How to Train an Irish Water Spaniel

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The tallest of the AKC’s spaniels, the Irish Water Spaniel is instantly recognizable by its crisply curled coat and tapering ‘rat tail.’

Among the champion swimmers of dogdom, the alert and inquisitive IWS is hardworking and brave in the field, and playfully affectionate at home. This tallest of AKC spaniels, standing 21 to 24 inches at the shoulder and weighing 55 to 65 pounds, straddles the line between ‘medium’ and ‘large’ dogs on our scale of size. Among its distinguishing characteristics are a crisply curled, liver-colored, waterproof coat; a tapered ‘rat tail, and a cleanly chiseled head crowned with a topknot of long, loose curls. The IWS moves with a smooth ground-covering gait, enabling him to put in a long day’s work in the field.


Centuries ago, spaniels were divided into land and water varieties. The water variety consisted of the now extinct Tweed Water Spaniel as well as English and Irish breeds. In Ireland prior to the 1850s, two different water spaniel strains existed: the South Country Water Spaniel and the North Country Water Spaniel. The Irish Water Spaniel as we know it today developed from both of these strains, but most closely resembles the South Country type.

Beginning in the 1830s, Justin McCarthy, a sportsman from Dublin, refined the type away from its aforementioned varieties and into a distinct and repeatable breed. His dog, Boatswain, was the first purebred IWS. By 1859, the Irish Water Spaniel began to appear in dog shows.

The popularity of the IWS grew quickly with English and Irish sportsmen due to its retrieves, disposition, and its ability to handle the cold waters of the North Sea. Soon, word spread to America and in the 1870s, a number of dogs were imported. By 1875, the Irish Water Spaniel became the third most popular sporting breed in the US.

Quick Facts




Life Expectancy:

Sporting Group


Your veterinarian should be reminded that the IWS may have an adverse reaction to sulfa antibiotics, as well as the deworming medication Ivermectin. Most IWS are healthy dogs, and responsible breeders screen their stock for health conditions such as hip and elbow dysplasia, allergies, and thyroid disease. Good breeders will utilize health screening and genetic testing to produce puppies who are as healthy as possible. Discuss any health questions with both your puppy’s breeder and your veterinarian so you can make informed decisions about your dog’s health.

Recommended Health Tests From the National Breed Club:
  • Hip Evaluation
  • Elbow Evaluation
  • Ophthalmologist Evaluation
  • Thyroid Evaluation


Begin grooming the Irish Water Spaniel when he is still a puppy and may not need a lot done yet. He should learn early on that grooming time is a positive experience. Gentle brushing and nail and ear cleaning should always be part of the grooming regimen. Suitable for allergy sufferers, the breed’s hypoallergenic coat requires brushing at least weekly and trimming every two months to neaten and shape it. If you do not want to learn to scissor your IWS to keep him from looking ragged, you can make regular appointments with a groomer who is familiar with the breed.


A typical sporting dog, the Irish Water Spaniel is an active, high-energy companion. He is eager to please, making him relatively easy to train, but he needs lots of daily exercise. Long walks or hikes, running alongside a bicycle, chasing a ball in the backyard, or playing with other dogs daily will help to keep him physically and mentally healthy, and relaxed and calm while inside the home.


The IWS is playful, smart, and eager to please. He has lots of energy and will appreciate having a job to do. He is a reliable worker and will try his best to do what you ask of him’ so long as he understands what that is. Keep training sessions fun and interesting to be sure you keep him from being bored. He will respond best to positive, reward-based training methods; never use a harsh or heavy-handed approach, as it will bring unwanted results. The IWS excels in canine sports such as agility, dock diving, rally, tracking, and flyball, and their sensitive nature makes them a natural as therapy and assistance dogs.


The Irish Water Spaniel should do well on a high-quality dog food, whether commercially manufactured or home-prepared with your veterinarian’s supervision and approval. Any diet should be appropriate to the dog’s age (puppy, adult, or senior). Some dogs are prone to getting overweight, so watch your dog’s calorie consumption and weight level. Treats can be an important aid in training, but giving too many can cause obesity. Learn about which human foods are safe for dogs, and which are not. Check with your vet if you have any concerns about your dog’s weight or diet. Clean, fresh water should be available at all times.