In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, while discussing the double standard that keeps women from being virtuous, the Wife of Bath relates her husband’s assertion that beautiful women are irresistibly seduced, but ugly women “for as a spaynel” will leap on every man they see. While that reference does little to help us understand the origins of the spaniel breeds, it does confirm the 14th Century use of the term “spaynel or spaniel” as generically referring to a dog.
Similarly, for centuries the French word for spaniel, épagneul, had broad use. Much like the terms “braque,” “griffon,” and “terrier,” the word referred to a general type of hunting dog. Later, épagneul and “spaniel” were tagged onto more specific breed names designating region of origin, specific skill, or other identifying factors. That’s where simplicity ends when it comes to investigating the spaniel breeds.
Spaniels can be tall or short; curly, wavy, or flat coated. They can be pointers, flushers, or retrievers. Apparently, the only constant is that the dog referred to as a “spaniel” is believed to be descended from the early épagneul pointing dogs of Spain. That belief, however, is unproven. Spaniels may have come from north of Spain. Or they may have developed in a wider spread of geography with the term itself crossing borders.
Craig Koshyk, author of Pointing Dogs and arguably one of the top experts in bird-dog breeds and history, sums up the heart of the problem well when he writes, “…getting to the bottom of the word’s origin does not really help us with the main problem that it presents today: Spaniels don’t point, but épagneuls do!”
“In English, the word ‘spaniel’ is used for the flushing breeds but not pointers. So when the name of a pointing breed such as the épagneul Breton is translated as “Brittany Spaniel,” it gets complicated,” Koshyk adds. “To add to the confusion, none of the other épagneul breeds from France—the French, Picardy, Blue Picardy, Pont-Audemer, and Saint-Usuge—have dropped the ‘spaniel’ part of their names in English.”
Confused? To summarize how we refer to the breeds here in the United States, there are spaniels that point and spaniels that flush. If there is or was an épagneul in its name, it’s a pointer. Otherwise it’s a flusher. They all can be reliable retrievers. Finally, while we should never say “never,” there is a show ring full of nonhunting spaniels such as the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, the English toy spaniel, and the Tibetan spaniel. We’ll leave those to the ribbon makers.
Today the most popular pointing spaniels are the Brittany and French Brittany. Boykins, English springers, and cockers top the flushing spaniel charts. On the other extreme, breeds such as the Pont-Audemer, Larzac, and Saint-Usuge are remarkable dogs but very rare, with few or no breeders in the United States. In between, a half dozen or so lesser known spaniels are gaining attention for their first-rate hunting abilities.
The Picardy spaniel, originally from northern France, is noted for its handsome coat—mottled gray with large brown patches offset by tan markings on the face and legs. Medium long, dense and somewhat wavy, the coat does require grooming like all spaniel coats subjected to burrs, thistles, and standard field debris. Sturdily built, the Picardy has an early point, and a cooperative spirit. The adjectives most frequently applied to the Picardy are “powerful” and “stylish.”
According to Koshyk, a Picardy owner himself, Picardy spaniels, along with the other French pointing spaniels, tend to be on the soft side. “If you are an easygoing, patient trainer, or someone like me that doesn’t really train his dogs (I just let wild birds train them for me), then one of the épagneul breeds is for you,” Koshyk explains. “They are typically easy-to-live-with, mellow, friendly, and cuddly dogs. So if you want a dog that hunts its butt off during the season but then chills on the couch the rest of the time, an épagneul breed may be for you. If you are a drill sergeant who needs to win at all costs, or wants a watchdog to scare bad guys away, then look elsewhere.”
Blue Picardy Spaniel
Separate from the Picardy as a breed, the blue Picardy spaniel has general conformation standards and a hunting style comparable to those of the Picardy. Its grayish blue coat ranges from very dark to fairly light, depending on the mix of black and white hair and black patches. The blue Picardy was most likely developed from a black-and-white épagneul mixed with English and Gordon setter. Today, blue Picardy spaniels from good hunting lines are excellent partridge, woodcock, waterfowl, and pheasant dogs, with their extraordinary stamina mentioned in many descriptions. Unfortunately, the breed’s popularity as pets and in the show ring is growing, as is often the case when bird dogs are bred for a nonhunting destiny. Hunting instincts and attributes often play second fiddle to appearance as a priority in breeding. Finding a breeder with good hunting lines is essential.
The French spaniel was one of the first spaniels to be classified as a distinct breed. Frequently described as “elegant,” the French spaniel’s flowing cocker-like ears, long flat coat, and lengthy body give it a sweep of athletic grace when it runs. Known for a strong, early point and a search style that adjusts to the hunter, the French spaniel doesn’t always get high marks in water work but is considered a natural tracker. Recognized by more clubs than the other épagneul breeds, the French spaniel is better known at this point than the Picardy and blue Picardy. Visually, the French spaniel’s brown and white coat stands out well in the field, even with light ticking. French spaniels can also be brown or roan.
In the introduction to flushing spaniels in the Encyclopedia of North American Sporting Dogs, Jason Smith writes, “The spaniel’s primary function is as a flusher of upland game. Over time, some spaniel breeds, such as the American and Irish water spaniels, have become more valuable in water environments, rivaling some of the retriever breeds as dedicated waterfowl hunters. Today, those ‘spaniels’ are classified among the true retrievers.”
