dogs such as the Spinone Italiano. They are very loyal and protective of their owners and make great companions for those who enjoy outdoor activities. 

Are Irish Water Spaniels good family pets?

Irish Water Spaniels can make good family pets, if they are socialized early to the busy nature of family life. While each dog is different, some animals seem to prefer to have just one owner, so it is important to find a dog with the right suitability for you and your family situation. 

Are Irish Water Spaniels good with children?

Usually, Irish Water Spaniels are friendly towards children and make good playmates, who relish the opportunity to play fetch and other games. This breed does tend to be skeptical of strangers, but is very often open towards children if exposed to them from an early age. If the dog feels out of its comfort zone, it may get a small nip, so to be on the safe side, dogs and children should always be supervised when they are together. 

Are Irish Water Spaniels good with other dogs?

Two Irish Water Spaniels
Two Irish Water Spaniels (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

Irish Water Spaniels that have been exposed to other dogs since they were puppies very often get along with other dogs without difficulty. It is very important that these positive socialization interactions occur when the puppy is young to ensure the dog has good experiences that will help guide the dog in its interactions with animals (and humans) throughout its life. 

In contrast to the American Water Spaniel Irish Water Spaniels are generally more tolerant of other dogs for example.

Are Irish Water Spaniels good watchdogs?

If trained to do so, Irish Water Spaniels can be good watchdogs, although this is not typically what they were bred to do originally so they are not in the same league as the bull terrier when it comes to being a watchdog They are alert and typically wary of strangers so will sound a warning bark to notify their owner of the presence of a person. 

Are Irish Water Spaniels good apartment dogs?

Irish Water Spaniels need plenty of space to run around, so a house with a safe, secured garden is more suitable for this breed than an apartment. 

Are Irish Water Spaniels good first dogs?

Generally, Irish Water Spaniel are not considered good first dogs for several reasons. Although they have many extremely good traits, they also have their challenges which could overwhelm someone who is not experienced with dogs. 

As lively dogs with a need for firm discipline and tasks to keep them from getting bored, these dogs need owners who know exactly how to manage and look after them. As with most things, this knowledge and experience takes time and practical experience to master. It is probably easier to gain this initial experience with another dog breed before moving on to an Irish Water Spaniel. 

The coat of this breed needs considerable amounts of maintenance to stay in good shape and this can be quite a commitment in terms of time and money. 

This dog is best suited to someone who lives a very active and outdoorsy lifestyle and very often people tend to underestimate just how much exercise and input these dogs need. 

Can Irish Water Spaniels be left alone?

The topknot of curls needs regular care to avoid causing eye issues.
The topknot of curls needs regular care to avoid causing eye issues. (Photo: Capturelight via Canva)

Irish Water Spaniels are sensitive dogs and do not respond well to being left alone for a long period of time as it triggers anxiety separation. Over time, this can lead to a depressed dog who shows signs of destructiveness. This can manifest itself in excessive barking and chewing the furniture for example.

Are Irish Water Spaniels aggressive?

Irish Water Spaniels do not have strong aggressive tendencies, but under certain circumstances, such as in the company of strangers or when they feel threatened, they may nip at people. Early socialization and training can help to avoid these unwanted reactions in the dog, but they are difficult to entirely eliminate from the breed. 

Do Irish Water Spaniels have a strong prey drive?

Irish Water Spaniels were born to hunt and this strong sense of adventure and excitement around prey is still present in this breed. For this reason, it is best to keep Irish Water Spaniels on a leash when out and about to avoid any unintended incidents of chasing anything the dog considers prey.

Are Irish Water Spaniels rare?

Although this was a very popular hunt bred at one time in the 19th century, its popularity has declined considerably and this breed is now considered to be a vulnerable one.

Many of the Irish dogs are in fact considered vulnerable, with the exceptions being the Irish Wolfhound, the Irish Setter and the Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier.  

The other Irish dog breeds include:

And we have to mention the loveable Irish Doodle too, although it is not an offically recognised dog breed.

Irish Water Spaniel Breed Clubs

Irish Water Spaniel
Irish Water Spaniel (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

In 1890, the Irish Water Spaniel Club of Ireland was formed making it the first Irish Water Spaniel breed club in the world. Other clubs dedicated to the Irish Water Spaniel were established later, such as the UK based Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club and the Irish Water Spaniel Association. The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America was founded in 1937. 

These clubs aim to promote the native Irish breed of dog and provide breed information to help educate people about the Irish Water Spaniel. They often have a range of information on their sites about the breed history and pet care, as well as also about breeders and litters of Irish Water Spaniel puppies for sale. 

Irish Water Spaniel Breeders

Along with contacting your local veterinary provider or animal health information center, these breed clubs can be a useful starting point for anyone searching for an Irish Water Spaniel puppy near me. The following information may be useful if you are looking for Irish Water Spaniel puppy breeders in the United States.

