Irish Water Spaniel

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irish water spaniel portrait
Meet the Irish Water Spaniel, a charismatic and captivating breed that's sure to steal your heart! With their distinctive "rat tail," waterproof curls, and playful personality, these spirited dogs have a unique charm that captivates dog lovers everywhere.

Join us in this comprehensive guide as we explore everything you need to know about this breed, including their appearance, temperament, ideal environment, grooming, exercise requirements, training tips, dietary needs, health concerns, history, and more.

Best For

The Irish Water Spaniel is perfect for active families and individuals seeking a loyal, intelligent, and energetic companion. These curly-coated charmers thrive with plenty of exercise, mental stimulation, and love. If you’re a fan of the great outdoors and ready to embark on a lifetime of adventures with an affectionate, fun-loving friend by your side, this breed may just be your match made in doggy heaven!


OFFICIAL NAMEIrish Water Spaniel
OTHER NAMESWhiptail, Shannon Spaniel, Rat Tail Spaniel, Bog Dog
BREED GROUPSporting Group
HEIGHT21-24 inches
WEIGHT45-65 lbs
LIFESPAN12-13 years
irish water spaniel standing in the garden
Photo: CaptureLight/Getty Images


The Irish Water Spaniel is a strikingly unique breed that instantly captures attention with its memorable appearance. These medium-to-large dogs possess a strong, well-built body that showcases their athletic prowess.

Males typically stand between 22 to 24 inches tall at the shoulder, while females measure around 21 to 23 inches. Weighing in at approximately 45 to 65 pounds, they are perfectly balanced for agility and endurance.

One of the most distinctive features of the Irish Water Spaniel is their “rat tail.” This long, tapering tail is almost entirely hairless, save for a tuft of curls at the base. It serves an important purpose by acting as a rudder when the dog is swimming, enabling them to maneuver effortlessly through the water.

The head of an Irish Water Spaniel is large and well-proportioned, with an intelligent and alert expression. Their eyes are a beautiful shade of dark brown or hazel, and they have notably long, drooping ears that are covered in loose curls. These ears not only add to their overall charm but also aid in their remarkable ability to locate and retrieve game in the water.

The coat of the Irish Water Spaniel is truly one-of-a-kind. Their thick, tight curls form a dense, water-repellent layer that keeps them warm and dry during their aquatic escapades. The coat color ranges from deep liver to rich puce, adding to their regal appearance. To top it off, these dogs boast a unique topknot of curly hair that falls over their forehead, giving them an endearing and comical look.

In addition to their physical attributes, these dogs are known for their animated gait and boundless energy. When they’re not busy retrieving in the water or exploring the great outdoors, you’ll often find them bouncing around playfully, eager to engage in games and activities with their human counterparts.

The Irish Water Spaniel’s captivating appearance and lively demeanor make it impossible not to fall in love with this enchanting breed. From their expressive eyes to their waterproof curls and distinctive tails, every aspect of their physicality contributes to their undeniable allure.

irish water spaniel walking on grass
Photo: slowmotiongli/Getty Images


The Irish Water Spaniel is an enchanting breed with a personality that’s just as unique and delightful as their appearance. Their temperament is a harmonious blend of intelligence, playfulness, and loyalty, making them truly exceptional companions.

One of the most endearing qualities of this breed is their clownish nature. They have a wonderful sense of humor and love to entertain their families with their antics. Their charming goofiness will surely bring laughter and joy to your home, turning even the gloomiest days into a fun-filled adventure.

Despite their playful demeanor, Irish Water Spaniels are also known for their keen intelligence. They have a natural curiosity about the world around them and are quick to pick up new skills. This smart breed thrives when given a purpose or task to accomplish, making them well-suited for various canine sports and activities.

At the same time, they can be somewhat independent and strong-willed. While they’re eager to please their humans, they also have a mind of their own and may occasionally display a stubborn streak. It’s essential to approach their training with patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement to ensure a strong bond between you and your furry friend.

Loyalty is another defining trait of the Irish Water Spaniel. These dogs are deeply devoted to their families and form strong attachments with their human companions. They are happiest when surrounded by their loved ones and included in family activities. Their affectionate nature makes them excellent cuddle buddies, always ready to snuggle up on the couch after a day of play.

