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Irish Water Spaniel

Nicole Cosgrove

June 18, 2021

Typical Irish Water Spaniel

The Irish Water Spaniel is a medium to large purebred from Ireland often mistaken for a brown Poodle, but in fact any Poodle in its past is far back and hidden. Its other names include the Southern Irish Water Spaniel, the Bogdog, the Whip-tail Spaniel, the Irish Water Dog, the Shannon Spaniel, Rat Tail Spanial and McCarthy’s Breed. It was bred to be a bird dog but instead of flushing them out it jumps into the water to retrieve wounded or dead birds. It makes a great companion and also does well in events such as obedience, rally, agility, fly ball and tracking.

The Irish Water Spaniel at A Glance
Name Irish Water Spaniel
Other names Whiptail, Shannon Spaniel, Rat Tail Spaniel and Bog Dog
Nicknames IWS
Origin Ireland
Average size Medium to large
Average weight 45 to 65 pounds
Average height 21 to 24 inches
Life span 10 to 12 years
Coat type Thick, dense, water-repellant
Hypoallergenic Yes
Color Browns, purple undertone
Popularity Not popular – ranked 149th by the AKC
Intelligence Excellent – understands new commands after 5 to 15 repetitions
Tolerance to heat Very good – can handle hot climates just not extreme
Tolerance to cold Very good – can handle cold climates but not extremes
Shedding Low – not a lot of hair to be found around the home with this breed
Drooling Moderate – may be some slobber or drool
Obesity Moderate – can gain weight but not especially prone, just watch its food and exercise
Grooming/brushing Moderate to high maintenance needs – brush at least 3 times a week
Barking Rare – not prone to making a lot of noise!
Exercise needs Fairly active – will need to be with active owners
Trainability Moderately easy to easy with the right handling
Friendliness Excellent with socialization
Good first dog Moderate – better with experienced owners
Good family pet Excellent with socialization
Good with children Very good with socialization
Good with other dogs Good with socialization – may be some issues with same sex dogs
Good with other pets Moderate to good – socialization is needed
Good with strangers Excellent with socialization
Good apartment dog Good but better in a home with a yard
Handles alone time well Good – can be left alone for short periods
Health issues Not a very healthy breed – multiple issues that can occur, some include eye problems, ear infections, drug allergies, hip dysplasia, epilepsy
Medical expenses $460 a year for basic health care and pet insurance
Food expenses $145 for a good quality dry dog food and dog treats
Miscellaneous expenses $535 for miscellaneous items, grooming, toys, basic training and license
Average annual expenses $1140 as a starting figure
Cost to purchase $1,000
Rescue organizations Several including the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America
Biting Statistics None reported

The Irish Water Spaniel’s Beginnings

The Irish Water Spaniel can be dated back to the 7th and 8th century, as dog remains almost exactly like the IWS were found and dated to that time. Irish folklore suggest it is actually descended from the Dobhar-chu. In 1598 it is thought Sir Robert Cecil sent one to the King of France, and the breed is described in Topsell’s book from 1607, ‘History of the Foure-Footed Beastes’. It says, “Water Spagnel with his long, rough, curled hair and a tail somewhat bare and naked.” There is further mention of them in the 1700s and the first painting depicting one of these dogs was done in 1841. They were dual purpose hunting retriever dogs, used to bring birds in from either water or land.

But then in the 1800s it was developed further into the dog we know today. The foundation of dog being one who lived between the 1830s and 1852 and was named Boatswain. He was owned and bred by Justin McCarthy, who died without telling anyone or writing down exactly what went into the breed. There is a lot of conjecture about what went into its development though, suggested breeds include the Poodle, the Portuguese Water Dog, the French Barbet, Irish Setter, Irish Spaniel, Curly Coated Retriever and the English Water Spaniel. Many successful show Irish Water Spaniels and field types were sired by Boatswain. In 1890 the Irish Water Spaniel Club was started.

