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 ...
Q: I’m looking to buy a spaniel puppy. Which spaniel breeds should I be looking at? There are so many.
A: This is a question about spaniels 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.
Minor spaniel breeds
- The Clumber,
- Welsh Springer spaniel,
- Sussex spaniel
- Field spaniel
- The Brittany spaniel. (The Brittany is not strictly a spaniel. It is an HPR breed, one of the pointing breeds and not a spaniel that hunts and flushes game immediately on contact).
- Irish water spaniels, which are, in fact, a retrieving breed and not a spaniel at all.
An issue with minor breed spaniels is that – except for the Clumbers – they 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 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 affect their working ability.
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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.
What to avoid in Springers
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.
Do your research
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
Springers – larger and more powerful
Springers are often more independent dogs that want to get away hunting and they tend to have a more businesslike approach than a cocker. They’re usually proficient hunters and revel in the sheer enjoyment of it all. Often they are larger than cockers 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 tend to be more affectionate than springers and their colourings can vary greatly. They are great characters so life is fun and make better house dogs than springers. However they are bright, inclined to mischief and can be skilled at manipulating their owners. Consistent training is necessary.
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.
Hunting differences between cockers and springers
Springers tend to work a ‘windscreen wiper pattern’ whilst cockers tend to be more ‘bitty’.
Cockers do not generally breed true to type so have very few health problems (providing they are pure working lines). Working Springers can suffer from a few health concerns – such as eye and hip problems.
Choose a breed that’s suitable for the work you want it to do.
Look at which breeds are most popular and consider why. Natural ability and trainability are usually top of the list.
Get the breed you that suits the work and life you have in mind. You’ll be more willing to accept the dog’s mistakes that way.
English springer spaniels
If you see a pedigree that includes some of these names then chances are it will be a good working pedigree.