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 isn't as tough as a Lab or Chesapeake, I defy anyone to prove to me that a good springer doesn't 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 aren't the best choice for some kinds of hunting. Sure, they'll hunt wide-open country for Huns and sharptails — I've done plenty of it — but it's not their forte. Sure, they'll break through ice to retrieve a mallard, but that's 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 birds — bobwhite quail, woodcock, ruffed grouse€¦and, oh yes, pheasants.
If ever a dog was created to hunt pheasants, it is the springer spaniel. I simply can't understand why the breed isn't more popular, given the vast number of rooster hunters in the U.S., but there you go. The really good ones — and I had one like that — can be almost wizard-like in the way they approach the game.
Here's 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 wasn't 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 time — maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Finally, I began whistling him back, convinced there was simply no way he could ever find a bird I wasn't even sure I'd 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 Springer spaniels aren't hard to find — they're a popular breed in the U.S. — but finding a field-bred springer is a bit tougher. Although the AKC may consider them one and the same, there's 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, they're 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, you'll also have to train them. Since spaniels are designed to hunt at very close range, they'll need to know a few, but very important commands. For a primer on spaniel training, I'm 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:
"The first command is 'come,'" he says. "The next is 'sit,' and the last is 'turn.' 'Come' is basic. Typically on a spaniel whistle, it's one long blast. 'Sit' is good because it's really a safety thing for the dog," he says, "and it's a big convenience for the owner. By the way, anytime you want your dog to stay, he gets the 'sit' command. It's not 'sit/stay,' it's just 'sit' until the dog is released.
"Finally, 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."
Wright's dogs are considerably farther along than the minimum he has described, which you'd 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 together — a heresy that's 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 we're hunting, my pointer will be another 50 to 200 yards ahead of his dog. If my dog points a bird first — often the case — Wright 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 plan — which happens more often than you'd think — the teamwork is sweet, indeed.
Close Quarters 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. Here's 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 don't want to deal with the puppy situation also have another option: field trial washouts.
"A 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 isn't going to work out for field trials — maybe it's got a minor flaw that makes it less competitive," Wright says. "But 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 you're going to buy that started dog for."
Springers have a reputation for being a bit on the hyper side, and some worry about how well they'll handle living in a house. That's 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 they're as well mannered as any house dogs you'll ever see.
"Spaniels are working dogs like any hunting dog, and they were designed to do a job, which requires them to have a high energy level," he says. "They're not hyperactive, they simply have a high energy level. And there's a reason for that.
"If you get a dog that doesn't have that high energy level, after an hour of hunting it's going to be completely worthless. So people who don't have an outlet for that high energy level outside of the hunting season shouldn't get a hunting dog, spaniel or otherwise."
Although the occasional springer can be as hard-headed as any Chesapeake, most have soft temperaments and want to please. They're 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 they'll 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 they'll be back for more. And you may find yourself, as I've done countless times, smiling at their happy-go-lucky natures. If you've never hunted over a springer, scrounge up an invitation with someone who owns one.
And then try not to have fun.