Smith, who is also the editor of Pointing Dog Journal and Retriever Journal, writes, “Today, spaniels mostly pursue upland birds, leaving the fur to hounds or the versatile breeds. Many dedicated pheasant hunters look no further than an English springer spaniel to fulfill all of the pheasant hunting needs. They have also seen action on ruffed grouse, woodcock, quail, and the prairie birds.”
Welsh Springer Spaniel
The Welsh springer spaniel is smaller and not quite as stocky as the English springer but has an equally thick, protective coat. The Welsh springer’s ears, face spotting, and body patches are a warm ruddy red. Other characteristics of note include a docked tail and thick pads on well-cupped feet. It’s interesting to note that the French pointing spaniels keep their full tail length,
but most of the flushers have theirs docked, as do the Brittanys.
In keeping with the confusion of spaniel terminology, the Welsh springer was also called a Welsh cocker years back. Today there are fairly separate field and show lines, yet it still is a relatively rare breed. Welshies, as they are referred to, quarter and flush within gun range and retrieve well on land. Devoted family dogs, Welshies are known for following their owners around the house.
The Clumber spaniel might have originated in France, or it might have come from England. One thing is for sure: It definitely did not follow a path from épagneul lines anywhere near the pointing spaniels. It’s heavy headed, boxy bodied, and low slung, and the Clumber’s woeful eyes speak volumes about its patient, lovable nature. Its silky white coat can have lemon or orange markings. Its ears are “vine leaf” shaped. As hunters, Clumbers are capable upland trackers, flushers, and retrievers, working with their heads low to the ground. Clumbers are shedders, droolers, and stubborn, not doing well with forceful training. Nonetheless, the Clumber spaniel has tremendous breed loyalty, cherished for their endearing wag and self-respecting field pace.
The Sussex spaniel is a smaller, russet-brown version of the Clumber, albeit a distinct breed. Its official origin is placed in Sussex, England in the early 1800s. The Sussex was so popular, for a time, that it was one of the first 10 dogs in the AKC stud book back in 1884. Sussex spaniels are methodical like the Clumbers, but their unique trait is a tendency to vocalize on scent. Because of their short stature in tall cover, they developed the habit of yelping on game to help gunners keep tabs on their position before the flush. As a family dog, the Sussex is people-oriented, somewhat protective, calm, but energetic at play and work.
Sized between a springer and a cocker, the field spaniel has a solid liver, black or roan-liver coat, low-set ears, dark almond eyes, docked tail, and large, round webbed feet. According to the Field Spaniel Club of America, the breed was developed in the Midlands of England through a varied blend of black cockers, Sussex spaniels, Irish water spaniels, Norfolk or English springers, and basset hounds. The field spaniel’s population has swung up and down over the past century, with show ring trends regrettably influencing their breeding. The good news is that in the United States, breeders have been successful in creating solid, dependable lines of first-rate field spaniels built to work as excellent upland and water dogs. Descriptions of its hunting style highlight an efficient ground-covering trot—not as fast as an English springer—and a persistent nose. They like to swim and love to prolong their retrieve by slowing down to savor the moment (and perhaps the taste of the bird).
Irish Water Spaniel
The Irish water spaniel was bred for marsh retrieving, descended from two types of water spaniels, with Ireland’s South Country water spaniel dominating its characteristics. One of the largest of the spaniel breeds, the Irish water spaniel is instantly recognizable for its tapered rat tail, long curly topknot, and tightly curled, oily, water-resistant liver coat. The coat isn’t hypoallergenic, but dog allergy sufferers find it easier to tolerate because the texture makes it easily vacuumed and doesn’t let it weave into upholstery like other types of dog hair. The consensus on temperament is that the Irish water spaniel is intelligent, eager, and loyal. The Irish Water Spaniel Club of America describes them as loving to play games, but with a sense of humor that changes the rules and is referred to as “the streak of the Irish.” In the field, the Irish water spaniel maintains a moderate pace but tends to search cover spots rather than quarter. As a retriever, it has an innate desire to please that keeps it focused on the job at hand.
American Water Spaniel
The state dog of Wis-consin, the American water spaniel is a true American breed, developed in the late 1800s in the Upper Midwest to serve the waterfowl market hunters. It is a small retriever, purposefully bred that way for working in and out of a skiff. Its brown coat can be wavy or tightly curled like the Irish water spaniel’s, and is equally dense and water resistant. American water spaniels are considered to have a strong-willed personality, needing a firm, but careful, approach in training. When kept in range, they are reliable upland hunters, particularly in thick northern grouse woods.
Want spaniels? When asked what advice they would give a hunter considering one of these lesser-known spaniel breeds, both Smith and Koshyk are encouraging. Smith says, “In terms of the more rare breeds, I think it’s important to learn as much as you can about them prior to deciding if that lesser-known breed is for you. Talking to folks at the breed clubs helps, as well as to people who have made the switch from something more popular to lesser known. This is a terribly general statement, but sometimes with less popular breeds, there can be a prevalent medical or behavioral problem, so I would want to know about the health of the breed overall.”
Smith notes, however, that the risks are not usually related to hunting ability or performance. “Watch the parents! If their hunting style and temperament are what you’re looking for, then I don’t see any reason why a lesser-known breed couldn’t be the right dog for someone.”
Koshyk concludes, “‘Lesser known’ or ‘less popular’ does not mean a breed is good or bad, nor that it should cost a lot more or a lot less than any other breed. Getting one of the lesser-known breeds can be easy if you are lucky enough to live near one of the very few breeders in North America, or it can be a bit more complicated. But it is not impossible, and, in fact, getting one may open up some unique opportunities to expand your horizons.”