March 15, 2016
On a South Dakota pheasant hunt several years ago, I was driving on a gravel road that bordered a mile-square public hunting area. A quarter-mile away I could see a lone hunter headed in my direction as he walked a narrow strip of dry cattails that ran straight up to where I was parked. So, I thought, I'll wait for him to see how he's been doing shooting some ringneck roosters.
As I sat there in my truck I could occasionally hear a dog barking, sometimes in a sharp yelp and once in a while with a loud yowl. All the canine noise sounded like the voices of a beagle or a basset chasing a rabbit or a bluetick or redbone hound trailing a raccoon.
The bark and yowl suddenly changed to a kind of yodel and 20 seconds later a pair of hen pheasants flew from the cattails and crossed the road where I was waiting. As I watched the two hens disappear in the distance, I heard a shotgun blast, turned to see a rooster tumble and the hunter's gun dog go bounding through the cover to fetch the dead bird.
When the hunter was 75 yards away I could see his dog quartering the grass, bouncing along like a springer spaniel working methodically back-and-forth and close to the shotgun. Waving the hunter over my way I soon saw his dog's long and shiny liver-colored coat, a big head with long ears, a rectangular body, legs shorter than a standard springer spaniel, and a full-length tail. I was stumped at identifying the exact breed of this canine.
"This is a Sussex spaniel," the man said when I asked what kind of dog he had.
"I became familiar with and hunted over the Sussex when I was stationed in England as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force," the man related. "When I retired and moved back to my home state in Wisconsin, I got Jack as a seven-week-old pup and trained him to hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock around home and pheasants in South Dakota. He will also occasionally retrieve ducks and geese on land and out of water when necessary.
"My Sussex is typical of the breed in that he naturally quarters close to the gun at a slower and more deliberate speed than the more popular springer spaniels and English cocker spaniels," the colonel added. "Jack's hunting speed, close-up search for game and good nose are just right for someone my age.
"Yes, many Sussex spaniels will 'sound' by sometimes barking, yipping and yowling when on the hot trail of a moving gamebird like pheasants or a furred game animal such as rabbits," the colonel said, adding with a smile that "this giving voice habit" was like having a natural built-in beeper locator and better than a bell for keeping track of Jack in thick vegetation.
Jack walked over for a head pat and quick ear scratch. He sniffed my pant leg, looked at my dogs crated in the bed of the pickup, and then peed on one truck tire. When told to heel and sit by the colonel, he did so. At the end of our conversation, the Sussex slipped under the fence, gave a "woof" to the colonel, and took off into the field ready to find a few more roosters.
This was the first Sussex spaniel and the last one I have seen in the field, though like many gamebird hunters I have read about them and seen them in pictures — all of which indicates what a really rare breed this dog is.
"Merry, friendly, even-tempered" is the way the Sussex is described on the AKC Sussex spaniel website. Despite the breed's somber and serious expression, these dogs are always cheerful, often clownish, very easy-going and extremely affectionate. They are reported to be good with children, other dogs, and most domestic pets.
The Sussex spaniel was bred in Sussex in the southern part of England during the 1790s and developed specifically to hunt gamebirds and small game animals close to the gun in short, dense cover. Consequently, these dogs were bred to have a long, low and rectangular standard body type of 13-15 inches in height and a weight range from 35-40 pounds.
The Sussex coat is thick and fine textured with a slight and silky feathering on the chest, legs and ears and tail. Coat color is a unique-to-the-breed golden liver. In England the tail is left naturally long while in North America the tail usually is docked.
The Sussex spaniel, like other spaniels, has a few chronic health issues and some genetic flaws that should be recognized. These include such conditions as ear infections, whelping problems, small litters, and heart issues.
Though the Sussex spaniel is an old breed, these dogs have never gained great popularity because of the two World Wars with only 10 Sussex registered in the English Kennel Club by 1947. Joy Freer, an English breeder, saved the Sussex from extinction so that all of today's Sussex came from her efforts, which also accounts for the small gene pool for the breed.
At the present time, the Sussex is more popular in the United States than any other country. In 2009 a Sussex spaniel won best in show in the 133rd Westminster Club Dog Show. Despite this notoriety, the Sussex still is a rare breed with only around a hundred registered each year. Most Sussex are family pets with only a small number of breeders developing dogs for hunting.
Finding a Hunter
"I own, breed, train and hunt German shorthaired pointers and Labrador retrievers," says Pluis Davern. "The shorthairs are very serious gamebird producers and the Labs are very competent at fetching up waterfowl. But the dogs I have the most fun with are my Sussex spaniels.
