September 23, 2010
Does size matter when an English cocker takes to the field or marsh?
Picking up and retrieving a three-pound rooster pheasant is no big deal for a 70-pound German Wirehair pointer. The same bird would seem a challenge for a 22-pound English cocker but this little dog gets the job done.
Does size matter when an English cocker takes to the field or marsh?
How "big" does a gun dog have to be to hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock or ducks and geese or quail and ringnecks?
Is a 50-pound setter the only ideal dog size for a day in the Minnesota woods finding ruffs and timberdoodles in heavy understory and dense popples? Or, is an 80-pound Labrador or Chesapeake the only canine capable of retrieving a greenhead off a pond or a honker from a grainfield?
And, is a 70-pound German wirehair undoubtedly the best dog for putting up ringneck pheasants in a tangle of cattails or thick switch grass in hundred-acre CRP fields?
Watch Emma, a 22 pound, 14-inch-tall English cocker spaniel, in all these kinds of places doing all these kinds of things, says her owner and the answer to the size question is, "Size doesn't really matter." Mike Larson is the wrong person to ask about Emma's hunting abilities in relation to her size because he's absolutely crazy about his little dog and her skill and tenacity in finding ruffed grouse, retrieving waterfowl and flushing pheasants. As director of marketing for Federal Cartridge Company in Anoka, Minnesota, Larson gets to hunt upland game birds and waterfowl all across the country with a wide variety of gun dogs.
"Of all the hunting dogs I've ever had and seen, Emma is the one who does the most for her size in producing game birds," Larson tells anyone who will listen to his stories about the little cocker's exploits in upland bird and waterfowl hunting.
"As English cockers go, Emma is really on the small end of the size spectrum. To tell the truth, she was the runt of her litter. I took her home just to be a house dog, not a hunting dog," Larson confides. "But, the first time I took her into the field, all her genetic talent came pouring out. At nine months, she flushed and retrieved ruffed grouse like she had been doing it 10 seasons. And, though I might not pick a runt again, I'm sure not sorry I picked Emma."
My two German shorthairs and German wirehair stood motionless, each honoring the other's point at the base of a 20-foot-wide tangle of cedar bushes. "Probably a hen," I surmised, because we had already kicked up a half dozen of the brown birds in a half-mile walk through a weed-choked and windswept South Dakota shelter belt.
"Bring Emma over here," I hollered at Larson.
Into a rabbit-sized opening, Emma disappeared and, out of the far side of the bushes, a rooster roared--with a tiger on its tail. Larson opened up on the bird as it topped the tree line and three shots later the ringneck hit the ground in a puff of snow and feathers, but still with wheels under it. While my pointers were still trying to figure out what had happened, Emma came marching down a deer trail, a wounded rooster firmly in her canine grasp. Being outdone by a spaniel one-third their size didn't bother the German dogs half as much as it did their owner.
"You must get a good discount on those shells," I mentioned to Larson, "the way you burned them up on that rooster."
Cold, wet and covered with snow--nothing could slow Emma, who hunted hard all day for South Dakota pheasants on a cold, blustery day. "For her 22 pounds of weight and 14 inches of height, she's the toughest gun dog I've ever seen," says Emma's owner.
"I've got to test this ammo whenever possible," he said, while looking at the bird Emma had dropped in his hand, "It's in my job description."
For anyone interested in acquiring a little gun dog, whether a cocker or any other of the smaller breeds, Larson emphasizes first finding a "proven" line of hunters. "So many of the smaller hunting breeds, cockers in particular, have been bred as show dogs, pretty looking, but poor performers in the field," Larson admits. "When looking for a hunting cocker, start with ads in hunting dog oriented magazines. And don't even begin to consider buying a pup or started dog until you've seen both its parents at work in the field," Larson suggests.
"As with buying any breed of hunting dog, do your homework by getting information on pedigrees, genetic soundness and health history. But, do your legwork too, which means walking behind a pup's parents while hunting grouse or pheasants or watching them retrieve ducks out of deep water," Larson advises. "Lap dog, house dog, hunting dog--you get all three with Emma," Larson says as Emma, on command, jumps up into his arms so that her owner can pluck out some of the cockle burrs she collected during a day of hunting South Dakota pheasants.
"Spaniels, or any smaller breeds like them, generally tend to be easy to train at home and close ranging out in the field," in Larson's opinion. "They're good dogs for older hunters who don't want to manhandle an 85-pound Labrador out in the cattails or go looking for a 70-pound pointer out in the woods." "Because most of these little gun dogs are also house dogs, they usually bond closely to their owners," Larson says. "I see this with Emma. Out hunting, if she's not looking for birds, she's looking for me. Constant contact with me is important to her, so she will almost always stay within visual range, no matter where we are."
"Many 'gun dog' spaniel breeders are also trainers who can teach the dogs they sell and their owners what is necessary for hunting and retrieving birds," Larson believes. "Some breeder-trainers will even prepare gun dogs for formal hunt tests and field trials if that's what you want," Larson adds. "Sure these little dogs have their limitations," Larson is quick to point out. "You don't send them across the Mississippi River after a wing-tipped canvasback on a cold and windy day in November. And, you don't expect them to run through three-foot deep snow drifts chasing wounded pheasants in some cattail slough in December. You don't assume that they can handle every situation the same way a dog three times their size would," Larson warns prospective buyers of little hunting dogs.
Other upside features of these hunting cockers or any other smaller gun dog is that they take up less space in your home and in your vehicle. "These are the apartment and condominium dogs of the future," Larson contends. "Thes
e little dogs can be perfect for hunters who have limited house space or small yards or who don't have big outside kennels to keep their hunting dogs in. And, for traveling hunters without full-size pickups or Suburbans, little gun dogs can go along in the back seat of the family sedan. Try that with your 75-pound plus gun dogs," Larson adds. "For those hunters who live in town, a smaller dog is often less intimidating in the neighborhood, as opposed to a pointer or retriever whose size can be sort of imposing. When I take Emma for a walk in the park, people think she's a puppy," Larson says. "That's a lot better than scaring them with some bigger dog that looks like it could tear an arm off." "Though English cockers, along with Boykins and water spaniels, tend to have a fairly narrow range of standard sizes, there are lines that are bred for taller and stouter dogs supposedly better suited for hunting," Larson points out. "And springers can get into the 50-pound range."
"Personally, smaller is better for my purposes," Larson has decided.
"When you consider the size of the breed, you must also weigh Emma's tremendous desire for hunting."
I had to agree--size really doesn't matter.