New Lease on Life

In the late 1800s the dog was exported to several countries including the US. There it was popular as a hunting dog for ducks. In 1875 it was the 3rd most popular sporting dog in the US. It was recognized by the AKC in 1884 but with the arrival of the Labrador Retrievers who were easier to look after, the popularity of the Irish Water Spaniel went into decline. In 1937 the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America was formed but while the dog is still popular with show fanciers, bird hunters and some families it is rare in the US, though continues to do well in its home country. It currently ranks 149th in popularity by the AKC.

The Dog You See Today

This medium to large dog weighs 45 to 65 pounds and stands 21 to 24 inches tall. It is in fact the tallest of all spaniel breeds. It is a stoutly built dog with a deep chest, powerful straight front legs and muscular back legs. It has webbed feet that make a good swimmer and a low set tail that is wide at the base and then tapers to its tip. That tail is part of its unique looks as it is called a rat tail having very short smooth hair there unlike the rest of its body. The coat elsewhere is dense, long, curly, thick, water-repellant and common colors are shades of brown though with a purple undertone to it! That short smooth hair on the tail also occurs on the lower back legs, throat and face.

On top of the head is a topknot of curls which gives its eyes protection. Those eyes are small, almond shaped and brown. It has a beard and sideburns too. The muzzle is squared and long with a large nose that is dark liver. Its ears hang down and are set low and stay close to the head. They too are covered with curls.

The Inner Irish Water Spaniel


The Irish Water Spaniel is alert and makes a great watchdog. It will bark to let you know of any intruders and has some protective instincts so may also act in your defense. It is not the best breed for people with no experience though, it needs confident and knowledgeable owners who are best able to give them a home they need and be assertive. This is an intelligent dog who is also playful, cheerful, and can actually range in temperament from being outgoing and energetic to shy and happy to laze around the home.

It rarely barks and it is very sensitive so prefers not to be in homes where there are harsh tones and tense situations. It is a responsive and loyal dog to its owners and family. It is a loving companion, devoted, sometimes clown like, and needs to be included in all family activity. It does not like to be teased though and it does not like to be left alone for long periods of time. With strangers it is usually polite but it has a natural bounciness that stays with it even after the puppy stage has passed. That bounciness can also lead to things getting knocked over.

It can be a confident dog, but also eager to please. It needs active owners as it has a certain level of needs in terms of keeping it happy mentally and physically. When it has enough to do it is mild-mannered and calm. If it is hyperactive, acting out, destructive or hard to control it may not be getting the stimulation it needs. You should also be prepared for some drool and slobber from it.

Living with an Irish Water Spaniel

What will training look like?

The IWS is easy to train for owners who are can remain firm and in control. It is eager to please, smart and listens to commands, so in fact it can learn more quickly and needs less repetition. It can have a willful side though so sometimes things can be a little inconsistent as it can be manipulative and some are more dominant than others. It needs a positive approach, using treats and praise to keep it focused and happy. It also helps to keep things interesting by keeping sessions short and mixing things up. When it thinks things are a game or a puzzle to solve it will be a lot more willing. Be consistent, never meek and when you set rules stick to them.

Early socialization is important too, it helps to ensure the puppy grows into a more trustworthy, confident and happy dog. It also stops its wariness from turning into something more fearful which could lead to biting. Socialization involves exposing it to different people, animals, places, sounds and such. It learns to be more controlled and what kind of responses are appropriate.

How active is the Irish Water Spaniel?

The Irish Water Spaniel is a fairly active breed so will need owners committed to being active on a daily basis themselves. It can adapt to an apartment but does better in a home with at least a small to average sized yard, if not larger. As well as taking it for a couple of good walks a day it will also need time off leash to run free, play time with you and mental stimulation too. It enjoys and is good at swimming, you could also take it to a dog park a few times a week, and it can join you for a jog or hike. It needs a least an hour a day of vigorous physical activity. Make sure the yard is well fenced in.

Caring for the Irish Water Spaniel

Grooming needs

This breed has moderate needs when it comes to grooming and some professional help will be needed as well. It does not shed a lot so there is not a lot of hair around the home. It can also be a good dog for those with allergies, though you should test this before you bring one home. Brush its coat two or three times a week and this will take care of debris, mats and also move its natural oils through its coat. Bathe only when it is necessary to prevent damaging its natural oils that it needs.

