At first glance, you might mistake the Irish water spaniel for a poodle mix. The sporting dog is the same size as a standard poodle and both have long, loose curls. But, unlike the standard poodle, Irish water spaniels are less energetic and more laid-back than their high-strung ancestors. Irish water spaniels are also far less popular than poodles, which can make them hard to find.
"These dogs are not that common," says Pam Nichols, DVM, president of the American Animal Hospital Association. "Most people don't have a clue what an Irish water spaniel is; if they see them, they'll call it an Irish doodle."
Like poodles, Irish water spaniels are low-shedding and require regular professional grooming to keep their coats looking their best.
The breed is intelligent, easy to train, and has a laid-back temperament that makes Irish water spaniels ideal family dogs. They get along well with children and other pets, but early socialization is essential to ensure Irish water spaniel puppies grow into relaxed, well-adjusted adult dogs that are comfortable with new people and situations.
Irish water spaniels are medium-sized dogs that can weigh up to 68 pounds and reach up to 24 inches in height, making them the tallest of the spaniel breeds.
Her curly coat is the breed's hallmark trait. Irish water spaniels have dense, tight curls covering their bodies with short and smooth hair on their faces and long, loose curls on their floppy ears. And while there's no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic dog, the Irish water spaniel's curls can be a great choice for people who sniffle and sneeze around dogs.
All Irish water spaniels are liver-colored, and their small, almond-shaped eyes are dark to match their brown coat. One of their most adorable features is a cowlick on their foreheads, Nichols says: "It's called a Leprechaun kiss."
Irish water spaniels are not just adorable—Nichols calls them "cute, sweet dogs" that are "gentle and kind."
Thanks to their laid-back personalities, Irish water spaniels make ideal four-legged companions. The breed is great with children, affectionate with their families, and can get along well with other dogs. But as loving as they are with their families, Nichols says socialization is essential to ensure that these dogs feel comfortable around strangers.
"Without proper socialization, Irish water spaniels can become super insecure, needy, and anxiety-ridden," she says. "[Their shyness] is more intense than other breeds; once Irish water spaniels are shy, they're not going to break out of it."
To ensure she grows to be well-adjusted, introduce your Irish water spaniel puppy to new people and situations early in life, bring her along on errands, and visit the dog park once she has clearance from your veterinarian.
Thanks to their easygoing natures, Irish water spaniels will fit into most families and living situations. The breed is known for being good with small children and will happily tag along for walks and play games in the backyard until they're ready to curl up in a dog bed for a long nap.
"They are pretty laid-back and will exercise as much as you want them to," Nichols says.
Irish water spaniels are highly intelligent and will do best in homes where they receive regular mental stimulation from training, games like fetch, and puzzle toys. Bonus: Irish water spaniels aren't very vocal dogs and will only bark to alert—so as long as you let her stretch her legs every day, she can be an ideal dog for apartment living.
Before you bring home an Irish water spaniel, know you'll need to devote time to grooming. In addition to professional grooming to keep their long, curly coats neat, Nichols suggests brushing Irish water spaniels once or twice per week to prevent tangles.
"Their coat is similar to a poodle coat, but it's easier to brush out," she says.
Along with giving her a chance to get her paws moving, dog sports also provide valuable opportunities for training. Irish water spaniels were bred to work; these smart sporting dogs need to channel their mental energy into positive activities. Practicing basic obedience and teaching Irish water spaniels new tricks—or training them to navigate an agility course—provides essential mental stimulation. As with all breeds, always use positive reinforcement when training an Irish water spaniel.
Irish water spaniels have lifespans of 12–13 years and need regular care to keep them healthy. The breed is also prone to a few common health issues:
- Obesity: With unrestricted access to food and too little exercise, Irish water spaniels can pack on the pounds, Nichols says. Obesity is linked to health conditions including osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease; obese dogs even have shorter lifespans. Practice portion control and provide plenty of exercise to help Irish water spaniels maintain a healthy weight.
- Joint dysplasia: Like other large dog breeds, Irish water spaniels are prone to hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. These conditions occur when the hip or elbow joint don't fit into the socket, causing a painful grinding in the joint. Joint dysplasia can often be treated with physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications, but surgery may also be necessary.
- Lymphoma: Irish water spaniels are more prone to certain cancers, including lymphoma, than other breeds, Nichols says. The disease, which causes abnormal white blood cells to form, can be diagnosed with a blood test. It's considered one of the most treatable forms of canine cancer. Annual exams that include blood work can help veterinarians monitor for lymphoma.
- Hypothyroidism: A dry skin or coat, hair loss, weight gain, and skin diseases are among the first signs of hypothyroidism. The condition, diagnosed when the body doesn't produce sufficient thyroid hormones, is detected with a blood test. Prescription medication can help replace the thyroid hormones.
There is little historical information about the Irish water spaniel. It's thought that the sporting breed was developed around the 1830s and, as its name suggests, the origins are believed to be linked to Ireland.
According to the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America (IWSCA), some theories suggest that the breed resulted from crossing the now-extinct North Country water spaniel and the South Country water spaniel. Characteristics from both breeds, including the long legs and feathered tails of the North Country water spaniel and the curly coats of the South Country water spaniel, are hallmarks of the Irish water spaniel. Justin McCarthy, a Dublin sportsman, is credited with refining the breed into the curly-haired brown pups we know today.
Some suggest they share DNA with poodles as well, according to the IWSCA. But despite questions about the true origins of the Irish water spaniel, there are no disputes about the best qualities of the dogs, including their sweet disposition, affectionate nature, playfulness, and trainability. It's these qualities—plus their adorable appearances and retrieval skills—that helped the Irish water spaniel gain popularity outside of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The dogs grew in popularity in the U.S. during the 1870s. By 1875, according to the IWSCA, the Irish water spaniel was the third most popular sporting dog in the country. But today, the Irish water spaniel isn't nearly as common.
- The Irish water spaniel is a diplomat. King James I of England gifted one of the dogs to the King of France in the 17th century in the hope of improving diplomatic relations between the countries.
- In 1979, an Irish water spaniel named Oak Tree's Irishtocrat, won Best in Show at the annual Westminster Kennel Club show.
- An Irish water spaniel helped actress Geena Davis meet her (now-ex) husband, Reza Jarrahy.