The Poor Man’s Exquisite Dog

She’s got large hairy feet, wide hips, and well developed thighs. Though her coat is oily, it is a riot of curls. She’s strongly built for an old gal – indeed, she’s got the sturdy, broad back anyone would want in a working girl.

No, she’s not the blind date your in-law set up for you, she’s the Irish Water Spaniel, and she’s not like any other dog.

Her conformation aside, she is one of only two types of dogs described in the first classifications of Spaniels: Land (or Sporting) Spaniels and Water Spaniels. Dr. Johannes Caius, physician to Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I, described her in 1570 when he wrote, “[Water Spaniels] have ‘long, rough, and curled hair’ with the end of his tail is somewhat bare and naked, as if by shearing off such troublesome and needless hair.” There is also reference to the “Water Spagnell” in Edward Topsell’s zoological encyclopedia of 1607, The History of the Foure-Footed Beastes.

There’s one more thing:

Photo by David Moyle

The exquisite IWS you see above is “Bella,” aka BIS/BISS GCH Whistle Stop’s Wind on the Water loved by Michelle Cummings, a dog who graced NPDD’s 2019 calendar, “Dogs of National Purebred Dog Day.” While the string of letters that appears before Bella’s name indicates a successful, well recognized dog in the show ring, the titles belie the breed’s humble heritage. Historically, ownership of this breed was not restricted to the gentry or even landowners when in many other countries, such was not the case for native breeds.

Ireland was a country that seemed to suffer from famine on a routine basis. Shallow water birds and ducks were a source of food for impoverished peasants, and the Irish Water Spaniel – which peasants could legally own – found, caught, killed and/or retrieved dinner for people who couldn’t afford to own a gun. In fact, J.S. Skidmore applauded the breed in the late 19th century when he wrote that he recommend the breed to “gentlemen of limited means,”  or for those who did not “have the accommodation to keep a team of dogs” that could do what one Irish Water Spaniel could do: Point, set, retrieve, flush  – and more. What’s more, with his waterproof oily, curly coat, he could endure the miserable wet, cold conditions of working in bogs and marshes without much attention from his destitute owners. All these traits helped more than one Irish family survive when their potato crops failed.

Ownership of the breed spanned across various social, economic, ethnic and political circumstances, and for good reason, the IWS was the third most popular sporting dog in the United States in 1875. That said, take another look at Bella’s picture, and be baffled that her breed appears on the Kennel Club’s list of Vulnerable Breeds in their country of origin. In 2018, only 111 IWSs were registered with England’s Kennel Club, though this is an improvement over the 69 dogs registered the year before. #SaveOurBreeds

Image by DJ Rogers – k9artgallery

10 thoughts on “The Poor Man’s Exquisite Dog”

  1. Living with Irish water spaniels, there is the sense that this dog has been bred for centuries to work with and for their owner. Wonderful article and it’s always a treat to see the lovely Bella.

    • We appreciate the kind words, Betty! This is a marvelous breed, and as for that photograph of Bella, it takes our breath away, it really does.

  2. Thank you for featuring the breed that owns my heart! I cannot imagine living without this keenly intelligent, obviously riotous clown!

    • Melissa, we envy you your terrific breed, and if we didn’t have our own (Pulik), we’d be sorely tempted to look into a Water spaniel!

  3. So interesting reading the J.S. Skidmore quote,” that could do what one Irish Water Spaniel could do: Point, set, retrieve, flush – and more.!. I have long held the view that the breed was best suited to be in the HPR sub-group.

  4. Really great article!! So interesting!! IWS most certainly are a marvelous breed! Love ours so much!! Bella’s photo is gorgeous!

    • Thank you, Shelly! Bella’s photograph is just stunning, we agree!

  5. We have two, 12 year old Manny and six year old Tara. Uncle and niece. He’s as zen as the day is long, which is why he has been such a good money raiser for animal shelter. She is tempestuous, temperamental, and terror filling. No better friends have we. Loyal loving laughable. But every day they make us laugh even as they commandeer the chairs the bed the heater. Only a few here in New Zealand but the best breed we have owned.

    • We’ve never heard a bad word about the breed, Gyles.They are truly wonderful!

  6. One of the amazing things of our breed is the versatility and the commitment of the owners to maintain it. At our national specialty you will see the same dogs being primped after competing in the field so they can race around the show ring looking fabulous. The next day competing in agility with abandon and or having fun in obedience. They are still the poor man’s answer to every need.
    This is Joey (HRCH CH Whistlestop’s B All U Can B CD RN MH) at a National Specialty where he was BViSw and Select Dog.

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