Posts Tagged ‘Irish water spaniel’

From Hunter-Trader-Trapper (1908):

Let me give you boys a pointer on breeding coon dogs. Take a large Irish water spaniel bitch and breed her to a large black and tan fox hound, then take a large bitch from this litter and breed her to a dog from a part blood hound and part black and tan fox hound. You will find that you have got a coon dog that will give plenty of tongue and is not afraid of the water, and has a spaniel nose with good feet and spread enough, with plenty of sand in his craw to kill any coon that runs.

Eugene W. Griffin, Huron Co., Ohio.

Mr. Griffin doesn’t tell us what the dog looks like.

In those days, experimentation and innovation were the key.

Not the malaise of the closed registry system and its religious tenet of blood purity for blood purity’s sake.

See related post:

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duggan family water spaniel

A reader named Tim, who blogs as the Wicked Yankee over at the Daley Clan blog sent me photos of what his family insists was an Irish water spaniel that belonged to his great-great grandfather, Daniel Duggan. Duggan was a poacher and lover of dogs and horses:

Daniel was a very talented trainer of animals. I have even heard him described as a horse-whisperer. Daniel was also very fond of poaching, which was very illegal in Ireland. According to family lore, he had an Irish water spaniel named Drake who he had trained to catch salmon as they went over the shallows in the Blackwater River. Unfortunately, Daniel was caught poaching on the lands of a Magistrate by the name of Grehan, who lived on the estate at Clonmeen House.

At this time one of the consequences for poaching was forced transportation to Australia. According to relatives, Daniel was not willing to accept the punishment. He is said to have stated, “It would be like going to law with the Devil when the court was in Hell.” Instead of accepting his sentence, Daniel decided to move his entire family to the town of Mallow (only about 20 miles). However, before he left, he made sure to go back and get his dog.

The dog in the photo is not Drake, but Drake and this dog, whose name was Rock, were very similar.

There is some debate as to whether Rock was a water spaniel or an Irish setter.

My guess is that both Rock and Drake were a regional type of water spaniel that became either got absorbed into other strains of spaniel or retriever.

Daniel Duggan and dog

The dog actually reminds me of smaller version of a very dark golden retriever.

Of course, it’s very hard to tell what color he was. He could have been a liver or a very dark red dog.

Maybe this is one of the last photos of a Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog. There isn’t much wave to this dog’s coat, but he has featured that are suggestive of retriever ancestry, too.

One of the great disservices that kennel clubs have given us is that they have destroyed the English language’s descriptive abilities.

Look at the AKC name for the “English” coonhound. It’s called the “American English coonhound.”  The name is so bizarre that one would laugh at it.  (First of all, there are no raccoons in England!)

In a similar way, the dog fancy has got us thinking that the only Irish water spaniel was the rat-tailed liver dog with the Afro.

Careful reading of historical documents show that there was McCarthy’s breed of water spaniel, and there was another type of water spaniel in Ireland. It was always described as being  more like a retriever, and it was always associated with the north of the country. There was actually a debate as to whether it was the same thing as the Tweed water dog, which is from the Scottish Borders and Northumberland. (One should note that the settlers of the protestant plantations of what is now Northern Ireland came largely from this part of Scotland, where centuries of border warfare and rule by warlords had forced large numbers of these people into deep poverty.)

County Cork is, of course, in the southwestern part of the country, which nowhere near the core territory of the Northern Irish water spaniel.

But that doesn’t mean that the Duggans couldn’t have been able to procure one.

I think there is almost as strong a likelihood that these two dogs represented a regional breed of water spaniel that just simply wasn’t documented because it wasn’t fancy enough to turn into a show dog.

The history of dogs is really mostly the story of dogs like these two.

They were the dogs that helped people poach and played with the kids.

These dogs really don’t get much mention in the books.

Because the dog fancy was an elitist sport, we know all about the Labradors owned by the Dukes of Buccleuch, the water spaniels that Justin McCarthy bred, and the yellow wavy-coats at Guisachan.

We know so little of Tweed water dogs that helped net salmon near Berwick-upon-Tweed, though they are mentioned in just about every book about golden retrievers.

We know so little about the water spaniels of the British Isles.

Only one of them still exists.

