SOLON SPRINGS, Wis. — Bear didn’t quite live up to his name, with a sunny disposition and fast-moving tail that seemed to wag the 45-pound dog.
And when it was his turn in the field, the 14-month-old nailed it. He quartered in ever-increasing semi-circles until he found good scent, then flushed a planted chukar partridge, retrieving it to his owner’s hand after it was shot before heading off to find and flush another without missing a beat.
And all while obeying all of his handler’s commands.
Bear was one of 26 dogs competing in the American Water Spaniel Club’s national hunt trials in the Douglas County Bird Sanctuary area last weekend. The event included field and water tests, as well as a separate show category, and attracted dogs from across the U.S. in beginner, intermediate and expert levels.
“It’s his first competition like this,” said Art Heun of Memphis, Tenn., Bear’s owner and handler.
Bear is the sixth American water spaniel Art and Evelyn Heun have owned. They also brought Splash and Wren north to compete at the hunt test.
“They get into your family pretty good,” Evelyn said of the compact, muscular dog. “He (Art) went shopping for a lab and came home with a water spaniel. He said it was something different. That’s how it started for him.”
“It’s just a fun dog,” Art said of the breed. “If you want a companion that will also hunt, these are the dogs.”
A few minutes later Bear and Art were at a flooded gravel pit where Bear aced a simple, 30-yard water retrieve of a dead duck.
“That’s his first water retrieve ever with a real duck. I’m pretty happy,” Heun said.
The word most American water spaniel owners use to describe their breed is “versatile.” The dogs will retrieve ducks in the morning, upland game like pheasants and grouse in the afternoon, and are good at both.
Their compact design makes them perfect for people who live in small homes or apartments, or who use small boats and canoes for hunting. Generally between 35 pounds for a small female and 50 pounds for a large male, the spaniels are less likely to tip a boat than a 100-pound lab or Chesapeake Bay retriever.
Official dog of Wisconsin
For many Northlanders, and many bird hunters across the country, the only decision when buying a hunting dog is what color Labrador retriever to get — yellow, black or brown. Sure, there are a few springer and Brittany lovers out there, and pointing breeds like German shorthairs seem to be gaining popularity among upland hunters.
There’s a small but loyal fraternity out there, however, who are breeding and training a little hunting dog with a big spirit.
“There are usually no more than about 3,000 American water spaniels living in the U.S. at any one time, so it’s a pretty small breed,” said Rob Goodman, the club’s current director. “It would be beneficial to the (genetics of) the dog if we had more dogs out there, if it’s done right,.”
The club has about 200 dues-paying members.
Goodman, of Phelps in upstate New York, was running Logan, a crackerjack male, in the senior hunter category last weekend.
“I think more people would own them, but they just don’t know about them,” Goodman said of his favorite breed.
The American Kennel Club accurately refers to American water spaniels as “muscular midsize gundogs, not flashy in looks or performance, recognizable by a luscious brown coat that is either tightly curled or wavy.”
The breed was developed in the mid 1800s in the Great Lakes states — namely Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan — as a retrieving dog that waterfowl hunters could use in cold waters (their thick, curly coat keeps them toasty warm) as well as in field work for upland game.
It’s not exactly clear from what breeds the early American water spaniel was developed, but it’s possible early breeders used a combination of Irish water spaniel, the curly-coated retriever, and the now-extinct English water spaniel to get their preferred traits in one dog.
In the early 1900s, Dr. Fred Pfeifer of New London was among the first to recognize that the little brown spaniels common in the region were actually a distinguishable breed. He led the effort to gain recognition of what would eventually be called the American water spaniel. The breed was officially recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1940. The Wisconsin state Legislature declared the American water spaniel the official state dog of Wisconsin in 1985.
Pam Kozak of Park Falls was running Wiley, a five-year old male, in last weekend’s event. Her family has been involved with American water spaniels for more than 30 years.
“My daughter is fourth generation American water spaniel breeder,’’ she said.
Michael Zarlenga of Alexandria, Va., ran Rocksie in last weekend’s event as well as two of the four-year-old female’s pups. He’s been working with American water spaniels since 2003 and attends the national championship hunt test every other year.
Zarlenga agreed with the general consensus that water spaniels are high-energy, friendly and — as Chesapeake Bay retrievers are known for — generally bond with a single owner/handler. They can be great family dogs, the owners say, but they are most fiercely loyal to one person.
“They’re very intelligent dogs. They each have their own personality. And they are hard workers,” Zarlenga said.
For more information go to americanwaterspanielclub.org.