Sammy's Story
The Story of an Unadoptable Dog

About Irish Water Spaniels


Irish Water Spaniels ca. 1935Credit:  Hutchinson’s Dog Encyclopaedia. England.

(Circa 1935 )


Several of the ancient Water Spaniel breeds exist to this day, the American Water Spaniel, the Irish Water Spaniel, and the Spanish Water Spaniel.  The English Water Spaniel is extinct.  The Irish Water Spaniel is rare.  The Spanish Water Spaniel  seems to be thriving.

The Irish Water Spaniel (IWS) is one of the oldest and most distinctive spaniels.  Dogs resembling the IWS are depicted in manuscripts from 1,000 years ago.

As far back as the 12th century, documents refer to Shannon Spaniels, Rat-Tail Spaniels, Whip-Tail Spaniels and Irish Water Spaniels. Continual references to the IWS occur from the 17th century on.

With the IWS, as with its Poodle cousin, it is unclear whether this was one breed comprised of several different types, or whether there were several different but similar breeds which, in turn, created the IWS.

One thing is clear.  There were numerous spaniels in different parts of Ireland including: the Southern Irish Spaniel, the Northern Irish  Spaniel and the Tweed Spaniel. The Southern Irish spaniel, also called McCarthy’s Breed, is currently considered to have been  the major forbearer of today’s IWS.

Justin McCarthy is the acknowledged founder of the modern IWS.  However, since McCarthy kept very few notes about his breeding practices, the precise origins of the breed are unclear.  What is clear is that the dog is closely related to the Barbet (See About Bichons; About Poodles.), the Poodle, the Portuguese Water Dog and, of course, to the other Irish Spaniels mentioned above.

In the mid-19th Century, the sire named Boatswain, whose photograph appears below,  so influenced the breed that he is generally considered the major progenitor of the contemporary Irish Water Spaniel.  

Boatswain.  Justin McCarthy's dog.

During the later 19th Century, the breed was entered in show rings in both the UK and the USA.

However, subsequently, the breed’s popularity has declined.  Today the breed is relatively rare.


The Irish Water Spaniel is a strong, sturdy, sporting dog.

Like the Poodle, the IWS is square in shape. 

Males typically weigh approximately 55-65 lbs.  Females weigh about 45-55 lbs.   These are very similar weights to those one might find in Standard Poodles.

Height at the shoulder is usually 21-24  inches.  These are similar heights to those one might find in Standard Poodles.

In addition, IWS eyes tend to be almond shaped, another similarity they share with many of their Poodle cousins.

For AKC standards see Irish Water Spaniel.


Unlike their Poodle cousins, all IWS are the same color: a color which is typically, unfortunately, described as liver puce.  The coat is reputed to have a purple hue.

The coat is densely but loosely curled, except on the tail which has no hair on it at all.  Thence the alternative name “Rat Tail.”   

The Irish Water Spaniel coat may be easier to care for than the Poodle  coat.  However, it requires  brushing and combing two to three times a week, and scissoring every few months.  If inadequately groomed, the IWS will mat and cord, exactly like the Poodle.


The Irish Water Spaniel is an intelligent, athletic, inquisitive, mischievous and humorous dog.  Like the Poodle, the Irish Water Spaniel lives life with joie de vivre and exhuberance. Not surprisingly, this breed loves to swim, run, hunt and play.  Like the Poodle, the IWS has a mischievous sense of humor.

Generally, as a breed, the IWS may be a little more reticent and reserved than the Standard Poodle, in its relationships with people, especially with children. Some IWS are said to give the impression of being “aloof.”  However, the same is often said, usually misguidedly, about the Standard Poodle

A typically intelligent, independent, energetic, working dog, the IWS must be trained firmly, but thoughtfully, and with respect.  

As with the Portuguese Water Dog, and the Poodle, bullying this dog will get you nowhere.  At least, nowhere you should want to go. You will fail to get the behavior you want.  And you will damage the dog.   

You may also wish to read:

About Poodles


 Irish Water Spaniel Club of Ireland. 

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