While they are generally friendly and sociable, Irish Water Spaniels can be reserved or cautious around strangers. Early socialization is crucial to help them develop confidence and adaptability in various situations. Regular exposure to new people, places, and experiences will ensure that your pup grows into a well-rounded and well-behaved adult.

The Irish Water Spaniel’s protective instincts also make them effective watchdogs. They are alert and vigilant, always keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. While they’re not typically aggressive, their wariness of strangers and deep loyalty to their family make them reliable guardians of their home.

Despite their many wonderful qualities, the Irish Water Spaniel may not be the ideal breed for everyone. Their high energy levels and need for mental stimulation require an owner who is willing to invest time and effort into providing an engaging and fulfilling environment. Additionally, their independent nature might prove challenging for first-time dog owners or those who prefer a more compliant breed.

irish water spaniel leaping into water
Photo: slowmotiongli/Getty Images

Ideal Environment

As long as their physical and mental needs are met, the Irish Water Spaniel is an adaptable and versatile breed that can thrive in a variety of environments. These dogs are best suited for active pet parents who are able to provide ample exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction.

Physical Environment

An ideal environment for an Irish Water Spaniel would include a spacious home with a securely fenced yard where they can play and explore safely. As natural water-lovers, they’ll be overjoyed if they have access to a pond, lake, or pool for swimming and retrieving games. However, even without a body of water nearby, regular outings to dog-friendly beaches or parks will keep them happy and content.

Apartment living can be suitable for an Irish Water Spaniel, provided they receive sufficient daily exercise and mental stimulation. This breed is not overly vocal, which makes them less likely to disturb neighbors. However, they still need ample outdoor time to stretch their legs and burn off energy.

Climate Adaptability

In terms of climate adaptability, the Irish Water Spaniel’s dense, curly coat provides excellent protection against cold weather. They are well-equipped to handle cooler temperatures and thoroughly enjoy romping in the snow. However, it’s essential to keep an eye on your pup during extreme cold spells and provide a warm shelter when needed.

On the flip side, their thick coat can make them more susceptible to overheating in hot climates. It’s crucial to monitor your Irish Water Spaniel during periods of high temperatures and provide plenty of shade and fresh water to keep them cool. Limiting exercise to the cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or evening, can help prevent heat-related issues.

Other Pets

When it comes to other pets, the Irish Water Spaniel can coexist peacefully with fellow dogs and even cats, especially if they are introduced and socialized early on. Their gentle nature also makes them compatible with children, although supervision is always recommended to ensure safe and positive interactions.

two irish water spaniels with their tongue out
Photo: slowmotiongli/Getty Images


The Irish Water Spaniel, with its distinctive curly coat and unique appearance, requires a moderate amount of grooming to maintain their charming looks and overall health. While their grooming needs may seem daunting at first, breaking it down into manageable tasks will make the process more enjoyable for both you and your furry friend.

Coat Care

First and foremost is coat care. The Irish Water Spaniel’s tight curls form a naturally water-repellent layer that helps keep them warm and dry. Though they are considered low-shedding, their coats can become tangled or matted if not cared for properly. To prevent this, it’s essential to brush your dog’s coat at least two to three times a week using a slicker brush or a comb designed for curly-haired breeds.

In addition to regular brushing, your Irish Water Spaniel will need occasional trimming to keep their coat tidy and manageable. This can be done at home using grooming scissors or by a professional groomer if you prefer.

Focus on areas like the ears, feet, and tail, where hair tends to grow longer. A full trim every couple of months should suffice, although individual dogs may require more or less frequent grooming depending on their coat condition.

Bathing is another important aspect of grooming for the Irish Water Spaniel. Since they love to swim and play outdoors, they can get dirty quite easily. Aim to bathe your dog every 4 to 6 weeks using a gentle, dog-specific shampoo that won’t strip their coat of its natural oils. Always ensure that you thoroughly rinse out all shampoo residue, as any remaining product can cause skin irritation.

Dental Care

Dental care is also a crucial component of your dog’s overall health and grooming routine. Regular teeth brushing can help prevent plaque buildup, tartar, and bad breath.

Ideally, you should brush your Irish Water Spaniel’s teeth daily using a canine toothbrush and toothpaste. However, if daily brushing isn’t feasible, aim for at least two to three times a week. Introducing dental chews and toys can also contribute to maintaining your dog’s oral hygiene.

