Happy-go-lucky hunters and companions, spaniels have something for every dog lover

Tail-wagging enthusiasm marks the spaniels as a family of dogs that live for two things — the hunt and human companionship, not necessarily in that order. And family is the operative word; spaniel breeds developed in Britain came from the same original stock, indeed, in the early days, often from the same litter.

Although popular wisdom attributes the source of the spaniel as the nation of Spain, British canine historian Colonel David Hancock traced the word “spaniel” to the French verb espanir, “to crouch or flatten,” and even further back to the Latin explanere and the Italian spianare, also “to flatten or flatten out.” He also found the old Italian verb spaniare, meaning “to get out of a trap or net.” Hancock believed that the dogs originated with the Romans and were called spaniels to describe a hunting style of crouching and springing to flush game into hunters nets or for the falcons or sighthounds to take.

Wherever it came from the spaniel family is a delightful group of small to medium-sized dogs, mostly easy to train and keep, wonderful to own. This extended family includes the extremely popular American Cocker Spaniel, known in this country simply as the Cocker Spaniel; the rare Field and Sussex spaniels; and the in-between English Cocker, English Springer, Welsh Springer, Clumber, Irish Water, American Water, and Boykin Spaniels along with the toy versions of the type. The Cockers and English Springers have diverged into show and hunting types, and the toys were developed solely as companions, but the remaining spaniels are still used as both hunting and household companions.

Hunting spaniels flush game from the hiding places, and after the hunter shoots, retrieve the fallen quarry. They cover less ground that the larger pointers and setters, allowing hunters to follow on foot, and they can get into bramble patches and thick brush to do their job. The upland spaniels have docked tails; the water spaniels have a natural tail. Originally, spaniels were divided by the game they flushed, not by breed. Cockers (woodcock) and Springers (partridge, pheasants, and hares) could be found in the same litters.

The following are brief vignettes about each of the hunting spaniels; we'll leave the toys until another time.

Cocker Spaniel: This affectionate and enthusiastic little dog is among the smallest of the hunting spaniels and seldom sees the woodcock he was named after. A well-bred Cocker is a marvelous pet, especially for moderately active families without the space to house a larger dog. The American Kennel Club registered 45,305 Cockers in 1996, making this merry canine the eighth most popular dog in the US that year.

The Cocker Spaniel is about 14-15 inches tall and weighs 24-28 pounds. The show Cocker has a more profuse coat than his hunting brothers and needs daily or every-other-day grooming to prevent mats and tangles. His long ear flaps may make him subject to ear infections, and he is subject to skin conditions, hip dysplasia, and eye problems.

Cockers come in a variety of patterns: they can be solid black, black and tan, buff, or parti-color — a combination or white and tan, white and black, or black, tan and white.

The Cocker size and personality led to its popularity, and its popularity has damaged the breed. If you want a Cocker puppy, seek out a responsible breeder who tests for hip and eye problems and breeds for good temperament. Avoid pet store puppies.

A well-bred, well-trained Cocker is a marvelous family pet for well-behaved children. He needs some daily exercise, loves to play, and can learn tricks for treats and he does well in apartments, condos, and suburban homes.

English Cocker Spaniel: More reserved than his American cousin but just as affectionate and easy-going, the English Cocker is a bit larger at 15-17 inches tall and 26-34 pounds. He's a lot less popular though — only 1275 registrations in 1996 put this friendly fellow at 76th in popularity among the AKC's 143 breeds.

The English Cocker comes in black, liver, or red and in parti-colors — white with markings of black, liver, or red either in clear patterns or with ticking or roan effect.

The English Cocker has kept his hunting instincts. Although he can do well as a city dog, he needs more exercise than his American relative. He needs twice-weekly grooming — more if he spends time in the field. He is subject to progressive retinal atrophy, hip dysplasia, and thyroid disease, so look for a breeder who does eye tests and thyroid screens and x-rays for hip health.

Clumber Spaniel: A slow and steady spaniel with an exceptional nose, perfect for long days in a thick, brushy field and for families with older children. A heavy-boned, thick dog. he's not as active as the Cockers or Springers, but he makes a fine pet for apartment or condo dwelling as long as he gets a daily walk. At 17-20 inches tall and weighs 55-70 pounds, the Clumber is heavier than all other spaniels but the Irish Water Spaniel.

The Clumber is rare; in 1996, only 195 individuals and 46 litters were registered with AKC. Although today's Clumber is basically a show dog or pet, his deeply ingrained hunting ability is easily brought to the surface and he can follow his nose through dense cover to flush ruffed grouse, woodcock, and pheasant.

The Clumber is mostly white with lemon or orange markings; his soft coat needs brushing a couple of times each week — more if he spends time in the field.

