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American Water Spaniel


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Paul Morrison - American Water Spaniel
Interview von Sabine Middelhaufe

Paul Morrison has been a bird hunter for nearly 45 years and has hunted over a number of dogs during that time. In 1988 he got his first American Water Spaniel and soon decided to turn his passion for dogs into his life’s work. In 1989 he became a professional dog trainer, at first concentrating on obedience and behavioral training but soon becoming a gundog trainer. Principally, he trains spaniels and retrievers. Since 1995 he has been a licensed American Kennel Club, Spaniel Hunt Test judge and travels around parts of North America judging dogs and hunting ducks, pheasants, grouse and geese whenever he can. His wife Lynn and he have bred American Water Spaniels since 1992 and they helped to introduce the breed to Europe by working closely with people in Czech Republic and Finland. Paul has written two books published by Kennel Club Books, Inc. in the United States. The first book, American Water Spaniel: A Comprehensive Owners Guide is all about the breed while the second book, Hunting with Spaniels: Training Your Flushing Dog is a detailed method of training flushing dogs.

CH California Chocolate Chip, SH, called Callie, born 19.11.04. (Photo Linda Ford)
Titelphoto: Little Brownies Violet. (Photo (c) Cindy Rogers)

Since when are you interested in the American Water Spaniel and why did you choose it in the beginning?

I first learned of the breed in 1987. It was at that time that I began searching for a new hunting dog, one that was versatile enough to hunt both upland game (pheasants, grouse and rabbits) as well as waterfowl (ducks and geese). The time I spent hunting was pretty well evenly divided between those two types of game. At that time, my wife and I lived in an area that only allowed us to have two dogs and we already had one elderly mutt so I could only get one hunting dog that would have to find and flush birds in the field along with retrieving them on land and water. I wanted a dog that could stand-up to Michigan’s cold weather and the icy waters of late autumn but I did not want a big dog. My search focused on both spaniel and retriever breeds as that is where my affections seemed to rest. Since there are not many small retrievers here in North America I was looking hardest at the spaniels but not really finding what I was looking for. Then one day my wife returned home from a business meeting and mentioned the American Water Spaniel (AWS). She had heard about it from someone at the meeting who thought I should consider the breed.
I could not recall hearing of the breed so I had to do a lot of research to find out what I could; later I realized that I had read about it in at least one book. This was before the Internet so my research consisted of finding books and magazine articles that contained stories about the breed. There were few of those around but, as luck would have it, a few magazine articles that did tell about the AWS had been written not too long before my search began. Those articles gave me the names of people to contact and other sources of information. I began to make phone calls to breeders asking them what made this dog so special and if it would meet my needs.

Paul Morrison with one of his AWS, Little Brownies Brown Sugar. (Photo Bernie Morrison.)

Every breeder I talked to was quite helpful and willing to provide a lot of information about the AWS but it was obvious that each of them held strong feelings about what an AWS was and was not. Then, as now, supporters of the breed felt that it was either a retriever or spaniel but not both and I was looking for a dog that would be both. I stumbled upon one breeder, John Barth of Pardeeville, WI, that was so enthralled with the AWS that he could say nothing bad about the breed’s hunting ability. In fact, he was the only breeder that said the AWS is so smart that it could be trained to efficiently hunt both upland and waterfowl on the same day. That was just what I was looking for! He was also someone who did not focus on himself or his breeding program but on the breed itself; something that I have tried to emulate to this day.
At John’s urging and with his help I began to read a lot of material from the early to mid-1900s, the heyday of the AWS. Story after story told of the dog’s strong hunting instincts and how it would retrieve birds from the frigid waters of North America with no hesitation. They talked about the AWS being smart and easy to train as well as how talented the natural (untrained) hunting dogs are. In short, these articles and most of the men I spoke to about the breed painted a picture of a breed that would do everything I needed. Adding to that the idea that this breed, with its stocky build, brown color and curly hair did not look like every other dog walking down the street just added to my intrigue. So, about a year later in the summer of 1988 our first AWS arrived at our home and we have not been without one since.

Winterhawks Curly Bird , SH, JHR, called Curly, born 22.8.07. (Photo Ken Reinboth)

Could you explain the characteristics of the American Water Spaniel for which a sportsman might prefer this breed to other, similar breeds?