Nail Trimming

Don’t forget about your dog’s nails! Overgrown nails can cause discomfort and even lead to injury. Trim your Irish Water Spaniel’s nails every 3 to 4 weeks using a dog nail clipper or grinder. If you’re unsure about trimming their nails yourself, a professional groomer or veterinarian can help.

Ear Care

Lastly, pay attention to your dog’s ears. The long, floppy ears of the Irish Water Spaniel are prone to trapping moisture, which can lead to infections. Check and clean their ears weekly using a soft cloth or cotton ball dampened with a vet-approved ear-cleaning solution. Be gentle and avoid inserting anything deep into the ear canal.

irish water spaniel standing in long grass
Photo: slowmotiongli/Getty Images


The Irish Water Spaniel is an energetic and athletic breed that requires a good deal of exercise to keep them happy, healthy, and well-behaved. As a sporting breed, they have a natural drive for physical activity and thrive when given ample opportunities to stretch their legs and engage in stimulating exercise.

Exercise Amount & Types

To meet their exercise needs, plan on providing at least one hour of physical activity daily. This can be divided into two or more sessions, depending on your dog’s individual preferences and energy levels. A combination of different exercises will ensure your Irish Water Spaniel stays engaged and satisfied.

Long walks and hikes are excellent ways to keep your dog active while also allowing them to explore new sights and smells. These intelligent dogs will appreciate the mental stimulation that comes from navigating new terrain and sniffing out exciting scents.

As natural water-lovers, swimming is another fantastic form of exercise for the Irish Water Spaniel. Whether it’s a trip to the beach, a nearby lake, or even a backyard pool, they’ll relish the opportunity to splash around and show off their impressive aquatic skills.

Fetch and retrieve games are perfect for tapping into your dog’s working heritage. Try using a variety of toys, such as balls, frisbees, or even floating toys for water-based play. These games not only provide physical exercise but also help strengthen the bond between you and your furry friend.

It’s also essential to incorporate mental stimulation into your dog’s daily routine. Puzzle toys, hide-and-seek games, and training sessions can help keep their minds sharp and engaged, preventing boredom and destructive behaviors.

Dog Sports

For those interested in dog sports, the Irish Water Spaniel excels in various competitions, such as agility, obedience, and dock diving. Their intelligence, athleticism, and eagerness to please make them well-suited for these activities, and they’ll love the challenge of learning new skills alongside you.

irish water spaniel at an agility course
Photo: Kyle Reynolds/Getty Images


The Irish Water Spaniel is a highly intelligent and trainable breed that is known for their eagerness to please and natural affinity for learning. With their keen minds and working heritage, they excel in various types of training, from basic obedience to advanced dog sports.

Positive Reinforcement

Despite their intelligence, Irish Water Spaniels can sometimes display an independent and strong-willed nature. This means that patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement are crucial when training this breed. By using praise, treats, and play as rewards for good behavior, you’ll encourage your dog to stay engaged and motivated throughout the training process.

Basic Obedience & Socialization

Begin training your Irish Water Spaniel with basic obedience commands, such as sit, stay, and come. These foundational skills will not only help establish your role as the leader but also serve as a basis for more advanced training later on.

Early socialization is equally important, as it helps your dog develop confidence and adaptability in a variety of situations. Expose them to new people, animals, and environments from a young age to ensure they grow into well-rounded and well-behaved adults.

Advanced Training

Once your Irish Water Spaniel has mastered basic obedience, consider exploring more advanced training options, such as agility, dock diving, or scent work. Their athleticism and problem-solving abilities make them excellent candidates for these activities, and they’ll relish the mental and physical challenges they present.

Additional Training Tips

In addition to formal training, remember to reinforce good manners and behaviors in your day-to-day life. Consistency is key, so ensure that all family members are on the same page when it comes to rules and expectations.

One specific aspect to consider when training an Irish Water Spaniel is their natural propensity for retrieving. You can tap into this instinct by incorporating fetch games and dummy retrieves into your training sessions. This not only provides physical exercise but also reinforces their natural skills and strengthens your bond.

irish water spaniel standing in the garden
Photo: CaptureLight/Getty Images

Diet & Nutrition 

Just like any other dog, the Irish Water Spaniel requires a well-balanced and nutritious diet to maintain their overall health and well-being. With their active lifestyle and unique dietary needs, it’s essential to choose the right food and feeding schedule for your furry friend.

