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Which gundog breeds are best at picking-up? Labradors or springers?

A Labrador fan goes head to head with an English springer aficionado. What do they both have to say about their favourite gundog breeds? Which are best at picking-up?

Gundog breeds

Jeremy Hunt springs to the defence of  the Labrador

I am far from being anti-spaniel. In fact my first gundogs were English springers and when I was 19 I exported a springer to Sweden. They were the first gun dogs I kept.

But after a few years, a lot of thought and much experience I’d come out in favour of the Labrador as the best all-rounder on a shoot day.

In my personal opinion, a Labrador cannot really be matched as a picking-up dog. Last season I noticed an English springer at work and complimented the owner. At least I thought I had. I told him his spaniel bitch was “a joy to watch” because it reminded me so much of a Labrador in its work.

I didn’t get quite the positive response I had expected. In fact, comparing a springer to a Labrador was not welcomed.

In fact, I don’t think one breed is better or superior to another – it’s more that different handlers suit different breeds.

Yellow Labrador

A well-trained Labrador is a joy to watch when working

For me, a well-trained Labrador (and this is crucial) is capable of producing a more methodical and controllable style of work. It has speed and drive when you need it, but there are gears and a brake. I find it a very absorbing style of work to watch and one that allows the novice more room for error.

A picking-up day is stressful enough. Have all the birds been marked? Where did that runner end up? Dare I send this young dog such a long way on an unmarked bird? If you’re looking for steady, dependable and diligent work (and who isn’t) then a Labrador performing well is impossible to beat.

I’d also say that the connection between a Labrador and his handler is easier to accomplish than with a spaniel. Busy spaniels have a tendency to be single-minded, which can be an issue for a less experienced picker-up with limited dog training. A Labrador is more often a safer bet.

Labradors don’t have a private agenda – they have a purpose and don’t have the same degree of self-indulgence. I agree that spaniels will find the game – but they create an atmosphere of frenzy and urgency throughout the job, making me think that what is encountered en-route is more important than the retrieve.

Perhaps the fact is that I don’t believe I am clever enough to handle spaniels and I am known for my patience when training Labradors. My opinion of spaniels is that they are gundogs who are always trying to say: “I know better than you”.

If you love the sight of the boundless energy of a spaniel and can stay calm in the midst of wagging tails, flushing and general bustle then carry on. But for me, it’s a Labrador every time.

Labradors and spaniels

Outstandingly talented dogs who can hold their own in any company

Roderick Emery comes out to speak for spaniels

Now I certainly don’t think that spaniels need a defence lawyer. Their ability speaks for them. They are outstandingly talented dogs who can hold their own, and more, in any company.

Keep Labradors, retrievers, pointers and setters. I’d go for a spaniel every time.

Spaniels are live wires and I believe that’s why some people are so critical of them.

“All very well in the beating line, old chap, snuffling about in the brambles, but are they sound on the peg?” is what the detractors tend to say.

If a spaniel is properly trained, with the right amount of time and effort invested in it, it will stay on the peg like any other well-schooled dog. Labradors aren’t angels either – I’ve seen them running amok in the shooting line. It’s the trainer that makes the peg dog, not the dog breed.

But will a retriever hunt? There are Labs who will potter about in a hedge fairly enthusiastically. But a spaniel? A spaniel lives for it.

Now the Labrador comes in three colours (four if you count silver Labradors) and two sizes. That’s it. As for a spaniel – well you have virtually endless choice. English, Welsh, Springer, Cocker, Clumber, Irish Water, Boykin, Sussex, Field, Brittany – the list just goes on and on. In colours and sizes to suit you. There really is a spaniel for everyone.

And all spaniels work.

I have seen some running riot through the cover crops, it is true, but that is true of any breed allowed to follow its nose willy-nilly. Some of the finest picking-up teams I have encountered, though, have comprised spaniels. I am thinking now of a notable Norfolk partridge manor where there is a team of working cockers, for example, which follow their master like a tide washing at his heels.

I also recall shooting in Ireland with our backs to a river. Some birds were falling into the water and some across. The water was fast moving and turbulent. Springers were piling in up and down the bank. Some were crossing to fetch the birds on the far side and some were fetching birds from the current itself. None came back less than a few hundred yards downstream, with frost in their smiles. They offered up their retrieves and were back in the water without a backward look after the next one. It was some of the best marking and bravest work I have ever encountered. That’s spaniels for you.