Irish Water Spaniel: The Dog with a Hard Head but Soft Heart!

irish water spaniel

Often mistaken for a poodle, the Irish Water Spaniel is one of the oldest and rarer breeds of spaniel today.

With their distinctive top-knot and strikingly liver-colored coat, this breed is undoubtedly no poodle, although thanks in part to their origins shrouded in folklore and mystery, there may be a poodle ancestor lurking in the family tree.

Its quizzical expression and humourous antics belie this dogs intelligence and overall street smarts.

For despite being classified as a ‘spaniel,’ this breed of dog performs the work of a retriever and is highly skilled at retrieving game both on land and in water and makes a fun-loving and playful family pet. 

In this article, we look at this ancient and well-rounded dog breed with its distinctive personality and temperament.

Irish Water Spaniel

About the Breed      

irish water spaniel breed

Instantly recognizable by its topknot of long curls and liver-colored waterproof coat with a smooth face, floppy ears, webbed feet, and a smooth ‘rat’ tail, the Irish Water Spaniel is the largest of the spaniel breed. 

Bred for the dual purpose of hunting game as well as waterfowl, this breed of dog has a reputation for being the clown of the spaniel family.

But don’t be fooled by its amusing ways, for the Irish Water Spaniel is intelligent, alert, and inquisitive, displaying all the desirable traits of excellent sporting dogs.

In fact, breeders of the Irish Water Spaniel have worked hard to produce the sporting dog most desired, that of an excellent retriever coupled with being a good family companion.

Indeed, this breed of dog has a lot going for it, personality and trainability with an easygoing nature.

Vital Stats

water spaniel

Known as the champion of swimmers in the dog kingdom, let’s look at how the Irish water Spaniel stacks up to other breeds in its class.

Breed Group

Spaniel family


Males: 22 to 24 inches

Females: 21 to 23 inches


Males: 45 to 65 pounds

Females: 45 to 60 pounds 

Life Expectancy

10 to 12 years

History of Irish Water Spaniel

irish water

The exact origin of Irish Water Spaniels has given rise to much speculation over the years in their native Ireland, where they earned many nicknames such as Whip Tail Spaniels, Bog Dogs, Rat tail Spaniels, and Shannon Spaniels.

Some believe its roots can be traced back to the days when spaniels were divided into land and water varieties, with the water variety consisting of the Tweed Water Spaniel, which is now extinct, as well as English and Irish breeds.

In fact, a book, printed as far back as 1607, entitled Historie of the Foure-footed Beastes, is said to describe and illustrate the ‘waterspagnel’ with its rough, long curled hair and bare tail.

While another belief is that the dog breed goes back to the Stone Age or Bronze Age, based on skulls found by archeologists at sites in Ireland.

However, the most common train of thought is that the Irish Water Spaniel was originally bred from the South Country water spaniel and the North Country water spaniel that were in existence in Ireland before the 1850s.

In fact, it was a breeder and sportsman Justin McCarthy from Dublin, who is the acknowledged father of the breed that is credited with refining the distinctive modern breed of Irish water Spaniel we know today.

irish cocker spaniel

In 1834 his dog Boatswain was the first purebred Irish Water Spaniel, who sired many excellent hunting dogs, stamping them with a particular water spaniel look.

Unfortunately, McCarthy died and left no breeding records. However, recent research into the breed indicates that common ancestors of the Irish Water Spaniel may have included the poodle, Portuguese water dog, and Barbet.

By the 1870s, the reputation of the Irish Water Spaniel as a gundog and water retriever was known in America, and by 1875, this breed of dog was the third most popular sporting dog in the US.

As a result, the American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1884 as a sporting dog, while the United Kennel Club admitted the breed into its registry some 64 years later in 1948, where it is classified as a gun dog.

Irish Water Spaniel Puppies

irish water spaniels

You’ve set your heart on obtaining an Irish Water Spaniel puppy, but what should you be looking at from a breeder of these dogs?

As such, the Irish Water Spaniel Association recommends the following:

First and foremost, find out as much about the breed as possible, for the dog’s unique appearance is not the only trait you should be considering. The pup’s personality and temperament should also rank high on the list.

Irish Water Spaniel pups should always be seen interacting with their dam at the breeder’s home.

And it is recommended that the dam be at least two years of age and under seven and should not have had more than three litters.

english water spaniel

And perhaps one of the most important points worth noting is to check that both parents have been screened and undergone health tests for conditions such as hip dysplasia, eye conditions, and other genetic diseases particular to this breed of dog as recommended by the National breed Club.

