In praise of the springer spaniel

There’s a popular saying in the gundog world that labradors are born half-trained, but springers die half-trained, and there’s some truth in this. However, one thing you can never accuse a springer of is being boring: no other breed of gundog can surpass the springer’s combination of enthusiasm and optimism, its fearless approach to hunting, yet its ability to retrieve as tenderly as the softest-mouthed labrador.

Spaniels have been around for a long time: the English springer’s ancestry dates back to the Middle Ages, to dogs imported from Spain (hence the old names of spaynel and spainel). It was not until the later years of the 19th century that spaniels were first categorised, although on grounds of size: small dogs became known as cockers, larger individuals as springers. In 1902, the English springer (ESS) was recognised as a breed for the first time when it was granted a separate place in the Kennel Club’s studbook.

Photographs of the first champions reveal handsome animals that are instantly recognisable as springers. Those early dogs were expected to perform as well in the shooting field as they did on the show bench, and the breed standard was set for a genuine sporting spaniel, able to work tirelessly all day. Sadly, a century of selective breeding by show and working enthusiasts has led to
a major division in the breed today.

The show ring demands beautiful, heavy dogs with long ears and excessive feathering, but the trialling world requires small, athletic animals where appearance takes second place to performance. Today’s top trialling springers are typically no bigger than cockers.

Fortunately, there are still some breeders who try to maintain the traditional, old-fashioned springer. Colin and Carolyn Muirhead’s Shipden kennel of springers dates from two bitches bred in the early 1950s, although Colin’s family first bred springers as long ago as 1937. Shipden springers have always been both shown and worked: a couple of seasons ago, I spent a day picking up on a Norfolk pheasant shoot with Carolyn Muirhead and a quartet of Shipden springers and was deeply impressed by how biddable they were, as well as their sheer working ability.

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Carolyn has reservations about many show springers. ‘They may look flashy in the ring, but that’s not what a good springer is all about. Conformation is much more important.’ Few working English springers come anywhere near the breed standard, which calls for ‘a symmetrically built, compact, strong, merry and active dog. It should be the highest on the leg and raciest in build of all British land spaniels’.

Although the Kennel Club’s registrations show that the ESS is Britain’s third most popular breed, behind the labrador and the cocker, these figures aren’t reflected in the show ring. At this year’s Crufts, there were just 210 ESS entries, far fewer than for cockers (438) and labradors (636), and almost equalled by the number of Welsh springers (184).

The great majority of springer puppies that are registered come from working stock, but an unknown but considerable number of unregistered springers ensure that the ESS remains Britain’s most popular shooting dog. It is by far the most popular breed in the beating line, while many top picking-up teams include a combination of springers and labradors.

Rough-shoot hero

However, it’s as a rough-shooting dog that the ESS is at its best. No breed is as fearless when it comes to tackling the thickest brambles, and the springer’s limitless optimism ensures that it will hunt all day even where game is sparse. Its exceptional scenting powers ensure that if there’s a sniff of a bird, then it will find it.

Chris Cannel is a retired headmaster whose enthusiasm for shooting embraces all aspects of the sport, from rough shooting to wildfowling. He’s owned numerous labradors and spaniels over the years, but declares that he wouldn’t be without a springer, ‘because I’m constantly amazed by their selfless enthusiasm for working all day long in cover few labradors would consider entering; in fact, not untypically for the breed, my 12-year-old liver-and-white bitch has to be stopped from overdoing it, such is her willingness to investigate every last bit of ground’.

Springing into the family

Of course, the reasons why the ESS is such a good shooting companion looks, loyalty, wonderful temperament and relative freedom from many of the diseases that afflict Labradors ensures that it also makes a great family pet, too. However, anyone contemplating a pet ESS should remember that this is a boisterous working breed that can be challenging to train, difficult to discipline and which requires lots of exercise. Far too many springers end up in rescue shelters, although a percentage of these find employment with the police or the army, working as drugs and explosive dogs.

The ESS’s popularity in the forces is easy to understand. It’s not just the nose that’s important for a drug or explosive dog, so too is its temperament and drive. Trainers look for bold, confident dogs that are unfazed by their surroundings. The fact that a springer is a friendly, non-threatening breed makes it ideal for work in airports or railway stations where it will come into contact with people, and its compact size allows the springer to venture where bigger dogs such as German shepherds simply can’t go.   

Multi-talented the springer may be, but to see the breed at its best, you have to go to the shooting field. It’s more than 25 years since I acquired my first springer, and now, seven generations of the same line on, I still get the same thrill when one of my dogs manages a great flush or a challenging retrieve. The many hours of training, the naughtiness, even the hare chasing, are all forgotten. For me and thousands of others, nothing can beat the thrill that comes from working with a springer, even if it is only half-trained.