SMALL TOWNS: How New London developed and saved the American Water Spaniel

Updated: Jul. 7, 2022 at 6:10 PM CDT
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NEW LONDON, Wis. (WBAY) - Only a small handful of hunting dog breeds can claim American roots, and the origin of one breed can be traced back to a Northeast Wisconsin community.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to New London, the birthplace of the American Water Spaniel.

At the Wolf River Game Farm, about 15 miles northwest of New London, Lois McCracken and Bessie are ready to take part in the American Water Spaniel Club’s annual hunt test.

Bessie’s mission is to flush and retrieve two birds.

A grand champion show dog as well, she aces her field test.

“What a girl, what a girl,” says Lois congratulating Bessie.

Lois and her husband, who live in South Carolina, fell in love with the American Water Spaniel breed 20 years ago and now own five.

“A loving dog and they’re a lot of fun in the home and they’re also very versatile, they do everything from dock diving to agility, I’ve had them in agility and obedience, as well as in the show ring and field and we hunt our dogs as well as participate in hunt tests,” says Lois.

Bringing her dogs to Northeast Wisconsin is always special for Lois, because it’s where the breed’s bloodlines run deepest.

“If it wasn’t for New London and some of the people who live in New London, the American Water Spaniel probably wouldn’t exist,” says Christine Cross, Director of the New London Public Museum.

Inside the museum, the history of the American Water Spaniel.

Developed in the Fox and Wolf River valleys during the mid-1800′s, it became a favorite of hunters for its endurance and ability to work in water and on land.

But by the late 1800′s something happened.

“Once the larger retriever dogs started coming in from England and Europe and things like that, our little brown water spaniel kind of lost popularity,” explains Cross.

History credits New London doctor F.J. Pfeifer with saving the water spaniel from extinction.

“He recognized that the breed really was special, it was from old stock and it really was a versatile little dog and friendly and got along with the family, so he wanted to protect it, he wanted to create a breed standard, he wanted to get this breed recognized,” says Cross.

Dr. Pfeifer’s perseverance paid off, and in 1920, the United Kennel Club formally recognized the breed.

The American Kennel Club followed in 1940.

“And in fact it was his dog, Curly Pfeifer, that was the first registered American Water Spaniel,” says Cross.

40 years later, another local effort to further the breed’s legacy, a push to make the American Water Spaniel the state dog.

“It was one of our 8th grade social studies teachers, his name is Lyle Brumm, and he decided this would be a great project for his students, little did he know that it was going to take five years to get this done, he had probably upwards of 1,000 kids working on this project. These kids, they had to go testify down in Madison to support this idea of having this American Water Spaniel as the state dog, and they got push back, I mean some of our congressmen and senators were like, what, but they did it, they persevered, they kept at it and finally in 1986 it became the state dog,” explains Cross.

Then Governor Anthony Earl even traveled to New London to sign the act into law.

“It continues today, that pride in the American Water Spaniel and New London’s role in its history,” says Cross with a smile.

Today it’s estimated around 3,000 water spaniels are in existence, nowhere near the number of more popular breeds.

But those who own them, love them.

An avid waterfowl hunter, Jon Klema always owned a lab, until eight years ago.

“The guy just said to me if I had to have one all-around dog, one dog in my tool kit, it would be a water spaniel, so I took it on and it has literally changed our lives, having this water spaniel has changed our lives,” says Jon.

So much so, Jon is now president of the American Water Spaniel Club, of which there are 200 members across the country.

“Just wonderful people, and all ends of the spectrum, and it really has changed the course of our lives, my wife and I, we have one son who now lives in New York, so it’s my wife and I and the dogs and I mean we have a ball,” says Jon.

Today however, is extremely emotional for Jon.

His dog Raylan, suffering from kidney failure, is about to get one last run.

“Yeah, I know you don’t feel good,” says Jon to Raylan.

But with his tail wagging, Rylan lets Jon know he’s grateful for this opportunity.

A bird is tossed and Raylan is off for his final retrieve.

“That a boy, that’s a perfect last one for you,” says Jon to Raylan.

Hugs and a few tears as Jon and Raylan make their way from the field.

After all these years, the American Water Spaniel remains one of the best kept secrets in the world of dog ownership, and there are only around 12 breeders nationwide.

But the dog’s legacy in Wisconsin, especially New London, is forever secure.

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