Like so many aspects of this breed answering this question requires looking at the breed from three perspectives; as a spaniel, a retriever and both.
For hunting spaniel enthusiasts the AWS will be less energetic than many of the field bred English Springer Spaniels and English Cocker Spaniels found in North America. Yet they will often be seen as having a bit more energy than many of the other spaniels used for hunting. For the average hunter that lacks training experience this means that he will have a better chance of controlling and working with the AWS than he might with some of the more energetic breeds.
Also, the AWS’s ability to locate game with its nose is incredible and the curly coat makes it a bit more resistant to the pokes and jabs of dense cover such as brambles. It is not unusual to find an AWS crawling through very heavy cover to roust a bird from its hiding place.
Experienced trainers are often amazed at how quickly this breed responds to steady and even-handed training techniques, thus making the trainer’s job much easier. Since the AWS flushes less enthusiastically than some other spaniel varieties, a more methodical approach to the flush appears to endear the hunter as it allows for a bit less surprise when the bird is put to the air.
Retriever enthusiasts often like the smaller size of the AWS. With males averaging 40 – 45 pounds and females 35 – 40 pounds these dogs are much smaller than the common retriever found in North America. The curly coat sheds water very well and that too is a plus for the waterfowl hunter as it helps to keep the dog drier and warmer when hunting.
The AWS is a great marking dog and will often mark the fall of a bird well over 100 yards off before going directly to the spot of the fall once sent on the retrieve. While this characteristic is not unusual for a retriever it does surprise some who think that the smaller sized dog cannot possibly mark as well as the big retrievers.
For those that do a little of both types of hunting it is really the overall package that they get with the AWS that makes them prefer the breed over others. Sure, you can get retrievers that flush and hunt pheasants but they will usually do so with less enthusiasm and ability than the AWS. So too can you find spaniels that retrieve well from the water but most are not as protected by the curly coats nor driven to enter the icy waters as the AWS is.

Little Brownies Sierra Sky, called Sky, age 4 years. (Photo Bernie Morrison.)

In your opinion, is there any specific characteristic in the American Water Spaniel that sportsmen nowadays don't appreciate enough or don't appreciate anymore?

The primary characteristic that is underappreciated today is the breed’s versatility. The AWS was developed as an all-around hunting dog yet today there are a lot of AWS enthusiasts who are only concerned about developing the breed’s talents in one area or the other. Retriever folks seem to ignore the breed’s talents as a flushing dog and some of the spaniel people are less concerned about developing its retrieving abilities than perhaps they should be. Almost since the origin of the AWS there has been a divide amongst its supporters as to whether or not the breed should be considered a retriever or a spaniel. That divide has split its supporters into two camps who often seem reluctant to appreciate what the others can do with their AWS. Such an attitude is probably what leads many to under-appreciate the breed’s versatility.

Little Brownies Baci and pups. (Photo Cindy Rogers)

Which characteristics does a typical representative of the breed absolutely has to have to be called „typical“?

Physically it should be of medium build, a little bit stocky, have a curly or wavy coat that is deep brown in color. The head should be square and broad. It should be outgoing with strangers although it may be a little reserved when first meeting them. The breed often gets along well with other dogs so you should see some playfulness with other canines. This breed is very loving and a typical one will be found lying at its owner’s feet or on the sofa with its head in the owner's lap. I cannot stress enough how smart these dogs are so a typical one ought to train easily.

CH California Chocolate Chip. (Photo Linda Ford)

How do you see the situation of the American Water Spaniel in your country, and if you had the power, is there something you would like to change in the present day way of breeding?

I have mixed feelings about the breed’s situation in the United States. There have been a lot of improvements to the breed over the past 24 years. I see more dogs today that readily resemble a typical AWS where 20 years ago that was less often the case. However, I see more health problems showing up that were either not there 20 years ago or were simply not talked about; which of those is more accurate is probably a matter of personal opinion. If there were one thing I could change with today’s breeders it would be a greater willingness to recognize some of the health problems and to take action to minimize their occurrence. Too many breeders want to ignore such problems in an apparent effort to simply save money on health clearances. I have closely monitored the population numbers of the AWS for a couple of decades now and those numbers are declining. Although this breed is not close to extinction its trajectory over the past 25 years has been downward and that has accelerated in the past 10 to 15 years; that cannot bode well over time. If I had to give a short answer to the question regarding how I see the breed’s situation that answer would be stable but teetering on too rapid of a decline.

