SI Vault
Ed Zern
November 03, 1958
At home, in competition or on a hunt, the English springer spaniel is a convivial, all-round sporting companion
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November 03, 1958

Springers Are Special

At home, in competition or on a hunt, the English springer spaniel is a convivial, all-round sporting companion

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If you should get down on your hands and knees and crawl through a field of tall grass, you could sniff until you were blue in the face and still not know if there was a pheasant hiding a few feet upwind of you or if a wounded bird had run through that clump of cover a few minutes earlier. This is one difference between you and a field-trained English springer spaniel. (There are other differences, of course. The English springer spaniel is better-natured, his eyes are more soulful and he's more devoted to his employer.)

Other gun dogs can find pheasants, too; dog for dog, in fact, the various pointing breeds can generally locate more pheasants in a given time than the slower-moving, more methodical springer. It is the particular genius of the springer, however, that he does not merely locate pheasants but can cope with them to the satisfaction of his gunner master, "springing" them into the air within range of the gun instead of half a field away, and before the birds have raced into the next township.

For the ring-necked pheasant is a runner and has been the near ruination of many a pointer and setter trained on bobwhite quail. Instead of lying motionless and almost invisible when pointed by a bird dog, as the bobwhite does, the pheasant skulks off swiftly through the covert when he senses the dog near by, doubling and twisting like a purse snatcher in Times Square and leaving the dog, which was trained to hold a point indefinitely, baffled and birdless. Often, in his frustration the pointer begins to break point and rush in to flush the runner—usually several gunshot lengths ahead of the gunner.

The English springer spaniel, on the other hand, is trained to work close to the gun. When he picks up the trail of a running bird and takes off after it, threatening to get beyond gun range, the gunner calls or whistles him to a halt or casts him off in another direction until the hunter can catch up and give the signal to take up the hot trail again. (The alternative to this is to run after the dog, and few gunners over 40 can keep up with a fleeing pheasant for 50 yards, then shoot it as it suddenly takes to wing.) Eventually, if the bird stays within the gunner's bailiwick, he and his spaniel catch up to it; this time, or perhaps the next time, the hard-pressed ringneck takes to the air within range of a load of sixes. When seeking game, the springer covers a swath of ground about 40 to 50 yards wide, swinging back and forth across it ahead of the gunner in a manner that can best be described as windshield wiperish (except that a windshield wiper is mechanical and unthinking, and most spaniel fanciers disdain the too-mechanical dog, preferring the animal which, although under control at all times, has a mind and will and initiative of his own). When he locates a bird, the springer rushes it, forcing it to take wing; instantly, if he's properly trained, the dog sits, or "hups," until the bird is shot and he is ordered to find and retrieve it. By the same token, the springer hups to gunshot, even if he hasn't seen the bird flush, and awaits the command to retrieve, or to resume hunting if the bird was missed.

The English springer may also be used as a "nonslip" retriever, staying at heel as the gunner walks up birds in a field or jumps puddle ducks from a marsh. He will hup at gunshot, marking the fall of shot game, then retrieve it on command. He may also earn his keep as a wildfowl retriever, crouching beside the gunner in a blind and going forth on command to fetch downed ducks from land or water. He is thus a splendid choice for the gunner who must settle for one all-purpose dog; for the man who shoots pheasants, grouse, woodcock and waterfowl in the course of a year, the well-trained English springer can be a good and useful companion on all his shooting forays. He is an especially fine choice if he is called on to double as a house dog and family pet between field expeditions, for his disposition is convivial, his nature affectionate and his spirit gentle. (Other excellent all-purpose dogs are the Labrador and golden retrievers, which, although most frequently trained and used as nonslip retrievers, may be taught to find and flush upland birds while staying fairly close to the gun. But it's easier to train a close-working, questing dog to retrieve than to train a retriever to work closely, and as a family pet the springer has the advantage of smaller size, fitting more conveniently into the family car or the city apartment.)

The word spaniel probably comes from the French espagnol, and there seems little doubt that the various spaniels originated in Spain and spread throughout Europe wherever small game was hunted, being often intentionally crossed with other breeds in an effort to improve hunting qualities.

The date of the spaniel's arrival in England—probably by way of France—is unknown. The first written reference to spaniels is in a French book written about 1375, and they were also described by the Comte de Foix in his Book of the Chase in the 14th century. Both Chaucer and the shadowy Dame Juliana Berners refer to spaniels, which were then used by falconers and netters to flush game birds into flight, and the early English settlers brought spaniels with them to America aboard the Mayflower and later ships.

Until less than a century ago springers, like beagles, were expected to—and did—give tongue on sighting or scenting game, but today a spaniel would be drummed out of a field trial for barking when making game. The mere thought of a tonguing springer is shocking to most present-day fanciers, but this seems to be more a matter of tradition than logic, and no one seems sure whether the noisiness was bred out of the springer by accident or design. In fact, no one is certain whether the modern breed of springer was established in its present form several centuries ago or has been crossbred with other spaniels until fairly recently—and no one greatly cares. The breed was recognized by the Kennel Club of England in 1902 and by the American Kennel Club about 1910. In 1927 the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association, formed by a group of enthusiasts three years earlier, was named as the parent club and empowered to continue working to improve the breed.

The name of the parent club is significant. The founders were determined to preserve the sporting characteristics of the breed and to defend it against the bench-show breeders who had turned other working breeds into brainless, useless, prettified nincompoops. To emphasize their determination, they incorporated "field trial" into the name of their group, and bench as well as field trials are held under the auspices and control of this sport-oriented body. Samuel G. Allen, a New York businessman prominent in bird-dogdom, was the association's first president, and the first English springer spaniel field trial held in America was run at Fisher's Island in Long Island Sound during October of 1924 with a judge, William Humphrey, imported from England for the occasion. Humphrey, a professional breeder and trainer with headquarters in Shropshire, gave several demonstrations, using braces of dogs and teams of four, and helped to arouse considerable interest in the breed among many who had come as merely curious spectators.


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