The gunshot pierced the crisp fall air, and the pheasant plummeted to the ground, lost from sight in the tall grass. Within seconds the speckled and patched liver and white dog appeared, jumping over grass clumps, bird firmly grasped in strong jaws. Lithe and athletic, with little coat to get tangled in brambles or loaded with burs, she brought the bird to the shooter's hand, wagging all the way.
In a nearby city, dog fanciers gathered for a local kennel club's annual show. In ring five, a dozen medium-sized dogs, some bright-black and white, others liver and white, all with well-feathered coats, gaited around the ring with their handlers, showing off their smooth, easy movement. These dogs were stockier than the dogs in the field with deeper bodies, heavier bones, and more coat, but they had the same general appearance and style.
Meeting them side by side for the first time, many people might consider them to be closely-related but different breeds, but they are both English Springer Spaniels, consummate gun dogs, companions, and show dogs.
Spaniels came from Spain to England, probably with the Romans, and there diverged into two types — land and water spaniels — and several different breeds. Pups in a litter of land spaniels were often divided by size; the small ones became the cockers or woodcock dogs and the medium-sized ones became the springers, which hunted by flushing or “springing” birds for the hunters, and the larger ones eventually became the setters, .
Before the development of the flintlock rifle, the springer flushed birds for hunting hawks and hounds to pursue. When the gun extended the hunter's reach, the dogs learned to work in gun range, quartering back and forth in the field and flushing birds.
The earliest stud book for the Springer Spaniel was in 1812; the first breed club in England was founded in the 1880s, and the breed was recognized by The Kennel Club is 1902.
Although spaniel gun dogs are mentioned in US journals and literature from the time of the Pilgrims through the end of the 19th Century, it was not until 1910 that the American Kennel Club registered the firs dog of the breed. In 1922, fanciers in Canada and the US started their own clubs, and today this English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association is the AKC-recognized parent club for the breed.
Once the breed club began judging the dogs by their appearance as well as their field skills, the Springer began to diverge in type. Dogs bred for the show ring became heavier, stockier, and developed longer, more profuse coats. Today, the two types are not interbred, and few Springers work in both field and show events. The last dual champion in the breed was Green Valley Punch, who achieved the distinction in 1938.
The English Springer Spaniel stands 19-20 inches tall at the shoulders and weighs 49-55 pounds with bitches slightly smaller than dogs and field-bred dogs a bit lighter than those bred for the show ring. His head is about the same length as his neck, with a moderate stop; fairly broad, flat skull; flat cheeks; and jaws long enough to carry a bird — even if he'll never know the joy of the hunt.
The Springer is a moderate dog. His neck is moderately long for his body, and the he works with his head carried high. His topline slopes gradually from withers to tail head, with the steepest incline from the withers to the back. His chest is moderately deep and ribs are neither flat nor overly rounded. His tail is docked and fringed and wags constantly.
The show Springer is generally black and white or liver and white, with the either the white or the color predominating, but dogs of either color can have tan markings on eyebrows, cheeks, inside ears and under tail or show a blue roan or liver roan effect caused by white hairs in the colored portions of the coat.
The Springer standard emphasizes the strong working gait that helps the breed excel in the field, in the breed ring, and in obedience and agility competitions. The gait should reflect a balanced conformation characterized by strong front and rear assemblies. The dog should have good reach (the front end) matched by strong drive (the rear end).
The breed character is merry, alert, and eager to please; the dog should be relatively easy to train for any purpose. Field-bred dogs have a higher energy level and need more exercise, but dogs of both types are good family companions. They are not overly suspicious of strangers and seem to get along well with other animals.
There is a fly in the ointment. There are some badly bred Springers around, and badly bred Springers can be aggressive to humans, hyperactive, or timid and fearful. It is important to do your homework if you think the Springer is the breed for you. This is definitely not a dog to buy from a pet store where the temperaments of the parents and grandparents cannot be determined or from a breeder who is not familiar with temperament troubles in the breed.
The Springer is subject to hip dysplasia, eyelid abnormalities, progressive retinal atrophy, hemophilia, and von Willebrand's disease. PRA is an eye disease that causes blindness; breeding stock should have their eyes checked annually to detect this and other potential problems. Hemophilia and von Willebrand's are blood clotting disorders; a blood test is available to determine if vWD is a problem.
Hip dysplasia is a malformation of the hip joints that leads to arthritis. It can be mild or severe; some cases require nothing more than an occasional aspirin for pain when the dog gets older while others need surgery. All breeding stock should be certified free of dysplasia either with an OFA number or PennHip certification. Both methods require x-rays; it is not possible to determine if a dog has hip dysplasia by observing its movement or its willingness to work.
The English Springer Spaniel requires a bit more maintenance than some other breeds. The feathery fur that fringes the body must be combed frequently to avoid mats and kept free of seed pods, twigs, and other debris. The pendant ear flaps block air circulation, so the ears must be checked often and kept clean.
As with all other breeds and mixes, the Springer must be obedience-trained, especially to come when called. This is a hunting dog, bred to range after game birds; if there are not pheasants in the back yard, he may heed the call of his ancestors to find a few. While this may be acceptable field behavior, it is dangerous for a pet.
However, since the Springer is quite eager to please his family, training should be relatively easy if started young.
For more information about Springers, see The New Complete Springer Spaniel by Julia Gasow and Edward K. Roggenkamp, published by Howell Book House. The first part of the book is about the history, training, and opportunities for field Springers; the second half is about show dogs.
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