Field spaniels are living proof that a breed can be brought back from the brink of extinction. They are also living proof that a breed can be brought back from disastrous manipulation caused by the dictates of fashion. In other words, thanks to a group of hard-headed breeders who loved this breed and believed it could be restored to its early status as a thoroughly capable field dog that also exudes regal elegance and grace, the field spaniel is a survivor.
The breed was developed in the 1800s from crosses with the English cocker, the Sussex and the English water spaniel as a flushing and retrieving dog that, with its added height and bone structure, was supposed to supplant the other existing spaniels as an all around field dog. This new breed lived up to expectations for several years until disaster struck in the form of dog shows. Almost in an eyeblink the show dog people turned the breed from a fine, handsome hunting dog to such an ungainly, cumbersome animal that one critic in that era said it could only hope to survive if it sprouted a third set of legs to hold up its sagging belly.
So unpopular was this “improved” field spaniel that by the end of World War II the breed was almost extinct. But in the late 1950s, there were still enough field spaniel lovers that a major effort was made to restore the breed to its former conformation and field ability.
Crosses with the English cocker and the English springer resurrected the breed as a capable gun dog that was also easy on the eyes.
While this is a breed that has something of an independent streak, they are, according to those who hunt with them, fairly easy to train. “While I have had some that required persuasion to be steady due to their eagerness to ‘get the bird,’ most have taken to training exercises quite well and have not been difficult to train,” said Becki Jo Hirschy, who owns Ch Calico’s Moving Picture CDX RN MH WDX (“Major”), the first champion and master hunter in the breed.
“I do think they may mature mentally a bit later than the field-bred English cocker or the springer,” she continued. “Some can be sensitive and we used this to advantage with one bitch. If you put her on a leash and walk her off the field without a word this is the worst thing that can happen and she will avoid repeating the mistake.
“Young dogs also can turn off their ears when they hot on a bird but I don’t consider that being tough to train. This just means they have a lot of desire and you have to try a different approach. ”
“You need a good foundation in obedience and then training for the field is not difficult,” said Karen Balinski. “Most people who have had training issues with a field spaniel have had these problems because they failed to do basic obedience and retrieving training. The field offers a lot of temptations for a dog so basic obedience is a must.
“I often ask people if they can call their dog off a tennis ball in the backyard. When they answer ‘no’ I then ask why they would expect a dog to be called off a bird in the field. Training is a lot easier if you start right away with a puppy building the foundation work, but if an adult is really birdy, they will quickly catch on to what you want them to do.”
Robert Klasing warned that harsh training methods can be a problem with this breed. “I ‘cratered’ Lacey, my master hunter, trying to force fetch her using traditional techniques. It took awhile but I finally learned that most of the time, all that was needed was ‘the look’ to correct them. They are biddable, consistent and they have a superb nose.
“One other thing that’s nice about a field spaniel is that when we’re out in the field, they give you 100 percent but at home, they are content to be at your feet. While they are not big-running, flashy dogs, they can give you great performances. Lacey once ran in a brace with a FC AFC springer in a ‘beyond master’ test and she outran her bracemate. But in general, they will cover the ground and clear a field, just not with the same showmanship of the more popular spaniel breeds.”
Frank Hauenschild says he likes them because they are methodical and willing to bust into heavy cover to find a bird. “They are not a fast working dog as compared to a springer but they will cover the ground in typical spaniel fashion. When they scent a bird, they kick into a higher gear until the bird is found and flushed.
“Even though they are generally pretty soft, they may need an extra nudge now and then. They are good natured and they want to please but they are still bird dogs and to be successful in the field they need to be controlled.”
“You are in trouble if they start thinking,” said Sharon Deputy. “I have been humbled many times by field spaniels but I’ve also gotten quite a few ‘wows’ with them. Their biggest drawback is that they are too smart. If they don’t feel like doing something, they won’t do it.
