When I got my second bird dog many years ago, it was not one of my beloved English pointers, Brittanys or setters; it was an English springer spaniel.
I was living in Colorado in those days, and my hunting was a mish mash of whatever I could scrape together: a lot of waterfowling with as many snipe and pheasants as I could find in the woefully crowded public hunting areas, as well as bobwhite quail on my infrequent trips back home to Iowa.
My plucky little spaniel, Poke, handled them all with style and intensity. Ducks were a particular case in point. Although you can certainly make the case that a spaniel isnât as tough as a Lab or Chesapeake, I defy anyone to prove to me that a good springer doesnât have every bit as much drive to retrieve.
I hunted Poke in everything from tepid Colorado sloughs to the brawling, ice-choked rivers of Montana and he never failed to perform; never once balked at a retrieve, no matter how brutal the conditions. I finally learned that if there were limitations on what he could do, they would have to be imposed by me.
But the reality is that springer spaniels arenât the best choice for some kinds of hunting. Sure, theyâll hunt wide-open country for Huns and sharptailsâIâve done plenty of itâbut itâs not their forte. Sure, theyâll break through ice to retrieve a mallard, but thatâs asking a lot of a thin-coated dog that might weigh 45 pounds dripping wet.
Leave the open country birds and serious waterfowling for the dogs that are bred for that kind of stuff, the pointing and retrieving breeds. Spaniels really shine for small-water ducking and thick-cover upland birdsâbobwhite quail, woodcock, ruffed grouseâŠand, oh yes, pheasants.
If ever a dog was created to hunt pheasants, it is the springer spaniel. I simply canât understand why the breed isnât more popular, given the vast number of rooster hunters in the U.S., but there you go. The really good onesâand I had one like thatâcan be almost wizard-like in the way they approach the game.
Hereâs an example. Years ago when Poke was still alive, I put him down on the bank of a Montana irrigation canal, and 20 minutes later he struck scent. I followed him as best I could as he raced ahead of me, tracking a bird that was hell bent on high-tailing it out of the country. Finally, he spun, pounced, and put the rooster into the air.
I was still lagging behind, and I took a long, marginal shot. I thought I hit the bird, but wasnât sure. But Poke never took his eyes off it and watched as it sailed across the canal and kept flying. When I released him, he shot into the water, clambered up the far bank, and promptly disappeared into a jungle of willows.
He was gone a long timeâmaybe 10 or 15 minutes. Finally, I began whistling him back, convinced there was simply no way he could ever find a bird I wasnât even sure Iâd hit. Then I heard a rustling in the brush on the far side of the canal. Poke stuck his head out, jumped into the water, and swam across. In his mouth was my rooster, still very much alive and kicking.
Easy Access Â Springer spaniels arenât hard to findâtheyâre a popular breed in the U.S.âbut finding a field-bred springer is a bit tougher. Although the AKC may consider them one and the same, thereâs a distinct difference between show-bred and field-bred spaniels.
Field-bred dogs are smaller, often more white than brown, and usually have tails docked at two-thirds length. Their hair is shorter and as a general rule, theyâre smaller boned and more agile. True, many show-bred spaniels will hunt after a fashion, but in the field most are a pale substitute for the real deal.
As with any other dog, youâll also have to train them. Since spaniels are designed to hunt at very close range, theyâll need to know a few, but very important commands. For a primer on spaniel training, Iâm now going to turn over the podium to my friend John Wright, a spaniel field trialer and hunter of some note. He recommends teaching a minimum of three commands:
âThe first command is âcome,ââ he says. âThe next is âsit,â and the last is âturn.â âComeâ is basic. Typically on a spaniel whistle, itâs one long blast. âSitâ is good because itâs really a safety thing for the dog,â he says, âand itâs a big convenience for the owner. By the way, anytime you want your dog to stay, he gets the âsitâ command. Itâs not âsit/stay,â itâs just âsitâ until the dog is released.
âFinally, if your dog is out at the limits of gun range, and you want it to go in the other direction, two toots on the whistle is the command to effectively turn it around.â
Wrightâs dogs are considerably farther along than the minimum he has described, which youâd rightly expect from a man who has owned and trialed one national champion and five high point champions in both the U.S. and Canada. But Wright spends as much time hunting as he does trialing, and some of that time is spent with me. Because his spaniels and my pointers have had obedience drilled into them, we hunt them togetherâa heresy thatâs sometimes met with gasps of horror in pointing dog circles.
Wright keeps his pack of two or three spaniels at heel, letting one cast ahead. Depending upon what weâre hunting, my pointer will be another 50 to 200 yards ahead of his dog. If my dog points a bird firstâoften the caseâWright turns his spaniel loose to flush it.
If we kill it, his spaniel generally gets the retrieve. Since both dogs are steady to wing, shot and fall, they hold until we release them. When everything goes according to planâwhich happens more often than youâd thinkâthe teamwork is sweet, indeed.
Close Quarters Â Although buying a retriever or pointer from field trial stock can get you a dog too hot to handle, Wright claims that buying puppies from spaniel trial stock is actually a very good idea. Hereâs why: Spaniel trials are by their nature geared to the foot hunter.
Dogs need to be within close shooting range at all times, which usually means that the dog makes casts of 20 to 30 yards on either side of the gun. Furthermore, obedience is strongly emphasized. Because of the thick cover these dogs typically hunt in, it has to be.
Those who donât want to deal with the puppy situation also have another option: field trial washouts.
âA lot of springer spaniel trialers will get a dog and train it up to about a year-and-a-half or 2 years old, and for whatever reason they discover the dog isnât going to work out for field trialsâmaybe itâs got a minor flaw that makes it less competitive,â Wright says. âBut for a hunter willing to get a started dog, those are often very good purchases.
You can typically get those dogs at a very reasonable price. You could not buy a puppy (currently around $750 to $1,000) and raise it and train it for two years for whatever youâre going to buy that started dog for.â
Springers have a reputation for being a bit on the hyper side, and some worry about how well theyâll handle living in a house. Thatâs a reasonable concern, and certain dogs can be a handful. But for the record, Wright typically owns four of five spaniels at once, and all of them live inside his southwestern Montana home. You can take my word that theyâre as well mannered as any house dogs youâll ever see.
âSpaniels are working dogs like any hunting dog, and they were designed to do a job, which requires them to have a high energy level,â he says. âTheyâre not hyperactive, they simply have a high energy level. And thereâs a reason for that.
âIf you get a dog that doesnât have that high energy level, after an hour of hunting itâs going to be completely worthless. So people who donât have an outlet for that high energy level outside of the hunting season shouldnât get a hunting dog, spaniel or otherwise.â
Although the occasional springer can be as hard-headed as any Chesapeake, most have soft temperaments and want to please. Theyâre happy little dogs, intensely interested in everything connected to the world of training, retrieving and hunting. Despite their high drive, use a gentle hand at first until they merit heavier discipline. Like every other breed, sooner or later theyâll test you and will need to be put in their place. They might even sulk for a minute or two.
But with spaniels, the bad moods never last. In the next minute theyâll be back for more. And you may find yourself, as Iâve done countless times, smiling at their happy-go-lucky natures. If youâve never hunted over a springer, scrounge up an invitation with someone who owns one.
And then try not to have fun.