Small in size, shaggy coat, dull of eye, yet a nose worthy of great admiration—descriptions of such a hunting dog appeared in literature centuries before the Common Era. Millennia before the flintlock was invented, English storytellers referenced a dog called spaniel. A close-working dog, capable of both locating and flushing birds in dense cover, was even more essential then, when bird hunters required a habitually short distance conducive to more primitive methods such as falconry and netting.
It is widely assumed the spaniel (the origin of the word attributed to the Old French word “espaigneul”) owes its roots to Spain, though theories vary regarding its method and date of arrival in the British Isles. One detail is certain: the spaniel quickly garnered praise among hunters. It traveled well and, despite its smaller size, exuded energy and a seemingly limitless prey drive.
Over history, several breeds were established to meet evolving hunting needs. Today, modern pheasant hunters, when determining which spaniel best fits their needs, have a few different options. Though most breeders and trainers agree any spaniel will perform its core duty—locate birds—method, style, as well as physical traits and temperaments, vary from breed to breed.
English Springer Spaniel
The English springer spaniel is often considered a great hunting breed for first-time bird dog owners. Additionally, springers are regarded as the prime choice for pheasant hunting. With an incredible nose, they remain within gun range while tirelessly working the field, never hesitating to dive into thick cover.
Tom Ness, owner of Oahe Kennels in Menoken, North Dakota, purchased his first springer in 1975. By the early 1980s, he started taking in and training dogs for other people. Since 1994, he has been training mainly flushing dogs. After decades of breeding and running dogs, Ness has settled on English springer spaniels and English cocker spaniels as his preferred breeds afield.
“I’ve had all kinds of other spaniels,” Ness said. “These are the two best by a mile.”
Springers, compared to cockers, are often a bit more biddable, according to Ness. “They tend to do what you want them to do,” he said. “Like labs, they are happy to be number two. They are eager to please you, a little kinder on average.”
A springer’s style afield is described as a “windshield-wiper pattern,” as they zip from one side of the field to the other and back again. “Cockers and springers have a lot of horse power,” Ness said. “They transport that nose better, cover ground better than other spaniels.”
English Cocker Spaniel
A smaller cousin of the English springer spaniel (sometimes weighing nearly 30 pounds less), the English cocker spaniel is referred to simply as “cocker spaniel” everywhere outside the United States, where the American cocker spaniel takes that abbreviation. As is the case with several other spaniel breeds, including springers, there is a distinction between a show-bred English cocker and a field-bred English cocker. Show English cocker spaniels are bred mainly for cosmetic reasons. Physical hunting attributes, as well as instincts, are sometimes neglected. Field cockers typically have less coat and a higher ear set than show dogs. Field cockers also tend to have a heavier bone structure, more muscle tone, and their tails are docked a bit longer, which contributes to their smooth gait afield.
While springers have their patented quartering pattern, English cocker spaniels tend to hunt objectives, though they can still quarter a field similar to a springer. “When you got thick cover, that cover is punishing,” Ness said. “Dogs got to want to go in there. Small cockers blast into that stuff. You look at them at the end of the day—they’re shredded and their tail is wagging, and they’re like, ‘That’s it?’
“As a rule, springers are a little more laidback,” Ness said. “Cockers are high energy. They need a job—a lot of cockers are that way.” Cockers are also slightly stronger on the retrieve, according to Ness. “There is a tenacity bred into cockers,” he said. “I like their personality—that is what attracted me to them. They are more of a clown than a springer.”
American Cocker Spaniel
The American cocker spaniel became a favorite among non-hunters when the breed won Westminster in 1921. A relative of spaniels with larger hunting lineages, the American cocker spaniel gained popularity for its appearance, smaller stature and commodity as a family dog. Though the American cocker’s gene pool has arguably been diluted with house pets and show dogs for nearly a century, several breeders and proponents of the breed remain throughout the United States and continue to applaud the work of this dog, the smallest sporting breed recognized by the American Kennel Club.
Gail Workman, owner of GG Iron Water Cockers, grew up with cockers and has been training, breeding and selling her field-bred litters for 33 years. She also serves as the Rescue Chair of the American Spaniel Club Foundation. “It is a labor of love,” she said.
American cockers work a field differently than their close cousins, the English springer and the English cocker. “They are more thorough than bigger spaniels,” Workman said. “Because they are more thorough, they have been called—or I like to call them—the ‘gentleman’s hunter.’”
Her close friends Marsha and Bob Linehan have been hunting over American cockers for over 30 years. “They are very capable,” Bob said. “They’re going to find pheasants, and they’ll track them for half a mile. The problem is keeping up, because the closer they get, the faster they go.”
“Out in the field,” Marsha said, “they are all business, really focused, but bring them back home, they are a wonderful companion. You only hunt part of the year. The rest of the time, you will have a loveable family dog.”