Lots of romantic histories are written about it. Fantastical claims of antiquity are bandied about.

But the truth is the average Irish water spaniel was most likely a dog like Drake and Rock. Nothing fancy. Rustic.  Handsome. And very smart.


Please do not take this post as an attack on Irish water spaniels of the McCarthy type.

It’s not meant to be.

Rather, it’s an attack on the homogenization that the modern dog fancy has exerted on domestic dog strains. Regional types have fallen out favor as “global breeds” like Labrador retrievers have moved.

The modern dog fancy is global, but because it originated in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, it was going to have a global impact in a very short time.

Only the French have been able to hold onto their regional breeds. For most of the history of the American dog fancy, there was always a denial that there were very many American breeds.  (There are actually many, many American breeds, but most stayed out of the kennel club system until very recently. So I guess they didn’t count.)

In agriculture, there is a strong movement for the preservation of heritage breeds of livestock. These animals fell out of favor due to market forces, but now there is a movement afoot to keep esoteric breeds of cattle and sheep alive– mainly to keep the food supply at least somewhat genetically diverse.

In a Dog’s History of America Mark Derr writes that something similar swept the dog world in the late nineteenth century in Europe and America. In age when virtually everything was mass-produced and homogeneous, there was a move to go back to the old ways of doing things.  People with money and time on their hands spent lots of both scouring the countryside for traditional crafts and tools. In the realm of dogs, it caused people to go to rural areas and pick out various working dog landraces and bring them home as artifacts.

It’s from this movement that the collie dog became a fancy breed, as did the Old English sheepdog.

But those dogs were mostly herding dogs belonging to noble stockmen.

They were not the dogs of poachers, like these water spaniels.

It’s also the reason why no one ever thought of creating a show club for lurchers. (The thought of which gives me the creeps).

This world that the twentieth century has left behind is a strange one. It may be wealthier and more technologically advanced.

But it’s certainly lost a lot.

Especially the old water spaniels.

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Thomas E. Dewey was the 47th Governor of New York. He was a moderate Republican, who wound up being the party’s nominee for president twice– and losing both times. Most famously, he lost the 1948 election to Harry Truman. By election day, it was assumed by the pundit class of the day that Dewey would defeat Truman in that election. And, well, Truman won.

Sound familiar? LOL.

The photo above is of Tommy Dewey, the governor’s son, and a dog he had taken to obedience class. It appeared in an article in Life Magazine on October 1, 1945, and the dog in question is “Curley,” an Irish water spaniel.

Curley apparently had been a quite naughty dog, for the article mentions that he won the award for “Greatest Improvement” at his obedience school graduation.

In 1945, Dewey was preparing to run for president, so it was great PR to have a human interest story about the governor’s son training up this dog.

Of course, if he had only put Curley in a carrier on the roof the car, he might very well have beaten Truman.

Maybe, but I bet that a large sector of the dog owning public today would be throwing fits about that choke chain.



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This image comes from The Shotgun and Sporting Rifle (1859) by John Henry Walsh (Stonehenge).

The dog on the left is the Southern Irish water spaniel or McCarthy’s strain. It is the same breed that we call “Irish water spaniel” today.

The dog on the right is the Northern Irish water spaniel, and it is quite different.

Walsh describes the breeds in his text:

Of the Irish Water Spaniel there are two kinds:  the North of Ireland dog, which is given in the annexed engraving; and the South Country water spaniel, of which I have never seen a well-marked specimen. Both are of a liver colour, but the former has often more or less white, while in the latter this is entirely absent. The northern dog is also longer on the legs, with short ears, having little or no feather on them, and both the legs and tail being also almost free from this ornament, and covered instead with a short curly coat, as is also the rest of the body. The southern dog, on the contrary, has long and well-feathered ears, tail round also, and pointed, never being carried above the back; head covered with a perfect top-knot, coming down over the forehead in a peak. These dogs are valued very highly in Ireland, but they are little known out of that country. The northern Irish spaniel is, however, common enough in England and Scotland (pg 145-146.)

If one reads that last sentence a bit carefully, one can see what happened to the Northern Irish water spaniel. It was so celebrated as a retriever in Scotland and Ireland that it was absorbed into the retrievers.