Responsible breeders will have these health certificates on hand to show you. Additionally, breeders should supply you with a puppy fact sheet containing comprehensive information about the following.

  •  Vaccinations
  • Deworming and what type of wormer was used
  • Dietary requirements, both present and future
  • How much exercise the puppy requires, as too much exercise could result in joint damage and
  • Grooming requirements

Many breeders microchip their Irish Water Spaniel puppies and give you six weeks of free insurance.

But be advised that a reputable breeder will also have questions for you to assess your suitability as an owner and will also want you to agree to return the pup if you cannot keep it for whatever reason.

Irish Water Spaniel Traits and Characteristics

water spaniel

Irish Water Spaniels are known to make excellent companion dogs, whether splashing about in the water, hard at work out in the fields, or being playful and affectionate at home.

As a versatile water, hunting, and pointing dog, this ruggedly built breed is renowned for its powerful swimming skills and thrives on retrieving waterfowl and upland game such as quail.

In fact, Irish Water Spaniels, due to their inquisitive and alert nature, also make excellent watchdogs.

Highly intelligent, energetic, and willing, the Irish water Dog, although eager to please, is known to have a mischievous and stubborn streak in them.

This can prove challenging at times to deal with, and as a result, they require a firm owner who knows how to take control of the situation.

For this reason, the Irish Water Spaniel is not recommended for novice owners.

Physical Appearance

irish water spaniel puppies

Apart from its head-turning coat and looks, the Irish Water Spaniel underneath its double coat is a muscular and powerful dog.

Here are some distinguishing characteristics of the breed.


Standing 24 inches at the shoulder and weighing up to 65 pounds, the Irish Water Spaniel straddles the line between medium and large dogs. 

Coat Type

With its topknot of long, loose, crisply curled ringlets sitting atop its cleanly chiseled head, the Irish Water Spaniel has a water-repellent coat consisting of two layers, a top layer, and an undercoat.

Tight crisp ringlets cover the back, sides, and rear with long loose curls and waves of hair beneath the ribs and over the legs.

And talking of the tail, which is often referred to as a rat tail, is wide at the root and tapers into a fine point covered with smooth hair.

Surprisingly, Irish Water Spaniels shed very little for a breed with that amount of hair, making the dog hypoallergenic for those who suffer from allergies.

irish water spaniel breeders


Often referred to as liver-colored, or by the more fanciful as deep reddish brown or aubergine, the Irish Water spaniel is always one solid color.


On this breed of dog, you won’t see any markings except those graying from age.

 Irish Water Dog Temperament and Personality

irish spaniel

Known for their people-pleasing nature and easy, stable temperament, the Irish Water dogs are friendly dogs very much in tune with their human companions.

Typical of a sporting dog, the Irish Water Spaniel has a strong desire to please and is intelligent, curious, and affectionate.

In fact, the breed’s very playfulness and high energy require it to be part of an active family that can provide both the physical and mental stimulation it looks for.

But these dogs can be a bit more sensitive than other breeds, and soft punishment can affect them emotionally.

As previously mentioned, they make an excellent watchdog with the courage to protect themselves and their owners when required.

Added to this, they are a quiet dog that is more apt to reserve their bark to alert or warn.

They can also be spooked or shy around strangers, so early and frequent socialization is necessary, as this breed should not be shy or aggressive.

Irish Water Health and Care

short hair irish water spaniel

An Irish Water Spaniel, although generally a healthy dog, may be prone to certain diseases and health conditions.

And it is for this reason, it’s important to be aware of the dog’s health requirements if you are considering dog ownership of this breed.


While the following list may look exhausting, it is not indicative that an Irish Water Spaniel will necessarily present with them.

  • Hip dysplasia: An inheritable condition in which the thighbone doesn’t fit snugly into the hip joint.
  • Hypoallergenic: Allergies to food, items that touch the dog,and airborne allergens such as pollen, dust, and mildew.
  • Cataracts: The opacity on the lens of the eye that causes difficulty in seeing.
  • Follicular dysplasia: A group of syndromes that results in hair loss and changes in coat quality.
  • Hypothyroidism: Deficiencies of the hormone produced by the thyroid gland
  • Entropion: Causes the eyelid to roll inward and irritates or injures the eyeball.
  • Paronychia: Causes the toenail’s inner core to become becomes mushy and infected with bacteria and fungus.
  • Distichiasis: Occurs when an additional row of eyelashes grows on the oil gland in the dog’s eye.
  • Megaesophagus: Occurs when the esophagus loses tone and dilates and can prevent breathing during swallowing.
  • Epilepsy: Causes mild or severe seizures.
  • Vaccination Sensitivity: There have been some reports of this breed of dog suffering from sensitivity to routine vaccinations.
  • Drug Sensitivity: Some Irish Water Spaniels have been known to show drug sensitivity to certain medications, including some antibiotics and antiparasitic drugs such as ivermectin


irish water spaniel hypoallergenic

With its double coat and tight crisp ringlets, you would expect the Irish Water Spaniel to be high maintenance regarding its grooming requirements.

