This dusky little hustler has an impressive resume as a waterfowl retriever, an upland gamebird flusher/fetcher, and a charming family member. His resume also includes a job most other breeds have never tried: turkey hunting! Yeah, in fact, you might say the Boykin (re)moved his tail for turkey — more on that later.
First, let’s take an overall look at this breed. To help us understand the Boykin, I interviewed three knowledgeable Boykin-ites: John Huddleston, Lynn Kelley, and Millie Latimer. See their resumes in the sidebar.
In Spartanburg, South Carolina, sometime between 1905 and 1910, a little brown dog followed Alec White to church one Sunday morning, waited outside for him (some say after being ejected from the church), and then followed him home. Some believe that this was a trick dog that had escaped from a traveling circus.
Mr. White kept him, named him “Dumpy,” and discovered he was a natural retriever that could bring in ducks from the local ponds and rivers as well as his Chesapeakes could. He shipped Dumpy off for training to Whit Boykin, who had been trying to develop a retriever breed little enough to fit comfortably into a small boat.
Dumpy did so well in training that Mr. Boykin soon searched for a suitable female to breed him to. He found a small brown curly-coated bitch in a train station, named her “Singo,” and bred the two, with such excellent results that these two dogs became the foundation stock for a new breed, which would eventually be called the Boykin spaniel.
No one kept records, so we have no idea how many different breeds went into the Boykin’s further development, but many speculate that dogs of the following breeds were used at different points in the process: the Chesapeake, the English springer and the American water spaniel.
Because of their largely natural hunting talents, Boykins spread through a wider and wider geographic area, first throughout South Carolina and then into other states. Not until 1970 did anyone make any effort to establish a registry for these gifted little gun dogs. That effort bore fruit in 1977, when the Boykin Spaniel Society (BSS) was formed.
BSS set up a registry, developed a written standard and established field trial formats for both retrieving and upland game work. In 1985, the Boykin was named the State Dog of South Carolina. In 2009, the American Kennel Club recognized the breed, classifying it as a spaniel. (More on this later also.)
Okay, it’s time to study this native South Carolinian inside and out.
The breed is about the size of an English springer. The BSS standard calls for males standing 15 to 18 inches at the withers and weighing 30 to 40 pounds, with females somewhat smaller. The medium-length coat may be anything from flat to moderately curly. In color it may be solid liver or solid chocolate, with perhaps a white spot on the chest. The tail is bobbed.
“Since several breeds were used to develop the Boykin,” Millie Latimer said, “and since it’s a relatively new breed, we do see some variations in size and coat even within a litter. And some breeders seem to be striving for a larger Boykin, an idea I hate. But even so, the breed does in general fit within the standard of the Boykin Spaniel Society.”
The Boykin is all spaniel: friendly, outgoing, and extremely eager to please.
“Are they friendly? Oh, yeah,” John Huddleston said. “A Boykin loves whatever person he’s with! Give him attention and you’re his new best friend.”
The Boykin, like most spaniel breeds, is bouncy and full of get-up-and-go. Life is an adventure and he doesn’t want to miss out on any of it.
“To know a Boykin,” Lynn Kelley said, “is to know high energy! They need active exercise every day.”
Like most spaniel breeds, the Boykin isn’t much of a watchdog. Granted, when a stranger appears on the premises, he will “announce” him, but in a non-threatening way.
“A Boykin will bark at a stranger,” Millie Latimer said, “but his wagging tail gives him away. He’s not a threat to anyone.”
All three interviewees agree that the Boykin is not a kennel dog. This breed wants and seems to need much daily interaction with his human family.
A typical Boykin is so anxious to please that training him is easy and pleasant, at least for a person who relies mostly on positive training and light corrections. Of course, like all spaniels, he resists repetitive drills and can charm the boss into yielding on “deportmental details.” Anyone who wants a completely predictable robot will be unhappy with a Boykin, or with any other of our spaniel breeds.
“The key to training a Boykin,” John Huddleston said, “is to teach each command in a positive way until the dog understands what you expect of him. Only then will he understand corrections for disobedience.”
“Boykins thrive on positive reinforcementóverbal praise, petting, an occasional treat,” Lynn Kelley said. “Any corrections should be given with a light hand. A heavy-handed trainer will sooner or later shut the dog down.”
“They’re highly animated and light on their f
eet,” Millie Latimer said. “But they bore easily, especially when subjected to repeated drilling.”
