Posts Tagged ‘Irish water spaniel history’

Rake was an Irish water spaniel, and this depiction of him clearly suggests that the smooth hair on the muzzle was not always definite characteristic of the Irish water spaniel. It clearly points to ancestry with the rough water dog.

Stonehenge describes Rake in Dogs of the British Islands:

Rake was descended from M’Carthy’s celebrated dog Boatswain, on the side of his dam; but his grandsire on the other side, also called Boatswain, was from another kennel. He was considered by Capt. Montresor and by Mr. M’Carthy himself to be a good specimen of the breed; and their endorsement must be regarded as final.

Justin McCarthy’s Boatswain did look a lot more like a modern dog, but it is just as likely that many Irish water spaniels were bearded dogs that closely resembled poodles or barbets.

That description nicely fits the English rough water dog, which some authorities claim was the same breed as the poodle. I tend to think that it is not, but it is a very similar dog to the poodle and barbet.

Water spaniels, then, were an early form of “doodle.” They were crosses between the English rough water dog and some kind of setter or spaniel. Ireland was, of course, well-known for its setting spaniels, and the fact that some IWS were good index dogs leaves some suggestion of this ancestry.

These Irish setting spaniels came in many colors, and it is likely that there were livers among the red and whites. Remember that red and white was the most common color of all spaniels living in the British Isles until roughly the mid-nineteenth century.

It is very unlikely that the Irish water spaniel ancient. It is much more likely a product of breeders living in the Early Modern Era. I would put it somewhere in the late 1500’s.

The poodle-type dog, in its various permutations and strains, has existed for a long time. Although genetic evidence suggests that these strains are probably not all related, this poodle-type form has been an important type for millenia.

The whiskers on old Rake tell us more about the ancestry of the Irish water spaniel than one might assume. The classical story is that these dogs existed in their “Afghan hound” type coat– which isn’t even caused by the same genes as the Afghan hound coat– for thousands of years.

Rake proves that story simply to be false. Utterly false.

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The above photo and the following description come from The Encyclopaedia of Sport by Henry Charles Howard, 18th Earl of Suffolk, 11th Earl of Berkshire:

The Irish water-spaniel is a dog in every respect the antipodes of any other of the varieties of spaniel, excepting only an animal known as the English water-spaniel, of which sight has now been lost, but which, when in existence, might be considered a link between the curlycoated liver-coloured retriever and the Irish water-spaniel. The early history of the Irish water-spaniel is such that no authority has ventured to say much about his origin; all that is known about it is that there were at one time two, if not more, varieties in the north and south of Ireland, and that the type recognised in the south has been taken as the modern one. About the same height as a retriever, in colour he is rich liver with a puce shade. He has the appearance of a strong and dashing dog, with quaint and very intelligent expression, the quaintness being emphasised by the peculiar topknot which falls between and over the eyes, and hides a capacious skull, which is somewhat domed. The face is long, square in muzzle, and perfectly smooth; the nose liver in colour; the coat consists of short crisp curls all over the body, and round and down the legs to the feet, which are large and round. The inside of the hocks to the ground should, however, be smooth in a specimen of absolutely perfect coat, and there should be but little hair on the tail, which is thick at the base, somewhat short, and tapering to a point. Amber eyes are admissible, but work on wild fowl in marshy ground, but next to useless in covert on account of his coat. Instances have been known where he has been taught to set game, and back like a pointer or setter, but they have been very rare; indeed, his capacity for retrieving is his primary qualification (pg. 321).

The mention of using these dogs as index dogs is quite interesting, and it points to a possible relationship between this dog and the various setters that are native to Ireland. The proto-Irish and Irish red and white setters are very different from these dogs, but it would have made sense that they would have been crossed with this dog. It is the aboriginal retriever of Ireland and was often called the “Irish retriever” in many historical accounts.

I am not among those who consider this dog to be ancient. I think its origins lie with the Barbet family, as do all retrievers and water spaniels. As we have seen, modern day crosses with retrievers and the poodle occasionally produce dogs that have some features in common with the IWS. It is possible– even likely– that  this dog evolved from crossing the old Irish setter with the now extinct English rough water dog– a kind of heavy Barbet.

It is not even remotely parsimonious to assume that this breed has an ancient origin or that it is a relative of the Afghan hound, which has anomalous coat genetics that are very different from Irish water spaniels.

Of course, the official breed club has story about the ancient origin of this dog. The AKC’s The Complete Dog, which contains the standards of all of its recognized breeds and their lore, has a claim that an unnamed “Harvard archaeologicial expedition” in which the remains of a dog with a “clearly defined stop” were found in Ireland that was dated to the seventh or eighth century. Those were skeletons, no doubt, and no one would have any clue what the coat or behavior of these dogs were like. Dogs with clearly defined stops have existed for thousands of years, as have brachycephalic dogs. That dog could have easily been a mongrel hound, but we don’t know for sure. And to claim that this dog was an Irish water spaniel is utter folly– way, way too much speculation. The book repeats the antiquity of dog skulls with clearly defined skulls by pointing out that similar dog skulls have been found in the Lake Districts of Central Europe, which date to the Bronze Age. The description takes these as evidence of the antiquity of the IWS, when they are nothing more than evidence for the antiquity of dogs with this skull. The book then lays it on even thicker by claiming that there are dogs in Roman carvings that look like Irish water spaniels, which sounds oddly like the claim about the poodle on the Roman coin.

The book continues through many claims about old Irish water spaniels. Not a single primary source is given. A Medieval source about “King McCarthy II” claiming that there were whip-tailed spaniels which were found south of the River Shannon. I am assuming this text refers to the Kings of Desmond, who were the Mac Carthaig Dynasty. I would like to see the citation on this source, because spaniels were around in the Medieval Period.

However, the earliest mention of any water spaniel that can be verified is Caius, who wrote of the “water Spaniell or Finder” in his Of English Dogges. That text dates to 1570, and thus, the suggestion that Sir Robert Cecil sent a water spaniel to the King of France in 1598 is more credible, as is Topsell’s description of a “Spagnel” with a “naked tail.”

The aboriginal Irish setting spaniel would have been around at this time. In fact, Caius mentions setters in Of English Dogges.

Rough water dogs were also around this time, and it would make sense that one could create a very similar from setters crossed with water dogs.

The evidence provided that these dogs are ancient is very weak. Not a single genetic study has put the Irish water spaniel among the ancient dogs.

This particular dog’s origins as an improved, pure breed began with Justin McCarthy, who started a line of water spaniels with his dog named Boatswain. That was in the 1830’s, and the records of those dogs are relatively clear. It is McCarthy’s strain of the Southern Irish water spaniel that has survived in the modern breed.

And that’s what a careful reading of history can provide.

Of course, it’s alway more fun to think your dog is from some ancient strain.

I think I’m going to start a rumor a recent dig in Egypt shows that shows clear archaeological evidence that golden retrievers were used by Cleopatra. (Here’s my evidence:  a mummified Egyptian dog with what appears to be gold hair, a broad skull, and floppy ears. I’ve seen some field-line goldens carry their tails like that, too!)

Remember, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And the burden of proof is upon the person making the claim. Parsimony is still an important principle.

The notion that Irish water spaniels have their origin in early modern Europe is more parsimonious than the claim that they were around in the Bronze Age.

Dog historians:  Stop making fantastic claims. Stop.

Please stop.

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