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Changing faces of gundogs

If you thought the differences between modern showing and working spaniels were extensive, how do you think an Edwardian shooting gent would feel if he saw today’s gundogs? There may only be 100 or so years’ difference in time, but has the working gundog now changed beyond recognition? My instinct is to say no, as the old photographs of field trials and the shooting field from the early 20th century depict examples of gundogs that are not so far removed from those seen in the same circles today. Pictures, however, do not tell the whole story. There is certainly a more diverse and extensive range of breeds now available. Can you imagine an Edwardian shooting party turning up on the grouse moor and seeing a group of keepers with HPRs by their sides? And what would they make of a Lagotto Romagnola or a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever sitting at a peg?

The shooting companion for the gentleman Gun, most often seen in photographs from the end of the 19th century, resembles closely the flatcoated retriever of today, and in the early field trials of the 20th century it was the most popular choice. Those early pictorial records depict some specimens that were akin to the shape of setters, though they had more feathering on the ears than those of the present day. Their build was lighter and more racy, with a huge variation in heads. Within a couple
of decades, more changes were becoming obvious. This was probably due to the success of the then recently recognised Labrador retriever, which was racing to become the most popular choice for the trial competitor. Pedigrees were in their infancy for the majority, and cross-breeding between the different strains of retriever seemed quite acceptable. Without a doubt, this mixing of blood between the different breeds was to try to keep pace with this new competitive breed of retriever, the Labrador.

Trials run in that period were not for the improvement of dogs, but more a competition between wealthy owners for the huge prize money. Type and breed standards were irrelevant or unnecessary for success. In 1903, The International Gundog League Retriever Trials, held at East Bergholt, in Suffolk, over two days, boasted £35 for the first prize, £17, £10 and £5 for second, third and fourth prizes, as well as numerous special monetary awards. If the right conditions were met, the winner could amass a small fortune in comparison with today’s meagre rewards. The breeding of the competing dogs was not known, or perhaps jealously guarded in many cases.

The description of the retrievers taking part includes flatcoats, wavycoats, roughcoats and curlycoats. What has happened to all these different strains of retriever? Did they amalgamate into the bloodlines behind modern-day flatcoats and Labradors? I wonder if we can actually compare like with like. What I recognise in the old photographs as one breed was probably a mixture of two or three. Similarly to the retriever sub-group, spaniels evolved from common bloodlines. In days gone by, spaniels were almost one breed before being split into their different strains.

These strains gradually developed into the different breeds of today, the smallest being registered as a cocker spaniel and its larger cousin an English springer spaniel. Curiously, during the Edwardian period, it was possible to have both born into the same litter the only establishing factor when they came to be registered was their weight, so a cocker had to weigh in at less than 25lb. Early pedigrees have lines that are unknown and can have reference to Sussex, cocker and field spaniels in the common ancestry. Modern working spaniels are not restricted by size and cockers do sometimes weigh far in excess of 25lb, with conformation that does not resemble that which is required by the breed standard at all. Are these throwbacks to those early days of mixing bloodlines or has the devil been at work more recently?

The field spaniel of the 1800s was long and low, reputedly developed from crosses between the Sussex and the old-fashioned cocker of Devon or Wales. The black animals from these strains were used to establish it as the primary colour of the breed. The field spaniel in all its various colours was very popular until World War I; however, the specimens seen then bear little resemblance to the field spaniel of today. By the mid-1920s, the type we see today, being much shorter and taller on the leg, was becoming established. Size was once again important to distinguish them from the cockers of similar colour.

Do field trials have anything to do with improving the type and working ability of the different strains of gundog? The following is a quote written in 1927, by a hugely influential exhibitor, breeder and judge of trials and shows during the Edwardian period, Mr C. A. Philips, whose affix was the famous “Rivington”: It is now 27 years since the first trials were held. The first question that naturally presents itself is “Have these trials been of benefit to the spaniel?” Personally, I think they have, for we must admit that the show spaniel was chiefly in the hands of many who were more intent on the development of certain “fancy” points than those which were more essential for work with the gun. Under these circumstances there was a cleavage of ideals between the showman pure and simple, and those who desired to have a good-looking and good-working spaniel.

For the former it meant the scrapping of several cherished and preconceived ideas if they were to fall into line with the latter, as the field and Sussex at that time were so long in body and short in the leg. Nevertheless, there gradually came a change, but with that usual slowness of evolution that is so apparent where the change is of a drastic nature. From this change we gradually got spaniels both shorter in body and longer in leg, and built altogether on more workmanlike lines. This beneficial change was, in my opinion, brought about entirely through field trials.

The thirst by the wealthy to compete in this new sport where huge prizes and trophies could be won and subsequently stock from winning dogs would become valuable was the driving force behind some of the show-only competitors breeding for working ability to enable them to compete as well. This would, of course, have affected the Edwardian shooting gentleman’s choice of gundog, or at least where to get one. But were those working dogs any different to examples of the same breeds today?

A change of opinion

As I delved deeper into the evolution of the modern gundog, I became convinced that the changes are not that significant. The standard of training and the more psychological approach to it may have caused the evolution of a significant change in the temperament of the modern strains to be far more biddable than those before. Without being able to try those modern methods on dogs from the Edwardian period, it is difficult to prove one way or the other. We have to rely on the accounts of writers of the time to get a feeling for the material they worked with.

Physical changes can be more dramatic odd colours, for instance, are obvious. There are many modern English springer spaniels that are virtually all white, with perhaps just liver or black ears. They certainly show up well when shooting, which can be a real advantage and makes it easier to stay in contact in dense woodland, as well as being camouflaged when shooting under the moon on a snowy day. The white shines like a beacon in the gloom of dusk when waiting for flighting wildfowl on the washes, however. It may be attractive to some, though it is not for me. I much prefer the traditional markings that have remained from the original development of the breed. Why are there more white ones than before? Perhaps it was the strict culling policy applied by many of the old successful kennels, of puppies that were in any way different from what was expected as good for the breed. However, a good dog is never a bad colour!

This does not just apply to the English springer spaniels, but all the breeds can have their gremlins yellow flatcoats, black-and-tan Labradors, red Gordon setters, English setters popping out of two pointers, the list of anomalies that can happen even when breeding pedigree dogs is extensive. Thankfully the occurrences nowadays are rare. If these anomalies had happened years ago, before the strict establishment of registration, these odd puppies would have been either culled or listed as the breed they most resembled and nobody would have been any the wiser.

So, if an Edwardian shooting gent was to be transported on to a 21st-century driven gameshoot, would he be surprised by the gundogs he witnessed working? I am convinced he would be pleasantly surprised, not because of any obvious changes to the traditional breeds, but I am sure he would be impressed by their quality of working and the standard to which our gundogs are now trained. If, however, you took that same gentleman to a 21st century breed show and he watched the Labrador or golden retriever rings, he would probably ask what breed they were.