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The Clumber Spaniel

The Clumber Spaniel

Fireballs they're not, but they do produce birds...

Mitchell Rollins of Chequamegon Kennel with one of his Clumbers and the morning's bag.

If there is a person who can look a Clumber spaniel in the face and not fall instantly in love, that person also considers watching old ladies slip and fall on the ice as the epitome of humor.

I went to the annual Pheasants Forever Pheasant Fest in Des Moines, Iowa, with one aim in mind--to interview a Clumber spaniel. Her name was Athena, and she told me she much appreciated ear rubs, chin scratches and being told repeatedly, "You're such a good dog!"

Athena owns Mitchell Rollins, who succumbed to the charms of her breed several years ago. A manager for Chrysler in Minneapolis, Rollins also breeds and hunts with Clumbers.

It all came about because of a Gun Dog article some years back that featured a Clumber. Rollins fell in love with the photo, never mind the dog in the flesh. Today he operates Chequamegon Clumbers Kennel, and he hunts grouse, woodcock and pheasants in his native Wisconsin behind the stately flushing dogs.

If a setter or pointer is a destroyer on the prowl, a Clumber is a battleship, measured in gait but deadly on the quest, armed with a bloodhound's nose. Rollins breeds for his own hunting dogs and finds superior homes for the rest of each litter--where the owners cherish the wrinkled dogs and also hunt them.

"I wanted a dog that could stand the briars and brush, which is where I mostly hunt," Rollins says. He got one in the Clumber whose furrowed brow actually flops over its eyes when it is nose-down in scent, protecting them from abrasions. And the furrows also channel scent into the dog's nostrils. "These dogs were engineered for what they do," Rollins says.

Some say the Clumber has bloodhound in its background. If I were buried to the neck in snow and feeling poorly, I'd want a sympathetic Clumber looking down at me, especially if it had a barrel of Old Foxtrot dangling from its collar.

Eyes and hips both can be a problem with Clumbers--eyelids rolled either inward or outward can lead to infection, while hip dysplasia is a breed problem. Rollins, like all reputable breeders, has his dogs certified dysplasia-free by the Orthopedic Foundation of America, and his dogs also are eye-certified by an ophthalmologist.

Clumbers come from England, where they were bred to hunt close, within 20 yards, and flush game in the aggregate--birds, rabbits, whatever jumps and looks edible. And they water retrieve ducks and geese. In appearance, a Clumber looks like someone tossed a bloodhound and an English setter in a blender, and the result was a mournful-looking dog with setter hair and coloring. They are the third-oldest breed recognized by the AKC and have been around since Prince Albert was busting the brush of England's gorse country.

King Edward VII, who succeeded Queen Victoria (Albert's squeeze) also was a Clumber man, as was King George V, the English king during World War I, so you can say the Clumber has a connection with the Royals, but today they're a totally democratic dog, happy to be petted and associated with by any of us commoners.

Athena, goddess of cuddling.

Just like the Royals themselves, the Clumber is a Vulnerable Breed. That strange designation is from the United Kingdom Kennel Club for breeds with fewer than 300 registrations a year. It shares that distinction with other spaniels, including the field, Irish water and Sussex.

In the United States, Clumbers rank 124th among 164 breeds in AKC registration. Labs are No. 1, as they have been for years. In 2009, Clumbers were 117th in litter registrations, but that's up from 128th the year before.

Clumbers have been in North America since 1844, when the first ones came to Canada. In 1884 the AKC recognized them and nine other breeds. The Westminster Kennel Club Show, the second-oldest sporting event in the United States (the Kentucky Derby is the oldest), saw its first Clumber in 1878. In 1996, Brady, owned by a Florida couple, took Best in Show, the only Clumber to do so.

Queen Victoria's Prince Albert (not in a can) dearly loved his Clumbers, as did his doughty wife, who wrote: "Walked out directly after breakfast before Albert went to shoot. He had his seven fine Clumber spaniels with us and we went into the Slopes, with such a funny old Gamekeeper, Walters, in order that I should see how the dogs found out their game. They are such dear, nice dogs."

And they are, indeed. While one source said they can be aloof, my experience is that if they are, it's because you didn't pet them enough. "They want to be in your lap," says Rollins. Considering that a Clumber weighs from 55 to 85 pounds, "lap" is probably not the best option for a cuddle. And they also are prone to shed, meaning that if you have dark-colored furniture, you also have a hard-to-hide problem.

Prince Al's seven-Clumber hunt was not that unusual. If you do get a Clumber and are inclined to add multiples of it, you're in good company--Clumbers are pack animals and enjoy hunting with their buddies. Rollins once took five to the field. "I just about went nuts," he says. "I have enough trouble keeping track of one or two, but with five, the birds were going everywhere, and the dogs loved it."

Clumbers share common ancestry with other spaniels, but the history is cloudy. One theory is that the dog originated in France from spaniels owned by the Duke of Noailles, who gave them to the English Duke of Newcastle who lived at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire, home of the fabled Robin Hood. The English duke's gamekeeper William Mansell tinkered with the dog's breeding, developing today's Clumber.

It's difficult to reconcile the drowsing Clumber with the eager hunter, bouncing through the brush with typical upland dog enthusiasm, but show up with a gun and shell vest and there is a transformation not seen since Clark Kent first took off his shirt in a phone booth.

"Just let me start out the door and they all leap up, ready to go," Rollins says. A Clumber never will be mistaken for the streak of lightning that is the pointer or the bounding fireball that is the springer, but in its methodical coursing it covers the ground, and with a cylinder-bored nose is not likely to miss any gamebird.

Because of its measured gait, it tends to get close to spooky birds before they flush. It is the ideal dog for a gimpy, aging hunter (trust me, I know this firsthand). It would appear to be a dog created for grouse or woodcock hunting, and for pinning a spooky rooster pheasant until Daddy gets close enough to shoot it.

Furthermore, if you're on the road, in an unheated cabin with a lumpy mattress and not quite enough blankets, the idea of an 85-pound fluffball radiating heat next to you is immensely appealing.

Joel Vance is the author of Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover $15); Bobs, Brush and Brittanies (hardcover $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover $25); and Autumn Shadows (limited edition, signed $45). Available from Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $2/book for S/H.

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