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The “Forgotten” Retriever

by Chris Robinson

At one time, in the not too distant past, the Irish Water Spaniel was frequently the dog of-choice among waterfowl hunters in the United States. Within a few years after the first Irish were imported to the U.S. in 1870, they became the nation’s third most popular sporting breed and for many years thereafter held that position reaching the height of their popularity in the period between World Wars I and II. But then, as was the case with a number of sporting breeds, the Irish Water Spaniel was slowly but surely nearly obliterated by a tidal wave of black, yellow and chocolate as the Labrador Retriever began its ascendance to the top in the world of retriever field trials. This led to Labrador fanciers moving into positions of dominance within the rule-making bodies for retriever field trials and they tailored those rules to showcase the particular attributes of that breed. As a result, many other fine retriever breeds began to decline in popularity as hunters took their cues from field trial results. The thinking among hunters was that if Labradors were the breed that always won field trials, then they must be the breed to have in the field.

Perhaps no retriever breed was hurt more by this change in what was considered stylish in the field than the Irish Water Spaniel which has slipped from third most popular sporting breed to the ranks of those breeds considered “rare” sitting as it does at 154th in popularity just one slot behind the Curly-Coat among the 175 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club in 2012. Indeed, among the 28 sporting breeds recognized by the AKC, only the Sussex Spaniel and the Irish Red and White Setter had fewer individuals registered in 2012 than the Irish Water Spaniel.

The popularity of the Labrador as a field trial dog and later as a family pet was, however, not the only factor that contributed to the decline of the Irish Water Spaniel. “Without doubt, part of the problem was the IWS’ coat,” said Marilyn Cantrell, who chairs the public outreach and education committee for the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America. “A lot of hunters these days seem to want to have a dog that has a ‘wash-and-wear’ coat. But there are other factors that influenced the choice of breeds for many hunters. For one thing, the IWS is incredibly intelligent and there are quite a few hunters who don’t want a dog that can think. Another issue is that the IWS is incredibly demanding. They excel as part of the family and they cannot be left in the kennel with little human interaction. These characteristics mean the IWS, like the Chesapeakes, the Flat-Coats, the Tollers and the Curly-Coat, are not the right breed for everyone.”

But, as is the case with these other less popular retriever breeds—Chesapeakes (46th on the popularity list,) Flat-Coats (91st), NSDTRs (102nd) and Curly-Coats (153rd in popularity)—there remains a hard core of people who wouldn’t consider hunting with anything but an IWS and to these IWS lovers, no other dog can compare with the breed as a hunting dog. “Versatility is the main virtue of an Irish Water Spaniel,” said Russ Dodd. “They retrieve waterfowl on big water and in heavy marshes, flush and retrieve upland game and then curl up with the kids at night. Not as robotic as Labradors or as compulsive as Springers, their versatility is perfect for people like me where the dog’s top job is to be a family companion during the week and then go after birds on weekends. Unlike a lot of jacks-of-all-trades, the IWS can actually master a few. They have great noses and prey drive. They can be great markers and they persist on birds. If they detect a bird in heavy cover, they will stay on it until they make contact. If the bird is not quick to take off, they’re happy to trap it and deliver a wild bird. I get about six birds every year that never get off the ground and at which I have not fired a shot.”

“The IWS has traditionally worked as both a retriever and a spaniel. Because of their retrieving ability, keen noses and bird desire, they can work as a retriever and do upland work like a spaniel which means the hunter has the best of both worlds. They are bigger than the spaniels which means that instead of going under the cover, they go through it and they naturally work close when quartering which means they stay in gun range. The IWS is a naturally quartering dog. They will naturally stay within gun range. They have a very keen sense of smell. That coupled with their bird drive allows them to do well on upland game. They will naturally check out cover that will be most likely to hold birds. When comparing their hunting style as that of a retriever or a spaniel, they tend to hunt upland game like a spaniel. They are highly trainable and thrive in an environment where they are challenged to work. They are good family dogs that have a relatively hypo-allergenic coat which is a plus for people who have allergies and they do very well when they are trained by their owners. They’re an all around dog that can compete in every type of dog sport and they are fast learners,” said Susan Sarracino-Deihl.

“Having trained some Irish Water Spaniels and also trained Labs, I think the IWS are comparable and I really do not alter my basic retriever program for the IWS. The IWS are probably stronger in the upland work where nose and quartering are required but they are very biddable as a retriever and can do the water and blind work well. Irish Water Spaniels have excellent noses and they exhibit a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for training and working. They are smart dogs which means they love mental stimulation and games. Mine have always had a great attitude and eagerness. Many people at dog events have remarked that their tails never stop wagging and I can attest that this is true whether they are hunting, training, trialing or at a hunt test. To an IWS, life is a party and all you have to do is show up. They are independent, creative and thinking dogs. They are also very smart hunting companions,” said Elissa Kirkegard.

“The Irish Water Spaniel is an interesting dog because they need you to have something of an iron fist in a silken glove approach to training them,” said Colleen McDaniel. “They are intelligent, sensitive and they have an excellent nose that can find birds often missed by other retrievers. But, that same nose will get them into trouble because they are inclined to tune you out if they have their nose tuned into something they feel needs their attention. Once they understand what their job is while hunting, you have to learn to trust them. They are very capable of being creative if the situation calls for something other than just a straightforward retrieve. For this reason, the IWS works well in a real life hunting situation but not so well in field trials or hunt tests. They are athletic and strong which means they can handle all types of terrain and they also possess a great deal of endurance even in weather extremes. Even though they are mainly used as waterfowl or upland bird hunters here in the U.S., in Europe they are often also used to hunt fur. They are perfectly capable of hunting rabbits on the same day they hunt grouse.”

Rare breeds such as the IWS often face challenges that either do not affect more popular breeds or affect them to a much lesser extent. A significant problem for the IWS, according to Sarracino-Deihl, is maintaining enough bloodlines with field ability and keeping enough breeders in the breed who will actually put preserving field ability at the top of their priority list when making breeding decisions. “In the past, many breeders sold pups not suitable as show dogs as ‘field dogs’ whether the pup had any field ability or not. This probably hurt the breed in the opinion of hunters who got some of the ‘have nots’ and undoubtedly some of them were pretty vocal about their IWS’ lack of ability in the field. A good breeder will only place a pup that shows field ability in a home where such abilities will not only be valued but will be utilized. We really need to find a way to get word out to the hunting public about the great field ability of this breed and we also need to spread the story of the IWS’ ability in all dog sports to the general public.”

“With relatively few animals in this breed and with so much passion about these wonderful dogs, conflicting opinions about what is best for the breed often colors the tone of discussions,” said Dodd. “Because the IWS excel at so many other performance activities such as agility, tracking and obedience, it is to be expected that a number of breeders are not exclusively dedicated to hunting and hunt training. Many of them respect the origins of the breed but are putting their own breeding priorities on these other attributes. And, while these are not in direct conflict with breeding a great versatile gun dog, it doesn’t top the list for some breeders. Most IWS show dogs have never had the chance at field work but most IWS that are great in the field are also great in the ring and other performance venues. For their amazing personality and versatility, the Irish Water Spaniel is a true ‘all-around’ gun dog and just right for an equally fun-loving and versatile owner.”

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Posted by on Apr 25 2013. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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