The Boykin is an all-arounder, a do-all-er, a utility player, a multi-talented whiz, a “whatever” buddy. And like the other breeds developed in America, he is more a hunter’s dog than a trainer’s dog.
He can do most of what the average hunter wants done with just basic obedience training and lots of on-the-job experience. However, he doesn’t take as easily as do breeds from Merry Old England to the highly disciplined and repetitive training necessary for such refinements as advanced blind retrieves, especially those of the field trial variety.
He’s an ideal waterfowler, since he retrieves naturally and loves water. Of course, he’s not built for heavy seas or icy water. However, except under those conditions, he can help you fill your duck strap quite well, thank you.
He can sit quietly within or beside your blind and retrieve any bird he sees fall. With a modicum of basic blind retriever training under his collar (so to speak), he can retrieve almost any bird you see fall. Even in the tiniest boat he won’t crowd you. When you’re jump-shooting, he can glide along silently at heel.
In the uplands, he quarters nicely and naturally. His pattern may not wow a springer field trialer, but he’ll find and flush all the birds in your immediate vicinity. And he’ll retrieve them with delightful style.
How on earth does a dog hunt turkey? That’s a huge bird with awesome armament: long spurs, a sharp beak, and big, powerful wings.
A flock of turkeys won’t respond to calling, so the hunter must first scatter the flock so he can call in the singles. A Boykin will find and flush such a flock and then return (on command) to the boss’ side, where he’ll remain until the boss shoots a bird.
While waiting, the Boykin will sit perfectly still, just as he does in waterfowling. However, in his excitement, he cannot stop wagging his tail. That, of course, disturbs the dry leaves on the ground, making noise that the turkeys can hear. To eliminate that noise, early Boykin breeders started cropping their dogs’ tails, a practice that has continued ever since.
If a shot bird is only crippled and runs off, the Boykin will trail it, leading the boss to his downed bird. Does the Boykin retrieve it? Aw, come on! Sure, I suppose it has happened, but most hunters would rather dispatch the bird and pick it up by hand. Why risk injury to the dog?
Back in the 1990s, a group of Boykin owners formed a new breed club, the Boykin Spaniel Club and Breeders Association of America (BSCBAA), for the purpose of seeking AKC recognition. In late 2009 AKC recognized the Boykin as a spaniel breed and named BSCBAA the breed’s sponsoring AKC member club. Members of the BSS, the original breed club and registry, would have preferred to keep the breed separate from AKC.
(Nota bene: All three of my interviewees are BSS members. When researching this subject, I was unable to contact anyone in BSCBAA, even through the club’s website e-mail address. This website listed no phone numbers. Thus, the following interviewee comments on AKC recognition are entirely those of BSS members.)
“The only advantage AKC recognition offers,” John Huddleston said, “is the opportunity to run Boykins in AKC field events. Even there, unlike BSS field trials, the Boykin is limited to spaniel events and cannot show its talents in retriever events.”
He went on to say that AKC recognition will probably eventually split the breed, as it has other breeds, because some breeders will breed solely for conformation, ignoring hunting ability. He also fears that AKC recognition could lead to too much popularity, which leads to too much ëcasual’ breeding of inferior stock.
“I see absolutely no advantage to AKC recognition,” Millie Latimer said. “The Boykin Spaniel Society, the original registry, has maintained records from the beginning. The related Boykin Spaniel Foundation addresses health issues, even reimbursing BSS members for having their dogs’ hips evaluated and sponsoring several free eye and heart clinics every year. I don’t know of any other registry that does these things.”
Lynn Kelley said, “If AKC recognition would lead to a better understanding of the traditional breeding standards and the Boykin Spaniel Society’s program, it could be a boon for both the breed and AKC. However, many fear it will lead instead to sacrificing the breed’s hunting instincts in conformationists’ quest for a beautiful dog.”
These fears are based on what has happened in several other AKC-recognized sporting breeds — most of them, in fact. Competition in both field and conformation events leads to specialization in both areas. These divergent specializations lead to a pronounced split in the breed between those bred for field and those bred for conformation.
On the positive side, AKC recognition has made field events for spaniels, especially hunting tests, immediately available to Boykin owners all over the country, whereas BSS field trials take place mostly in and around South Carolina. These nation-wide AKC spaniel events can make the breed visible all over the country, especially to hunters.
Besides, HRC/UKC retriever events have long been open to Boykins.