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English Springer Spaniels

Expert Opinion By Ken Roebuck

— For Hunting & Field Trialing
— For the Show Ring
— Or Both
(published in Spaniels In The Field)

Let’s be honest. Everyone of us could plead guilty at one time or another to pontificating on a subject to which the old adage, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” could be justifiably applied. Some of us more often than others. It’s certainly relevant to this article, which is about a problem long overdue for an airing.

Because I happen to breed and train English springers, I am often contacted by hunters for advice about them as (I am sure) are others who have elected to pursue this somewhat singular way of life. Questions relate mainly to the suitability of springers for a variety of hunting situations and usually there will be something asked about their dispositions too.
It sometimes transpires, however, that the caller has already sought advise elsewhere from someone who, it becomes patently clear, has little or no idea what they are talking about. One can detect from what is said that the person consulted probably never owned a genuine hunting bred springer or even shot over one.

Sometimes a caller will say that the “Guru told them springers tend to be high-strung and nervous and that they are inclined to be snappy and consequently untrustworthy around children. He may also express the opinion that they would be well advised to consider some other breed. Damage control is therefore called for. Imparting the true facts takes time and patience — a great deal of both.
The most recent caller to say he was told this lives in California. As he was skeptical, he decided to call me to ask whether this was really so. About three weeks before that, a hunter from Kansas telephoned with a similar tale to relate. So that did it. I decided it was time to do some finger pointing and straight talking. Shortly I’ll tell you who the oracles were who bestowed upon these two hunters the benefit of their knowledge of the breed.

This state of affairs arises as a direct result of ignorance in respect to the differences that exist between springers that are bred specifically for hunting and field trials and those that are bred strictly for the show ring. They are about as much alike as chalk and cheese. They are so diverse with regard to breeding and (consequently) purpose that I would calculate the odds of a Dual Champion springer ever being made up again (on either side of the Atlantic) as a million to one against — and that’s a con-servative estimate. They are so different in appearance and temperament that, in my opinion (and that of others), they could now, quite justifiably, be registered as different types. If they were, a kennel club notation on the registration certificate to indicate what type the dog was would be of considerable help to those who know little about the breed but who are seeking a pup for hunting. But, of course, they are not registered by type nor are they ever likely to be. A springer spaniel is a springer spaniel insofar as the American (and British) Kennel Clubs are concerned whether they be from hunting or show lines. Type is of no interest to either of them. In fact it is highly probable that the majority of those employed at both establishments are unaware that such differences exist. What is of far greater interest and importance to both is the revenue accrued as a result of performing all the services they demand must be utilized in order that trials or shows may be entered or the product of litters may be registered — to mention but a few!

Some breeders of show springers possess the integrity to tell inquirers who are searching for a potential gun dog that theirs are not the type they should consider. They will even go to the trouble to advise on who to contact. There are many others, however, who possess no such scruples, who will glibly tell anyone, “Sure our pups will hunt. They’re springer you know. They all do.” This, despite the fact that if the breeder concerned was handed a shotgun, he (or she) probably wouldn’t know which end to put the shells in let alone recognize a gun dog even if they saw one coming down the pike carrying a pheasant.

How about this: While working on this article, a friend telephoned. He’s a keen hunter who owns two spaniels, one of which he obtained from us. We chatted about how the hunting had been this past season and how his dogs were coming along. Quite by chance, no mention having been made at this stage about what I was working on (hand on heart) he said that two hunters he knew had recently bought pups and, despite the advice he had given them, they had been “duped” (his term not mine) into buying show dogs.

The facts regarding temper-ament are as follows: Tem-perament problems, when they arise, tend to do so mainly in show-bred springers. There are no ifs, but’s or maybe’s about this. Certain strains or lines (call them what you will) in the springer show world are known to produce unstable temperaments. Not occasionally – frequently – and the show fraternity knows this to be so.

Every year we have (on average) two or three springers from show breeding brought by their owners to be tried for the field. I never refuse to try a dog because it’s from show lines because occasionally one gets one that makes a good gun dog. For this reason I have always been willing to give them the chance to show what they are made of. One usually finds however that show breeding tends to produce either lack of drive to hunt or lack of interest to retrieve – or both.
Of the five we took in over the past two years, only one made the grade, two lacked all desire to work, but, worst of all, the remaining two had unstable temperaments. One of them would have bitten if given the opportunity when being taken from the kennel or the car cage. And these were spaniels for heaven’s sake. Dogs that since time immemorial have been recognized for their kind, gentle nature. What a state of affairs.

