You don’t have to be a dog enthusiast to have heard of a Labrador, springer or cocker spaniel but when it comes to the handful of vulnerable native breeds, also known as minority breeds, many of you are probably none the wiser unless you have been as fortunate as myself to grow up with one – the Irish water spaniel (IWS). Chances are many of you won’t be familiar with the names Lagotto Romagnolo, Chesapeake bay retriever, Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever to name but a few of these vulnerable breeds. The Kennel Club considers a breed vulnerable when it achieves 300 or fewer UK puppy registrations a year.
Having been fortunate to once again show our family’s IWS in the BASC classes at Crufts, it was clear to me that the native breeds, that have been around in history for a long time, are being mistaken for poodles or labradoodles. This goes to show that vulnerable breeds are still not very well known to the public even if they are part of a high-profile show, such as Crufts.
So, I’ve decided that in the next couple of articles, I will be highlighting some of the history behind these vulnerable breeds. Starting with the IWS, which is something of an anomaly. The breed is classified as a retriever in three countries in which they are highest in number. This is Ireland, the breed’s birthplace, the US and the United Kingdom. However, in the UK, this has not always been the case. Prior to the early 1950’s they were able to run in either spaniel or retriever trials. There is evidence that an IWS ran as a spaniel and achieved its status in 1936. To confuse things further, the Kennel Club classifies the breed as a spaniel and in mainland Europe it is classified as a water dog for both field and show and it runs against other spaniels.
Confused? Well, don’t be, this complex state of affairs underlines the very real multipurpose nature of the IWS as a working gundog. This breed is an all-round shooting companion and I have had the privilege to work with these dogs in varied conditions and have no doubt as to their all-round suitability. I’m sure everyone else familiar with the breed will agree.
The wildfowler who spends hours in the mud stalking geese, the keen snipe shot who walks miles of bog, the individual who finds pleasure in working heavy cover for woodcock, the Saturday pheasant shooter and the dawn duck flighter will all appreciate the devoted, skilled, intelligent companion and friend that they will have in an IWS.
We can add to this that they are also used in the beating line as a flushing spaniel, on grouse moors and even as deer stalking dogs. In fact, with its keen nose and/or good retrieving ability, the IWS can work all terrains. In Europe, it has even been recorded as being used to hunt wild boar. I have also seen one of our older IWS hold a point! This is probably due to the setter blood that was introduced into bloodlines during the 19th century. The origins of the IWS is shrouded in mystery and the modern IWS was started through a dog called Boatswain, bred by an Irish fieldsport enthusiast in Dublin in 1934. It is thought to be the ancestor of today’s IWS. There has been much debate about whether or not the IWS could be much more ancient. References to a similar-looking dog can be found in Persian manuscripts from 4000 B.C. and in Ireland from as early as 17 A.D.
There have been many suggestions that the poodle and IWS share a common ancestry and although the coats and genetics are very different, to the untrained eye, IWS will probably look a bit like a poodle.
The IWS is an amazing breed with their clown-like expression, and determination to please but also a strong will which can be a challenge, so they need a patient, kind and determined handler or they will become reserved and inattentive. In my eyes, it needs more acceptance and greater recognition as do all other minority breeds.
Young Shot Journalist
I’m 15 years old and live in Heathfield, East Sussex. I have been writing articles for my mum’s dog club for some years and have written for local parish newsletters, Scouts and school newsletters as well. I also like composing songs. I have a love of words and the English language (I performed Shakespeare in drama exams).
My passion with gundogs has helped me write my first BASC article, which you can read in the November/December S&C. My other passion is photography; I hope to study journalism and photography.
I have been working with gundogs from early age, having the encouragement from my mum and gaining so much from her. With our Cuvana gundogs we participate in a range of both competitive and fun dog activities.
I am looking forward to taking on this new challenge and hope to inspire other young people to write.