This section is from the book "British Dogs: Their Varieties, History, Characteristics, Breeding, Management, And Exhibition", by Hugh Dalziel. Also available from Amazon: British Dogs.
To a sportsman of limited means, or one who has not accommodation to keep a team, the Irish water spaniel is the most useful dog he can have, inasmuch as he can be made to perform the duties of pointer, setter, retriever, and spaniel; but, as his name implies, he is peculiarly fitted by temperament and by a water-resisting coat for the arduous duties required by a sportsman whose proclivities lie in the direction of wild fowl shooting. In this branch of sporting they have no equal, being able to stand any amount of hardship; this, combined with an indomitable spirit, leads them into deeds of daring from which many dogs would shrink. Many are the feats recorded of their pluck, sagacity, and intelligence. To a well bred and trained specimen no sea is too rough, no pier too high, and no water too cold - even if they have to break the ice at every step they are not damped, and day after day they will follow it up, being of the "cut-and-come-again" sort. As a companion for a lady or gentleman they have no equal, whilst a well behaved dog of the breed is worth a whole mint of toys to the children, he allowing the little ones to pull him about by the ears, to roll over and over with them, to fetch their balls as often as thrown for him, and to act as their guard in times of danger.
MR. C. H. MASON'S IRISH WATER SPANIEL "PATSEY." Sire Young Doctor (K.C.S.B. 2062) - Dam Bridget (K'.C.S.B. 2056).
When I first commenced to keep Irish water spaniels, many years ago, there were three strains, or rather varieties - one was known as the Tweed spaniel, having its origin in the neighbourhood of the river of that name. They were very light liver colour, so close in curl as to give me the idea that they had originally been a cross from a smooth-haired dog; they were long in tail, ears heavy in flesh and hard like a hound's, but only slightly feathered - fore legs feathered behind, hind legs smooth, head conical, lips more pendulous than M'Carthy's strain. The one I owned, which was considered to be one of the best of them, I bred from twice, and in each litter several of the puppies were liver and tan, being tanned from the knees downward and under the tail. I came to the conclusion that she, at any rate, had been crossed with the bloodhound. In Ireland, too, there exists two totally distinct varieties, which are now known as the North and the M'Carthy strains; the former are in appearance like a third-rate specimen of their southern relation, but are generally much smaller, have less feathering on legs, ears, and head, often a feathered tail, and oftener still are inclined to be crooked on their fore legs.
The M'Carthy strain are a very much more aristocratic looking animal than either of the afore-mentioned, and are now found in greater perfection on this side the Channel than on their native soil. Capt. E. Montresor, Rev. A. L. Willett, Mr. Robson, and the writer are the oldest English breeders, and in later years Mr. Lindoe and Rev. W. J. Mellor went into the breed for a short time, and Mr. Engelbach and Lieut.-Col. Verner should also be classed amongst the older breeders. Both from Mr. Engelbach and the late Sir Wm. Verner I have derived benefit from crossing with their strains, also from that of Mr. W. S. Tollemache's, who for a period of over thirty years kept the breed in its purity, and although he never exhibited them he has owned some of the finest dogs of the breed it has ever been my lot to look upon. Mr. Morton, of Ballymena, Ireland, has for a long time been foremost in this breed in his own country, and the most formidable opponent I have had to meet at our shows. We have rung the changes repeatedly in crossing to our mutual advantage.
It has been argued that the Irish water spaniel is too impetuous and hard-mouthed to be worth much as a field dog. To this I must say that the dogs which have caused this remark to be applied to the whole breed have either been cross bred animals, or else have had a defective education. With true bred dogs the reverse is the case, they being tender-mouthed enough to please the most fastidious, and if they are taken in hand young enough and trained properly, the libel will die out. When Blarney (now Mr. P. J. D. Lindoe's, if not dead) was a puppy, I had her and her brother Fudge (who died of distemper), and I trained them to retrieve by means of a tame pigeon, which from some cause or other could only fly a short distance. I used to put it in my pocket when I took the puppies out for a run, and for a period of at least three months they each retrieved it some dozen times nearly every day, without injuring the pigeon in the least. I have seen one of them (the dog I think) so afraid of harming it as to take hold of it by the wing and fairly lead it to me.
Can any other breed of retriever beat that for tender mouths ? Their dam, Juno, was also as tender-mouthed, and as clever a retriever as any sportsman could wish to be master of, but I will freely admit that some of the breed have been made hard-mouthed, and so also have hundreds of retrievers from the same cause. The Irish water spaniel, as everyone knows who has owned one, is never satisfied unless he is doing something to please his master; for this reason he is kept as a companion, and taught to carry a stick, fetch stones, balls, etc. This kind of education it is which causes them to be hard-mouthed especially if this is done before they have been taught to retrieve game. They are high-couraged like the Irish setter, and, like them also, when well broken, cannot be beaten.
There is considerable diversity of opinion as to their points for exhibition purposes, and since Mr. M'Carthy brought them to what he considered perfection, there has been a great confusion brought about by judges (who have never been breeders) giving prizes to a class of dog that was far from correct. For instance, Mr. M'Carthy, in his description in the Field in 1859, says the head should be capacious, forehead prominent, whilst his dogs, and the dogs of his day, were all square on the muzzle. A dog with a head of this description would be ignored nowadays, but I am by no means disposed to say that the snipe-nosed ones, which certain of our judges go in for, are correct; it is the fashion to call a weak bitch-faced dog "full of quality." This so-called quality in the Irish water spaniel cannot be got without a corresponding loss of bone and, in my opinion, constitution.