The other day I was contacted by a reader of this magazine who lives in Virginia. He told me that he owns a springer with which he hunts duck, dove and grouse. He commented that the dog tends to work slowly and (note this) that it was inclined to be aggressive towards him at times. I asked him what the breeding was. He said he suspected that it was out of show lines but as he didn’t understand pedigrees he wondered if I could confirm this. I was able to after he had read it out to me.
In the seventeen years we have been training here in America, we have never had a springer from genuine hunting breeding turn nasty towards us. I am not suggesting that there aren’t some somewhere – there must be. It would be foolish of me to suggest otherwise. I’m simply saying that we haven’t encountered one and we have a considerable number of spaniels through our hands every year.

If any springer reacted aggressively toward me at any time under any circumstances it would get its marching orders forthwith. I wouldn’t tolerate it. I have been bitten once only by a gun dog during the forty-five years I have been involved with them (a number of times by German Shepherds!). It occurred about eight or nine years ago and it was a springer that had come in to be tried for the field. It had been with us, but one morning while I was slipping its leash on it bit me on the hand, and it meant it. I had to have it stitched. The dog was out of show breeding. At my request, the owner collected it the next morning and I took the opportunity to give him a little sound advice as to the course the dog’s future should take.

The problem that hunters are up against when considering what breed of gun dog would best suit them is that they often unwittingly approach the wrong people. If it’s a springer they have in mind, then they should talk to hunters who own and work them because their opinion (for or against) are valid ones. If they talk with hunters who use other breeds and who have never owned or hunted over a good spaniel, then their opinions are irrelevant. If they ask the advice of those who breed show dogs then their opinions can be, at best, misleading unless (as I mentioned earlier) the person concerned has the integrity to admit that the chances of getting a good gun dog from the type he or she breeds is remote.

Veterinarians are among the worst offenders. It was two vets who gave the callers from California and Kansas the benefit of their knowledge on the subject.

Most vets, other than those who hunt, and there must be precious few who do, are quite unaware of this business of “type” among springers. The majority they deal with are likely to be pets from show breeding. Why? Because there are far more of them than the hunting type. If a vet isn’t involved in hunting or field trialing or showing springers then he’s bound to be unaware of the split that took place earlier this century and of the separate roads the hunting and show people took which they have never deviated from in an effort to produce the “type” of dog that best suited their interests. Despite this, it is apparent that some vets are prepared to give their evaluation of the breed when asked. An evaluation based only on their dealings with them while they are on their examination tables – a time when any dog is bound to be under stress and affected by nerves. On opinions formed as a result of casual contact with, primarily one type, which, when expressed would be accepted by those who know no better as being characteristic of the breed as a whole.

When I hand over a springer pup to its new owner I point out that its tail was docked (by me) when it was four days old. I do so because traditionally, the hunting type springer has half to two thirds of its tail left on. Why do I explain this? Because often over the years I have been told by puppy owners that when taken for a shot, the vet had commented that the’ pup’s tail either (a) hadn’t been docked, or (h) was too long. Why would a vet say this? Because (as I said earlier) they deal mainly with pets from show lines which, when docked, are left with only a short stub of a tail which they (understandably) presume is the standard for all. I have twice had vets telephone me to query the situation. At least they took the trouble to check with me which I give them credit for. I think, however, that these points are significant.

Some veterinarians are quick to put pen to paper in order to criticize any hunter who has the temerity to write to the sporting press to express an opinion about canine medical matters. In some cases justifiably. The other side of the coin, however, is that the veterinary profession should take the trouble to acquaint themselves about this business of “type” in sporting breeds – spaniels in particular. If they did, they would be able to give an objective answer when asked about them.

Potential springer owners beware. Many self-styled experts lurk out there who, at the drop of a hat, are more than willing to tell you all they know about the breed – which may be precious little. My advice is to let what they have to say go in one ear and out the other. Then ask an experienced trainer, hunter or field trialer of springers because they know what they are talking about. You may also care to write to Art Rodger, 10714 Escondido Drive, Cincinnati, Ohio 45249, who publishes a regularly updated list of breeders of hunting type English springers in the U.S. This way you can maybe contact someone close to home.

Oh, and lastly, confine your questions to veterinarians to medical ones – unless the vet concerned happens to hunt springers too.

( Republished with permission of the author and GUNDOG magazine)

Editor’s note: Ken Roebuck is a professional gun dog trainer and the author of two books, Gun Dog Training Spaniels and Retrievers and Gun Dog Training Pointing Dog