Posts Tagged ‘American water spaniel’

I came across a story of a wolf that learned to retrieve ducks from a water spaniel. This story appears in Durward Allen’s The Wolves of Minong (1979):

This particular story clearly suggests that wolves are capable of learning to do thing that dogs do.

However, they do them at their own pace and do not respond well to being forced.

I seriously doubt that anyone could force-fetch this wolf– and still have all of his fingers!

The truth is this animal learned through the example of Junie and the trust he had in the Smitses.

Very few wolves in captivity are kept in this fashion. Most people who keep wolves try to either keep in a way that they behave as naturally as possible.

Those studies that have tried to keep wolves exactly like dogs in urban environments have also discovered that they can’t be forced to obey in the same way.  They are also less interested in learning from people than Western dog breeds.

But I don’t think they have tested wolves that have been raised with Western dogs on their ability to learn from the dogs.

In this case, you have a dog from an easily trained Western breed. Because the Smitses were operating in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I am assuming that Junie was an American water spaniel, which is the regional retriever.   This breed has been bred for many generations to work closely with human handlers, and because it is a retriever, the tendency to bring back objects to its handler is a trait for which it has been selectively bred for many generations.  Although it the trait must be refined through training, it is very easy — in relative terms– to teach a water spaniel to bring back a duck without plucking it or trying to consume it.

This wolf just happens to like the water spaniel, which is likely an elder. In wolf society, pups learn from their elders. They learn which prey they are supposed to hunt, and they learn how to use their predatory motor patterns to catch prey within a cooperative pack. This wolf learned from the water spaniel that the way one uses its motor patterns is to run out, pick up a wounded or dead duck, and come running back to the humans.

I bet that one could train certain wolves to do this behavior, even without the water spaniel as the mentor. I bet that some wolves could even learn to ignore gun shots near them. However, training a wolf doesn’t mean that you just force yourself onto them, which unfortunately seems to be the paradigm in which most people operate regarding wolves.  It is unlikely that anyone was able to domesticate a wolf by dominating it, for if you actually read the wild wolf literature, extremely aggressive dominance displays between individuals ultimately lead to the dispersal of one of the wolves. In captive situations, there is no dispersal, and those that don’t get along wind up doing a lot of fighting and displaying– which is assumed to be natural behavior. If paleolithic hunter-gatherers tried this on their camp wolves, they wouldn’t stay around for very long, and a certain percentage of them tend to wander off at mating season anyway.

One of the real problems in comparing wolf and dog behavior is that researchers often use the popular Western dog breeds, which are often gun dogs and herding breeds, and northern wolves, which are actually quite specialized wolves. These two animals are going to have extreme differences in behavior.  This type of wolf is going to be naturally quite cued into other canines, while the dogs are going to be very, very cued into people.  There is a huge debate about whether wolves are smarter than dogs, which has been re-ignited when Eotvos Lorand University’s Department of Ethology began doing these comparative cognition studies with wolves and dogs.

It is often said that wolves are capable of observational learning and that dogs can learn only by association, but dogs are actually capable of learning from both people and other dogs.

I am of the view that no wolf, no matter how well-socialized, will ever be able to perform at the level of a gun dog or a herding breed when it comes to word and body language associations from humans. There will never be a wolf like Rico the border collie. Dogs are also able to get a lot more information because they are willing to learn from us– and they basically have to. There is probably a genetic basis to this difference, but we haven’t actually found it.

But there aren’t enough wolves living as intimately with people as dogs do, so we really have problem making generalizations about wolf behavior. And because we have such a relatively low n in these studies, we probably aren’t going to be able to answer the question about which animal is more intelligent– if that is even a proper scientific question to work with in the first place.

Wolves are just very hard to keep in domestic situations. They are too emotionally reactive– likely the result of  the selecton pressures on their populations that came from centuries of persecution– and they are too energetic. The Russians say that “A wolf is kept fed by its feet,” which means that wolves are meant to travel vast distances every day in search of prey. In a home, this animal will be like a  field-bred pointer, a foxhound, or Dalmatian.  It will be so full of pent up energy that it might have a hard time focusing when the person arrives home to do some training with it.

