Distinct from bench Springers, the field bred English Springer Spaniel is born and built for upland bird hunting.
This series of Project Upland hunting dog breed profiles focuses on the hunting characteristics that set one breed apart from another, understanding that within a breed individual dogs may vary in temperament, conformation, instincts and abilities. This particular article focuses on the English Springer Spaniel.
Original Purpose of the English Springer Spaniel
Spaniels are ancient breeds with recorded recognition as early as 300 A.D. The spaniels of Great Britain are described in writings of the 1500s as flushing game for hawks or netting. In the 1800s, spaniel breeding and training shifted to serve upland gunners. As the smaller spaniels used for hunting woodcock became known as “cockers,” the larger ones were named “springers” for being used to flush or “spring” game birds.
The AKC recognized the English springer spaniel in 1910. The breed has evolved into two distinct types – field and bench. The English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association (ESSFTA) is the primary parent club in the U.S.
Hunting Style and Temperament of the English Springer Spaniel
Topping the English springer’s list of hunting attributes are nose and stamina. These are solid dogs, designed to bust through thick cover and quarter diligently. They excel as pheasant dogs and perform admirably in the grouse woods. Field springers have a fairly good retrieving instinct which results in first-rate upland work when it is developed through training. Many hunters use springers for waterfowling, although because of their smaller size and less water-resistant coats, they are not as popular for big-water duck and goose hunting as breeds like Labs, Chessies, and German wirehairs.
Field bred English springers are happy, active, even-tempered family dogs. Their hunting style is described as having an animated but medium pace and easy-to-read body language. Springers are eager to please and willing to learn which is important because their desire to hunt can push them beyond gun range. Early training to handle in range is helpful. On the “pro” side, the springers’ drive and scenting ability make them champions at trailing running pheasants. On the “con” side, hunters do need to be able to handle them to maintain a workable distance from the gun.
Traits of the English Springer Spaniel Important to Hunters
English springer spaniels are a medium-sized sporting dog with a docked tail. Male springers should weigh about 50 pounds and be 20 inches at the shoulder; females should weigh around 40 pounds and average 19 inches at the shoulder. In general, field bred springers are a little smaller than those bred for the show ring; their ears are usually shorter and higher set.
English springers from strong hunting lines have brush-resistant coats with a soft, dense undercoat topped by medium-length flat or wavy hair. Feathering on the ears, chest, legs and belly should be moderate, and some hunters find that trimming the feathers during hunting season cuts down on post-hunt grooming. In color, English springers predominantly have either black or liver spots on white. Less common are roan coloration or tricolor.
Active and energetic, springers respond well to early training and socialization. They are intelligent but need focus to develop good field skills.
Along with hip dysplasia which can appear in many hunting breeds, English springers are prone to ear infections, particularly if they spend a lot of time in the water.
Finding a Good Breeder
It is very important for prospective English springer owners to be sure the dog they’re looking at comes from proven field lines. A starting point for information would be the ESSFTA Breeder Education and Referral Program.
Nancy Anisfield is an outdoor writer and hunting dog photographer, creative director for the Ugly Dog Hunting Company, member of the Pheasants Forever / Quail Forever Board of Directors, and co-owner of the Track2Wing Project which grants Action trackchairs to individuals with mobility challenges who want to train and hunt with bird dogs. She and her husband live in Hinesburg, Vermont, where their lives are governed by her two German shorthaired pointers and his two German wirehaired pointers.