American Water Spaniels

Known as the “little brown dog,” the curly-coated American Water Spaniel is the classic “big dog in a small package.” With a weight range of 25 to 45 pounds, he looks small and cute, but he’s a tough dog known his stubborn streak. Although he’s called a spaniel, the AWS is primarily a water retriever and has a fine reputation as a hunting dog. His claim to fame is that he is the state dog of Wisconsin, where he was developed in the mid-19th century in the Wolf and Fox River Valley region. The AWS is appealing for his rarity, appearance and size, but his assertive personality and potential for health problems are factors to consider before acquiring one.

Is the American Water Spaniel the Right Dog for You?

The AWS has something of a dual personality. He’s tough-minded, independent (read: likes to do things his way) and will take any opportunity to be top dog with people or other dogs, but he is also a smart dog that responds well to gentle, consistent training techniques. With the right owner, he is willing to please. For best results, use positive reinforcement techniques such as play, praise and food rewards. Begin training and socialization early to ward off problems such as food-guarding, shyness and aggression toward unknown dogs.

Like any retriever, he’s tireless and needs daily exercise. A long walk will do, but you can also channel his energy into dog sports such as agility and flyball. He’ll love anything that involves getting wet and is an excellent choice for boaters, including canoers and kayakers since he was developed to hunt from a boat.

Expect to comb and brush this breed’s curly double coat two or three times a week. Comb it first to prevent or remove mats and tangles. Do this every time your dog has been outside and picked up burrs or other debris. Use a slicker brush to remove dead hair. You may need to trim the coat every once in a while to give it a neat appearance. The AWS rarely needs a bath, but be sure to give him a thorough freshwater rinse after he has been in saltwater or a lake or pond with algae. In addition, trim the nails as needed, clean and trim fur between the foot pads, and keep the ears clean and dry to prevent infections. More tips on grooming are available from the American Water Spaniel Club.

Last but not least, it should go without saying that a people-loving dog like the American Water Spaniel needs to live in the house. It’s an unhappy AWS who is relegated to the backyard with little or no human companionship.

The AWS is an uncommon breed. Don’t expect to find a puppy available immediately. You may well have to wait six months to a year or more, so plan accordingly.

6 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy American Water Spaniel Puppy

  1. Don’t ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store. You’re more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to housetrain puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills.
  2. Find a good breeder who will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as possible. Start your search with the American Water Spaniel Club of America. Choose one who is committed to abide by the AWSC Breeders Ethics Guidelines.
  3. Ask the breeder to show evidence that both of a puppy’s parents have hip scores of Excellent, Good or Fair from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, an OFA cardiac clearance and certification from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation that the eyes are healthy. You can check the website of the Canine Health Information Center to see if a breeder’s dogs have these certifications.
  4. Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health problems in American Water Spaniels aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, most of them can be ruled out. In addition, American Water Spaniels can live 10 to 12 years, so an adult dog will still be a part of your family for a long time to come.
  5. Puppy or adult, take your AWS to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
  6. Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Health Issues Common to American Water Spaniels

All purebred dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.

American Water Spaniels have some health conditions that can be a concern, especially if you aren’t cautious about whom you buy from. They include mitral valve disease, hip dysplasia, and eye problems such as progressive retinal atrophy. Other diseases that may be seen in the breed are epilepsy, hypothyroidism and diabetes.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Hip Dysplasia
Low $1,500-$6,000
Mitral Valve Disease Low $500-$2,000
Estimates based on claims paid by Embrace Pet Insurance


Pet Insurance for American Water Spaniels

Pet insurance for American Water Spaniels costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because American Water Spaniels are more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.

Embrace pet insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which American Water Spaniels are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your American Water Spaniel is when he’s a healthy puppy. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can’t get when you need it the most.