Yet surprisingly enough, the gentle brushing of their coat two to three times a week will do the trick to keep the coat from matting or tangling and promote healthy skin.

In fact, it is recommended that this breed of dog should be exposed to a grooming regimen from an early age so, they learn to associate grooming with being a positive experience.

As such, all that is required, in addition to regular brushing, is a trim every two months to neaten and shape the dog’s coat.

In addition, due to the Irish Water Spaniel’s predisposition to swimming, it is also recommended that their ears are cleaned and dried every time they go swimming.

Prone to ear infections due to their floppy ears retaining moisture and providing a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, a cotton ball moistened with a veterinarian-recommended cleaning solution should flush out any bacteria lurking there.

irish water spaniel rescue

Additionally, Irish Water Spaniels require their teeth to be brushed at least three times a week to prevent gum disease and tartar buildup.

And the dog’s nails will need trimming regularly. If they are clicking on the floor, it is time to get them clipped, which will go a long way to keeping the dog’s feet in good condition.

Lastly, as with any other dog breed, when grooming, be on the lookout for any unusual rashes, signs of infections, or sores, especially around the eyes, ears, and nose areas.

Spaniel Water Food And Diet

puppy irish water spaniel

Irish Water Spaniels can pack on the pounds if you don’t keep a close eye on their diet.

As with other dog breeds, obesity can lead to significant health problems, such as digestive disorders, and worsen existing conditions, such as hip and elbow dysplasia.

For despite being known as an active breed of dog, they will only require a certain amount of food each day based on their size, metabolism, age, and the amount of activity they are exposed to.

Just like people, dogs are individuals with highly active dogs requiring more food than couch potato dogs.

It is therefore recommended that adult Irish Water Spaniels receive one and a half to two cups of high-quality dry dog food divided into two meals daily.

Commercially or home-prepared meals containing the correct balance of high-quality versions of meat, grains, fruit, and vegetables are best with no fillers added to the mix.

Irish Water Spaniel Training and Exercise

hypoallergenic irish water spaniel

Irish Water Spaniels were specifically bred for their stamina, concentration, intelligence, and abilities that require decision-making.

As a typical sporting dog, this breed thrives on the mental stimulation of having a job to do, and as high-energy dogs, they require plenty of vigorous exercise.

Activities such as hikes, long walks, swimming, or playing with other dogs will help keep the Irish Water Spaniel both physically and mentally challenged.

Despite their eagerness to please and intelligent nature, these dogs are certainly no pushovers when it comes to training.

spaniel water dog

Keep training sessions fun and interesting to prevent boredom, as due to their willful and sensitive natures, this clever dog can easily manipulate inexperienced owners and take charge.

Positive reward-based training with a kind but firm consistency that includes food rewards and praise is advised.

As such, not only does the Irish water Spaniel excel in canine sports and obedience training such as dock diving, tracking, flyball, and rally.

They also are a natural choice for assistance and therapy dogs due to their sensitive natures.

As with all other dogs, Irish Water Spaniels require early socialization through exposure to different people, sights, and sounds in order to become well-rounded dogs.

Spaniel Water Activities

irish water spaniel

As the name of the breed implies, the Irish Water Spaniel is in its element when combining its passion for swimming, retrieving, and hunting.

But despite the Water Spaniel’s affinity for water, some basics are involved when first introducing this breed of dog to it.

Experts in training water retrievers give the following advice.

Irish Water Spaniel pups should be introduced to water from an early age, as long as they are well-socialized and bonded with you.

Always ensure the right conditions are present when introducing the Irish Water Spaniel to water. This includes an air temperature of about 85 degrees and a water temperature of about 65 degrees.

It is advised to give your Water Spaniel pup a good romp before introducing them to the water, as it will be seen as pleasingly refreshing and cool.

The pond or creek should be crystal clear with a sloping sandy and shallow bottom and only belly deep for the pup.

