Breed Profile: The Field Spaniel
December 16, 2014
At one point not long ago, a fine sporting breed, the field spaniel, was on the verge of joining the passenger pigeon on the "no longer with us" list. Only the efforts of a few dedicated breeders in England kept the breed alive. In fact, there were no field spaniels in the AKC's registry from 1942 until 1967, when a few were imported and the revival of the breed in the U.S. began.
While field spaniels remain rare in this country — they ranked 140th on the AKC's breed registration list in 2013 — there is a growing recognition among spaniel-loving hunters that this is, for the most part, a healthy, good looking and versatile breed with an excellent desire to hunt and a really good nose.
"They have fabulous noses and hunt at a speed that is comfortable to walk behind," says Karen Balinski. "They do a good job of hunting in a variety of covers from thick to wide open and they automatically adjust their style, speed and range to whatever type of cover you are hunting.
"They will hunt all day with enthusiasm. They also have an on/off switch, which means they are easy to live with. They are typically slower and more methodical in the field than, say, springers, but the trade-off is that they find birds that other dogs have passed."
Neal Winters also cites the field spaniel's ability to find birds as one of the traits that makes the breed special as a hunting dog. "They have truly exceptional noses," he says. "I've often seen experienced dogs begin scenting birds when they were 50 feet away from them, depending on the wind. They don't overrun their nose and with their soft mouths and solid work ethics, they quickly locate and bring downed birds to hand.
"We live and hunt mainly in the upper Midwest where a lot of hunting is on preserves, 'put and take' public grounds or small farms. Since field spaniels were developed to hunt the blackthorn of the English midlands, they adapt well to these conditions and excel working in tight cover or small fields. But they also work equally well on wild pheasants in the open prairies and fields of South Dakota."
Mike Gregory says that one of the reasons he has field spaniels is because he likes the idea of living and hunting with a rare breed. Another virtue of the breed, he said, is that field spaniels have not split into "field" and "show" types, which means he can take his good-looking hunting dogs to conformation shows and have a reasonable chance of winning.
In addition, field spaniels have a hunting style that Gregory appreciates. "They are slower than a field-bred springer," he notes. "'Deliberate' would be a good way to describe their style. They cover the field until they scent game and then they go right for it. They are also willing retrievers from both land and water. But they do have their training quirks.
"They seem to have their own ideas on how to hunt, which aren't always the same as the ideas of the person carrying the shotgun. They are a bit 'soft' and do not respond well to harsh corrections. You can use an electronic collar on them but only on very low settings and quite candidly, the dogs don't like them.
"I do train a forced retrieve on my dogs just so there's no question about their duties. Once they learn their responsibilities, they are pretty solid. 'Firm but fair' is good advice when training a field spaniel."
Pam Boyer made the switch to field spaniels from American water spaniels when a friend became ill and wasn't able to raise a field spaniel pup he had coming from a breeding. The field spaniel proved to be adept at finding game as well as retrieving from land and water and did it naturally.
Pam and her husband also loved the calmer temperament of the field spaniel. "As our AWS got older and was no longer able to hunt, we really started to realize the amazing talents of fields," she says. "Their game finding and swimming could not have been better and over the years, we discovered that the dogs remained in gun range even as puppies. But we also discovered that training a field was very different from many other breeds we'd been exposed to.
"Fields take to the birds and retrieving very quickly but you can't put any pressure on a young dog. Field spaniels don't want to disobey. They try very hard to follow the rules and do what makes you happy. They were never bred as a competitive trial dog but as a companion hunting dog, which means they're not as hard-running as a springer. They're great house dogs and are happy to nap on the couch until the shotguns and the hunting vests come out. Then it's chaos, so be ready!"
Neal Winters says that training a field spaniel requires an open mind and the ability to use a variety of techniques. The bigger the trainer's "bag of tricks" the more successful he will be. "Field spaniels have softer dispositions than many other hunting breeds and they do not tolerate heavy-handed training techniques," Winters notes. "Often, a stern word is enough to stop unwanted behavior or produce the desired response.
"While patience, consistency and persistence are the keys to training, field spaniels are intelligent dogs and repeated drilling is unnecessary. However, they can be creative and will find innovative ways to solve training challenges. I often hear Frank Sinatra singing 'I did it my way' when I'm working with one of my field spaniels.
"They adapt well to most new situations," Winters continues. "Field spaniels and kids go together very well but, as with any other breed, you need to teach your kids how to make it clear that they rank above the dog in the 'pack order.' These are social, people-oriented dogs who want to be with people, which makes them poor kennel dogs. But as is the case with any dog, they need to be taught to mind their manners. Left to their own devices, they can find ways to entertain themselves that may not always be appreciated.
"In other words, they need a job. Field work, of course, is the ideal outlet for their energy but some of the other dog sports like obedience, rally or agility also work well when field work is not particularly appealing like during the winter in my part of the country. Even going for walks with you or playing with the kids seems to work for them."
Don't Force It
Karen Balinski also notes that the breed's soft temperament can be an issue in training a field spaniel. "They are a soft, sensitive breed but they can be stubborn and they get bored very easily," she says. "This combination can get quite frustrating at times. If you try to use only force and get heavy-handed, they will simply shut down. The key is making training fair, consistent and understandable for the dog.
"I do use the e-collar in certain training situations but they are smart and they get collar-wise very easily. If you get overzealous with the e-collar, you will just wind up with a dog that refuses to work. While there is no field/show split in the breed, there are some fields that will not be great hunting dogs. Some have zero interest in birds and I've seen others that lacked the ability to mark and find game. I've also seen a few that despite fair and consistent training just become unraveled in the field.
"The problem is that it's such a rare breed that the gene pool is small and that makes it difficult to breed away from undesirable traits while getting desirable traits into the breed. Very few people hunt with their fields so often we don't know how good or poor the hunting instinct is in a particular line. I've heard some breeders say that all fields can hunt but this is not true. Some can be phenomenal in the field while others can be a complete dud."
Boyer says that in her opinion, the field spaniel is an ideal dog for a beginning trainer. "They really don't need a lot of training to be effective hunting dogs. I have had many first time hunting dog owners who are very happy with the results they've achieved training their dogs themselves. However, I am concerned that we may be losing that 'gentleman's hunting dog' temperament as some are breeding for a harder-driving dog, more like the field springer. While this is great for springer enthusiasts, it will change a breed this small and we will lose that extremely easy-to-train temperament."
Hunt for Show
Winters notes owning a rare breed has both benefits and drawbacks. "When you look in the catalog at spaniel hunt tests, you'll see that the vast majority of field spaniels running in these tests are also conformation champions. So hunting dogs show and show dogs hunt, which is a wonderful situation for those who like a dog that meets both the conformation and performance standards for the breed.
"In a practical sense, this means that any litter of field spaniel pups can produce hunting prospects. Unfortunately, very few field spaniels breeders are active in field work so looking at pedigrees to help select a hunting pup is not usually very productive. The best approach, if you can, is to evaluate a pup's prey drive.
"The other drawback is the lack of puppy availability. There are around 100 to 120 field spaniel puppies born in the U.S. in a given year. Looking for a field spaniel requires more patience than with many other sporting breeds but the wait is worth it.
"If you think this is the breed for you, your search should start early and you should talk with the breeders on the Field Spaniel Society of America's Breeder Referral List."