Made in Wisconsin: The American Water Spaniel

Contributing Editor

One of only six breeds developed in the U.S. that are recognized
by the American Kennel Club, the American water spaniel fit
perfectly the needs of rural Midwesterners of the last century.

“Rural folks wanted a dog that could guard the hen house, bark
at strangers, tree a partridge, run down a rat, and live with
kids,” said Dave Duffey. “The American water spaniel was that
dog.”

Duffey ought to know. Himself an icon in the sporting-dog world,
he has trained, hunted over, and written about practically every
breed in a career that spans more than half a century. When I
visited him at his rural Shawano County home last fall, he shared
his affection for the little, brown dog that won the Midwest.

“The dog’s specialty is its versatility,” Duffey said. “When I
was a kid in the 1930s, practically everybody had a Curly’ or a
Brownie.’ Their original name was American brown water spaniel.
They were highly prized because they treed partridge.”

In those days, people looked at grouse as meat on the table, not
as sporting birds. A spaniel would bump a covey of young birds into
a popple tree, Duffey explained, and the dog would sit there and
bark at them.

“With a .22 rifle, if you shot the lowest bird first, you could
shoot the whole covey out of there, and the dog would fetch them to
you,” Duffey said. “Hell, I was 21 before I knew the darn things
could fly!”

As their name suggests, American water spaniels also are
waterfowl dogs. With their thick, water-repellent coat and small
size, they’re ideal for retrieving ducks from the small boats used
by waterfowl hunters in the marshes of central Wisconsin. No one
knows how long the breed has been around, but Duffey says old
daguerreotype photos dating back to 1845 show dogs that look just
like modern water spaniels short-legged, a little scruffy, but
smart and eager to please. Their owners had no use for papers or
pedigrees. If a dog did what they needed it to do, it got to pass
on its genes.

A lot of brown, curly haired dogs passed on their genes with
little formality, much in the way of southern coonhounds of the
same era. This “pack breeding” probably had a lot to do with water
spaniels breeding true before anyone tried to formalize the
breed.

The little brown dogs took a big step toward respectability in
1920, when Dr. F.J. Pfeifer, a New London physician, got the United
Kennel Club to formally recognize the breed. His dog, Curly
Pfeifer, was the first American water spaniel ever registered.
Pfeifer began breeding the dogs at his Wolf River Kennels on the
outskirts of New London on a farm owned by the Trambauer brothers.
Duffey, who knew “Doc” Pfeifer well, says he had over 130 water
spaniels at times.

“He sold them for 20 bucks apiece and guaranteed your money back
or a replacement dog if you weren’t satisfied,” Duffey said.
Pfeifer never had to make good on that offer.

From the early 1920s until the 1950s, a growing number of
breeders in Wisconsin and nationwide produced purebred Americans.
The Field Dog Stud book recognized the breed in 1938, and the
American Kennel Club did so in 1940. Still, many informal breeders
continue to produce purebred water spaniels without bothering to
“paper” them.

Most of the major bloodlines developed in the water spaniel’s
heyday have since died out, although there are probably more
individuals breeding them today than when the big-time kennels were
in operation.

“There may be 3,000 registered American water spaniels
nationwide,” Duffey said. “But they are in the minority. There are
more without papers bred by people who don’t care about shows or
field trials. They just want a hunting dog.”

Duffey has trained dozens of Americans, many of them
unregistered. His two daughters’ first dogs were unpapered water
spaniel pups, Duffey said, “Largely because for $5 I could buy a
purebred puppy that was a family dog that could also be used for
hunting.”

Dave Duffey’s tryst with Americans did not end there. His first
nationally published magazine article dealt with “Doc’s Dogs,” and
the original photos of Curly Pfeifer and Queen Trambauer,
progenitors of the breed, now hang in Duffey’s home. Duffey also
was instrumental in getting the breed named Wisconsin’s official
state dog in 1985.

“It started as a joke in the 1970s,” Duffey recalled.

A Clintonville businessman had suggested the dalmatian be named
the state dog. Duffey countered with the American water spaniel,
saying a dog that was started in the state was more appropriate
than “some foreigner in polka-dot pajamas.” New London school
teacher Lyle Brumm made the effort a class project, and the state
Legislature made it official. A plaque in a New London park
commemorates the event and the birthplace of the breed.

Lately, the breed has fallen out of favor with hunters who want
“specialist” retrievers or upland dogs and who rely on others to
train them.

Lara Suesens, who, with her husband Dick, operates Wave Crest
Kennels (http://wavecrestaws.tripod.com), in Sheboygan, has bred
Americans for 30 years. She is one of a handful of breeders whose
dogs carry on the model of conformity and versatility, while
winning top honors in every type of competition.

“American water spaniels are a multi-purpose breed that can
compete in the show ring, in the obedience ring, or in the field,”
Suesens said “Our hunting dogs and our show dogs are one and the
same.”

Duffey and Suesens both say Americans are natural hunters and
they learn by doing, but unlike Labs, they are quickly bored by
repetition.

“If the dog is given a chance to form a bond with its owner, it
will be willing to try almost anything that owner wishes,” Suesens
said. “The American is not a wonder breed, it is a thinking
person’s breed. It’s a breed that will be enjoyed by those who
understand that creativity and intelligence are to be prized in a
world dominated by generic brands.”

At home in a duck skiff, curled up on the couch, or barking at
treed partridge, there’s nothing generic about the little brown dog
made in Wisconsin.

For more information, contact the American Water Spaniel Field
Association, www.awsfa.org.

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