Irish Water Spaniels

The smiling Irish Water Spaniel is a clown of the highest order. He does everything with enthusiasm, including making his people laugh. Although he’s called a spaniel, the IWS is primarily a water retriever and has a fine reputation as a hunting dog among those in the know. He stands out for his curly coat, topknot, smooth “rat” tail and webbed feet.

The IWS is a fun and interesting dog, no doubt about it, but his high energy level and potential for health problems are factors to consider before acquiring one. Here’s what you need to know about the breed.

Is the Irish Water Spaniel the Right Dog for You?

The IWS has a lot going for him: personality, trainability and a touchably soft coat. He’s smart, responsive and active. He’s a typical sporting dog in his love of family and people-pleasing nature. The IWS isn’t indiscriminate in his affection, though. He tends to be reserved around strangers and sometimes is downright shy or easily spooked. Early and frequent socialization is a must.

Like any hunting breed, he’s tireless and needs lots of strenuous daily exercise. If you’re not a hunter, channel his energy into dog sports such as agility, flyball and flying disc games, teach him to pull you or your kid on skates or a skateboard, or take him on as your jogging buddy. He’ll also do well in competitive obedience.

The IWS enjoys mental challenges as well and is a quick learner, but expect this sly devil to put his own spin on whatever you’re trying to teach. He can also be stubborn, so it’s important to find out what motivates him. For best results, use positive reinforcement techniques such as play, praise and food rewards.

Like most dogs, Irish Water Spaniels become bored when left to their own devices. They can easily become noisy or destructive if they don’t have other dogs to keep them company and don’t receive much attention from their people. But when the IWS lives with a family who is willing to spend plenty of time training and exercising him, he thrives.

Expect to comb and brush this breed’s curly coat two or three times a week. Comb it first to prevent or remove mats and tangles. Then 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. Be sure to give him a thorough freshwater rinse after he has been in saltwater or a lake or pond with algae, and a bath as need be. In addition, trim the nails as needed, clean and trim the fur around the foot pads, and keep the ears clean and dry to prevent infections.

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

6 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Irish 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. Finding a good breeder is more important than finding the right puppy. A good breeder 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 for a good breeder on the website of the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America, and choose one who is committed to following the IWSCA’s breeder’s directory criteria.
  3. Do not purchase a puppy from a breeder who cannot provide you with written documentation that the parents were cleared of health problems that affect the breed. Having the dogs "vet checked" is not a substitute for genetic health testing.
  4. Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health problems in Irish Water Spaniels aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, most of them can be ruled out. In addition, Irish 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 IWS 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 Irish 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.

Irish Water Spaniels have some health conditions that can be a concern, especially if you aren’t cautious about whom you buy from. They include hip dysplasia, eye problems such as distichiasis (ingrown eyelashes), seizures, cancer, immune deficiencies, hair loss and autoimmune hypothyroidism. Frequent ear infections can also be a problem, which is not unusual in a dog who loves getting wet.

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 or a PennHIP evaluation and certification from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation that the eyes are healthy. Breeders should also be willing to discuss the typical lifespan of dogs from their lines.

The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America is supporting research to identify the gene or genes linked to the development of canine epilepsy, particularly in the Irish Water Spaniel, in the hope of devising DNA marker assays that can detect epilepsy-causing mutations and allow breeders in the future to produce puppies free of the disease.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Hip Dysplasia
Medium $1,500-$6,000
Follicular Dysplasia High $200-$500
Estimates based on claims paid by Embrace Pet Insurance


Pet Insurance for Irish Water Spaniels

Pet insurance for Irish Water Spaniels costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Irish 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 Irish Water Spaniels are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your Irish 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.