A rarity in the shooting field

The joker in the spaniel pack. No, not my words, but those of an Irish water spaniel owner and enthusiast, talking about the foibles and idiosyncrasies of his favourite breed. The Irish water spaniel, he assured me, could lay claim to being the only HPR native to these islands. He explained that his spaniels were not only keen hunters, but invariably pointed before they flushed. No, they didn’t hold the point like a setter, but he felt sure that they could be trained to do so. Retrieving? No problem, whether it was from land or water.

Irish water spaniel

The floppy topknot is distinctive

The Irish water spaniel – an undoubted talent

The Irish water spaniel has always been a rarity in the shooting field, but it is a dog with undoubted talent. Last month this distinctive spaniel gained some rare publicity when a dog called Luther was declared the best in the gundog group at Crufts and went forward to compete for best in show.

The Irish water spaniel is, with the curlycoated retriever, a rare survivor of a number of curlycoated water dogs once to be found in the British Isles. The most important of these were, arguably, the Tweed water spaniel, an ancestor of the golden retriever, and the English water spaniel, a dog whose genes can still be found in the English springer. Many believe that all the water dogs, including the Spanish, Portuguese, lagotto Romagnolo and pudelpointer, are descendants of the standard poodle, a breed with a considerable and often forgotten sporting history.

While both the Tweed and English water spaniels faded into extinction in Victorian Britain, the Irish water spaniel survived in Ireland largely due to the efforts of one Justin McCarthy, whose stud dog Boatswain is the undisputed founding sire of the breed. Unfortunately McCarthy failed to keep records, so we will never know what dogs he crossed Boatswain with to establish the Irish water spaniel as we know it today. One source suggests that he may have used water spaniels from Europe, along with liver-coloured Spanish pointers.

  • The Irish water spaniel comes in just one colour — rich, dark liver.
  • This is the biggest of the spaniels: the breed standard requires a height of 21in to 23in for dogs, slightly less for bitches.
  • The Irish water spaniel’s most distinctive feature is its curly coat; this has a natural oiliness and needs frequent grooming if it is not to become matted.
  • The face has short hairs, but on the top of the head there is always a foppish topknot that helps give the breed its comic character.
  • It has a short rat-like tail most unlike that of the curlycoated retriever, which is longer, broader and furred.
Irish water spaniel

Irish water spaniel – the biggest of the spaniels

Spaniel or retriever?

The Irish water spaniel’s biggest problem is its identity: is it a spaniel or a retriever? Confusingly, the Kennel Club classifies it as a spaniel in the show ring and a retriever when working. In competition it is up against Labradors, golden retrievers and flatcoats, which explains why there has never been an Irish water spaniel field trial champion. However, it would be unlikely to do any better if it had to compete against springers or cockers, as even the hardest-hunting Irish water spaniel can hardly be compared with a trialling spaniel: it 
is simply a different type of dog.


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The Irish water spaniel comes into its own rough shooting, wildfowling or working in the beating line. It can also be a competent picking-up dog. As its name suggests, it really does like water and all those I have seen have been powerful swimmers. It is a dog that is ideally suited to working the bogs of its native Ireland.

For many years the working dog ring at the Game Fair has included an impressive daily display by members of the Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club (SIWSC), demonstrating the ability of these unusual dogs. The advice is that an Irish water spaniel should be trained just like any retriever, though the SIWSC warns that these spaniels are slow to mature and that they require patient, kind, firm and careful training, but are capable of giving many years 
of honest and reliable work.

Finding a puppy from a working kennel is strongly recommended: the SIWSC will help here, but it is worth remembering that only a few litters 
are born in the UK each year.

It can be difficult to tell these spaniels apart individually, as 
I discovered when I covered an Irish water spaniel get-together, with more than 30 dogs present. The owners could identify their dogs when dry, but after a swim it became much more difficult. Several people asked me for photographs of their dogs, which I was happy to provide, but whether they got pictures of their own spaniel 
or someone else’s is debatable.

The SIWSC strives to retain the breed’s working ability and runs training days, tests and trials throughout the year. Unfortunately, an Irish water spaniel is probably the last breed anyone considers when looking for a retriever, or when seeking a spaniel. However, for anyone seeking something completely different, it is 
a handsome dog with genuine appeal.