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The Irish Water Spaniel – A Sporting Breed with a Peculiar Coat

Front head photo of an Irish Water Spaniel

French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier is quoted as saying, “It is always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting.”

His viewpoint may help to explain the extraordinary attention given to runway models from New York to Milan, but it might just as easily apply to the fashionistas of the purebred dog world. Chinese Cresteds, Komondorok, and Poodles certainly appear as if dressed by an eccentric, creative genius with considerable vision and, just perhaps, questionable taste.

The coat of the Irish Water Spaniel (IWS), likewise, is curiously individual. Each and every distinguishing characteristic as described in the General Appearance section of the Breed Standard pertains to this Irish original’s coat: “… a topknot of long, loose curls and a body covered with a dense, crisply curled liver colored coat contrasted by a smooth face and a smooth ‘rat tail.’”

To understand the importance of the breed’s coat, it is best to begin with the following words from the Standard’s section on coat: “Proper coat is of vital importance to protect the dog while working.

The breed’s traditional “work” has been that of a waterfowl retriever in the cold and wet (and often treacherous) environments of its native Ireland. The IWS can (and does) perform its traditional role wherever it is found, so the correct coat is essential for the dog’s health and welfare.

Fundamentally, there are three aspects to the IWS coat:

  • texture
  • pattern
  • color

Perhaps the most important of these is texture, which in this breed refers to two distinctly different types of hair. The first type is a long curl known as a “ringlet” which covers the skull, ears, beard, neck, body, legs, feet, and base of the tail. The curls of the topknot and on the ears may be “loose” and the leg coat may appear as “waves,” but the neck, body, and base of the tail are to be covered with “dense, tight, crisp curls.

Here, density refers to the insulating quality of the hair which should be so abundant as to make the skin impervious to water. The tightness means that each curl, comprised of perhaps hundreds of individual hairs, has a rather small diameter which traps air and provides further insulation in the water. The crispness indicates a springy quality and is present only when those curls possess both sufficient length and a natural oiliness. “Crisp” does not refer to the texture of the individual hairs, which should be neither woolly nor coarse.

The IWS can (and does) perform its traditional role wherever it is found, so the correct coat is essential for the dog’s health and welfare.

The second type of IWS coat texture is “short and smooth.” When considered with the crisp curls, this hair forms the second aspect of the breed’s coat; its unusual pattern. The IWS face and throat, a small portion of the rear legs, and the majority of the tail are ideally smooth-coated. “Face” refers to the entire muzzle (including the lower jaw) up to and including the eyes but not exactly between them where a long, curly “widow’s peak” grows. The “throat” includes the area from the back of both sides of the mandible down to the prosternum or… from “behind the beard to the breastbone,” thus creating a “V-shaped patch” of smooth hair.

On the front of the hind legs, below the hocks, and on the tail beginning two or three inches from its origin, the hair is short and smooth. The coat’s “patterning” should occur naturally and is ideally limited to the aforementioned areas. Extreme examples would include smooth hair on the sides of the neck, on the shoulders, and/or on the front of the forelegs or the back of the hind legs. Sparse hair on the throat or tail is not uncommon; however, a bare rear is undesirable, as are curls on the face or throat and curls along the length of the tail.

Irish Water Spaniel Coat
This wet Irish Water Spaniel displays the breed’s requisite puce liver color and ringlets as well as its topknot and beard, contrasted by the smooth face and smooth throat forming a V-shaped patch from the back of the lower jaw behind the beard to the breastbone.

The third aspect of the breed’s coat which deserves attention is its unique color, described as “puce” liver. The brown of this self-colored breed possesses a “purplish tinge” that is best observed at dawn or dusk, especially in a wet environment. Young dogs and dogs that have not been permitted to spend a great deal of time in the sun will appear especially “in bloom.” Only one color is acceptable and it is referred to as being “rich” to “dark.”

Variations in color (as well as in texture and pattern) do occur, even on the same dog, so it is essential to part the coat to determine its true color. White hairs, however, may only appear due to “the graying of age.” White hair interspersed throughout the curled coat of a young dog, commonly referred to as “frosting,” is faulty. The condition is similar in appearance to the faded coats of some Lagotti Romagnoli and occurs most often on the IWS at the base of the ears, below the elbows, on the rear legs above the hocks, and on the feet.

There is no denying that the coat of the Irish Water Spaniel is peculiar; however, it is the breed’s hallmark and has always generated sufficient interest to keep the breed from going the way of the leisure suit.



Irish Water Spaniel Breed Magazine

Showsight Magazine is the only publication to offer dedicated Digital Breed Magazines for ALL recognized AKC Breeds.

Read and learn more about the Irish Water Spaniel dog breed with articles and information in our Irish Water Spaniel Breed Magazine.


Irish Water Spaniel Breed Magazine - Showsight


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