James Darley says the spaniel dogs come in different shapes and sizes. They have all carved a special niche in British sports.
It is not uncommon for spaniel enthusiasts to be a little eccentric. We are not likely to be satisfied working a Labrador after being bitten figuratively by a spaniel. We prefer to live more intensely and enjoy the adrenaline rush of a dog that has a combination of attention and affection. It looks almost like a puppy with its soft coat, domed eyes and liquid-like head, as well as a fiery attitude to working in the field. The restless nature of spaniels makes them exciting.
SPANIEL BREEDS IN BRITAIN
When the relationship between the spaniel, and the gun is at its best the two have a wonderful bond. When one reflects on what a spaniel contributes to that partnership, the dog’s job description can seem surprisingly complex, particularly in comparison with that of the retriever breeds. The spaniel is capable of retrieving but its primary task is to hunt. This is where 90% is assessed in field trials.
The handler determines where and when to go, guides the dog on the terrain being worked and maintains its manners. All that is easy compared with the spaniel’s part. The dog’s pace and punch is employed to discover and capture game, forcing it to risk escape within sight and range of the gun. Its retrieving abilities, both on land and in water, are essential, as without them, we would lose a lot of the game that we do not kill.
We can only be amazed at the power of their nose. They use both their eyes and their ears. The spaniels can distinguish between subtle differences that we might not be able to fully understand. Let’s say the dog follows a rabbit, which is a body scent. It then enters thick vegetation to find the rabbit. The rabbit is shot but still moves. The dog was working at a gallop up until this point, but now is seated. It is quickly sent. The spaniel must then adjust his pace in order to follow and pick up the blood scent. In this sequence, the dog has to make instant decisions. The end result is a rabbit that was captured quickly, firmly but with tenderness, and released. It is amazing to see the combination of a hot-blooded hunter and a cool mind in such a changing, tempting and distracted environment.
What, then, is the spaniel’s prime task? To retrieve, to hunt and to be steady. All these things make up the job. First and foremost, it is designed to provide pleasure. We are interested in efficiency and productivity, but style is what we seek most. So, what does ‘style’ mean? What is the quality that matters so much in field trials, where there are fine distinctions made between equal dogs? Quite simply, it is what makes working a spaniel such a delight: it is the ability to get a handler’s heart racing and put a lump in a throat even when the dog is not finding the stuff it is looking for and the gun’s barrels remain clean. It is the best of sports to rough shoot over a hard-going dog. It’s more than just a couple of heads for the pot. The ancient instinct that man and dog share is worth recognizing.
Fostering that elusive quality of style is the prime function of the spaniel’s trainer, be they an amateur owner or a professional, a novice or an experienced handler. It may take some time for a spaniel to reach its full potential. However, with tact and cunning as well as conditioning you can achieve this goal. You cannot just aim for an obedient, perfectly behaved dog. The appeal of spaniel training is that it requires a more elegant approach. The goal is for a dog with all the behaviour and control needed to work it – be it at covert side, in the beating line, at the peg, below the tide line or when rough shooting – but with all those spaniel spirits intact, full of initiative and confidence, and capable of acting independently yet in harmony.
The various breeds of spaniels have evolved to fill a niche in British Isles hunting, where the game is plentiful, but must be actively encouraged to leave dense woodland, wetlands or beet fields, as well as upland rushes. In all these situations, thorough questing well within range of the gun is demanded; not for spaniels the wide expanses of open ground, such as heather moorland, where pointing breeds cover huge casts to find more widely separated quarry and ‘hold’ it until the panting gun approaches. Different spaniel types do the same job, but in different ways. They each have their own fan base.
ENGLISH SPRINGER SPANIEL
The English springer is the largest working spaniel in terms of size. The English springer is the queen of all work. The springer breed is dominant in field trials, and their manner of work has become almost synonymous with what good spaniels are judged by. English springers were not standardized until the Victorian period, even though their origins can be traced back hundreds of years, before guns took over from hawks or nets for hunting. In a few short years, springers had surpassed Clumber spnies in spaniel fields trials. The springer spaniel’s ancestry is almost certainly shared with the setter – known as epagneul in France where these dogs were likely developed – its name distinguishing its function, which was to ‘spring’ or flush game as opposed to pointing it.
