American Water Spaniel special among hunting dogs

CorrespondentMay 16, 2013 

David McCracken prepares to send his American Water Spaniel Gumbo to retrieve a downed duck.This rare breed is one of few developed in America for hunting.

JIM LASLEY

That dog sure looks familiar. Maybe a miniature Chessie or a Boykin Spaniel? Naw. Boykins have short tails and there is no such thing as a miniature Chessie.

Well, it’s a puzzle. Can’t quite put a finger on the breed. Looks a little like the Irish Water Spaniel or the Curly Coated Retriever. Wonder if it is a registered AKC breed or the result of offshoot breeding?

Look at those bright amber eyes, the heavy, wavy coat, liver colored, or maybe sort of a dark brown. Bet he weighs 30 to 40 pounds and stands 15 to 18 inches tall, what you might call a medium-size dog. He’s a hardy-looking soul. Bet he’s tough as nails.

What you are looking at is an American Water Spaniel, a rare breed and the first sporting dog developed in America as an all-around hunter that could retrieve from boats. Like a fine Scotch, you’ve got to develop a taste for the AWS. But once you’ve acquired that taste, there’s no going back. Ask anyone who owns one and they’ll tell you when an AWS captures your heart, you are hooked for life.

David McCracken, a retired high school economics teacher in Sumter, S.C., has been a waterfowl hunter since age 14. He’s owned and been afield with Boykins, labs and Chessies, but none stand up to AWS. He owns several including his beloved Gumbo, who has conformation and hunting titles a mile long.

“He’s the best dog I’ve ever had,” McCracken said. “ He’s so versatile. He can do it all – flush, retrieve, deliver a squirrel to hand and follow the blood trail of a deer….He has all the drive and desire anyone could want, plus he has a calm demeanor of a family pet. Gumbo sleeps in our bed at night and he’ll eagerly enter the water on a 20-degree day to duck hunt; he’s an all-around good dog.”

McCracken gave up big retrievers when his age of 66 told him he was too old to be dragging labs in and out of boats. He credits his wife Lois with discovering the AWS at the Westminister Kennel Club Dog Show.

“We knew very little about them when we got our first pup from Minnesota,” he said. “It didn’t take long to find they can do anything big dogs can do including retrieve a goose.”

Lois McCracken, a hospital administrator in Sumter, started a therapy dog program at her work which includes her AWS. She also shows her dogs in the conformation ring and runs agility, rally and obedience.

The McCrackens are one of two registered AWS breeders in the Carolinas. Sharon and Joseph Mann in Candler, a town in the North Carolina mountains near Asheville, are also breeders.

Mann got his first AWS in 2006 when he found Chessies were too hard to handle. His wife’s parents, residents of Wisconsin, had owned an AWS. The Manns now have six used for hunting and showing.

“I know several people who are going from Labs to AWS because they are easier to handle and train,” he said.

The breed originated in the Great Lakes region of the United States in the mid 1800s. Ancestors include Irish Water Spaniels and Curly Coated Retrievers. Today most AWS are found in the Midwest, where they are the state dog of Wisconsin.

The AKC, which recognized the AWS in 1940, classifies them in the Sporting Group which includes retrievers, spaniels and pointing dogs.

In 2012 the AKC ranked the AWS as 141 in registration out of 175 breeds. The Lab was No. 1 and the English Fox Hound last. McCracken and Mann say there are less than 3,000 AWS registered in the U.S. and fewer than 300 in the Carolinas, compared to hundreds of thousands of Labs and Golden Retrievers.

Only a handful of AWS show up for fields trials, hunt tests and dog shows. At a recent hunt test in Mullins, S.C., McCracken ran the only AWS. The Boykin Spaniel, developed in South Carolina in the early 1900s, is thought to be the result of outcrossing AWS, Springer Spaniels and Chessies.

McCracken and Mann do not anticipate any significant growth in the number of AWS.

“Most people just don’t know about them,” Mann said. “They are a very likeable dog and once they latch on to you, they’ll become a perfect friend.”

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