Irish Water Spaniel

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45-58 lbs
The Irish water spaniel has ancient roots shared with the poodle, Portuguese water dog, and Barbet. It is depicted in artwork from 1,000 years ago and has been referred to as the Shannon spaniel, the rat-tail spaniel, and the whip-tail spaniel.
water retrieving
Date of Origin
gundog, spaniel

Irish Water Spaniel Health

Average Size
Height: 22-24 inches Weight: 55-65 lbs
Height: 21-23 inches Weight: 45-58 lbs
Major Concerns
  • CHD
Occasional Tests
  • Hip

Irish Water Spaniel Breed History

It is uncertain whether all of these dogs were the same breed or just similar varieties. Some believe that the origin of the breed descended from either the poodle and the Irish setter or the poodle and the curly-coated retriever. In early Ireland there were three similar spaniel breeds: the Southern Irish, or McCarthy’s Breed; the Northern Irish, and the Tweed spaniels. Due to the similarities in appearance, many believe that the Southern variety produced the modern Irish water spaniel. It is possible, however, that it was bred with another type of water spaniel that resembled the English water spaniel and lived in the north. This variety of dog had short ears, a curly coat and was liver-colored with white markings. The southern variety was solid-colored with short, crisp curls. A Dubliner by the name of Justin McCarthy is responsible for blending all of these separate varieties of water spaniels into the single type known today. His dog, Sire Boatswain, is considered the father of the modern breed. Bred to retrieve water birds, the Irish water spaniel was also used to hunt upland game and even dove. In the 1800s, it was used in America for duck hunting; and in the late 1800s, it appeared in the show ring for the first time in both America and England. England recognized the breed in 1859, and the AKC provided a special class for the breed in 1849. In 1877, four members of the breed appeared in the Westminster Kennel Club show in the U.S. By 1875, it had gained popularity as the third most popular sporting dog. Unfortunately, the Labrador retriever – with its similar hunting skills without the grooming requirements – unseated IWS as both a hunting companion and family pet.

Irish Water Spaniel Breed Appearance

The Irish water spaniel is a rectangular breed that is taller than any other member of the spaniel family. The body is medium-length and strongly built. The breed is often compared to a thickset poodle. Its smooth, “rat-like” tail, a unique characteristic of the IWS, tapers to a point. Curls stand out on the thick end while the tip is covered with short, straight fur. It is also distinguished by the topknot of long, loose curls. Its eyes are dark hazel and lend themselves to the dog’s curious and intelligent expression. Its ears are long, low, and covered in curls. The muzzle is long and square with a large, liver-colored nose. The breed’s face, like its tail, is covered in short, smooth hair except for a beard-like tuft that grows in a line to the jaw. Its gait is smooth and ground-covering with great reach and drive. The Irish water spaniel has a thick, curly double coat that protects it from the elements and rough terrain and sheds water easily after a swim. From its neck to its rear, the coat forms crisp ringlets with longer hair underneath. The legs have curly or wavy hair that smooths below the hocks and even its feet are covered. The only acceptable color for this breed is a rich, dark liver.

Irish Water Spaniel Breed Maintenance

The thick curly coat of the Irish water spaniel requires grooming at least two times per week with a steel comb in order to keep it free from knots and mats. Professional trimming is recommended for the coat to preserve its shape. Although the breed sheds very little, it does lose its coat occasionally like most dogs do. However, in the IWS, the loose hairs tend to mat in the new coat, creating messy cords. Be sure to comb through the coat more often during this period. Mats are especially common behind the ears and on the feet. This breed has little pet dander, making it an excellent choice for allergy sufferers. The Irish water spaniel is an active hunting dog that requires sufficient physical and mental challenges to maintain its health and prevent boredom. Regular daily exercise should include as much swimming as possible. Other options include long hikes, strenuous play, running, or retrieving. Obedience training will keep the IWS mentally sharp. Because of its size and exercise requirements, this breed is best suited for a house with at least a medium-sized, fenced yard. This spaniel may slobber and drool.

Irish Water Spaniel Breed Activity Requirements

This spaniel is extremely intelligent, but very independent. Do not choose a timid puppy, but train firmly and consistently from the time it is a pup. Due to its strong-willed nature, the IWS is not recommended for first time owners. The breed is known to be playful and even mischievous. It is reserved around strangers and needs to be properly socialized if it is going to be around children. Kids should be taught to be considerate with this dog. The breed tends to be aggressive with other dogs, but can get along well with pets if it is properly introduced. It does not bark much, except as a warning to its family. The breed can be timid or suspicious, and some will snap if startled or pestered. The IWS requires strong leadership, or it may ignore commands.