It is much more likely that the curly-coated retriever, which is always said to have Irish water spaniel ancestry, owes a lot to the Northern Irish water spaniel for its ancestry, than the Southern Irish water spaniel, which became much more common as the institutionalized fancy developed.

It is sometimes suggested that the Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog was the closest relative to the Norther Irish water spaniel, which itself could probably more accurately be called a water dog rather than a water spaniel. Both of these dogs resembled retrievers and St. John’s water dogs more closely than other water spaniels.

The exact origins of the Northern Irish and Tweed breeds are not well-established, although there is at least one account that says that the Tweed water spaniel was a cross between a water spaniel and a “Newfoundland,” probably the St. John’s water dog. That means that it was an early regional variant of the curly-coated retriever.

If that is the case, then it is probable that the Northern Irish water spaniel was also a cross between some kind of indigenous water spaniel in the North of Ireland and the St. John’s water dog, which was itself occasionally liver in color. The St. John’s breed was almost always marked with white on the feet and chest as we can see in the depiction of the Northern Irish in Stonehenge’s text.

The curly-coated retriever was always a St. John’s water dog crossed with some sort of water spaniel. There are actually two other breeds that were of that exact same cross, although the regional variant of water spaniel was often quite different. In addition to the Tweed, the Norfolk retriever was known to be a cross between the water spaniel of East Anglia and the St. John’s water dog. This breed began to standardize, and it competed in retriever trials up until the First World War.  What happened to it is unknown.

It is possible that the standard curly-coated retriever absorbed it, as I highly suspect happened with the bulk of the Northern Irish water spaniel breed.  But it is just as possible that it became extinct.  Large-scale dog breeding went on hiatus during both World Wars, and if there were not many of these dogs around before the war started, it is very possible for them not to survive the hiatus.

We don’t know how the Northern Irish water spaniel developed. It might even be one of the ancestors of the St. John’s water dog, but I think that if it was known that Tweeds were “Newfoundland”/spaniel crosses, it is possible that this breed had a very similar make-up.


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Lough Neagh is a lake or “loch” in the middle of Northern Ireland.

Wildfowling is English for “duck hunting.”


The pochard is a close relative of the North American redhead duck, and it looks very much a redhead.

And the “good retriever” on the lough is “just a mongrel.”

However, the dog looks very much like I imagine a Tweed water spaniel looked like– a yellow retriever with a thick, slightly wavy coat, and brown skin pigment.

Of course, the dog is likely a Labrador cross, and the other dog is almost like a retriever-derived lurcher.

But its similarities to my understanding of what a Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog was are awfully beguiling to my imagination.

The water spaniel or water dog of Northern Ireland was also very similar to the Tweed– and they were likely close relatives. It was also very much like a retriever, but it was always either solid liver or liver with some white markings on the chest and feet.  Yellows didn’t exist in that breed.

Yes. It also resembles a deadgrass Chesapeake Bay retriever.

I guess in this part of Northern Ireland, retrievers are still bred in the old way. If it retrieves, it gets bred to another dog that retrieves. Pedigree doesn’t matter.

There is no pretense in this hunting expedition. It is just a couple of guys getting together with the dogs to shoot some wild ducks for supper.

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This painting of an Irish water spaniel by Walter Harrowing shows a dog with what appears to be a true red coat, instead of the liver coloration we know today. This red coloration, which would be a brown-skinned recessive red, might be a throwback to possible Irish setter ancestry in this breed.

From The Complete Dog Book (1921):

As to the origin of the Irish Water Spaniel there is very little authentic information. Mr. McCarthy seems to have been one of, if not the first, exhibitor of the breed and a successful one, although the Irish Water Spaniel was previously kept largely in Ireland for sporting purposes and a valued member of “Ireland’s Reds”—Red Setter, Red Spaniel, Red Terrier, Red Wolfhound.

