by Dan Kibler
About five years ago, Jeff Davis, a man I knew from church, invited me out to the country to show off his hunting dog.
Dove season was a week or so away, so I couldn’t figure out what might be on tap, except that he told me not to bring my shotgun, and that made me feel more secure about not being involved in some kind of poaching exploit.
When I met Davis, he opened the back hatch of his Jeep, but there was no dog box. In the front passenger’s seat, however, sat a small, reddish-brown dog, stubby tail wagging to beat the band, very anxious for the events of the day to take place.
“Jake” was finally freed from the confines of the vehicle. The dog was clearly a spaniel, but it was not a breed I’d seen before. He looked something like a Brittany spaniel, except that the standard curly, liver and white coat had been replaced with a solid brown one. And he was a bit smaller than either a Brittany or a Springer, though he was bigger than a Cocker.
Jake was a Boykin spaniel, and I soon saw that that meant he was a hunting dog through and through.
The job he did over the next hour, retrieving and doing fieldwork, was a match for anything that a Brittany or even a Lab might have done. The main difference between Jake and many other breeds was that he worked very close and wasn’t in quite as much of a hurry as many upland dogs. Jake was clearly no ordinary dog, and Davis knew it. Jake could retrieve doves and ducks, and he could work upland game like pheasants and quail, even grouse.
He was a crackerjack field-trial performer, to which his two national championship awards would attest. And he was small enough to live in Davis’ home – sleeping in an honored spot at the foot of the bed without eating Davis and his wife out of house and home.
Around the turn of the century, Boykins became popular in South Carolina as a turkey-hunting dog that was able to find and flush gobblers and then sit still in a hastily constructed blind while its master tried to call the scattered birds back into shotgun range. The total range of their talents didn’t become evident until many years later.
Lowcountry hunters quickly discovered that their little dogs could do more than flush turkeys, and that’s where the Boykins’ retrieving capabilities came into play. Their small size came in handy in upland waterfowl hunting, especially when floating rivers in small watercraft such as canoes or johnboats. Try to keep a canoe upright when a 70-pound Lab retrieves, and then compare it to the disturbance that a 30-pound Boykin produces when he leaves a small boat and re-enters it moments later with a hen wood duck.
Nowadays, Boykins are prized by dove hunters and duck hunters whose hunting areas include marsh hunting and jump-shooting ducks while drifting down small rivers.
“If you hunt small water and flooded timber for your ducks, then the (Boykin) spaniel is perfect,” said Pam Kadlec, a noted breeder and trainer of Boykins. One of Kadlec’s Boykins, HRCH King’s Curlee Gurlee, was the Boykin Spaniel Society National Open Champion in 1999. “If you love to hunt doves and upland game birds, the Boykin is your dog.”
Boykins excel on the dove field partly because of their good noses and eagerness to work hard and partly because they are relatively good at working in hot weather.
Camden, S.C., is the headquarters of the Boykin Spaniel Society, which numbers well over 3,000 members. That’s where Jake got his two national championship awards. Boykins, in fact, were named the “state dog” in South Carolina in 1984, and even though Davis isn’t a South Carolina native, he fell in love with the breed early in adulthood.
“I messed with Labs a lot; my brother raised lots of Labs, but my wife didn’t want a big dog,” Davis said. “This dog is small enough that he can stay in the house.
“The old adage that bird dogs and hunting dogs should be left outside and in crates is outdated. The best hunting dogs are the ones that live in the house and ride in the pickup truck beside you,” he said. “I love to take him dove and duck hunting, but we’re more involved in field trials than hunting. The fun thing about field-trialing is that you can do it year ’round, and hunting is limited to a couple of months a year. If that’s all you do, it’s over, and you put your dog up for the rest of the year.”
Jake wasn’t a dog to be put up, however. Davis has run him in a dozen field trials a year and has twice won the national event sponsored by the South Carolina-based Boykin Spaniel Society.
In field trials, dogs must make water and land retrieves of ducks and pigeons without first seeing the birds. Handlers like Davis direct their dogs toward the birds using whistles and hand signals.
“I got lucky,” Davis admitted. “Jake isn’t like most Boykins. Most trainers will tell you that if you buy 20 dogs, you might get one that’s this good, but Jake’s sire is one of the finest Boykins ever to walk the earth. I found out he’d been bred, and I went and looked at the litter and picked out the one that was the most dominant, the most high-strung, of them all.”