English Springer Spaniel: Active, playful, and high-spirited, the English Springer is a happy companion in the home and a workaholic in the field. This breed has diverged in type: the show dogs have heavier bone, longer fur, and longer ears, and little or no hunting instinct; the field dogs are more active and athletic with leaner faces and hunting instinct that yields to no breed.

Springers are 19-20 inches tall and 45-55 pounds. Field dogs are a bit smaller and lighter than show types. Both types are either black and white or liver and white, with most field dogs being liver and white.

The English Springer ranked 25th in popularity among AKC breeds in 1996 with 14.715 individuals registered. Poorly bred Springers can be hyperactive or snappish, and the breed is subject to eyelid and retinal abnormalities, hip dysplasia, skin conditions, ear infections, and progressive retinal atrophy, so prospective buyers should search carefully for a responsible breeder.

Welsh Springer Spaniel: The Welshie is less popular than its English cousin and has not diverged into the show and field dog types. A well-rounded spaniel just a tad smaller than the English Springer, the Welshie is less active at home and has a calm but enthusiastic demeanor in the field. He is eager to learn and has a sharp nose and the typical spaniel soft mouth.

Only 248 Welshies were registered in 1996, ranking this delightful dog 117th of the AKC's 143 registered breeds. The Welshie is a red and white dog, 17-19 inches tall, 35-45 pounds. He is subject to hip dysplasia, cataracts, progressive retinal atrophy, glaucoma, and epilepsy, so shop carefully for a responsible breeder.

Sussex Spaniel: This small spaniel is about the size of an American Cocker — 13-15 inches and 35-45 pounds — but he has a longer muzzle and a stockier build and comes only in golden-liver coat. This spaniel is protective of his home and tends to be aggressive towards other dogs, an uncharacteristic spaniel trait. He is a bit more serious than other spaniels and can be stubborn, so patience and perseverance are necessary in training.

The Sussex almost disappeared after World War II, but a determined group of fanciers brought it back from the brink of extinction. In 1996, only 57 individuals and 11 litters were registered, placing the breed near the bottom in the AKC rankings. This is a relatively healthy breed but is susceptible to ear infections, hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy, and thyroid disease.

Field Spaniel: The Field Spaniel was developed as a show dog first, then trained to hunt. He is an easy-going breed, mild-mannered, reliable, and eager to learn — a low-key family companion and bird dog. Like the Sussex, the breed almost disappeared after World War II, but some determined fanciers outcrossed the few remaining dogs with English Springer Spaniels and produced a capable hunting dog.

At 18 inches and 35-50 pounds, the Field Spaniel is lighter and more active than the Clumber but heavier-boned and less active than the English Springer. This breed can be black, liver, golden liver, mahogany red, or roan (a speckled mixture of colored and white hairs); a splash of white on the chest is allowed with any color. He, too, is rare; only 121 individuals and 30 litters were registered in 1996.

Boykin Spaniel: Not an AKC breed, the Boykin is one of two spaniels developed in the US. His name comes from Whit Boykin and his descendants, the family from South Carolina that mixed and matched several other hunting breeds to come up with a solid liver or dark chocolate dog slightly smaller than an English Springer Spaniel. The Boykin is 14-18 inches at the shoulder and weighs 25-40 pounds. He was originally a turkey hunting dog, but does well with doves, ducks, and other upland birds. He is a strong swimmer, withstands the Southern heat and humidity, and thrives on affection.

The biggest health problem with Boykins is hip dysplasia; it is critical that prospective buyers seek out a breeder who x-rays breeding stock and breeds only those dogs with sound hips.

American Water Spaniel: Another American original; in fact, some evidence exists to show the American Water Spaniel as a forbear of the Boykin. Although it is a versatile hunter capable in the field and the water, the AWS never really caught on as a hunting companion and is pretty much restricted to its upper Midwest beginnings. However, he is hardy, enthusiastic, and adaptable, good qualities for a family pet — as long as he gets enough exercise. He can be scrappy with strange dogs and a bit stubborn and is a good watchdog.

The AWS is 15-18 inches tall and weighs 25-45 pounds. His coat is curly and collects debris in the field. He has a natural tail and comes in solid liver or chocolate and can have a bit of white on his chest and toes. He is relatively rare — 269 individuals and 75 litters were registered in 1996. He is susceptible to some skin conditions, knee problems, hip dysplasia, cataracts, and progressive retinal atrophy.

Irish Water Spaniel: The largest of the spaniel group, the Irish works primarily as a retriever. He likes people in his family but is often territorial and protective. He is intelligent, affectionate, creative, and often acts the clown — traits that can frustrate impatient owners or those interested in a dog that accomplishes his tasks with precision.

The Irish is 21-24 inches tall and weighs 45-65 pounds. He has a curly coat that needs twice-weekly brushing and occasional scissoring to remain free of mats and tangles. His color is always solid liver color. He, too, is rare — 140 dogs and 20 litters were registered in 1996.

The Irish is susceptible to hip dysplasia and thyroid disease.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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