Developed in the United States, the American Water Spaniel originated in the areas along the Fox River and its tributary the Wolf River during the early 19th century. Hunters needed a dog that could operate in both land and water for a variety of game whilst being compact enough to be transported in a small rowboat and able to stand the native cold water temperatures. Breeds involved in the creation of the American Water Spaniel are thought to have included the English Water Spaniel, Irish Water Spaniel, Curly Coated Retriever, native Indian Dogs, the Poodle, and either the Sussex Spaniel or a type of field spaniel.
The breed of dog created was known at the time as the American Brown Spaniel, which weighed around 18 kilograms (40 lb). It had a thick curly coat which protected it from the cold temperatures of the water and winter, and was used in hunting waterfowl, Ruffed Grouse, Greater Prairie Chicken and a variety of fur–bearing animals.
Over the years however, the numbers of the breed began to dwindle due both to a reduction in the duck population through those valley areas, and because of a switch in hunting – from a means to gather food for survival to that of recreation. Additionally, following World War II, new types of dogs became available in Wisconsin such as setters, pointers and other spaniels, allowing additional specialization in hunting.
Dr. Fred J. Pfeifer, from New London, Wisconsin, set up Wolf River Kennels in order to save the breed. Numbers held by the kennel fluctuated but at times went up to 132 dogs. He advertised the dogs widely across the country, selling male dogs for $25 and females dogs for $20. Part of a sales pitch that Pfeifer mailed to prospective dog owners read, "The American Brown Spaniel is distinctively an American production. Hunters have known this type for years and it was through their efforts that this dog was propagated.... For years we have bred only selective stock, breeding for gameness, stability, courage, intelligence, and beauty. They are dogs to admire and trust under all conditions whether in the home circle or in the field with the outdoor man."
Due to Pfeifer's work, the breed was recognized by the United Kennel Club (UKC) as the American Water Spaniel in 1920, and by the Field Dog Stud Book in 1938. Dr. Pfeifer's own dog, named "Curly Pfeifer" was the first American Water Spaniel to be registered with UKC. John Scofield of Missouri and Thomas Brogdan of Rush Lake, Wisconsin worked together with the American Water Spaniel Club (AWSC), gaining the breed recognition with the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1940. Prior to recognition by the AKC, the breed had not been shown in the show ring before.
The breed has links to the Boykin Spaniel, and is thought to have been the main breed used to develop the Boykin. The differences between the Boykin and the AWS are negligible with some dog historians suggesting that the original Boykin, called "Dumpy", who was found on the streets of Spartanburg, South Carolina, was actually an American Water Spaniel who had been misplaced in transit. However the breed clubs for the Boykin do not agree with this account.
The breed was made the state dog of Wisconsin in 1985. The American Water Spaniel remains a rare breed. During 1998 only 233 puppies were registered with the AKC, with an estimated 3,000 dogs being in existence mostly around the Midwestern United States, in particular in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. In 2010, the breed was ranked 143rd most popular breed in the USA, out of 167 breeds. This is a decrease since 2000, when the breed was ranked 125th. The dogs are not classified specifically as either retrievers or as spaniels and so may not compete in AKC hunt tests or field trials, but may compete in retriever hunting tests sponsored by the AWSC, the breed club in the United States. The American Water Spaniel Association was set up in 1993 for breeders seeking spaniel classification. In a vote held of members of the AWSC in 1999, they chose to keep the breed unclassified.
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