“A good example is steadiness. If it happens to be a day when they want to chase birds, no correction is going to stop them. Most of them are easily trained and excel at what they are doing. But they do have a stubborn streak. It seems like if it is a day when they woke up thinking ‘I’m going to do my own thing today,’ that’s exactly what they do.
“I have found that when I’m guiding hunts, most of the hunters prefer to hunt over my field spaniels. They are slower and more methodical, which means they are safer to shoot over than my springers. With a springer you really need to know how to read the dogs to safely shoot over them and you have to react quickly because they are so fast. You still need to read a field spaniel but you have more time to figure out what they’re doing because it doesn’t happen as fast.”
“Initially, the learning curve with field spaniels is quite similar to that of field-bred springers,” said Sonya Haskell, who owns the only field spaniel outside of England that has won and placed in a field trial, although it was in Canada, as field spaniels are not allowed to run in field trials in the U.S. “Both breeds, as pups, are keen to find birds and keen to chase them down. Field spaniels do seem to mature mentally slower than some of the other spaniel breeds, especially the males, but you can certainly do a lot with them when they are younger.
“You just can’t expect a polished adult when they’re two years old. I trained Darcy as if he was fine china because I’d been told by everyone that the breed needed to be handled with kid gloves. He quickly took ad
vantage of that. He immediately decided he knew best and that I wasn’t going to tell him how to do it properly. I had to be firm and consistent in training him to get him to give up on that idea.
“My second field spaniel was very soft, a fact that she hid with her exuberance and keen attitude. She would bend over backwards to do something for me but if I was too harsh, you could actually see her cave in. The point here is that there is no one training method that is suitable for all field spaniels. You need to pick and choose which methods work for each dog and you have to be prepared to go back to basics.”
Despite, or perhaps because of its phoenix-like history, the field spaniel is a rarity in the U.S. Only 117 were registered with the American Kennel Club in 2008 and the breed ranked 140th (out of 158 breeds) in the AKC’s 2008 registration statistics. This means it is not easy to find a field spaniel pup and finding a trainer can also be a challenge.
“There are not a lot of folks who have experience with the breed,” said Becki Jo Hirschy.
“Some things that work well with other breeds seem to transfer well to field spaniels but others do not. You have to find someone who is willing to work with a rare breed and that can be difficult at times because there are other breeds that are considered to be better.”
“The easy answer for someone looking to own a field spaniel would be to tell them ‘get one from a hunting kennel,’ said Sonya Haskell. “But field spaniels are so rare there are no real hunting kennels for our breed. Fortunately, this is still a dual purpose breed that can hunt one day and show the next so there are no specific hunting lines. However, it is wise to find someone who hunts with their dogs for help in picking a good field spaniel pup that will fit your hunting style.
“Some lines have a more traditional ‘flashy’ style while others are more laid back hunters. It is a good idea to watch some of the relatives of the litter hunt when you are considering getting a pup from a breeding so you can get some idea of their style.”
“By all means, ask around and contact several breeders,” said Hirschy. “The field spaniel community is small so everyone knows everyone else and has a good understanding of their breeding programs. Get references on the breeder. Then look for a breeder who breeds from health-cleared stock and will stand behind the puppies they produce.
“I’m always amazed at folks who purchase a puppy, often for what I consider to be a significant monetary outlay, with no contact with the breeder whatsoever! Will the breeder take the dog back? Does the breeder guarantee anything at all? Does the breeder truly understand what your needs are? Then look for a breeder who actually hunts with their dogs. Stay away from breeders who are unwilling to refer you to another breeder and just want to collect a deposit.”
“A good breeder should always ask you more questions than you are asking them,” said Karen Balinski. “Also, good breeders are concerned with where their dogs or pups are going and will usually have a strict contract. If they don’t have one that clearly spells out what is expected of them as a breeder and you as an owner, look elsewhere.
“If they tell you that at five weeks or younger they can ‘just tell’ they have the right dog for you or if they are really pushing you to buy their pup, back away. When you visit the breeder, and you definitely should, and the bitch and or the pups appear to be in poor condition or the pups run and hide, find another litter.”