527 What is a Springer Spaniel

by   David Hancock

 Few would dispute the supremacy of the English springer spaniel at spaniel work in the 20th/21st century. With the Labrador retriever, the springer has dominated gundog work since the First World War; these two breeds having on sheer field merit, ruled the roost in the working gundog world. The astounding rise in popularity here of the hunt, point and retrieve breeds from mainland Europe in the last fifty years may in time change the whole emphasis of dogwork in the shooting field, but, of our native breeds, the fondness of sportsmen for these two gundog breeds continues without check.

 If asked to describe their breed, most working springer owners would respond on the lines of "liver and white spaniel, foot and a half high and a real goer!" The Kennel Club would opt for their descriptive if not particularly accurate 400-odd word breed standard. But for the latter to state that this breed is "of ancient and pure origin, oldest of sporting gundogs" with a gait or movement "strictly his own" withstands no serious scrutiny. And phrases in this authorised breed standard like: "skull of medium length", "eyes medium", "nicely feathered ears", "jaws strong", "body neither too long nor too short", "hindlegs well let down" and "ears lobular, good length and width" offer precious little help with their vagueness.

 What is abundantly clear however to any admirer of the breed who studies dogs and prizes breed characteristics is that the English springer has simply lost its essential type. Broadly speaking the show type looks like a docked setter whilst the working dog resembles a liver and white Cocker. Gundog men don't always care about appearance, quite naturally, more  about performance. But you can lose a breed with that simplistic narrow approach.

 Blaine, writing in 1807, stated that: "The variety of Spaniels are numerous. A popular distinction made between them by many writers is into Springers, Cockers, and Water Spaniels. Conventionally this distinction is understood, but critically it will not bear examination, particularly as regards the first two divisions." This is supported by the fact that the Welsh springer has been called the Welsh cocker for much of its history. Another authority of that time wrote that: "The true English Spaniel differs but little in figure from the Setter except in size." That great expert C.A.Phillips wrote early in the 20th century that: "...strictly speaking, all the different varieties of Spaniels are 'Springers', the name originally having been used in contradistinction to 'Setters'..."

 The Kennel Club-authorised breed standard states that the English springer is the "highest on leg and raciest in build of all British Land Spaniels", going on to claim that this breed is "of ancient and pure origin". Gervaise Markham however was writing in the 17th century: "It is reasonable that people should cross Land Spaniels and Water Spaniels, and the Mungrells between these, and the Mungrells of either with the Shallow Flew'd Hound, the Tumbler, the Lurcher and the small bastard Mastiff...all of which are yet inferior to the truebred Land Spaniel--if one could still find one of those". Not much support for the "pure origin" claimants of the KC!

 The springers which I see working in the field are anything but high on the leg and racy in build, as the KC also insists they must be. One day a pedantic dissatisfied purchaser of a springer pup might invoke the Trades Descriptions Act! What is the difference between these springers and a sprocker?

 Colour is not much of a guide either in identifying a real English springer. The KC nowadays decrees that their colour should be: Liver and white, black and white, or either of these colours with tan markings. Around 1807, Captain Brown, regarded as "a very creditable authority" described them as red, yellow or liver colour and white. Eighty years ago the breed standard itself specified: black and tan; liver and tan; black, liver, black, tan and white; liver and white; liver, tan and white; lemon and white, roans etc. Whatever happened to the lemon and whites? Are they springers no longer? This edition of the standard incidentally put the weight of the dog at about 40lbs. Forty years later it was 50lbs. On the question of colour, the standard of forty years ago stated that: "...any recognised Land Spaniel colour is acceptable"; did this mean that whole-coloured jet-black was acceptable? For this is a land spaniel colour.

 Writing in 1906, Rawdon Lee stated that the breed could be of "any hue, barring orange and white, which is now the acknowledged colour of the Welsh springer or cocker". One hundred years before this, they could be 'red'--the Welsh springer colour. So in this breed, prized for its ancient origin, the ancient colours are no longer desired! The American KC insists that "off" colours such as lemon, red or orange should be penalised and their possessors not placed. Yet they also insist that those dogs in the breed lacking true English springer type should be penalised. The true type in their country of origin contained red and yellow in 1807 and lemon in 1907. The real purpose behind the American wording is given away in the preamble to the AKC breed standard: "Unquestionably the present standard has helped to make the Springer more uniform as a breed." In other words uniformity is seen as having more merit than traditional variety. This is breeding to suit the breeders not the dog. The result of such thinking in this country has been to remove the rich variety in coat colours in the breed, i.e. its ancient heritage. Yet today we have a breed which is anything but uniform.

 Two hundred years ago, Richard Lawrence, a veterinary surgeon of great experience with dogs, was writing in "The Complete Farrier" that :"The true English springer differs but little in figure from the setter, except in size; varying only in a small degree, if any, from a red yellow or liver colour, which seems to be the invariable external standard of this breed." So our knowledgeable more distant ancestors considered the breed to be setter-like; contemporary experts have ruled out all mention of this in the extant blueprint for the breed.

 The "pure origin" of the breed, claimed by the Kennel Club but disputed by countless authoritative writers, has not been improved in the last hundred years by the introduction of pointer, Irish setter and black and tan field spaniel blood, as the much respected Frank Warner Hill has testified. I am never against the introduction of outside blood to revitalise any purebred strain and I don't believe that small size variations or colour matter at all. But type does matter, it is a sign that the real blood is present.

 I don't mind a springer which is 16" or 22" at the withers. I can see no reason to object to a lemon and white, orange and white or even a mahogany red and white springer, if it can work. But a lack of true type is much more worrying. I see English springers which look more like Cavalier King Charles spaniels than a small setter; some feature an almost Afghan hound-like skull or an excessively curly coat like the old English water spaniel.

 The renowned O'Vara springers, like FT champions Spy, Spurt, Spark and Sarkie were considerably smaller than say the Sandylands' springers bred by Gwen Broadley. But all of them had the essential type so necessary if this breed is to retain its identity beyond coat colour. I don't believe this 'typiness' comes from any idiosyncrasies of gait, as the breed standard hints, although their manner of hunting can be most distinctive.

 For me, the essential type in springers is revealed in: the overall appearance of a small setter, the shape of the head, the eager look in the eye and the ratio of body length to body height. The correct English springer body has the same measurement from the withers to the ground as from the withers to the root of the tail. This ratio produces a thoroughly functional dog, developes the best drive and allows a balanced symmetrical physique. If this ratio is respected, cloddy short-legged dogs or bassetised long-backed ones are ruled out. The eager look in the eye I would rate highly; I see too many lazy springers which lack any strong desire to work. This cannot augur well for the future of this distinguished sporting breed.

 It is the desire to work, keenness to hunt, willingness to give service, backed by good construction and sound movement which makes any working dog. In 1790 this type of spaniel was described rather neatly with these words: "...is lively, active and pleasant; an unwearied pursuer of its game; and very expert in raising woodcocks and snipes from their haunts in woods and marshes, through which it ranges with amazing perseverance". Perhaps these are the only words a sensible breed standard really needs, for they tell us what an English springer is designed to do - work!