Sunday Dinner with Paul Morrison – Part 2

A Strike to the Heart, Dogs, Sunday Dinner

For today’s Sunday Dinner, Paul Morrison will be joining us for a second week to talk about the American Water Spaniel, which makes a star appearance in my novel A Strike to the Heart. If you missed last week, you can read our conversation here.

Sunday Dinner is a traditional (noon) meal served after church on Sundays. Whole families, including extended family, would gather over a large meal to celebrate a day of rest. Multiple cultures enjoy this Sunday Dinner tradition. In my experience, I know it from both my Midwestern farm family as well as my Italian-American family. Now, I’d like to bring Sunday Dinner virtually to you. So, pull up a chair as we invite various guests to join us each week!

What is the history behind the American Water Spaniel? How did it become an AKC (American Kennel Club) official breed?

It is believed that the AWS was developed around the middle of the 19th century and originated in the Wolf and Fox River valleys of Wisconsin. We cannot say that for sure, but it is the accepted historical narrative and there is plenty of documentation to acknowledge that. Another accepted belief is that the breed developed from the needs of that era’s market hunters. 

Such hunters made their living off the sale of the wild game they brought to market. The type of hunting they did and the environments they hunted in, demanded a dog that could quickly locate downed game, retrieve it when necessary, and could withstand the harsh weather they often worked in while maintaining a strong work ethic. 

The father of the breed is a man by the name of Dr. F.J. “Doc” Pfeifer who practiced in New London, Wisconsin for decades. He got his first AWS in 1894 and believed that the breed was probably a cross between the Curly Coated Retriever and the Field Spaniel. Others labeled the breed as developed from the English Water Spaniel and, perhaps, smaller versions of the Curly Coated Retriever or maybe the Irish Water Spaniel. Whatever the foundation breeds were is probably unimportant at this point, but it makes for some interesting conversations if you get a few AWS enthusiasts together who have differing opinions. I tend to agree with Doc Pfeifer. 

The good doctor promoted the breed in the early 1900s and obtained recognition of the breed by the United Kennel Club (UKC) in 1920. He is credited with giving it its name as well. After UKC recognition was given other registries followed suit with the AKC giving recognition to the breed following a petition of the first American Water Spaniel Club formed around the 1930s. That recognition took place in 1940, more than 80 years ago. Today, the breed can participate in a wide variety of events from dog shows to hunt tests and obedience trials to agility; you name the event, and you just might find that AWS can play the game. This is something new as the AWS was prevented from participating in AKC hunt tests until the early 2000s, but that is a story for another time. 

In the first half of the 20th century the breed was quite popular, especially among the hunters of the day. However, its popularity waned following WW-II. Many of the breeders who were around before the war fell away after it and new breeds brought over from Europe began to take hold at the same time. It seems as there has always been a strong contingent of enthusiasts through the decades, supported by a few dedicated breeders in Wisconsin, New York, Michigan and elsewhere.  

An interesting fact that many people do not know is that in April of 1986, Wisconsin Governor Anthony Earl signed a bill declaring the AWS the state dog. This was the culmination of an effort put forth by the 8th grade social studies class from Washington Middle School in New London and their teacher Lyle Brumm. It was and continues to be a great honor. 

What makes the American Water Spaniel special or unique from other breeds?

Well, that is always a tough question for me to answer. I think uniqueness is sort of in the eye of the beholder. For some it tends to be the breed’s looks. Curly, some darker shade of brown with a little white on the chest sometimes thrown in. Others will say that it is their personality, loving, friendly, smart, tenacious. But all those attributes can be found in other breeds as well.

So, are they really unique? For me, the uniqueness derives from the combination of these factors in a small package and the fact that you just don’t see many of them around. I am a hunter. I hunt ducks, geese, pheasant, grouse, and rabbit to one degree or another. I like having a dog that is not just another Lab, Setter, or Springer. I love having people come up to me and ask, “What kind of dog is that?” or “I haven’t seen one of those since I was a kid!” It gives me an opportunity to share stories, tell others about the breed, and maybe steer them to the breed when it comes to them getting another dog or even their first dog.

What does a day in the life of an American Water Spaniel look like?

Well, that depends upon who the dog lives with and what their interests are. Let me try to pull together a few different AWS lives and see if I can give an overall picture for you.

The day would start with a quick run outside to ‘do its business’ and then a fast meal (AWS love to eat) of a high-quality dog food. This would likely be followed by the dog begging for more and giving that mournful, ‘I am starving, is that all you are going to feed me’ look. If it is in the proper home a good walk or a romp around the yard to get rid of some energy would now be in order. Maybe a bit of a training session for obedience, house manners, hunting, or whatever seems appropriate for that dog would follow. Then it is off for a rest period curled up in its crate, kennel run, or dog bed while the family either goes off to work or tends to things around the house.

Another time out later in the day after the family comes back home. Some bonding time on the couch or floor, play time outside, maybe retrieving a ball or training item for a while and then it is dinner time. That late night walk or time out in the yard for another opportunity to do its business followed by bedtime. If the dog has its way that is probably spent in the owner’s bed, but it is best if it has its own bed on the floor or in a crate. Then the next day, it starts all over again.

The afternoon is slipping away, so we have to draw the stories to an end. Paul, thanking for sharing about the history and uniqueness of the AWS.

One of the reasons I chose to make Lily’s dogs American Water Spaniels in A Strike to the Heart is because the breed is the state dog of Wisconsin, where A Strike to the Heart is set. In fact, Lily even references Doc Pfeifer. If you’re interested in learning more, you can order your copy of A Strike to the Heart here.

There is still so much learn about the American Water Spaniel so Paul will be joining us again next week. See you then!


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