What to Feed & How Much

When selecting the right food for your Irish Water Spaniel, look for high-quality options that meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines. These guidelines ensure that the food provides the necessary nutrients and is suitable for your dog’s specific life stage.

You may choose from dry kibble, wet food, or even a raw diet, depending on your dog’s preferences and your own comfort level.

The amount of food you feed your Irish Water Spaniel will depend on their age, weight, activity level, and individual metabolism. Generally, puppies require more frequent meals and higher calorie intake to support their rapid growth and development. As they mature into adults, their feeding frequency can be reduced, and portion sizes should be adjusted according to their energy needs.

A typical feeding schedule for an adult Irish Water Spaniel might involve two meals per day – one in the morning and one in the evening. Always consult your veterinarian for guidance on the appropriate portion sizes and feeding frequency for your specific dog.


When it comes to treats, moderation is key. While treats can be a valuable training tool and a way to show affection, overindulging can lead to weight gain and other health issues. Opt for healthy, low-calorie treats, and be mindful not to exceed 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake.


Hydration is another essential aspect of your Irish Water Spaniel’s diet. Ensure that they always have access to clean, fresh water, especially during hot weather or after exercise. Keep their water bowl clean and refill it regularly to encourage proper hydration.

irish water spaniel sitting on grass
Photo: slowmotiongli/Getty Images


The Irish Water Spaniel is a relatively healthy breed with a life expectancy of 12 to 13 years. While they are generally robust and resilient, like all breeds, they can be prone to certain health issues. Being aware of these potential concerns can help you take proactive measures to ensure your dog’s well-being.

Here are common health issues associated with the Irish Water Spaniel:

Hip Dysplasia: This is a genetic condition where the hip joint doesn’t develop properly, leading to arthritis and discomfort. Regular check-ups, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding excessive strain on your dog’s joints can help manage this condition.

Hypothyroidism: This occurs when the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones, leading to weight gain, lethargy, and skin issues. A balanced diet and proper medication can help manage hypothyroidism under your veterinarian’s guidance.

Ear Infections: Due to their long, floppy ears, Irish Water Spaniels are more susceptible to ear infections. Regular ear cleaning and monitoring for signs of infection, such as redness or unpleasant odor, can help prevent complications.

Eye Problems: Some Irish Water Spaniels may develop eye conditions, such as progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) or cataracts. Routine eye exams and early detection can help manage these issues and maintain your dog’s vision.

Allergies: This breed can be prone to allergies, which may cause skin irritation or digestive issues. Identifying the allergens and providing appropriate treatment, such as medication or dietary adjustments, can help alleviate symptoms.

To keep your Irish Water Spaniel healthy, it’s essential to provide a well-balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs. Choose high-quality food that follows the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines, and consult your veterinarian for personalized recommendations based on your dog’s age, weight, and activity level.

Regular veterinary check-ups are crucial for monitoring your dog’s health and catching any potential issues early on. Maintain a consistent vaccination schedule to protect your Irish Water Spaniel from common canine diseases, and be sure to address any health concerns promptly.

irish water spaniel's face uo close
Photo: slowmotiongli/Getty Images


The Irish Water Spaniel is a breed steeped in mystery and charm. This fascinating breed traces its roots back to 19th-century Ireland, where it was developed as a versatile hunting and retrieving companion.

The exact origins of the Irish Water Spaniel remain unclear, with some theories suggesting that it descended from various ancient water dogs, such as the Poodle or Portuguese Water Dog.

The modern breed, however, is primarily credited to Justin McCarthy, an Irish breeder who played a significant role in refining and promoting the breed in the mid-1800s. His dog, Boatswain, is considered the founding sire of the breed and contributed greatly to the Irish Water Spaniel’s unique appearance and exceptional retrieving abilities.

The breed quickly gained popularity in both Ireland and England as a talented gundog, excelling in retrieving waterfowl and game from land and water. Their waterproof, curly coat and webbed feet made them particularly adept at swimming, while their intelligence and eagerness to please made them easy to train for various tasks.