California Crystal Ball, CGC, called Crystal, born 5.11.04. (Photo Linda Ford)

In your opinion, are the breed and their characteristics known well enough to potential buyers (sportsmen) or is more information and promotion needed?

In a country where every other dog a hunter sees seems to be either a Labrador or an English Springer Spaniel, no one can say that the AWS is known well enough to sportsmen. There is always a need for more and better promotion and for factual information to be disseminated to the hunting public. It is not unusual to find sportsmen that have been told an AWS would make a good hunting companion when it was obvious that because of the type of hunting that person does the AWS was a bad choice. For instance, I have talked to a number of people that hunt ducks or geese in some harsh environments – heavy surf, extremely cold temperatures, etc. – who were told that an AWS would be great for them. The truth be told though these types of conditions are better suited for Labradors or Chesapeake Bay Retrievers than for AWS. Could an AWS function in such conditions? Yes, but if this is the type of hunting a person does day-in and day-out then a larger breed is a better choice. Putting an AWS in the hands of such a person will not be good for the person, dog or breed.
I would like to see some consensus reached regarding the true niche for the AWS and a means developed to promote the breed to those who fall within that niche. For years word of mouth promoted the breed but today, as the declining numbers indicate, we need more ways of getting to those who might find this breed to be an enjoyable hunting companion.

CH California Chocolate Chip. (Photo Linda Ford)

Do you personally find it important to partecipate in dog shows, working trials and club events?

In the United States dog shows principally promote breeds to non-hunters and often dogs found at such events would not do well in the field. Still, they are a place where people can learn about breeds but with so few AWS at dog shows the importance of such events to the breed overall is pretty small. My wife and I stopped participating in dog shows a number of years ago, not because we oppose them but because few others participate in them. There are two clubs in the United States that are focused on the AWS. One of those clubs, the American Water Spaniel Field Association, is principally a field training club and the only events it offers right now are training sessions. I do find it important to participate in those and beneficial to both my dogs and the breed overall. The other club, the American Water Spaniel Club, holds a couple of small events and one large event each year. I do not find it very important to participate in those events as there is little promotion of the breed to anyone outside of the club’s own members. However, all of these events serve a purpose and can be beneficial to those who participate in them.

CH Little Brownies Ceske Pivo, called Pivo. Age 8 years. (Photo Paul Morrison)

According to your judgement, for what kind of hunting and for which species of game is the American Water Spaniel particularly qualified?

This question is a good illustration of the challenge faced by the breed. There is no one species of game for which this breed is particularly qualified unless you want to consider all game birds as that species. If someone tells me that the AWS is best qualified for use as a retriever I point to the thousands of pheasants and grouse that have been flushed and retrieved by AWS and ask, what about upland birds? If a person was to say that the AWS is really best qualified to find and flush pheasants I would point out the thousands of ducks retrieved from lakes, rivers and ponds. And then I would tell all of them to remember that many AWS have been used to hunt rabbits and other furred animals. There is no one species that fits the AWS best for it is such a great and versatile dog that it will hunt what its owner hunts and it will do it well.

And, last question: what advice would you give someone who wishes to use this breed for hunting for the first time?

Prepare to be amazed. Many people underestimate this breed’s abilities and are surprised at how well it does on a variety of game. Training is very helpful and I believe essential but many people get by with just a little bit of training. The primary thing that I stress with new owners is to make the dog a part of the family. Get to know it and let it get to know and bond with you. Train it to be obedient and to hunt according to your requirements but train it with a light hand. Don’t rush it. Don’t push it. Don’t be too harsh with it. The AWS can be stubborn at times but it will come around eventually as long as you give it time. Those that I have seen do well as hunters have become a part of a team; a team comprised of the owner and dog. They thrive on a close connection to their owner and will not do well if left out in a kennel all day or chained in a yard. So, the hunter should make the AWS a part of the family. Other than that having a successful outcome will depend upon getting the dog the proper early exposure to the hunting environment. If that is done well the likelihood for success is very high.

California Liberty Grace, called Libby, aged 4 months. (Photo Linda Ford)

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