Spaniels (Texas Wildlife April 2010)

Texas Wildlife April 2009


Henry Chappell

Let’s say you’re an all-around bird hunter. You’ll get out a few times the first week or two of dove season, sit out the mid-season lag, and then hit it again in October when migratory birds pour in ahead of freezing weather. Once or twice per season you’ll head west or south for bobwhites, but you’re not about to fork over $5 per acre for a good lease that, depending on rainfall, may or may not provide good hunting in any given year.

Likewise, waterfowl hunting. You’ll jump-shoot tanks or flush a few wood ducks from creeks that run through your woodcock coverts, but you can’t see tying yourself down with boats, blinds, decoys, waders, and an acre of camo and GORE-TEX®. Naturally, you’ll head up to the Panhandle for a few days of pheasant hunting.

You’ll need a dog.

A retriever would work fine. He’ll handle fetching duty, of course, and with early encouragement he’ll hunt out in front of the gun. But retrievers are bred first and foremost to fetch under the most arduous cold weather conditions. They’re blocky, with heavy coats. Don’t expect even the toughest Lab, golden, or Chessie to quarter all day in open quail or pheasant country.

A good representative of the versatile breeds – German shorthair, German wirehair, Brittany – will get the job done. If you prefer your upland game pointed, then one of the bobtails may be your best choice. Needless to say, they aren’t made for heavy-duty waterfowl work, though they’ll fetch ducks from creeks, tanks, and sloughs under moderate conditions. You don’t want your German shorthair chest deep in flooded timber all morning while you’re working pintails with your call. Then there’s the fact that running pheasants tend to drive pointing dogs crazy.

I’ll go against convention here in Texas and recommend one the flushing breeds for the generalist upland bird and waterfowl hunter. Sure, retrievers will do yeomen flushing work, and various mixed breeds earn their living flushing birds for the gun, but for consistency, enthusiasm, and efficiency, three spaniel breeds are in a league of their own: the English springer spaniel, the English cocker spaniel, and the Boykin spaniel.

With rare exceptions, the other spaniel breeds – Clumber spaniel, Sussex spaniel, Welsh springer spaniel - are best left to folks who think that jogging around a show ring demonstrates quality.

The English springer spaniel is to the flushers what the Lab is to retrievers. I can think of no situation in which a serious bird hunter would be ill-advised in choosing a well-bred springer.

Like so many great shooting dog breeds, the springer developed on the British Isles. The early type served as rootstock for all land spaniels except the Clumber. The name “springer” reflects the breed’s merry, animated hunting style. The best ones bound or “spring” through cover.

Hunters began importing springers to North America in the 1920s. The breed quickly caught on with grouse, woodcock, and pheasant hunters north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and somewhat later with hunters of hard-running desert quail.

The traits that make springers ideal for grouse and woodcock in heavy cover – excellent nose, natural quartering, and close range – make them perfect for rooting woodcock out of East Texas briar thickets. For quail hunters not too fussy about tradition, a good springer will do a workmanlike job on bobwhites, especially singles screwed in tight in dense cover.

Like all good spaniels, springers love water and will do excellent work on ducks under all but the toughest conditions. However, unless you happen to own an especially tough nut, you might not want to send your springer after a goose that’s more pissed-off than hurt.

Springers run 40 to 50 pounds. Their functional coat protects against briars and cold water. Excess feathering can be trimmed if necessary, but should cause little problem for the Southern or southwestern hunter. The working English springer spaniel is lithe and athletic, easily distinguished from larger and slower show-bred springers common on suburban sidewalks and sofas.

If you prefer a smaller dog, the English cocker spaniel – not to be confused with the bug-eyed, neurotic American version – will hop down from your lap and put in a good day busting cover and fetching upland birds, small game, and even ducks. In fact, the name “cocker” refers to the little dog’s talent for flushing woodcock from English hedgerows.

The English cocker is a bit larger and lankier than the standard cocker and much more athletic, typically weighing 25 to 35 pounds. As for drive and style, they give nothing away to the springer. Until the turn of the 20th century, a pup’s size determined whether it was a springer or cocker. Within the same litter, smaller pups were cockers; larger ones were springers.

Early in the 1900s, a young, medium-sized male spaniel appeared at a Methodist church in Spartanburg, South Carolina. One of the church’s members, Alexander White, adopted the dog and immediately noticed its hunting and retrieving ability. He sent the dog to his hunting partner, Whit Boykin, for training. The sturdy spaniel, most likely some combination of springer, Chesapeake Bay retriever, and American water spaniel, became the foundation of the modern Boykin spaniel, a true American gundog and the official State Dog of South Carolina.

Not surprisingly, the typical Boykin is an excellent water dog and may be the best waterfowl fetcher of the land spaniels. Being originally bred for flushing turkeys and retrieving doves, the Boykin takes readily to quail, woodcock, pheasants, and small game. A breed developed in South Carolina will have little problem with the Texas heat and humidity.

All three of these spaniels are sweet natured and make excellent family companions. Although working spaniels are exuberant and tough in the field, most have a soft temperament. Keep discipline firm but mild. Bear down on a spaniel like you would a pointer or Lab, and he’ll sulk.

Spaniel training is mostly a matter of introducing a young dog to game, guns, and water. Of course you’ll start your pup fetching gloves, knotted up socks, and small toys, then move to tennis balls and training dummies as he grows.

A fully trained and polished spaniel quarters within shotgun range and sits or “hups” after flushing. But, like quail hunters who allow their pointing dogs to go with the birds so long as they’re staunch until the flush, the average spaniel lover won’t mind her dog chasing after the flush.

Since most spaniels naturally quarter and work close to the gun, there’s usually little need for formal instruction on ground coverage. With experience, a spaniel will learn to skip over unproductive areas and concentrate on promising cover. If he gets out too far, just call him back in. He’ll catch on.

Although spaniels are fine fetchers, don’t expect the kind of precision handling demanded of retrievers. They have way too much “search” in them to hold a line on long blind retrieves. Simply cast your spaniel toward the downed bird or walk out to general area of the fall and command “fetch” or “dead”.

Texas offers a tremendous variety of bird, waterfowl, and small game hunting. Why not sample it all? If you can keep only one dog, you can’t go wrong with a spaniel.

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