"I really like the deliberate pace, even energy level and overall persistence of the Sussex," Davern notes. "Plus the fact that they tend to hunt with me as a team member, staying close and thoroughly covering whatever terrain we are in whether we're after pheasant, quail, or grouse. There is seldom a need for bells or beeper-locators because most Sussex are naturally inclined to stay close to the person with the shotgun."
An owner-operator of her Sundowner Kennels in Gilroy, California, Davern has had Sussex spaniels for 20 years, during which she has searched for the best hunters in the breed in the United States and Europe. "As an AKC Hunt Test judge and Hunt Test competitor, I keep close track of the top Sussex performers in competition and I know about many of the Sussex bred as hunters in this country and overseas," she says.
She waited for four years to import a male Sussex pup from a breeder in England. When he called to say the pups were available, Davern got on a plane and flew there to see the pup and bring it back in person. "I won't say what this cost me, but I will say the trip and pup were worth the price," she states.
Breeding for Gun Dogs
Angela Monaghan loves to hunt with her Sussex spaniels around her home in central Montana. And, though she has bred, raised, trained, and AKC hunt tested springer spaniels for 25 years, she says that the Sussex spaniels are her favorite dogs when gunning for any kind of local upland gamebirds.
"Like most people I know who hunt their Sussex spaniels, I enjoy this breed's natural abilities in the field combined with their close working persistence in searching for game, and their all-day-long stamina," says Monaghan.
"For example, when we hunt sharptail grouse with my springer spaniels and my Sussex, the springers quickly quarter through the cover with their heads up ready to catch scent in the air. Sure, they find birds but because they're in such a hurry, they also sometimes pass up game. That's where the slower moving, more deliberate Sussex come in with their noses to the ground following foot scent and flushing grouse close to the gun," Monaghan relates.
By the time the speedy springers are done for the day, "the Sussex is still hunting at 'Sussex speed' and still producing birds when the springers are resting in the crates back in the pickup," she adds.
Because Monaghan was so pleased with the Sussex spaniels she bought, trained and hunted, she decided to produce some of her own Sussex gun dogs. "Breeding Sussex spaniels was different from springer spaniels," she readily admits. "The Sussex have a very small gene pool with only about 50 pups registered in England and around 50 in North America each year. Consequently, the Sussex has a wide variety of reproductive issues, genetic flaws and common health problems."
Many successful breedings must be done by artificial insemination because some Sussex can't naturally reproduce. Likewise, most litters tend to be very small with three or four pups on the average. And puppy mortality can be high with a 50 percent loss often common, she emphasizes.
Because the hunting lines of Sussex tend to be difficult to reproduce, finding good gun dog puppies also can be difficult. And when promising pups are located, they can be fairly expensive. Added to all this is the long wait, sometimes three or four years, for the right litter of gun dog Sussex to come along.
Sussex in the Woods
Though Don Krueger has professionally raised, trained and hunted most all breeds of gun dogs for shotgunning ruffed grouse and woodcock near his home in central Wisconsin, his favorite breed is the Sussex spaniel. "When we walk the fire trails early in the season with the leaves still on the trees, the Sussex do a great job of staying close enough so we can see them and see many of the birds that find and flush," Krueger says.
"Late in the season when the leaves are down, the Sussex will range out a little further, but they will still stay in sight so many birds will get up in gun range.
"Another advantage to the Sussex," Krueger adds, "is that they do a 'soft flush.' This means that, unlike the springer spaniel's 'hard flush' where the dog jumps into where the bird is hiding and pushes the bird into flight, the Sussex pause before the flush and more gently make the bird fly." The plus side of the soft flush is that the shotgunner has more time to get ready to shoot, Krueger feels.
Most Sussex gun dog owners probably will admit that finding a Sussex pup with the promise of being a good gun dog is not easy. There are only a few breeders that specialize in producing Sussex spaniels bred to hunt. "And to get a pup from hunting stock will take thorough research and in most cases a convincing presentation of the buyer's commitment to raise and train the pup to be a hunter," Davern, Monaghan and Krueger agree.
Buy a pup from AKC hunt tested parents that are also proven wild gamebird finders in the field, and look at the parents for strong natural ability in tracking, finding, flushing and retrieving game€¦and maybe giving voice and sounding when on a bird.
Look for Sussex with the best health history and strongest genetic ability. Be ready to wait a long while for a good pup. And, once a Sussex is ready to hunt, be ready to answer the question, "What breed of dog do you have there?"