You can tell a lot about a hunter, given the gun dog they choose. Dogs speak of tradition. For example, along the Eastern Seaboard the Chesapeake Bay retriever is still king, still plunging into the frigid, unrelenting surf as they did a century ago. In the grouse covers of Appalachia, you'll most often find a setter gliding over the mountains and hills. And in the Deep South, on quail plantations rich in hospitality and heritage, pointers are the dogs most often found tracking ahead of the mule-drawn carts.
There is another gun dog tradition, though, and it's alive in the upper Midwest. Trappers and market hunters of the late 1800s developed this dog out of necessity, a dog born out of the marsh, out of the black-water bayous and the angry waters of the Great Lakes.
Compact and tenacious, the "American brown water spaniel" - as he was then known - was capable of handling a duck or goose in any sort of condition. He could easily be transported by canoe back into the swamps, narrow rivers, and sloughs where the men hunted and trapped.
Not only a water dog, this loyal and hardworking retriever excelled in the uplands on grouse and woodcock. He could also track rabbits and tree raccoons, if that be the order of the day. A truly versatile hunter, he would even act as guard dog of home and property when his master was away.
Unfortunately, marsh men and river rats were never much on keeping any written records, so today we know little as to how the "American browns" came to be. Crossbreeding, either by design or happenstance, mattered little to the hunters of the day. The dogs that survived long enough to breed were tough and resistant to disease, not because they came from exceptionally papered lines. Think of it as good old-fashioned Darwinism at work: survival of the fittest.
It's generally believed that the American water spaniel came out of the Wolf and Fox River Valleys of east-central Wisconsin. And near the turn of the century, the breed captured the admiration of a local doctor and surgeon in the region named F.J. Pfeifer.
"Doc" Pfeifer saw favorable characteristics in the dogs, characteristics that time and time again bred true. He petitioned to have the breed officially recognized, and finally registered his own dog, Curly, with the United Kennel Club in 1920. And so, the American water spaniel was born.
Just as it was during the turn of the century, the American water spaniel remains an upper Midwest phenomenon today. They are considered a rare breed by today's registration numbers -- less than 1,000 of the dogs are registered every year with the American Kennel Club. And most of these come, as they always have, from the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (where the American water spaniel became the state dog in 1986).
Much can be offered as reason why the American water spaniel never received widespread recognition. David Duffy, gun dog writer and proponent of the breed, once suggested that the "inability of the breed to attract the support and enthusiasm of wealthy, influential patrons can be attributed to the fact that the American water spaniel has no snob appeal."
In gun dog circles, the American is known as a poor man's dog. It is almost non-existent in show circles, and never appears on the national field trial scene. Like an old weathered shotgun, they are not pretty or handsome, unless a hunter equates these characteristics with meat on the table.
A typical male of the breed stands 15 to 18 inches at the shoulder and weighs anywhere from 25 to 45 pounds. They have a muscular, medium build with curly, liver-colored fur. Tails are long and tapered, with moderate feathering.
Cosmetically, the American water spaniel is not much to look at. But, then, proponents of the breed have never tried to make a case for its beauty. First and foremost, they are hunting dogs. They are close-working companions in the uplands, and as water dogs they can handle frigid conditions and waterfowl of any size. They are tireless retrievers. Yet, they typically do not respond well to rigorous, high-pressure training. American water spaniels are said to learn best by doing. Likewise, the breed is reported to have innate hunting instincts, yet complex drills may go "over the head" of most dogs.
But it's the compact size and stamina of these dogs that makes them a boon for today's sportsmen. For hunters negotiating small waterways by canoe, the benefits are obvious. Size and temperament also make the breed an ideal housedog in any suburban or rural setting. Owing to their history as a market hunter's dog, American water spaniels are accommodating of family and small children, yet highly protective of them and their owner's property in the face of danger.
The solo hunter looking for a savvy, all-around dog could do no better than by seeking out a breeder of American water spaniels. They are one of those tried, true, and tested American originals.
For more information on American water spaniels, contact the American Water Spaniel Field Association via their website at www.awsfa.org
Before turning to freelancing fulltime, Bob Butz was the managing editor for The Pointing Dog Journal and The Retriever Journal. He writes lifestyle, interview, and sporting articles for numerous publications. Just recently, his by-line has appeared in such publications as Sports Afield, GQ, New York Times, BOOK Magazine, and Land Rover Journal. He teamed up with photographer Lee Kjos to complete the book -- Season's Belle: A Labrador Retriever's First Year -- due out in May 2002 from Silver Quill Press.
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