The most feasible theory of his origin is a cross between the Poodle and the Irish Setter. There is much in common in type and character between the Poodle and Irish Water Spaniel—viz., in coat, conformation, head, and general character, while in disposition the dog inherits all the dash and determination of the Irish Setter, and partakes of his color, which we can quite understand would be deepened by crossing in again to the Poodle. The Irish Water Spaniel partakes, too, of the great intelligence of the Poodle, who, although regarded as a trick and fancy dog, will hunt and retrieve on land or water with most Spaniels. The breed has never made the progress with the public that it merited by their many good qualities. They are smart and upstanding in appearance, combining intelligence and endurance with a dashing temperament that make them charming companions. They are also splendid guards for children; will play with them by the hour and act as their guards in time of danger (pg 126-127).

Now, the color genetics are way off.  IWS are livers, and Irish setters are black-skinned recessive reds.  If bred to an Irish setter, the puppies will be black. However, I do think at least some historical IWS were brown-skinned reds, so maybe this theory has some currency after all.

However, I don’t discount the notion of dogs deriving from crossing a liver poodle-type water dog with an Irish setter and then back crossing to the liver water dog.

See earlier posts;

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This Irish water spaniel appears in Stonehenge’s The Dogs of the British Islands, Being a Series of Articles and Letters by Various Contributors, Reprinted from the “Field” Newspaper (1872).

In the text, this particular dog is said to have been a superior specimen. His coat is less profuse and more tightly curled than one might expect from a modern example of his breed, and his topknot looks somewhat like a glorified Mohawk.

Irish water spaniels of this type were very commonly used as retrievers throughout the British Isles, and they were even quite popular in the United States for a time.   The 1870’s and 1880’s were the zenith of their popularity, which also corresponds to the rise of the institutionalized fancy. The dogs now have largely been replaced by the St. John’s water dog-derived retrievers, and the English springer is now the main working breed of land spaniel– which can also moonlight as a water retriever.

But at one time, the Irish water spaniel was greatly sought after for its retrieving prowess.

It’s just a very different dog from the typical Labrador retriever!

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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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This is a famous painting of a Chesapeake Bay retriever, a curly, and an Irish water spaniel working for a waterfowler.

The painting is only realistic if the curly is absent. Many American waterfowlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used Irish water spaniels and Chessies. The original American retriever culture was based upon water spaniels, both American and Irish, and the native “Chesapeake ducking dog.” The Irish water spaniel was common enough in the nineteenth century that it was among the first breeds recognized by the AKC.

By the twentieth century, the curly was mostly a regional English breed that sometimes appeared as a curiosity at dog shows. It had originally been the poacher’s retriever– a totally purpose-bred dog, but it had very little room in the retriever fancy and the retriever trial culture. It was never popular in America, and it is still quite rare.

This painting always appears in generic encyclopedia books about dogs that mention retrievers. It shows three breeds that are not the majority breeds in any retriever culture. The Chessie is still widely celebrated in its homeland, but the other two are quite rare dogs.

The American retriever culture would be based upon waterfowling. The British retriever culture would be based upon the estate shoot in which pheasants, partridge, quail, and pigeons were shot along with hares and rabbits. Americans would originally prefer dogs that were a definite water dog type, as all three of these dogs were. Labradors, flat-coats, and goldens were all a bit suspect, simply because they were working terrestrial shoots.

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This dog is an IWS mixed with either golden or flat-coated retriever. A liver IWS bred to a golden with black pigment will produce black puppies.

Here’s her profile at Black Retriever X Rescue.

This cross tells me that IWS are not that distinct from the other retrievers, and the old name “Irish retriever” may be a better way of understanding what they are.

Water spaniels are ancestral to retrievers, but this particular breed of water spaniel still exists. It’s the only one left in the whole of the British Isles.

Most people think all spaniels are land spaniels, but even retrievers can do spaniel work. Goldens can do the same behaviors for which English springers are known.

The line between retriever and spaniel is a bit fuzzy, although the main retrievers have “Newfoundland” ancestry that spaniels don’t have.  I read a source that said some St. John’s water dogs were cross with IWS at some point, but I haven’t been able to verify it. The extinct Tweed water spaniel was a mixture of St. John’s water dog and some kind of water spaniel. It looked more or less like a yellow or reddish curly-coated retriever with just a bit more bone.

I’m sure the Murray River curly-coated retriever folks who read this blog will be interested in looking at this dog. She resembles their dog very closely, but she’s black in color.


Also compare this dog with  the late Shuttle, the golden who used to be in  my header. Their heads have similar shapes.

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