The day was crisp and clear. White, white clouds floated in blue, blue sky, wispy here, puffy there. The fields were garbed in brown stubble; thick clumps of fescue grass keeled over, and tall stems of annual and biennial weeds gone by waved in the light breeze. Copses of shrubs and small trees provided relief on the landscape as the gallery of onlookers moved down the path and handlers moved into position with their eager dogs.
These were Springer Spaniels, but they were unlike the other dogs of the same name that can be found in the breed ring at all-breed or specialty shows. Although healthy, their coats did not gleam as if polished. Their tails were a bit too long for the ring, and their coats a bit too short. They seemed lighter in build, but they were all muscle, and they were panting for a turn at the line.
This was our first Springer Spaniel trial, an event styled after traditional pheasant hunts but fashioned as a contest for dogs and handlers.
The fields were seeded with farm-raised pheasants at regular intervals, and each team had a chance to hunt fresh birds. The dogs worked the thick weedy ground in a zig-zag pattern until they flushed a bird, then froze until given the command to retrieve. Two gunners accompanied each team; dogs were sent to get the pheasants after the shot and bring them back to hand.
The dogs leaped and frisked in their excitement to get to the field. Ardent workers, their tails wagged constantly, marking their location in the field as they hunted or retrieved. They moved left, right, or forward or halted by whistled command.
The bond between handler and dog is a thing to behold, a true partnership as has existed between man and canine since the dawn of time. Charles Fergus has written A Rough-shooting Dog, a beautiful book that explains the both the evolution of an individual man into a hunting man and the unfolding of that special relationship between a man and his dog. The book is a treasure, pure and simple, a tribute to the hunter-as-consummate-outdoorsman, an homage to the silken bond that develops between species when each understands the breadth and depth of the other.
The hunt trial is the culmination of months or years of training and fine-tuning that instinct that drives the Springer to hunt and fetch. It is a test of skill that relieves the handler of the need to hunt, to prepare the game for his own stew pot, and it provides the comfortable company of dogs and humans in all manner of weather.
But whether the spaniel hunts or competes in trials, the training is the same, as is the need for optimum physical condition.
Owners of hunting dogs -- spaniels or other breeds -- must learn to balance diet and exercise. During hunting season, when the dog is beating the bushes for several hours a day two or three times a week, he needs more energy and thus more food. During the off-season, when exercise is restricted to long walks in the woods, he needs less food. Any other combination of food and exercise will backfire, and the dog will either get fat in the off-season or will lose his concentration and desire in the field.
Owners of hunting dogs have a whole different selection of processed foods to choose from and often supplement with fresh meat or table scraps. Purina is a big provider of foods to hunting dog owners, and magazines feature ads for such foods Gold Kist Pro Balanced, Joy, FRM Super Pro, Jim Dandy Professional Formula, Coon Hunter's Pride, Sportsman's Pride, HyRation, Buckeye Professional Formula, and others. The ads tout energy levels and digestibility, but there's no mention of “natural” preservatives or “organic” ingredients. But whatever the name on the bag, the food value boils down to one thing: Does the dog maintain health and stamina while eating the diet?
Canine structure affects function. A dog can have good instincts, but if his structure is not suitable for his purpose, he cannot function. If he cannot function, all the training and all the fine food in the world will be futile.
A performance dog needs about 22 percent protein, according to M. Christine Zink DVM, PhD, in her book Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete, along with some fat and about 60-70 percent carbohydrates. Increased amounts of protein increasingly come under fire, with many breeders and veterinarians now recommending that puppies and performance dogs eat adult dog maintenance diets instead of ballyhooed high-protein feeds.
Premium dog foods contain minerals and vitamins in the proper ratios, Zink said, eliminating the need for supplements, especially those that disturb the calcium-phosphorus ratio.
“Veterinary research has shown that puppies oversupplemented with vitamins, calcium, and phosphorus have a greater incidence of hip dysplasia, panosteitis, osteochondritis, cervical vertebral instability, and other bone and joint abnormalities than puppies fed a balanced food,” Zink said.
So a balanced diet and plenty of fresh water are tops on the list for performance dogs so they can learn what to do in the field and how to do it.
A hunting dog begins its training as a young puppy, learning to respond to a whistle and to retrieve an object to hand almost as soon as he can walk. Bird wings are often used as retrieve trainers. Just as a pet or obedience dog should be exposed to the environment in which it must live and function, so the hunting dog pup should spend time in the woods, learning the smells and sounds and the need to follow the hunter's direction in fields and brush.
Fergus describes his training of Jenny, Bald Eagle Generator, the Springer Spaniel bitch puppy who became his well-loved hunting partner:
"So many sights, sounds, and smells for a young dog to absorb. Jenny and I crossed the clearing and entered the woods where I tried something from one of my books. I kept walking in one direction until she lagged behind, distracted by a chipmunk burrow. I gave two pips on the whistle, turned, and struck off on a tangent. At the sound, Jenny threw up her head and, not wanting to be left behind, scrambled after me. We walked on, until a pile of bear droppings claimed her attention. I gave two more pips, changed course a second time. Again she turned and ran after me. Two pips, turn. Two pips, turn. Soon, the books said, Jenny would turn whenever she heard those two sharp sounds."
Jenny was Fergus' first real hunting dog; she was about three months old when he introduced her to whistle training.
Like most athletes, gun dogs of all breeds have seasons and off-seasons, and they must not plunge from the sedentary life of the off-season to the full-fledged activity of the hunting season. John Falk, writing in The Practical Hunter's Dog Book, recommends road work to condition the dog if a field is not available. The dog can be worked from a bicycle (there are contraptions available for attaching the dog to the bike) on increasingly longer forays; these excursions help the hunter to get in shape as well.
The dog should also be reminded of the signals and commands required for field work as he may become rusty over the summer, especially if he has lived the life of a pampered house pet, Falk said.
Like all breeds created for a purpose, the Springer Spaniel is a sum total of his heritage and his experience. Although field bred Springers make wonderful pets, owners should appreciate the nose and hunting ability inherent in the breed and give their pup a chance to use both. To catch a glimpse of the field Springer at work and wangle an invitation to a local trial, contact Art Rodger, editor of Spaniels in the Field magazine and an enthusiastic Springer Spaniel owner and trainer, at (513) 489-2727, or Rita Martin, Cincinnati English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Club, 5073 Shaker Road, Franklin, OH 45005.
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