Or for those of you based in Ireland, contact the Irish Water Spaniel Club of Ireland directly.

If you are unsure of the types of questions you should ask a breeder before buying an Irish Water Spaniel, check out this link to the Irish Water Spaniel Association which will help you prepare some questions if you want to buy an Irish Water Spaniel. 

Irish Water Spaniel Puppies for Sale

Irish Water Spaniels
Irish Water Spaniels are also known as “Rat Tails” due to its tapering, hairless tail. (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

Before you start looking for an Irish Water Spaniel for sale, it is important to keep a few things in mind, including whether you can offer this breed of dog the home and attention that it will need. 

This is a rare breed so the number of Irish Spaniel puppies for sale at any time is not likely to be high. It may be that you will need to register your interest with breeders and have your name placed on a waiting list

It is important to make sure that you only deal with reputable breeders who are willing to show you the mother and puppies and answer all of your questions, particularly around the healthy and family history of the dogs. Making sure that the puppy is placed with the right owner or owners should be of the utmost importance to the breeder. 

Irish Water Spaniel puppy for sale Information can be found via the following links:

For those of you looking for an Irish Water Spaniel for sale Ireland, contact the breed club for more information. 

How much does an Irish water Spaniel cost?

The price of an Irish Water Spaniel puppy will be determined by several factors including location, gender, pedigree and their availability. Potential new owners should be willing to spend upwards of US$1500 for a puppy from a reputable breeder. Depending on the bloodline, Irish Water Spaniel price may increase to about US$2500 or even more in some cases. 

Irish Water Spaniel in Need and Rescue

The deep and sensitive eyes of an Irish Water Spaniel.
The deep and sensitive eyes of an Irish Water Spaniel. (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

From time to time circumstances arise whereby an Irish Water Spaniel will need to be rehomed. If you think you could help a dog in such circumstances, you should check with a local Irish Water Spaniel breed club or Irish Water Spaniel breed who will be able to put you in contact with the necessary people. 

It can be difficult to turn down an animal in need, especially the case with a touching Irish Water Spaniel Adopt Me image, but it is important to consider all of the factors to ensure that you can provide the best home and surroundings for this animal. This is even more valid if the animal has had a difficult upbringing.

Most of the Irish Water Spaniel rescues and adoptions work on a donation based fund, which helps cover the costs of rehousing an animal. 

The History of the Irish Water Spaniel

There is reason to believe that the Irish Water Spaniel is an old breed of dog, exactly how old is difficult to say as similar breed descriptions have been recorded over the course of history. What is certain is that this breed can be traced back to at least the 1830s in Ireland, when the Irish breeder, Justin McCarthy, developed the breed. Since then, the Irish Water Spaniel has had an interesting history with a rapid rise in popularity, before losing favor against other breeds. 

Where does the Irish Water Spaniel come from?

The name of this breed gives a lot away! The Irish Water Spaniel hails from Ireland and the modern breed as we know it came from the kennels of Justin McCarthy, a Dublin based dog breeder.  

The Irish Water Spaniel Origin

Antique dog print from the 19th century of an Irish Water Spaniel.
Antique dog print from the 19th century of an Irish Water Spaniel. (Photo: ilbusca via Canva)

As the breeder did not keep records and declined to publicly disclose the pedigree of the dog which is thought to have been the father of the modern breed, Boatswain, the exact heritage is unknown.

There is speculation that McCarthy developed this breed, by breeding the two types of Irish Water Spaniel found in Ireland at that time together. 

Originally, there were thought to be two types of Irish Water Spaniel, one found in the more northerly parts of the island of Ireland, while the other types were confined to the more southerly areas. The modern Irish Water Spaniel is similar to descriptions of the southern type of dog. 

There are some records of Irish water dogs with hairless tails being given as presents to royals in the 17th and 18th centuries, which would support the argument for earlier types of this breed prior to the 1830s. 

Down through the years, there have been many other suggestions as to the ancestors of this breed. The Portuguese Water Dog, Barbet, English Water Spaniel (now extinct) and the Poodle are just some of the dog breeds that have been mentioned. 

Given the strong trade (and religious) connections that existed between Ireland and Iberian Peninsula from about the 14th century onwards, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Spanish Water Dog or the Portuguese Water Dog breeds were brought to Ireland and results in some cross mixed dog breed at some point in their history.

However, it is worth mentioning that somewhat similar water dogs can be traced far further back in history to about 4000 years ago in ancient Persia

The Irish came up with their own surprising ideas about the Irish Water Spaniel history and origins as you can read below!

The Irish Water Spaniel in Folklore

County Leitrim has many lakes, including the lovely Lough Gill. (Photo: Nicola_Timpson via Canva)
County Leitrim has many lakes, including the lovely Lough Gill. (Photo: Nicola_Timpson via Canva)

The unique combination of wildness and affinity for water has given the Irish Water Spaniel a somewhat legendary status. According to folklore, this water dog can trace its origins back to the wild myological creature who was half dog and half otter or fish, the Dobhar-chú (meaning the Irish for water hound). It is sometimes referred to as the “King Otter”. 

