The limited popularity of the American Water Spaniel restricted development, resulting in the breed being relatively unchanged since its origins in the 19th century. They are a medium-sized dog, with a curly liver, brown, or chocolate colored coat. The average height at the withers for the breed is 15–18 inches (38–46 cm), and their weight around 25–45 pounds (11–20 kg). They have similar features to the Irish Water Spaniel, but the Irish breed is larger at between 21–24 inches (53–61 cm) and weighing 55–65 pounds (25–29 kg). The coat of the American Water Spaniel can fall in two different patterns, either tightly curled or in the “marcel pattern” where the fur falls in waves. Working and show lines have not diverged as with some other breeds of spaniel, and both appear the same, with show dogs of this breed being rare.
The coat has a coarse outside layer which keeps water away and protects the dog from foliage such as briers. The inside layer provides insulation to keep the dog warm. The coat has an oily feel to it, which gives off a “doggy smell”. The breed standard specifies color of the eyes should harmonize with the color of the coat, and should never be yellow. The skull is broad, and carries long, wide ears. The tail is not typically docked.
Members of the breed enjoy being the center of attention, and can be quite vocal at times. It is a one family dog, and will often bond with one particular individual. For many years the breed was “pack bred”, where they were allowed to live in a group. Since these times, breeders have been working to breed even tempered dogs that are suitable for both hunting and family life.
The AWS has a mind of its own at times and reaches peak performance with the owner who is dedicated to teaching the dog just what is expected of it. The breed takes well to training, and especially excels at training that offers some variety rather than routine training drills. However, members of the breed can may have issues with food possessiveness. They can be stubborn, and mentally are slow to mature from puppyhood. Some lines of the breed still retain dominant and aggressive temperaments; other than these lines, the AWS gets on well with children and enjoys playing with them. Even though they were originally bred to hunt, due to their size, they are suitable for apartment living as long as they receive enough exercise.
Pack breeding early in its development led to a level of genetic variation, so the hereditary conditions of more popular breeds are not common in the AWS. The breed however is known to suffer from eye issues including cataracts and progressive retinal atrophy. Inheritance is suspected in both conditions, with the average age of cataract onset at under one year old.