"Hawking" by H. Alkin depicting a falconry hunt on horseback with spaniels

Hunting Spaniels History and Modern State: HDC Episode #6

Exploring the origins and current states of flushing spaniel breeds

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This episode kicks off a new mini-series on other types of gun dogs: flushing spaniels, retrievers, terriers, scent hounds, and sight hounds. This broader look at hunting dogs will explore the history of each type of dog and how it fits into the overall timeline of hunting dogs as they developed alongside their human partners. We’ll also look at where these dogs are today and how they are being used in the field.

Like always, we dive into some linguistics to better understand the cultural origins of the dogs. To an English speaker, a spaniel is a spaniel is a spaniel. But to a French speaker, there’s a significant difference between l’épagneul and le spaniel. Perhaps most curiously, what do spaniels even have to do with Spain, anyway?

Spaniels were developed before pointing dogs but after hounds had found favor with humans as hunting companions. The more cooperative nature of hunting and retrieving birds – but not injuring the hunter’s falcon – required a much more cooperative dog. The earliest spaniels were selected for their strong bond with humans, their ease of training, and their overall cooperativeness. This was the first time that man and dog were truly working together and sharing game captured in the field.

Modern spaniels are set apart from other hunting dogs by their small size, their close working style to stay within gun range, and the way in which they quarter in front of the hunter in a windshield-wiper pattern. Their energy and enthusiasm are unmatched.

Starting with water spaniels, we discuss the Irish water spaniel, the American water spaniel, and the Boykin spaniel. These three breeds can trace their origins back along the same path, having been adapted to meet the specific size and temperament needs of their human companions. The English water spaniel, although now extinct, also played an important role in the foundation of today’s spaniels.

The English Water Spaniel, now extinct

On land, there are no spaniel breeds more popular than the cocker and the springer spaniels. Believe it or not, these were originally a single breed, differentiated only by their size. A single litter could contain both smaller “woodcocker” spaniels as well as larger “springer” spaniels better suited for working heavier cover and larger birds. Eventually the breed split, followed by the later split between the English and American cocker spaniels. We also discuss lesser-known spaniels such as the Field spaniel, the Sussex, and the Clumber spaniels.

Not all spaniels were developed in the United Kingdom and Ireland, either. The Germans developed their own “quail dog”, the Wachtelhund. This dog has exceptional intensity in the field and, like its German versatile cousins, is renowned for its tracking and game-driving abilities. Across the border in the Netherlands, the Kooikerhondje was developed for the unusual task of luring ducks into a trap. Rather than flushing birds, the Kooikerhondje playfully piques the curiosity of nearby ducks, who swim closer to investigate playing dog and end up funneling into a trap. This behavior eventually led to the development of the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, which we will discuss next time in our episode about retrievers.

Tune in to learn more about your favorite spaniel breeds or perhaps discover a lesser-known breed. As always, we thank you for listening and hope you’ll continue to share the great feedback about this series.

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Hunting Dog Confidential is presented by Eukanuba Premium Performance Dog Food

Last modified: July 13, 2020

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