This supernatural creature resembles a very large otter and is said to live in dark deep water. When it dies, it sends out a high pitched whistle for its mate to emerge from the waters. 

While this all seems far-fetched, there is even a grave in County Leitrim that marks the burial site of Grainne Ní Conalai (or sometimes written as Grace Connolly or Grace McGloighlin), who was apparently killed in 1722 by one of these creatures on the shores of Glenade Lake in County Leitrim. Although her husband tried to save her, he failed to do so.

On her weathered gravestone in Conwel Graveyard, there is a carved image of a dog-like creature being killed with a dagger. Closeby by lies her husband’s grave and a relief of a man on a horse who is carrying a dagger.

The unusual case was certainly well known about at the time and there was even a ballad written about the events.  

What were Irish Water Spaniels bred for?

Irish Water Spaniels were bred to be all round hunting dogs and were said to be popular with the gentry who would not have been in a position to keep a full kennel of dogs for different hunting purposes (flushing, retrieving etc.). 

This breed has certain traits such as its water resistant coat, webbed feet, fearlessness of water and eagerness to please its owner, which combine to make this dog a very useful one for hunting waterfowl in the Irish landscape and cold gaelic waters with typical Irish weather conditions. 

They are well suited to hunting on land, such as open fields, but also as an upland mountain dog. In water, they are very much at home in the wetter areas such as bogs, marshes, wetlands and cold Irish waters around the coast.

Irish bogs, like this one in Drigimlagh in Connemara, County Galway can be very wet places.
Irish bogs, like this one in Drigimlagh in Connemara, County Galway can be very wet places. (Photo: Stevegeer via Canva)

Irish Water Spaniels could be trained to flush out, catch and retrieve game. They could also be used to retrieve game that hunters shot. As the breed is brave and will attempt to retrieve the game even in the harshest of circumstances, it soon won much praise and became a popular hunting breed of choice, especially from about the 1870s onwards. By 1875, it was one of the top dog breeds in the United States. The American Kennel Club recognized the Irish Water Spaniel breed in 1878.

Its popularity declined during the early 20th century, when other dog breeds such as the Labrador Retriever and later on other breeds such as the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever became more well known. 

Coat maintenance on the Retrievers is considerably easier than the long curls of the Irish Water Spaniel. Retrievers are also known for their more tame temperament in comparison to the slightly wilder Irish Water Spaniel so it is easy to see why hunters in particular opted for the low with lower maintenance requirements. 

The Irish Water Spaniel Show Dog

This breed started appearing in dog shows from about the 1860s. Much of the focus on this breed, particularly in the early years, was with its hunting abilities. 

While this breed has many dedicated followers, it is not one of the most popular show dogs and thanks to this, many of the traits that have made it such a highly prized gun dog have stayed with the breed.

As the breed can generally be skeptical of strangers, they can occasionally also get spooked by big competitions, as was the case in 2020 at the Westminster Dog Show.

Interestingly, although the dog is classified as a “spaniel”, it performs as a retriever and is placed in retriever trials in the US, UK and Ireland.

Irish Spaniel Today

A panting Irish Water Spaniel
A panting Irish Water Spaniel (Photo: Slowmotiongli via Canva)

As one of the vulnerable breeds Irish Water Spaniels are threatened with some genetic issues, as well as possible extinction. There are very dedicated individuals working with breeders and in breed clubs actively promoting this very unique breed.  

Some of the breed clubs even have some Irish Water Spaniel merchandise to raise funds, such as calendars with lots of heartwarming Irish Water Spaniel images. 

For more information about this breed you can visit the breed club websites mentioned above, or check out the chapter on the breed in “The Curious History of Irish Dogs” by David Blake Knox.

Native Irish Dog Breeds

Irish Setter
Irish Setter (Photo: rebius via Canva)

The Irish Water Spaniel is just one of nine breeds of native Irish dog. These breeds were developed over time for different purposes including hunting wolves (Irish Wolfhound), herding livestock, acting as a shepherd dog, killing vermin and versatile farm animals such as the Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier or the fearless badger hunter, the Glen of Imaal Terrier

Information about Irish dogs breeds can be found here:

In total Ireland has three gun dog breeds, the Red and White Setter Irish Setter and the Irish Water Spaniel. You will find the complete breed information and history to the Setter breeds in the links above.

To get a quick overview of all of the breeds and discover some of their fascinating histories, take a look at the detailed Guide to Irish Dogs

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Please note that this article is only for general information purposes about the Irish Water Spaniel breed and should not be used as a substitute for canine health information, as well as medical and pet care advice from veterinary specialists.