But the story of Big Jim shows that at least some wolves are capable of learning to do dog behaviors. I don’t think we’ve figured out what the big differences between dogs and wolves actually are. I certainly don’t think we’ve figured out which species is more intelligent. However, I do think the dogs from Western breeds that have been bred to work closely with handlers that live very closely with people have some traits that are very unique, and most household dogs are going to receive a wealth of information from humans that even a very socialized wolf might not be open to learning. It may be the result of nothing more than the much higher emotional reactivity and energy levels on behalf of the wolf, but it may be something fundamentally cognitive.

I don’t think we have the answers yet.


Minong is the Ojibwe word for Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior off  the coast of Michigan’s UP.  The Smitses were operating in Rock Habor, Michigan, which is the harbor that provides access to Isle Royale. The Smitses were raising captive wolves to introduce to Isle Royale, but this proved to be a major problem.

These imprinted wolves often approached people when they came to the island to camp, and all the wolves but Big Jim wound up being shot.

Big Jim wandered the island for several years after that, but it is unlikely that he contributed any genes to the current wolf population on the island.


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The American water spaniel is the state dog of Wisconsin.

The water spaniel family is but a tiny vestige of what it once was.

Before the retriever became the predominant water dog of the English-speaking world, there were water spaniels and water dogs.

In Britain and Ireland, several different types evolved. The most ancient of which is the so-called English rough water dog, which we would nicely put. in to the poodle/barbet family.  George Stubbs painted “water spaniels” that were more of this rough water dog type in the eighteenth century.

These dogs were clearly of the poodle-type, but in various parts of England, various sorts of land spaniel were crossed in. These were the first “doodles,” if you will.

As anyone who has bred goldendoodle to goldendoodle or cock-a-poo to cock-a-poo knows, there is always a chance of producing a dog that has more of the retriever-type coat.

And very often this coat is wavier than one would find on a normal cocker or golden.

It is from dogs of this breeding that the water spaniel breeds evolved.

Unlike the retrievers that came later, the water dogs and water spaniels were often owned by commoners. The dogs were very good at hauling and setting nets. They could also be of some use for poachers and market hunters.

Because they were so common among commoners, different regional strains appeared. There were northern and southern Irish water spaniels. There was water spaniel or water dog from Northumberland and the Scottish Borders that was commonly tawny or yellow in color, which we know to be an ancestor of the golden retriever and may be a source for the yellow Labrador.

And along the east coast of England, there was a liver water spaniel. It was particularly common in the county of Norfolk, where it became known as the Norfolk retriever in its later years. From its description in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dog, it sounds more like a water spaniel than retriever:

The colour is more often brown than black, and the shade of brown rather light than dark – a sort of sandy brown, in fact. Coat curly, of course, and the curls hardly so close and crisp as in the show retriever of the present day, but inclined to be open and woolly. The coat is not long, however, and across the back there is often a saddle of straight short hair. In texture the coat is inclined to be coarse, and it almost invariably looks rusty and feels harsh to the touch. This, however, may in some measure be due to neglect. The head is heavy and wise-looking, the muzzle square and broad; ears large, and somewhat thickly covered with long curly hair. The limbs stout and strong, with large and well-webbed feet. The tail is usually docked like a spaniel’s, but not so short. This seems to be quite a keeper’s custom, and probably originated from the fact that, to an inexperienced eye, the tail of a puppy generally appears too long for the dog. However, although docking the tail improves the appearance of a spaniel, in my opinion it completely spoils the symmetry of a retriever.

I have previously pointed this dog out to fanciers of the Murray River curly-coated retriever, which itself heavily derived from water spaniel lineage. The more typical curly is blend of the St. John’s water dog-type and the water spaniel.

