The springer spaniel is often regarded as a problem dog but this is often more a reflection of poor training than anything else. By Justin Clarke.

Although I’m a fan of most gundog breeds, with labradors, cockers and springers all currently residing at ‘Clarke Towers’, it has always been the springer spaniel that for me has held the greatest appeal of all.

My personal opinion is that no other breed of gundog comes close to the multi-tasking abilities of a well-trained, hard-going springer. Unfortunately, all too often the breed is associated with various misdemeanours during the course of a shoot day. Running in, finishing a drive long before the beating line, selective hearing and self-employed retrieving are just a few of the faux pas that some folk associate with the breed.

Of course, this type of dog can be worth its weight in gold depending upon the type of shoot day. Either way, the breed should not be unfairly labelled with the ‘unruly’ tag, as sometimes is the case. After all, the training – or lack of it – is the sole responsibility of the handler, irrespective of the breed.

Why the springer spaniel is a joy to behold

Regular comments include statements such as “they are a bit mad” or “they’re difficult to train”. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is simply a case of both understanding the breed and learning how to channel the boundless enthusiasm that any good springer worth its salt will possess. To witness a well-trained, hard-going springer at the top of its game with drive, pace and style is simply a joy to behold – something very few shooting folk ever get to see first hand.

Like many people I am passionate about most forms of shooting. Nevertheless, for me there is no greater thrill than spending a day walking up behind two or three springers that hunt flat-out whilst keeping their noses to the ground, demolishing any cover that dares to get in the way. On occasions the ground seems to shake with their very presence and determination to find game. The combination of watching a dog one has trained working well, together with the knowledge that a shot might present itself at any given moment, makes this type of shooting extremely hard to beat.

Completing the circle of shooting success

Much of the enjoyment in walked-up shooting stems from watching a dog that is adept at multi-tasking. As this type of sporting success is reliant on both parties playing their respective parts, having a dog that can hunt, has good game-finding abilities and is steady to the flush is absolutely essential. Equally important are its handling and retrieving qualities – both of which a well-trained springer spaniel excels at.

Of course, the ultimate reward for any dog is to hold a retrieve that would not have been possible without his or her owner shooting straight (this is the part of the equation that is unfortunately not guaranteed!). By the same token, one cannot get a shot without the hard work of his/her companions, and so the circle is complete.

The unique skills of the springer spaniel

To see a well-schooled springer nudge a rabbit out from under its seat and then sit back without so much as thinking about running-in never fails to excite me. And many a time I have watched a springer mark an area of a fall well and follow the line on account of a bird running, only for it to return and deliver it tenderly to hand. There are not many more satisfying experiences in our sport and that comes from the knowledge that without the skills of that springer, the bird would have been lost, let alone flushed in the first place.

Returning home at the end of a good day with a mixed bag of half a dozen or so head of game harvested as a result of that unique dog/handler relationship is to me both timeless and rewarding. The icing on the cake is to be able to enjoy this type of sport with a like-minded individual, when the day’s experiences can be relived later that evening, either in the pub or on the telephone whilst warming up in front of a good fire, having first taken care of the dogs.

The springer spaniel does twice as much as the labrador

The springer’s ability to multi-task makes them the perfect breed for this type of shooting. It is often said that labradors are easier to train than springer spaniels. To a degree this is true but not because springers are difficult, on the contrary, it is because when training a springer (or cocker) correctly, you have to teach it to do twice as much as a retriever.

When training a retriever it is all about the handling and retrieving, as when this breed is instructed to look for game it is with the sole aim of picking the bird and bringing it back to hand. The springer, however, is expected to handle out in a similar fashion one minute, whilst also hunting, flushing and leaving game the next, in order that a shot might be taken. Consequently, this process can take longer to teach and can certainly test the training abilities of the handler – however if you are fortunate enough to get it right and discover this breed’s true potential, you will never look back.

Can’t imagine life without a springer spaniel

Generally speaking, the springers nowadays are considerably more biddable than in the past. Years ago it was imperative to get the handling into a dog before encouraging the hunting. This was because the hunting gene was so strong that if done the other way around they could become fixated on their hunting and would not respond very well to handling. Personally, I think that in a bid to create a more biddable dog, the breed has lost a lot of the old stallions that contained those old genes. Having said that there are still many good springers to be found that possess the perfect combination of drive, gun sense and honesty.

To date, my dog of a lifetime was my old field trial champion – FTCh Wickstreet Harvester (aka Paddy). Having made this dog up in three trials, he was the perfect example of how a springer spaniel should both look and work. He was a heavily marked liver and white animal with a solid liver head. He showed drive, pace and gun sense in abundance. A harder dog in cover you could not have ever wished for. Yet despite these heroic qualities he was extremely biddable and would handle out as well as any labrador.

As with most things in life, you never really appreciate what you have until it is lost. Paddy was special but I have had the good fortune to own and train many springers. I cannot imagine kennel life without them.