A Cocker or Springer may be the first dog you think of. But don't overlook the minor spaniel breeds, like Clumber, Welsh springer or Brittany spaniels, although their natural hunting, retrieving and training ability probably won't be as strong ...
This is a question about spaniel breeds that surprises me, as it’s often asked by people whom I think would already have the answer. Individuals who are ‘established’ in the gundog scene.
It’s probably because potential spaniel owners are bombarded with advice and so they get confused about which breed might be best for them and their lifestyle.
So here’s a few thoughts to be considering.
Should you opt for a minor spaniel breed?
These include the Clumber, Welsh Springer spaniel, Sussex spaniel, Field spaniel and – although not strictly a spaniel – the Brittany spaniel. (The Brittany is actually an HPR breed, one of the pointing breeds and not a spaniel that hunts and flushes game immediately on contact).
To confuse matters further, you’ve then got the Irish water spaniels, which are, in fact, a retrieving breed and not a spaniel at all. And then you have the two main lines, the Cocker and the English Springer.
One of the first things to remember about minor breed spaniels is that – except for the Clumbers – the others are descended almost solely from show blood lines nowadays, and consequently the natural hunting, retrieving and trainability will not be as high in their genetic makeup as it is from the full working lines of Cockers and Springers.
Having said that, it’s worth noting that there are now working lines in the Clumber spaniels, which are much lighter in their body mass, have a greater working drive, and have combined all that with a more trainable temperament.
Sadly, some of the minor breeds suffer from health issues which can impact upon the dogs’ working ability.
Choosing between an English Springer and a Cocker spaniel
Kennel Club registration does not differentiate between working and show lines which makes things confusing. So you have to research into the dogs’ background and check the pedigrees.
In English Springers you need to avoid anything that has SHCh (Show Champion) or CH (Champion) in front of its name. Instead, look for FTCh (Field Trial Champion) or FTW (Field Trial Winner) on the pedigree.
The Kennel Club has tried to stop breeders from putting FTW on pedigrees (for reasons that seem very weak) and unfortunately this does not help the novice person looking at a Kennel Club printed pedigree.
Both Cockers and English Springers will vary widely in their temperament, trainability and natural ability. This is determined by which dogs are in their pedigree, so detailed research and seeking as many peoples’ opinions as possible will pay-off in the long run. For example if you want an English Springer spaniel to be a really hard hunter you should look for that in the pedigree.
Differences between working Cockers and English Springers
Pups from the same litter? No. Springer on the left, Cocker to the right!
Springers – more independent
These are often more independent dogs that want to get away hunting and they tend to have a more businesslike approach than a cocker. They’ll usually hunt for the sake of hunting (and be proficient at it) and revel in the sheer enjoyment of it all. They’re generally larger and tend to be more powerful. More biddable in training, they’re ready to accept being corrected.
Springers can vary in colouration but most Field Trial lines tend to be getting lighter coloured. The two main colours are liver and white or black and white (very occasionally a tri-coloured specimen crops up). To get black and white pups one of the parents must be black and white. Two liver and white parents can only produce liver and white puppies.
Cockers – have a lot of character
Generally smaller than Springers, Cockers tend to show affection more. Their colours and coat can vary greatly. Life with a cocker is usually fun as they are great characters but it can be difficult to get consistent training. Cockers tend to be more affectionate and are generally smaller than Springers. They can vary greatly in colouration and coat length. They make better house dogs than Springers but they’ll get into mischief as much as possible. They’re bright dogs and can be very skilful at manipulating their owners!
Cockers generally need scent or gamey ground to stimulate them into hunting. This manifests itself sometimes when they get more experienced and turns them into what I refer to as ‘economy hunters.’ For example, you take your trained cocker into clumps of cover. He’ll run to the downwind side of a clump, give a few sniffs and, without entering it, move on to the next. He’ll then sniff at this one, again from the down-wind side, then dive in and flush the game. This shows the dog knew there was nothing in the first bush so didn’t bother to go in there, but the second bush had a pheasant in so he immediately pushed in and flushed it.
Cockers tend to be more ‘bitty’ in their hunting and don’t work a ‘windscreen wiper’ pattern as you would expect to see with a Springer.
What about health?
Generally speaking Cockers do not breed true to type so have very few health problems (providing they are pure working lines). Working Springers do suffer from a few health concerns – such as eye and hip problems – but these are minimal.
Get the breed of dog you want
So when I’m asked the question ‘what breed of gundog should I buy’ I give two pieces of advice. Firstly I’d say you should look at which breeds are most popular and consider why. Natural ability and trainability are usually top of the list.
Secondly – get the breed you really want (but make sure it’s suitable for the work you have in mind). This will mean that you’re more likely to accept the dog’s mistakes.
If you take the advice of a friend you might be left wondering whether your own choice would have been better in the long run.
And lastly, remember that there is no such thing as the perfect dog. It hasn’t been bred yet!
English springer spaniels
If you see a pedigree that includes some of these names then chances are it will be a good working pedigree.