As the club supporting the American water spaniel turns 75 years old this year, I spent some time discovering what the attraction is to the small, brown coated dog that was developed in the early 1900s by New London’s Dr. Fred Pfeifer.
An extremely hot and humid stretch of weather occurred during the event that was held Aug. 11-15, yet the dogs all looked well cared for and more than ready to perform. Handlers busied themselves with preparations while most dogs sat in kennels, cooled by portable fans and plenty of water.
From the official program of the American Water Spaniel Club (AWSC) for Aug. 12 events at Hatten Park, there were 41 American water spaniels (AWS) dogs totaling 52 entries in show and trial. There were five entries in Sweepstakes, 33 in Conformation and one entry in Junior Showmanship; two more in Obedience and eight in Rally.
“They definitely have it better than we do,” remarked Avis Prior of Rehoboth, Ma. This was her third trip to New London and she didn’t recall temperatures soaring this high before. She had four AWS in her entourage. Two were entered in the Field while two were in Conformation and Rally. Her dog, Joya, is eight years old and the consummate professional show dog. Joya enjoyed getting her neck scratched and was happy to let me snap a picture of her.
Andy Springer of Hortonville was a newcomer to the show ring with his 18-month old male, Staley. He was entered in the Sweepstakes, a competition for 6-18 month olds, a great way to gain experience for future competitions. Four other handlers showed dogs in this event.
The dogs moved with style and grace throughout the events. There was very little barking, no scuffles, just a lot of curiosity and banter between ranks.
Many handlers I had seen in the ring at Hatten Park reappeared in the fields at J&H Game Farm in Navarino the next day for a Roustabout. This field exercise involves 10 acres of land, with three birds planted somewhere in that area. With two gunners and one dog, the team has 20 minutes to flush the birds out. Using just three shells each, the gunners and dog are judged on flushing, retrieval, hitting the targets, unused shells and unused time.
It was obvious the dogs were just as comfortable in this element as they were in the show ring. Lois and David McCracken of Sumter, South Carolina brought three-year old AWS, Gumbo, to New London this year. Gumbo was the youngest AWS to get a Working Dog Excellent designation at just 11 months old. At 30 months old he was the youngest to achieve the Working Dog Superior title.
AWSC Co-chair for the Hunt Event Sue Liemohn of Anoka, Minnesota had the top level dog in the country here – Justin, a nine-year old, is the only dog to pass five days of United Kennel Club testing for a HRC Grand title.
Other AWSC members came from California, Colorado, Montana, Missouri, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia and as close as Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.
AWSC Co-chair for the Hunt Event David McCracken explained that a Hunt Test is different from a field trial. “On a Hunt Test you are running against the standard and every dog that passes the standard wins a ribbon,” he said. “With a field trial, there are places won, usually first through fourth.”
As I understand it, the Hunt Test Starter Dog level involves young dogs who have to flush one bird out. The Working Dog Excellent level includes flushing two birds and retrieving a marked double in the field. The marked double simulates two birds going up, and the dog sits by the handler and watches, and then has to retrieve the birds using memory and scent.
For the Working Dog Superior the same rules are used, however three birds are used and one must be a fly-away. Superior also includes a blind retrieval and water retrieval. The dog must also sit as another dog does the work of retrieving, not interfering with the process. This is called honoring the work.
The spaniels were notably charged up, but their temperament was amazing at the same time. These dogs kept their cool, sat and waited, patiently, as if they knew it didn’t pay to get riled up. I don’t know how much of that can be attributed to the handlers, and how much is just in the breed, but it was impressive.
While walking the trail to the trials I met up with Tom Meyer, one of eight AKC executive field representatives who travel the country to events such as these. He reported that there are 4,200 sporting dog events (including herding and lure coursing) each year in the United States, with over 375,000 entries. “Four of our reps cover retrieval events, three more cover pointing, and still another three handle spaniel events,” explained Meyer.
Dean Daebler of J&H Game Farm was happy to have an August event, a slow time of year in his business. He said he and his family and volunteers were busy grooming the grounds, setting up blinds, gun racks, putting skiffs in ponds and preparing meals. They hosted a barbeque on Saturday evening for the club.
George and Sue Vader-Olsen of Royalton brought a two-year old AWS, Meghan, to the event, having received her as a rescued dog the day before. George has been the local contact for AWS rescue for six years and is happy to spend time with dogs before they are adopted to a permanent home. “We’ve met a lot of really nice spaniels this way, and saved a few from getting euthanized,’ said George. “It’s well worth the effort.” George was happy to discover that Meghan was not gun shy and had exhibited good a temperment with the other dogs.
The more time I spent with the AWSC members, the more I saw how the American water spaniel has proven to be a remarkably diverse dog. He is at home in the duck blind, field or pond, but equally so in the show ring and among people as a companion dog. He sits regally, but runs hard and works hard. He tumbles with children yet stays at the ready for commands. His soft, curly coat makes him easy to love and his obedience to his owner is notable. Gentle with children but fierce with the hunt, the AWS is a dog for many to consider.
Jon Hattrem of Sparta, WI is a 35 year veteran of the club, now a board member. As past president of the AWSC, he was here in 1986 to see then Governor Tony Earl sign the bill into law designating the AWS as state dog. Jon and everyone I met from the AWSC were taking care of business and having fun doing it, happy to be in the birthplace of their favorite breed.
Learn more about the American water spaniel at www.americanwaterspanielclub.org, or locally you can contact Mike Dismer of Neenah at 920-486-1423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.