The American Water Spaniel

Wisconsin Sportsman

Wendell Smith
January / February 1974

Swan lake was swollen by spring flood waters, still chilled from late melting snow.  The day itself was cold and wet with a light April mist falling.  The footing along the lake, which connects to the Fox River near Pardeeville, was soggy and cold water oozed into every footprint. 

But all this chill didn’t seem to dampen the spirts of John Barth or the two young American water spaniels he was demonstrating. 

These little brown dogs plunged again and again into the lake to retrieve a frozen mallard that Barth had taken from his home freezer just for the occasion.

It was appropriate for Barth, who operates Swan Lake Kennels at Pardeeville and who specializes in the American, to be demonstrating the dogs there.  For it was along the Fox and Wolf rivers in central Wisconsin that the American water spaniel developed.
And it is this ability to perform in chilly water that has warmed the hearts of hunters using Americans for three-quarters of a century.

In the late 1800’s the valleys of the Wolf and Fox and lakes in the area teemed with waterfowl.  And much of the duck hunting was done from small boats or canoes.  So hunters of that day wanted a dog small enough to fit in the small craft, yet hardy enough to take the cold Wisconsin waters.  And the dog had to have a good nose to retrieve birds downed in heavy marsh growth.  So the small but rugged American water spaniel was developed. 

Retrieving waterfowl wasn’t the only task set before the little American.  Then, as now, he worked the woodlands and uplands, seeking woodcock and grouse and even squirrels.  In later years the spaniel further proved his worth working ringneck pheasants.

It is told that some of the early day rivermen who lived off of the land use the dogs to catch and bring back furbearers. Supposedly the little dogs were sent into the marsh to catch muskrats. The river rat got the pelt to sell, the dog got the carcass to eat. 

In the drought years of the 30’s the waterfall population almost disappeared, as did the water spaniels. But a dedicated group of spaniel lovers kept the breed alive. And finally, in 1940, the American water spaniel became a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club.

A New London physician, Dr. F.J. Pfeifer, has to be considered the leading promoter of the American water spaniel. Dr. Pfeifer, who owned his first American in 1894, was a leading breeder and spokesman for the breed until his death late in 1967.

Karl Hines of Milwaukee and Thomas Brogdon of Rush Lake are two other Wisconsin dog lovers who are given a great deal of credit in the development of the eager little hunters.

Although the American has a dedicated following, the breed has never gained the popularity of some hunting breeds. He is not as popular as he should be, considering his abilities, and even in Wisconsin the dog is rather rare in the field.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The American is strictly a hunter’s dog. His tight, curly and slightly oily coats, is designed to shed water in the duck Marsh not to win beauty contests.

As the result, the breed has not been popular on the bench show circuit. And this suits breeders as Barth just fine. Show dogs are bred for such things as shape and coat, rather than nose and ruggedness. Popularity on the bench has nearly destroyed some former popular hunters as field dogs.

And the fact that there are no field trials for the American has kept him a dog for the hunter rather than the professional trainer interested in building a reputation on trial wins.

So the Americans scarcity on the bench and absence from trials keeps him out of the publicity spotlight.

Swan Lake Kennels produce from 100 to 150 pups a year. About half of them go to Wisconsin hunters and the rest are air freighted throughout the United States. There are about 600 new registrations of Americanss each year by AKC. Realizing that some dog owners buy pedigree dogs but don’t bother to register them, Barth estimates the total puppy crop across the entire United States at only about 1,000 dogs.

Barth became interested in the spaniels as a boy, hunting ducks in the Mississippi River bottoms in the La Crosse area. Like many hunters he was impressed by the attributes of the dogs. 

Their small size, about 17 inches at the shoulder and weighing 35 to 40 pounds, makes them less apt to tip a small hunting boat as one of the big retrievers can do. And neither do they drag as much water back into the craft when they return from a retrieve. 


The solid dark brown color of the American blends well with the colors of the marsh. This can be important to the duck hunter seeking to lure spooky birds into his decoys. 

The small size of the dog should not mislead the prospective owners as to its abilities. Barth owns some land near Pine Island, a popular goose hunting area near Portage. He says an experienced American has no trouble handling a winged honker. However, he warns goose hunting is not the thing to start a pup of any breed on. A wounded Canadian can work a dog over severely with beak and wings. The big birds have been known to ruin a dog permanently for future retrieving use.

In the uplands the American works much in the same manner as the springer, quartering back and forth as a flusher in front of the gun. The brown dog may not be quite as flashy as his multicolored cousin but he works the cover well — a good pooch for the methodical uplander.

The dogs are easily trained, generally being natural retrievers. The main task for the trainer is to teach the dog to hunt within shotgun range when using him on upland game. Barth says he finds this is easily accomplished by using a length of check cord in early training sessions. The dog will soon catch on to the limit of his range.

Not many dogs can be considered really American. Only the Chesapeake Bay retriever,  the Boston terrier, some of the big game hounds, and the American water spaniel have been developed in this country.

From the demonstration given by John Barth’s young dog fetching ducks from the chily Swan Lake, it appears as though Wisconsin hunters can be proud of “our dog”.

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