Irish Water Spaniel

The Irish Water Spaniel is a breed of great antiquity. With its tight ringlets and mousy tail, this dog looks like no other. It loves to swim.

The Irish Water Spaniel is said to have existed for six thousand years, although much of its origin remains unknown. A similar dog has been excavated from old Roman remains. Supposedly this breed once worked in Ireland as a water bird retriever. It was officially recognized in England in 1859 and first appeared in an American dog show in 1877.


In Ireland this breed is sometimes fondly referred to as the Bogdog. At one stage in the 19th century it was known as McCarthy’s Breed, and it has also been called the Shannon Spaniel.

This is the largest of the dogs called ‘spaniels’ — 23 in (58 cm) in height. It must therefore be classed as a retriever, despite its name. Perhaps the most unbiased title for it would be the simple name used for it long ago by certain authors — the Irish Water Dog.

A descendant of the ancient French Barbet, the now extinct English Water Spaniel, and possibly the Poodle, this breed was not fully developed until the 19th century. And yet there was some kind of water spaniel working in Ireland many years before. The Irish Bishop of Armagh, writing as early as 1600, makes reference to "water dogs that pursue water fowl", but there is no evidence that this was a separate Irish breed, distinct from its ancestors. The earliest specific references to the Irish Water Spaniel are found in works dating from the 1840s and 1850s.

It is clear that the modern Irish Water Spaniel was developed from the Southern form. The tail is especially significant here, because a special feature of the modern breed, which distinguishes it from all other related water dogs, is the unusual "rat tail".

The development of the Southern form owed a great deal to one man, Justin McCarthy. His dog Boatswain, born in 1834, has been described as the founding father of the entire breed. He produced excellent dogs for many years and was largely responsible for establishing the breed. The breed club was created in 1890, and many examples were exported to America and Scandinavia where they attracted great attention.

The Irish Water Spaniel has been described by one enthusiastic owner as "a bundle of rags in a cyclone", by another as a "buccaneer and a glutton" who stands "shivering with excitement" when a hunt begins, and yet another as "a lamb at home and a lion in the chase". It clearly wins the hearts of all those who work with it or come to know it well.


The Irish Water Spaniel has a roundish body; a chiseled face; long, low-set pendant ears; a long, mousy tail; dark hazel eyes; and a liver nose. It has a prominent ‘topknot’ and its characteristic tail is thin and stiff. The thick ringleted coat is hard, rough, waterproof, and invariably liver in color.


In personality it has a boundless sense of fun when it is not working, but can become headstrong if it is allowed to get out of control.

Gentle and calm, the Irish Water Spaniel makes a loyal domestic dog if it has proper training. It is an excellent "people dog". This breed's long history of hunting has made it a dog with a strong sense of independence, requiring an environment that allows considerable freedom.


The breed is naturally hardy but in common with some other mainly brown colored dogs, coat and skin problems do occur, particularly in some strains. Regular monitoring can prevent such instances becoming too severe. Otherwise the breed remains relatively free of hereditary problems.


Whether based in a town or country situation, the Irish Water will adapt well to varied living conditions. However, it should always be remembered that it is an active sporting dog with great thinking power, and so needs to be kept occupied.

Care and Exercise

This dog needs careful coat care. A minimum of one hour of trimming weekly is necessary to keep its curls tidy. Active and needing a lot of exercise, it is not a city dog. It should be allowed to swim as often as possible.

Puppies and Training

The four to twelve puppies in each litter need to begin living with people at a very young age so that they will grow accustomed to humans.

Gallery of Irish Water Spaniel