But the Murray River curly and the dog that is the main focus of this post look very similar to each other.

It was not just in Australia that the liver water spaniel made its mark.

In America, the water spaniel was quite common through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. George Washington owned a water spaniel, which may have been either this sort of dog or one of the Irish varieties. Much to Washington’s chagrin, the dog mated with one of his foxhound bitches. (I’m sure the puppies were drowned.)

In the early days of retrievers in the US, water spaniels made up most of the dogs registered. These were mostly Irish water spaniels, for that breed was one of the first  the AKC recognized.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the  retriever was coming into the fore. In Britain, the retriever had nearly supplanted all water spaniel breeds, and in America, the Chesapeake ducking dog, as it was known, had started to get some good press.  Among the most loved of Teddy Roosevelt’s dogs was a Chesapeake named Sailor, who kept the peace among his motley crew of hunting dogs and pets.

The water spaniel’s days were numbered.

However, Australia was not the only place to still hold some of this old strain.

In the Midwestern US, water spaniels were quite common.

In the Fox River and Wolf River Valleys of Wisconsin, these dogs were often seen working as retrievers from canoes. Their smaller size made them quite useful in this task, one that they share with the canoe dogs of the certain Northeastern tribes and the canoe Labradors. Smaller dogs just don’t take up that much space.

The market hunters of that region had a lot of use for such dogs.  Killing birds to feed patrons at fancy restaurants had become a nineteenth and early twentieth century obsession. Everyone with money wanted to eat wild game. This same market currently exists in Africa where it is called the “bushmeat trade.” However, middle and upper class Americans from this time period were really the people who invented it. It was just that much more thrilling to eat a Canada goose than a domestic greylag.

But the market hunters and the dogs that helped them were never recognized.

The AKC had recognized the Chesapeake– a dog that market hunters held very dear.  It was also a retriever, and retrievers were thought as the cutting edge of dogs.

Water spaniels were so yesterday.

So it wasn’t until the 1920’s that anyone tried to do anything with the water spaniels.

A man by the name Doc Pfeifer of New London, Wisconsin, is credited with getting the breed recognized. But for his efforts, it is likely that the native water spaniel of the region would have disappeared.

For in those days, the retriever was being heavily promoted. The whole notion of the retriever had been imported from Britain, and the British had seen off its main water spaniel breeds. Only the now very rare Norfolk retriever and the McCarthy’s strain of the southern Irish water spaniel existed. The various English water spaniel strains and the Tweed variety had since disappeared or had been made part of the retriever breeds.

Such would have been the fate of this water spaniel.

But to have this breed recognized as something truly American– well, that could save it.

It had a brief spate of popularity in the 1920’s and 1930s. Then, its population crashed.

And that’s where it has been ever since.

In 1985, it was made the state dog of Wisconsin. As far as I know, it’s the only dog breed to have originated there.

The liver water spaniel was once a fixture along the British coast. It disappeared from its original range, but in two very different places, dogs of this type have been preserved.

One of them is the curly-coated retriever that was developed along the Murray River system of New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.

The other was in Wisconsin.

The only other dog of this type is the Boykin spaniel of South Carolina. It likely has American water spaniel heritage.

Both the AWS and the Boykin can be used as flushing spaniels.

Along with the Irish water spaniel, these dogs are the last survivors of what was once a very diverse group of dogs.

It’s a shame that these dogs exist only a relics, for two hundred years ago, these animals were quite common.

Such is the fate of dog breeds.


When I used to have a Clustermap on this site, I noticed that a big red dots were covering three or four Midwestern states. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa were a major source of hits I was receiving.

I am surprised, then, that I have received not a single request to write about this dog.

I did not even realize I was neglecting it until a few weeks ago.

I didn’t write about it, largely because I know more about the Murray River curly and the Irish water spaniel than this breed.

So if anyone who is more expert about this breed would like to inform me more about it, I would be very happy for your input.

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