As it loves the water and has pendant ears you will need to make sure they are dried after being wet, and check them weekly for infection. Signs will include redness, a build up of wax, irritation and swelling. Give them a clean too using a warm damp cloth or cotton ball and dog ear cleanser. Do not insert anything into the ear though as that will hurt the dog and cause damage. It should also have its teeth brushed at least two to three times a week, of daily if possible. Its nails should be clipped when they get too long of they are not worn down naturally. You can use proper dog nail clippers to do it yourself just be careful. You cannot cut too close to the quick of the nail as it has nerves and blood vessels which means even a small nick can hurt and cause a lot of bleeding. You could opt to have either your vet or groomer do it.

Feeding Time

An IWS will likely eat between 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of a good quality dry dog food a day, split into two meals. How much can vary somewhat depending on your dogs size, metabolism, level of activity, build, age and health.

How is the Irish Water Spaniel with children and other animals?

Irish Water Spaniels are great with children. It can be affectionate and loving and also playful and energetic. It is best to make sure it is well socialized and it also helps when dogs are raised with the children. Supervision is a good idea with younger children to prevent tail or ear pulling. Also always teach children how to touch dogs and approach them. With other dogs of the same sex there can be aggression with the dominance issue. With other pets it can vary from one IWS to another. Some will chase small animals like cats, some when raised with them and socialized can learn to get along with them. (Though they will still chase strange small animals outside). If you keep birds though this is probably not he best breed to bring home, with its history of bird hunting.

What Might Go Wrong?

Health Concerns

The life span of an IWS is about 10 to 12 years. It does have a few health issues that it can be prone to though, they include ear infections, hip and elbow dysplasia, epilepsy, eye problems, hypothyroidism, drug allergies and megaesophagus.

Biting Statistics

With dogs attacking and doing bodily harm reports that cover stories in North America over the last 35 years, there is no mention of the Irish Water Spaniel. It is not a common dog there so there is not a lot of chances for them to be involved anyway. However in general while it may have some dog aggression and have a high prey drive it is not aggressive towards people. With that said it is also true that no dog can be completely 100% safe at all times. All dogs have the potential for an over reaction, or a bad day even. To lessen the risks train your dog, socialize it and make sure it gets the exercise and mental challenge it needs and the attention and care it needs.

Your Pup’s Price Tag

The Irish Water Spaniel puppy will cost about $1000 for a pet quality dog from a decent breeder. For something from a top breeder expect to pay double that or more. You can also prepare for being put on a waiting list as only 125 new puppies are registered each year. To give perspective Golden Retriever puppies number around 60,000 a year. The chances of finding a shelter or rescue with a purebred IWS are slim, but they are worth checking out in case you see something else you fall in love with. Never use puppy mills, pet stores or even backyard breeders.

When you have your puppy you need to get some things for it like a collar and leash, carrier, crate, bowls and such. These will cost about $200. Then there are medical needs to be dealt with. Take it to a vet as soon as you can for things like being dewormed, shots, neutering or spaying, a physical, blood tests and deworming. These will cost around $270.

Yearly costs are another factor to prepare for when owning a dog. Its basic health care needs like check ups, shots, flea and tick prevention along with pet insurance is going to cost around $460 a year. Feeding it will cost around $145 a year for a good quality dry dog food and dog treats. Then miscellaneous costs like grooming, basic training, license, miscellaneous items and toys will come to about $535 a year. This makes an annual starting figure of $1140.


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Irish Water Spaniels can be good family dogs with the right owners in the right home. It can be loyal and loving, entertaining and energetic and protective and playful. Its coat needs a bit of extra care and it is active so it needs owners who love being active too. Even an IWS who likes to laze around the home a bit more than others is still active and bouncy once it gets out. Socialization is important to ensure it does not become overly fearful around strangers.

Featured Image Credit: Nikolai Belyakov, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.