The English cocker, as Americans call it, is a popular bird with a loyal following. It is believed that the cocker got its name because it was used to flush woodcock. It’s unlikely, since there aren’t enough woodcock in most places to justify a breed. Some spaniels were also once known as ‘cockflushers’, readily shortened to cocker, in contrast to the springer spaniel. Cockers tend to be smaller than springers, and their work is less flashy but just as effective. For those of us who have successfully worked with, trialled, and bred cockers, they are a characteristically dishonest, but entertaining and engaging breed.
Aside from these two principal spaniel breeds, the others are unflatteringly grouped as ‘minor breeds’. This sobriquet should more accurately be ‘minority breeds’, for they are merely less numerous; minorities are to be cherished and diversity encouraged. Clumber Spaniels, and in particular work-bred ones, are easier to come by, as the breed has been restored to its original form over the past forty years. This means that they’re leaner, healthier, and have less exaggeration. Individually and collectively, the Working Clumber Spaniel Society’s initiative has paid off. Clumbers are now a healthy, practical and effective third alternative to springers, and they have a reputation for their nose, but also their stamina.
Sussex spaniels are their cousins, with similar build but smaller, and lower. A handful of dedicated owners maintain them as working dogs, with the occasional winner at field trials. It is difficult to generalise because they are rare in the shooting fields. However, their supporters claim that their ability to move through thick cover with their short legs gives them an edge. The breed is known to give tongue – as indeed many spaniels did in the past, and useful it was too for handlers to know when their out-of-control dogs were hot on the heels of a rabbit – but this is not accepted in trials if it turns to whining or yipping when stationary.
WELSH SPRINGER SPANIEL
Welsh springer Spaniels are a breed with a rich history but has been largely abandoned in terms of working. Since a few years, a Welsh springer has dominated field trials among the minority breeds. One or two handlers are still trying, but with little success. Dogs without real drive are a handicap. This is a breed that deserves to survive.
Another example is the field spaniel. In the past, they were often seen in fields. They are actually an older and larger cocker. Like Welsh springers, they are a breed that is not very popular among working handlers. They have not made an impact in competition, with a few notable exceptions. These dogs are gorgeous, and reminiscent of an earlier age. Their passing has left the world of spaniels in a poorer state.
The lesson these three spaniel breeds – Sussex, Welsh springer and field spaniels – need to learn is the one Clumber spaniels have taught. Theoretically, it is easy, but difficult to implement: give up any attachment to the Kennel Club standard, the show ring demands, or the idea of dual purpose. Dual purpose has no value. Dog shows and the breeding to achieve success are so removed from field work that it is impossible to bridge this gap. To preserve these working spaniels, breeders must commit to the original working type. This will inevitably lead to a split with the show interest. It is necessary to accept this. Clumber Spaniels have experienced a revival that has led to a future of life for these breeds.
IRISH WATERS PANIEL
The last breed we will discuss is Irish water spaniels. They are tall, long-legged and curly-coated, with rattling tails. As land spaniels, they look a little out of place. As someone who has judged many hunting spaniels at working events, I was saddened to see the breed revert to a retriever. Big mistake. As retrievers, they failed to impress. They struggled to convince as hunting spaniels. Brittany Spaniels are only spaniels by name. They are a breed of hunt-point-retrievers that has been adopted most successfully in the US, where they work in New England’s aspen forests for ruffed-grouse.
The spaniel dog breeds are diverse and offer a rich history. All dogs will do well if they are properly bred and taught. The job itself is a joy. They are still passionate about their cause, as you’ll see in the field during this season.
You may be struggling to find the perfect gift for your spaniel at Christmas. Why not take a look through our guide?