As the owner of springer spaniels that have never lost their love of picking-up, David Tomlinson is keen to see why some become bored
There’s one thing I’ve learned about springer spaniels in nearly 40 years of owning and working the breed: there’s no dog that loves to hunt more than a springer. And as anyone who has owned or shot over one will confirm, they are born optimists, happy to work a piece of cover even if the likelihood of finding game is close to zero.
I also have a theory that when a springer’s nose is working and its tail is wagging, there’s a valve that shuts off the ears from any extraneous noise, such as a recall whistle. This theory is, of course, disapproved by field trial spaniels, but perhaps there’s something in their breeding that allows ears and nose to work at once. My spaniels have never managed to do both.
For most springer spaniels, retrieving is their second favourite thing to hunting. There are exceptions to this rule — I’ve come across springers with little or no interest in retrieving, but these dogs are unusual. Such enthusiasm for both hunting and retrieving long ago made the English springer spaniel Britain’s top rough-shooting dog, a position it still holds today, though with considerable competition from the cocker.
Springers have the edge over cockers in that their greater size gives them that extra power when it comes to picking-up. I’ve seen tiny cockers retrieve big cock pheasants with apparent ease, but it takes a lot of effort, and it’s not something you would expect a cocker to do repeatedly. In contrast, a big springer has the power to perform repeated retrieves with apparently little effort. But do they really like to do this?
In a previous article I quoted the eminent gundog writer and former editor of The Field, Wilson Stephens, who felt that picking-up becomes eventually “a soul-destroying occupation for springer spaniels”, and that if repeatedly sent for birds it hasn’t flushed, a springer loses its self-motivation. It was a statement that got me thinking, and provoked me into investigating further.
My own springers have never lost their motivation, but that’s probably because I’ve never picked-up on big days where they would be expected to do multiple retrieves.
On a typical 200-bird day, working with other pickers-up, plus Guns with dogs, I’ve rarely picked-up more than a dozen birds. My spaniels would pick more if the opportunity arises, but it rarely has.
Of the dozen retrieves on a typical day, few are ever straightforward collections of dead birds that have fallen in a field. These are best left for the Guns’ dogs or the labradors. Most of the birds my spaniels deal with are those that fall into cover and require hunting to find, thus keeping the spaniel’s hunting instinct happy. I recall one drive on a shoot where I once worked regularly. Behind the pegs was a shelter belt, then an extensive marsh.
How springer spaniels get bored
Once my spaniel was in the marsh, she was in canine heaven: persuading her to come out was a challenge, as she was always convinced there was another bird to find and quite often she was right. I’ve never owned a dog that has worked more than five days a fortnight, either. For spaniels that are asked to perform six days a week, I can see how boredom can creep in.
A friend, a retired gamekeeper who picks up five or six days a week, confirmed that his spaniels lose enthusiasm if they are asked to do repetitive retrieves. Experience has taught him that his dogs retain their enthusiasm and drive if they are not worked every day so, depending on the shoot, he will often take only a couple of dogs.
“Labradors will work every day if you want them to,” he said, “but even a lab will get bored if you ask it to do too much easy retrieving. Spaniels lose interest more quickly, so I tend to work mine on shoots where I know they will have to do some hunting. I also like to take the spaniels beating every now and again, as this sharpens them up. It also makes a break for me, as beating gives a different perspective on a shoot, even if I’ve picked up there dozens of times.”
In Peter Moxon’s Gundogs: Training and Field Trials, he writes at length about picking-up, saying he had known several retrievers that had been trained up to field trial standard in their first season solely through being taken picking-up. However, he doesn’t make a single mention of picking-up with spaniels, which is surprising in view of his passion for springers. I suspect that when he wrote the book, 70 years ago, it was rare for anyone to work with breeds other than labradors and flatcoats for picking-up.
Picking-up with spaniels and HPRs is a more recent development, though it’s one we tend to take for granted these days. If you pick-up with spaniels, I’d love to hear how you keep them motivated, or perhaps they never lose their enthusiasm?