A relatively new breed to the spaniel family, the Boykin spaniel offers the versatility other spaniels may be missing. Larry Hinchman, owner of J&L Boykin Spaniels out of Hammond, Wisconsin, has owned and hunted over Boykins for over 35 years. According to Hinchman, the Boykin stands out as an excellent house and water dog, as well as a natural upland hunter. In some states, they are even used to hunt turkey. “Their biggest fault, I say jokingly, they’re too damn cute,” he said. “People don’t train them as much as they should get trained.”
Boykins are highly intelligent with a hard head and soft heart. They learn quickly but get bored easily and have a tendency to question authority. “They need a job of some kind,” Hinchman said. “They need to know they’re a useful tool to you, not just a pet.”
But while not natural retrievers, Hinchman says the art can be instilled in a pup as early as 8 weeks with a paint roll or bumpers. He suggests getting retrieving and obedience training completed before taking a Boykin afield with live birds for one crucial reason: their exceptional nose. “Their nose can get in the way,” he said. “That is why you get retrieving done first, so when that nose gets turned on, you have an excellent upland dog.”
While one of the less popular spaniel breeds, the field spaniel still receives recognition in the bird hunting community for its incredible nose and enthusiasm for hunting at a moderate pace. Though initially bred for the show ring, modern field spaniels are one of the few breeds where no separation exists between a show and field dog.
Andrew Hough of Atlanta, Georgia, grew up with a field spaniel and received another field spaniel as a gift from his family when he graduated from law school. “My dog I hunted over was also a champion field spaniel in the ring,” he said. “That dog went to Westminster at one point. A lot of field spaniel owners show and hunt their dogs.”
Field spaniels are very smart, gentle dogs and, in turn, owners are required to be gentle with them. They don’t respond well to anger or harsh training methods. They remain sensitive to one owner and often keep close to that individual during a hunt. “A field spaniel cuts down on long flushes,” Hough said.
Though natural hunters, field spaniels do often require that first bird before they fully tune into the hunt. “When you shoot that first bird,” Hough said, “they snap back in. They become a lot more disciplined or focused.”
Welsh Springer Spaniel
A fairly uncommon breed and often mistaken for a Brittany or English springer spaniel, the Welsh springer spaniel is a hard-working dog that enjoys water and exhibits a strong desire to please. When properly trained, they will pace themselves and hunt all day, no matter the species.
Susan and Gary Riese of Statesman Welsh Springer Spaniels purchased their first Welsh springer spaniel in 1975. “I have said they are Velcro dogs,” Susan said, “but they do have extremely high prey chase drive. They stay pretty close but can become lone hunters if they don’t have training.”
Welsh springer spaniels hunt within a natural distance—easily within gun range. They possess fantastic noses but sometimes require extra encouragement during the retrieving portion of their training. “You have to encourage,” Susan said. “You can’t overdo otherwise they give up. You have to create situations of success.
“They learn quickly,” Susan said. “They retain. Indoors they are a couch potato. But bring out the hunting clothes, and they get excited.”
The Clumber spaniel is the largest of spaniel breeds, weighing as much as 85 pounds. Though it doesn’t exhibit the speed and grace of other spaniel breeds, it will hunt any terrain methodically using its incredible sense of smell. “It’s a very persistent, steady-moving dog,” said Mitch Rollins, owner of Chequamegon Clumber Spaniels in St. Croix County, Wisconsin. “Clumbers can hunt all weekend and won’t break down on you.”
Rollins claims while a clumber can be trained to quarter similar to a springer, a clumber prefers to simply lock onto a scent and head straight to a bird. “They don’t waste energy they don’t need to,” he said. “It’s the way their heads are built, with the wrinkles in their face—the scent gets trapped. Just like a bloodhound with its droopy face, scent gets locked in those folds.”
“They’re not slow,” Rollins said. “I have tournament hunted them against labs. In a clumber’s mind, when they come up to bird, they want to pounce on that bird, what is sometimes called an ‘old English hesitant flush.’ If a bird gets up, the dog tries to knock down with its paw.”
A clumber pauses momentarily, demonstrates what could almost be considered a soft point. Its tail wags frantically, which lets the hunter know it’s time to shoulder the gun. “In his mind, he is analyzing bird, trying to determine the best angle to jump on it,” Rollins said. “If they don’t trap it, they’re going to flush it.”
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.
Photo credits: Main image – Logan Hinners, Pheasants Forever; first, second, and fourth images – Anthony Hauck, Pheasants Forever; third image – Marsha Linehan; firth image – Peter via flickr / CC BY 2.0; echnoview via flickr / CC BY NC 2.0; sixth image – Mitch Rollins and Kellyn Miller, Chequamegon Clumber Spaniels