As the dog owner, you should always go in first and gently encourage the dog to join you. Never force the issue if the pup is reluctant.

Do this regularly on long and leisurely walks with the dog until the puppy loses its fear of water.

After that, move from shallow water, where the pup can wade, to deeper water, where it must swim.

Again, plenty of praise is encouraged to help develop and encourage the dogs’ love of water and swimming.

Fun Facts About Irish Water Spaniels

Did you know that in order to improve diplomatic relations between the two countries, the King of France was given an Irish Water Spaniel by King James the I of England in the 17th century?

english water dog

Here are some more fun facts about this highly intelligent breed of dog.

Folklore Origins

If the folklore of the old isle holds true, then this breed of dog is descended from the Dobhar-chú, which means “water hound” and is an ancient Gaelic name for the otter.

The mythical Dobhar-chú resembled an otter but was said to be as big as a crocodile and had a temperament to match being carnivorous and aggressive to humans and dogs.

One Male Is the Father of the Modern Breed

Boatswain, the Irish Water Spaniel owned by Justin McCarthy, is credited with giving the breed the distinctive appearance it bears today.

In fact, Boatswain was thought to have lived to the ripe old age of 20, with his descendants first shown at the Birmingham Show in 1862, after which the breed became listed in the first English Stud Book.

Westminster Kennel Club

In 1877, four Irish Water Spaniels were entered into the first Westminster Kennel Club show, and in 1979 an Irish Water Spaniel by the name of Oak Tree’s Irishtocrat won the Best in Show.

Suitability of Irish Water Dog as a Pet

irish water spaniel puppy

Despite being classed as high-energy dogs, Irish Water Spaniels love nothing better than being around the human company during their downtime.

With their playful and eager-to-please personality, they make for amusing canine companions with their antics and are a great addition to an active family that can keep up with their activity levels.

Early socialization, however, is essential, and more so if a family has other pets such as birds or rabbits, for instance, as, after all, this breed of dog was bred to hunt and retrieve and will perceive them as prey.

If this is the case, the dog will have to be taught from a young age that these animals are off-limits. But having said that, you cannot fully trust a water Spaniel not to chance its luck.

Additionally, as an owner of an Irish Water Spaniel, you will have to commit to providing daily exercise, and mental stimulation, for these dogs have energy and lots of it.

For they are prone to destructive behavior if bored or not exercised enough.

This breed is best suited to large, securely fenced properties with ample space in which to roam and play.

Relationship With Humans Especially Children

Irish Water Spaniels make great family pets for the right household.

Generally speaking, this dog breed is better off with older, quieter children who can provide some sort of exercise or activity for the dog.

water spaniel dog

As a sensitive dog, the Irish Water Spaniel is not especially suited for families with young children or noisy households.

But if you do opt to take on an Irish Water Spaniel with young children in the house, look at acquiring a puppy that will provide a better chance of positive interaction with the children than a fully grown dog.

Spaniel Water Rescue

Unfortunately, just as with other dog breeds, some owners acquire a dog without giving due thought to what goes into owning them.

And an Irish Water Spaniel is no different. Although a rarer breed of dog, there are still some of this breed that ends up in need of adoption or fostering.

irish water

But, before opting to shop, and if circumstances allow, look to adopt one of these dogs from a rescue closest to your area. And above all, do not buy from an irresponsible breeder or puppy mill.

In fact, go online and head over to the two websites listed below to learn more about these unique dogs and where you can source them.

  • Irish Water Spaniel Club for Ireland
  • Irish Water Spaniel Club of America


Larger than life and with a big personality to match their size, the Irish Water Spaniel, although a rare breed of dog in the US, is in a class of its own.

Although it has an independent streak, this fun-loving spaniel loves to be around people and makes a great family pet under the right conditions.

Not one to shy away from the water or fieldwork, the Irish Water Spaniel is indeed the quintessential dual-breed dog.

Related Guide:
Sue owns three rescues: Sherman, an Olde English Bulldogge cross Boerboel, Maddison, an Africanis, and Boris, an American Staffordshire Terrier. Having owned horses, dogs, cats, and even an African grey parrot over the years, Sue is a passionate advocate for animal rights and welfare, having experienced firsthand the trauma some of her rescues had been exposed to. As a freelance journalist and content writer for over 20 years, her goal has been to craft informative articles on responsible pet ownership and care, both in print and online. When not behind her computer, Sue can be found taking long walks on the beach with her dogs or hanging out in the garden with them.

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