Don't Overlook the American

Hunting Dog

Bill Cochran
June 1969

On the first day of dove hunting season, Red Dean’s American Water Spaniel, named Sport, was exactly five months old. Of course, you couldn’t expect a dog that young to be much of a hunter-to be much of anything other than a playful little puppy.

But Red, who’s one of my favorite hunting partners, took Sport hunting, nonetheless. The dog had never seen a dove, had never heard a gun fire, had never been on a hunt.

“I sat him between my legs and we watched for doves,” Red fondly recalls.

The hunting site was a large field along a river. It was a good spot. A few days before, harvesters had roared across the bottom land, and now all that was left was the ragged remains of what once was a corn crop. The fumbling fingers of the mechanical harvesters had left a good supply of corn kernels to lay golden on the ground as an attraction for doves.

Shortly, the first bird came barreling in on whistling wings, and Red fired. At the boom of the gun, the dove appeared to explode. With feathers spewing in the air, it came spinning downward end over end to make a loud thud on the ground. 

 Now the roar of a 12 gauge shotgun heard for the first time is frightening enough to send many pups scampering for cover with their tail tucked between their legs. And Sport did run. But not in fear. He ran out into the field, skillfully grabbed the dove in his mouth, and made a perfect retrieve back to Red’s hand.  Before the day was over, the little  dog had retrieved dozens of doves shot by a number of hunters. He had even leaped into the water to bring out two which fell into the river.

Red couldn’t believe’ his eyes. Neither could other sportsmen in the field. In a short while, a large group of hunters had gathered around Sport. They were more intent on watching him work than in their own hunting.

“What kind of dog is that, anyway?” one, asked.

 “American Water Spaniel,” Red said

“Never heard of it,” came the reply.

And this is typical of many hunters, especially in the eastern part of the country. The American Water Spaniel, strangely enough, is one of the least known gun dogs, yet one of the best all-purpose hunting breeds.

What Sport was doing out there that day on his first hunt was not so spectacular as far as Americans are concerned. They are natural born retrievers. 

The American is a small dog, as retrievers go, standing 15 to 18 inches high and weighing 25 to 45 pounds. His coat is curly and wavy, as if, it had been given a fresh permanent, and is chocolate brown in color.

The American is a lovable little dog, sweet-tempered, wonderful around kids, easy to train and with the willingness and ability to learn quickly. He makes a great pet, as well as fine companion afield.
With these traits in mind, and after having had the privilege of hunting the American on many occasions, I fail to understand how the popularity of this dog has skidded recently. He is hardly known outside the mid-west. But one trip afield is enough to convince you that the American certainly has a place in the hunting dog world. And he always will, because there are a solid core of men who love him.

My friend Red Dean, like many hunters, was looking for an all-round sporting dog when he purchased Sport. Red enjoys hunting doves, ducks, quail, grouse and squirrels, but living in the city, he doesn’t have the facilities to own a specialized dog for each of these species. So he bought the American, which comes close to being the all-purpose hunter so many Sportsmen seek, but never find.

The American will skillfully take on a variety of game and handle it well. He is particularly good with doves and pheasants, but is at his best hunting waterfowl.

In fact, it was for waterfowl that this breed was developed. Waterfowl gunners back in the late 1800s and early 1900s needed a dog small enough to ride in a skiff or canoe, yet rugged enough to retrieve the big, market-type, kills of those days, and hardy enough to withstand the cold and wet. Out of these requirements came the American.

Dr. F. J. Pfeifer is credited as being originator of the breed. A physician and surgeon, from Wisconsin, he was the first to register an American Water Spaniel, doing so with the United Kennel Club February 8,1920. Thus, the American is a native of the U.S., one of only four dog breeds out of over 100 recognized by the American. Kennel Club as being of American origin. The others are the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the American Fox Hound and the Boston Terrier.

Just what line of breeding produced the American Water Spaniel is subject to debate. What is certain, he is part spaniel and part retriever, in both ancestry and purpose. The fact that he is a no-frills dog may have something to do with his lack of wide popularity. He is not a show dog, although eligible to be one because he has been recognized by the American Kennel Club since 1940. He is not a field-trial competitor either. What he is, is a fine little hunting dog capable of doing a pretty good job under many circumstances, a fur and feather breed ideal for the hunter who seeks a variety of game, but who can own only one dog.

One of the better known breeders of the American is John Scofield of Jonesburg, Missouri. It was from Scofield that Red purchased Sport. Scofield was telling me about Prince, Sport’s sire, the other day.  

“Prince as a pup was easy to train. He just loved to retrieve anything for you. We have several ponds or small lakes on our farm. He would go down to one and take a swim trying to coax me to pick up anything and throw it in the water.

“He would be off and after it no matter where it went. I have thrown rocks in and watched him go in under the water to get them. He is the only spaniel that I have owned that would go completely under water several seconds or more and come up with a crippled duck. 

“He will come down on point on quail like a good pointer, hold it, and then make his retrieve. “These spaniels really handle ringneck pheasants.   You know how pheasants can run,” Scofield explained. “Well, our party never lost a cripple on hunts in South Dakota. My dog even picked up a couple of spares that other fellows couldn’t find. As a result, I have standing hunting invitations each pheasant season. I could spend the season up there hunting, but a fellow’s got to work.” 

Scofield has been working with the American since 1930.   He and Thomas Brogden of Wisconsin formed the American Water Spaniel club in the late 1930s.

Red’s American is less than two years old now, and should be in his hunting prime this season. Red and I did some unique training of Sport during the past dove season. We found a corn field near a lake where the doves would feed on grain then fly to the lake for water.

Positioning ourselves at the edge of the lake, Red and I would shoot doves as they flew over the water. If we worked things just right, the doves would tumble into the lake, then Sport would swim after them. This way, Red and I were getting in dove shooting while Sport was receiving practice for duck retrieving. 

Sport is a great dove dog.  And most dogs don’t like to retrieve doves because they don’t have much scent and their feathers come off when a dog takes one in his mouth . But Sport has retrieved hundreds of them, many of which would have been lost otherwise, considering that doves are difficult to find when they fall into brush or high grass. 

Although the American has never gained great popularity, except in the mid-west, and his number has declined somewhat in recent years, he will always be around as long as there is game to hunt. In fact, his popularity may gain within the next few years, considering the fact that many hunters now have limited room for a dog, yet they still desire one and like for it to hunt a variety of game and often in declining cover that a smaller dog can handle well.

Certainly, the American water spaniel has gained a solid place in my heart.


From the Archives of Grant Beauchamp  
Donated by his daughters Lori Jangala, Amanda Judd, and Janice Lowe