An ancestor of our modern retrievers, the Irish water spaniel has talent, says David Tomlinson

Some years ago an Irish water spaniel (IWS) enthusiast described the breed to me as the joker in the gundog pack.

He had a point. The IWS is not only a rarity, but also an oddity. Despite its name, it’s not really a spaniel. This is why the Kennel Club classifies it as a retriever for gundog competitions, but as a spaniel in the show ring. Being forced to compete in trials with Labradors, flatcoats and golden retrievers makes it difficult for an IWS to gain even a modest field trial award, let alone become a field trial champion. It’s not because the IWS lacks trainability or talent in the shooting field, but because it’s different in the way that it works compared with the more conventional retrievers.

Another IWS owner said that he didn’t think that his dogs slotted into either the spaniel or retriever camps, but that they might make it as hunt, point and retrieve (HPR) dogs. He had some that were keen and natural pointers, while they were also hard hunters and proficient retrievers. I’m not sure how many water spaniels display pointing ability, and would be interested to know if other handlers have found that some individuals have a tendency to point. I once owned an English springer that was a competent pointer, so it’s a trait that can appear in any gundog breed.

Working ability

Unlike the Clumber, which in recent years has enjoyed a renaissance as a sporting dog, the IWS has never really lost its working ability, something that the Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club  has had a lot to do with.

Irish water spaniel

Despite being an excellent shooting dog, the Irish water spaniel is not commonly seen in the field

The club was formed initially in 1908 under its president, Lady Dunleath. The seat of the Dunleath family is Ballywalter Park in County Down, Northern Ireland.

Today, the current Lord Dunleath is the Club’s president. The Club faltered during World War I, but it was restarted by Martyn Ford and Tony Whitehead in 1989, and today is supported by almost everyone who works an IWS.

A genuinely historic breed

One of the disadvantages of owning an IWS is having to tell people that your dog isn’t a poodle, nor a curlycoated retriever, but a genuinely historic breed of its own, descended directly from what we today call the water dogs. They are ancestors of all our modern retrievers: the standard poodle remains a living example of an ancient waterdog, as does the IWS. Other examples include the lagotto Romagnolo, the Portuguese and Spanish water dogs, the barbet and the pudelpointer.

The history and origins of the IWS are confusing, and the only irrefutable fact is that it was in Ireland that the breed was established. Apparently the south of Ireland was the home of large, curlycoated water spaniels, while in the north there was a smaller, wavy-coated dog that was similar to the now extinct English water spaniel. It may well be a mix of these two types that shaped the breed we know today, but most historians agree that it was a stud dog called Boatswain, owned by Justin McCarthy from Dublin, that is the founder of the modern IWS. Boatswain was born in 1834, and lived to the age of 18.

Regular grooming essential

Certainly, the modern IWS looks very much like the old prints of Boatswain. The breed’s curly, solid liver-coloured coat has a natural oiliness that is ideal for a dog which likes to spend time in water. The coat is non-shedding, but does have a tendency to trap mud and dirt, not to mention burrs, so regular grooming and even some trimming is essential.

Irish water spaniel

The breed has a naturally oily, non-shedding coat

The distinctive topknot makes for ready visual separation from a curlycoated retriever, while the breed’s other distinctive feature is the smooth tail, which gives the breed its nickname of whiptail. The IWS has never been docked.

Though the IWS makes an excellent all-round shooting dog and an ideal roughshooting companion, it’s not often that you come across one in the shooting field. I met an IWS working as a picking-up dog on a shoot last autumn. This particular dog came into his own after a duck drive, and reminded me of what a good working dog a well-trained IWS can be.

A picking-up water dog

My previous experience of a picking-up IWS was on a shoot where I also worked one of my spaniels. The IWS bitch was a good worker, but suffered from serious hair loss when working in brambles, so she often had to be rested. When I asked her owner why he had chosen an IWS, he said it was because his wife had read an article on the breed, written (I’m embarrassed to say) by me. Fortunately, he didn’t blame me for the hair loss.

A natural clown but intelligent

Most owners will tell you that the IWS is a natural clown, but that it is also an intelligent dog. Slow to mature and not the easiest dog to train, it’s a breed with specialist appeal. If you are thinking of getting one, do consult the SIWSC for advice. It’s not a popular breed in the show ring, and there’s no real difference between working and show strains, though I’d always recommend buying a puppy bred from working parents.