As the breed’s reputation spread, it eventually made its way across the Atlantic. The Irish Water Spaniel was one of the earliest breeds to be recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), with its first registration dating back to 1878. Despite this early recognition, the breed has remained relatively rare in the United States, often overshadowed by other retriever breeds like the Labrador and Golden Retriever.

While not a mainstay in popular culture, the Irish Water Spaniel has made a few notable appearances, particularly in the world of dog shows and sports. The breed has garnered success in obedience, agility, and field trials, showcasing its versatility and athleticism.

A testament to their unique appeal, several Irish Water Spaniels have also graced the silver screen in films such as “The Breed” (2001) and “The Double McGuffin” (1979).

Today, the Irish Water Spaniel is cherished by enthusiasts for its distinctive appearance, playful nature, and remarkable abilities. While not as popular as some other retriever breeds, the Irish Water Spaniel’s loyal following ensures that its unique qualities will continue to be celebrated for generations to come.

Parent Club

The parent club for the Irish Water Spaniel in the United States is called the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America (IWSCA). Founded in 1981, the club is dedicated to promoting and preserving the breed through education, events, and responsible breeding practices.

Their webpage provides valuable resources for both potential and current Irish Water Spaniel owners, including information on breed history, health, and upcoming events.

Breed Standard

A breed standard is a set of guidelines established by breed clubs or kennel organizations, defining the ideal appearance, temperament, and physical traits of a specific breed.

It serves as a reference for breeders, judges, and enthusiasts to evaluate and maintain a breed’s unique qualities. Covering aspects like size, appearance, and temperament, breed standards are used in dog shows and competitions to assess individual dogs against the ideal representation of their breed.

Check out the Irish Water Spaniel’s breed standard set by the American Kennel Club (AKC).


Acquiring an Irish Water Spaniel can be an exciting journey, but it’s essential to prepare and make informed decisions. Before bringing one home, consider your lifestyle, as these dogs require ample exercise and mental stimulation. Also, prepare for their grooming needs, given their distinctive curly coat.

If you choose to buy, research and select a reputable breeder who prioritizes health, temperament, and responsible breeding practices. Ask for health clearances, meet the parents, and visit the breeder’s facility to ensure a healthy environment.

Alternatively, consider rescuing an Irish Water Spaniel in need of a loving home. The American Kennel Club (AKC) and the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America (IWSCA) can help connect you with rescue organizations or breed-specific rescues. Adopting a dog can be a rewarding experience, providing a second chance and life-long companionship for both you and your new furry friend.


Is the Irish Water Spaniel a good family dog?

Yes, Irish Water Spaniels can be excellent family dogs. They are known for their playful, affectionate nature and bond well with their human companions. However, they do require plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, so an active family is best suited for this breed.

Do Irish Water Spaniels bark a lot?

While not excessive barkers, Irish Water Spaniels may bark to alert their owners of strangers or unusual occurrences. Proper training and socialization can help manage their barking behavior.

Are Irish Water Spaniels smart?

Yes, Irish Water Spaniels are intelligent and eager to please, which makes them highly trainable. They excel in various dog sports and activities, showcasing their versatility and quick learning abilities.

Can Irish Water Spaniels be left alone?

Like most dogs, Irish Water Spaniels can be left alone for short periods, but they thrive on human companionship and may develop separation anxiety if left alone for extended durations. It’s essential to gradually increase their alone time and provide stimulating toys to keep them occupied.

How much exercise do Irish Water Spaniels need?

Irish Water Spaniels are energetic dogs that require at least an hour of daily exercise to stay healthy and happy. A combination of walks, playtime, and mentally stimulating activities like fetch or agility will keep them satisfied.

Are Irish Water Spaniels hypoallergenic?

While no dog is truly hypoallergenic, Irish Water Spaniels have a curly, water-resistant coat that produces less dander than many other breeds. This characteristic may make them more suitable for individuals with allergies, but it’s important to spend time around the breed to gauge your personal reaction.

What are the grooming requirements for Irish Water Spaniels?

Irish Water Spaniels require regular grooming to maintain their curly coat and prevent matting. Brushing should be done weekly, and occasional professional grooming is recommended to trim and shape their coat. Additionally, keep their ears clean and dry to prevent infections.

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