601 Bring Back Our Water Spaniel

by   David Hancock

 The multiple talents of the English Springer Spaniel may well have ended the employment and seen the demise of a once-recognised English gundog breed: the English Water Spaniel. Yet the supremacy of the Border Collie in the working field didn't see off the Rough (Scottish) Collie away from that use. The blood of the Tweed Water Spaniel is prized in the Golden Retriever and, in Holland, their water specialist, the Frisian Water Dog or Wetterhoun is being faithfully protected, where too their small black spaniel, the Markiesje, has also been saved. McCarthy saved the Irish Water Spaniel and it usually requires one utterly-determined advocate to achieve such a task. We English are remarkably fickle about our native breeds, gundogs especially, where the Black Setter, the milk-white Llanidloes Setter and the rusty-coated Norfolk Retriever were also allowed to disappear.

 Like the extinct English White Terrier, the English Water Spaniel was allowed by the Kennel Club to vanish from their lists. The majority of breeds now recognised by that body originated overseas. Whatever the merits of foreign dogs, and the patronage of exceptional dogs will always transcend national boundaries, the KC's new interest in preserving vulnerable native breeds such as the Skye, Dandie Dinmont and Sealyham terriers, is novel. The Belgian Mastiff has been saved but only through the lifelong devotion of one fancier, Alfons Bertels. One of Poland's oldest hound breeds, the Gonczy Polsky, has now been rescued from obscurity by a bunch of enthusiasts from the South Eastern part of Poland. If such breeds are only conserved by individuals acting unilaterally, what really is the point of national kennel clubs taking it upon themselves to oversee breed status?

 It would be good to see an English Water Spaniel featuring in our sporting scene once more. Establishing its identity with so much variation in the working English Springer might however be difficult. I see the latter ranging from curly-coated to flat-coated specimens, standing 16" at the shoulder or almost two feet, featuring small smooth ears or judges' wigs for ears. Is there another sporting breed with so much variation in its appearance? The water dog breeds of Europe, now being favoured here, whether from Italy, Spain, Portugal or France (the Barbet, not the Poodle), each display a clear identity, as do our other native sporting spaniels, like the Field, the Sussex and the Clumber. We must be careful that our precious English Springer doesn't become 'any variety sporting spaniel'. 

       But what should an English Water Spaniel look like? The curly coat, more open than the tight curls of the water dog breeds,  would be the first characteristic, with shorter ears than the Springer, and to a set size of around 18" at the shoulder. The Irish Water Spaniel should be just under two feet but I see some giants, far bigger than their role demands. Depictions of the English Water Spaniel of a century ago, usually show a parti-coloured dog, as portrayals of 'Lucky Shot' reveal. But a self-coloured dog, rather like the Curly-coated Retriever, our water dog, would be more distinctive. Reinagle's depiction of 'Fid, the faithful dog of Sir Gilbert Heathcote' shows a whole black wavy-coated really workmanlike specimen. 'Jessica' which won at Birmingham in 1904 exhibits the same phenotype. But what do the gundog sages of a century or so ago say about this long-lost breed? 

 I don't believe that Rawdon Lee was right when he stated that the old water dog and the English Water Spaniel were identical. Water dogs have a distinct tight close astrakhan curl to their coats, water spaniels have a more open curliness in the texture of theirs. The American Water Spaniel, rescued by Dr Pfeifer and used as a 'jump-shooting' retriever in northern Minnesota, solid liver or dark chocolate, has this marcelled texture, so aptly conveyed by Herring's 'Water Spaniel beside a River' of 1829. The Sportsman's Cabinet recorded that 'the black is the best and hardiest; the spotted or pied the quickest of scent and the liver-coloured the most rapid in swimming and the most eager in pursuit.' The Sportsman's Repository described a strong and sturdy dog, with 'hooped' ribs. The breed standard published in Phillips and Cane's The Sporting Spaniel gave the coat as covered in crisp curls but leaving the face smooth.

 Idstone writes that they 'may be seen by the sides of most canals, and in the gaudy kennels of most barges' but I don't believe he is correct in stating that English Water Spaniels are simply crosses and modifications of the 'Irish race'. Gordon Stables quotes the more knowledgeable gundog men Lort and Shirley in stating that 'this is the only spaniel which is allowed to be curly...excellent water dogs, combining as they do, the qualities of the Spaniel proper with that of the Retriever'. Rawdon Lee described a bright chestnut red dog, with a coat 'dense but silky in texture, the curl of which was not so close or crisp as we like in an Irish Water Spaniel'. He considerd this the right texture for water work. I once had a working sheepdog with this marcelled coat; his coat often got wet, his skin never did.   



Each year more and more foreign water dogs enter the KC's lists, each year many of our revered native breeds lose ground. Writing on the loss of the English Water Spaniel, WD Drury in his British Dogs, of 1903, gave this robust pronouncement: 'This does not seem a very creditable performance on the part of a body of men possessing the great power and influence of the Kennel Club, the avowed object of which is the encouragement and improvement of every breed of dog. The reason is not far to seek. But surely a dog club occupying the position of a national institution, whether self-assumed or not, ought to encourage the indigenous and long-established breeds of dog of Britain; and the Water Spaniel has a title to be included in the list superior to many that are made much of whilst it is neglected.' Couldn't have put it better myself! Come on you patriotic gundog men of England, let's get our water spaniel back at work.