As a hunter in search of the best hunting dog and a new hunting partner, the options can seem endless. To make it more complicated, I’m fairly convinced that all of the options are good ones. My search, some ten years ago now, consisted of hiding in the back of a classroom and scouring the Internet researching hunting breeds. I sometimes wonder how much better I might have understood ecological statistics without these distractions, but some sacrifices are worth making. After all, I have my American Water Spaniels.
I live in western Minnesota and hunt a variety of species. My dogs and I primarily pursue ducks, geese, pheasants, and grouse. We also try to take a trip further from home occasionally, the most recent being a trip to Wyoming for a sage grouse hunt.
My dogs need to be versatile, tough, and driven. They need to be steady, non-slip retrievers, but they also need to cover ground in the uplands. And they need an excellent nose and good marking ability (the ability to spot and remember the location of a fallen bird). I like dogs with grit, willing and able to continue working hard when conditions are tough and birds are few. I also like a dog with personality. A companion that can lighten the mood on long days—whether hunting or otherwise—is worth its weight in gold.
I knew I needed a dog with a good coat. Hunting here involves icy water and wet snow for much of the season. (There are many fine hunting breeds that needed to be ruled out from the get-go for this reason.) I also put a lot of weight into overall breed health. I wanted a dog that was unlikely to suffer from hereditary health issues, and one that was likely to live a long, happy life.
During my search, I was living in an apartment. Although several larger Sporting breeds intrigued me, I couldn’t get one at the time without having to move. Besides, the smaller breeds that I’d hunted with in the past had always gotten the job done, without taking up quite as much space in a car or a duck boat.
After carefully considering nearly every AKC Sporting breed (and ignoring countless statistics lessons), I had my short list. I visited breeders of several Sporting breeds, and all would have been good choices. What I really think settled it for me was James Spencer’s description of the AWS in his book, HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way. In the book, Mr. Spencer shares several colorful stories of the breed, and descriptions of the breed’s hunting abilities. In his closing remarks, he laments that the breed is not more popular and states, “Too bad, for no other breed can do so many things the American hunter needs done.” I’ve always been a sucker for an underdog, I guess.
And so, I was eventually able to bring home my first AWS, a male whom I call “Pike.” Pike has since been followed by several others, each of whom display the traits listed above. Developed in Wisconsin, the AWS was a hunting dog from the start. Bred to serve a variety of purposes, this catch-as-catch-can hunter found game, flushed it for the hunter, and retrieved. They were able to retrieve from a small boat without upsetting it, and they had the coat and grit required to tolerate Wisconsin’s often harsh conditions. To my reading, the AWS breed standard is a little less prescriptive than many, with emphasis on how the dog’s structure enables it to do its job. This, to me, helps explain the fact that many of the most accomplished conformation show dogs in the breed also carry top-end hunt titles. The entire standard encourages function through form, and rewards capability.
My males are on the top-end of the breed size standard, around 45 pounds and 18 inches tall. They are powerful dogs with substantial bone and muscle for their size. My females are more feminine, weighing around 35 pounds, but solidly built and very capable. They hunt with intensity. Some breeds may display a bit more “flash,” but the AWS attracts the eye with desire and drive.
In my area, my dogs have hunted just about every legal species in every type of cover you can imagine. They have retrieved birds in ponds, lakes, and rivers (frozen or otherwise). They have tracked, blood-trailed, and air-scented game. We’ve hunted from blinds and boats, but we’ve also tucked into weedy patches next to stock-water tanks, or perched on top of muskrat lodges. From 90-degree temperatures on September dove hunts to below zero days on late season ducks and pheasants, I have yet to be disappointed.
When seeking a breed to serve as an all-around hunting dog and companion, there are many choices. In my opinion, all of them are good. But none are better than the American Water Spaniel.