Of course, “high-strung” is a relative term. Compared to a stylish, big-running field-trial class pointer, for example, Jake looks like he’s on a sedative. And that’s one of the other great qualities of Boykins: They’re people dogs, dogs that can retrieve a wounded drake mallard from a flooded beaver pond in the morning and play on the lawn with the family’s toddlers that same afternoon.
Jim Lattimer of St. Matthews, S.C., president of the Boykin Spaniel Society and owner of Rock ‘N Creek Kennels, said Boykins are easy to train as puppies and will take to whatever kind of hunting their owners love.
“It’s their nature to retrieve, and it’s their nature to flush,” said Lattimer, who owns more than 30 Boykins, ranging in age from 12 weeks to 17 years. “These are dogs that want to please you. Unless you want your dog to do multiple tasks, you can do most of the training on your own.
“Boykins are very versatile dogs, and they’re very intelligent. Once they recognize what they’re supposed to be hunting, they’ll take to it. They’re good squirrel dog
s, and they’ll run rabbits.
“I’d say, generally, that they’ve got very good noses, and they’re very good once they learn what it is you’re hunting. When they learn the scent of a dove or a duck or a quail, whatever it is you want them to hunt, they recognize it and take to it.
“Because the breed is so young, and because the (gene pool) still has remnants of the other dogs that were bred into it, you have some bloodlines that are better at one kind of hunting than others, and each individual dog can have his own strengths. But, generally, they’re best as warm-weather retrievers. They’re great dogs to have in a dove field.”
Kadlec agrees that bloodlines are important for a variety of reasons. She suggests that anyone getting a Boykin – or any other dog, for that matter – should study the puppy’s parents and make a careful assessment of what you want in a dog. Some Boykins are extremely energetic and would make good upland hunting dogs but might not work out well as a pet in an apartment. Other lines of Boykins are less high-strung.
Kadlec also suggests that hunters think carefully about the hunting conditions they will require the dog to work under.
“If you hunt big water and require a dog that can break ice, then get a Chesapeake Bay Retriever,” she said. “If you hunt frigid water, do your spaniel a favor and take a retriever. If you are really into goose hunting, then a Labrador, Golden or Chessie is your dog.”
She notes, however, that Boykins are versatile and have big hearts, so hunters who do some coldwater hunting and occasionally take a goose will find that a Boykin will do the job of retrieving.
Davis started training Jake at an early age, working him in water at four months. Jake took to water as if it were his natural element, leaping high off the bank, feet spread apart, head high, swimming to the duck or plastic dummy that is his test mark. On command, he stops and looks back at Davis for instruction, and then he changes direction on hand signals until he’s in the immediate area of his target. When he finds it, he grabs it and returns it to Davis’ hand, his steps never wavering.
“You can teach ‘em to flush like a Springer if you want to hunt quail; they’ll quarter back and forth in front of you, making game, but most people use ‘em to retrieve,” Davis said. “They’re used a lot like a Lab.”
The breed standard for Boykins calls for bitches between 14 and 16 1/2 inches at the shoulder and dogs 15 1/2 to 18 inches tall, so they’re not necessarily interchangeable with the bigger retrievers. “You don’t hunt Boykins in big, open sounds or in choppy surf,” Davis said. But Jake can obey hand signals enough to find a planted bird or plastic decoy as far away as 200 yards.
“He’ll mark that far away. You don’t ever see anything like that in hunting situations or field trials, but he can do it,” Davis said.
Lattimer agrees that there are certain “big-dog” tasks that a Boykin should not be asked to do, and most of the limitations have to do with the dog’s size.
“For ducks, this is the perfect dog for hunting over small ponds, jump-shooting or hunting in a small boat or canoe,” Lattimer said. “Now, you don’t want to use them in big, open waters, and you don’t want them out breaking ice.
Lattimer agrees with Kadlec that Boykins will retrieve an occasional goose, but asking the dog to do so with any regularity is not fair to the dog.
The dogs’ relatively small frame and high intelligence make them particularly good family dogs. Lattimer said that his kennel sent a Boykin to a bush pilot in Alaska some years ago. “He told me that his dog has probably gotten as many hours in that float plane as he does. He just takes him along, and he fits right up there in the seat with him,” Lattimer said. “And he told me that the Boykin is the smartest dog he has – the best bear dog. If they’re out in the woods in a hunting cabin, and there’s a brown (grizzly) bear anywhere in the vicinity, that dog knows it, and he won’t leave the cabin. He told me he’s got Labs and other dogs, and they’re raring to go get out there, but the little dog absolutely will not leave the cabin. He knows better.”
According to published histories of the breed, the first Boykin spaniel was “found” in the early 1900s wandering outside a Methodist church near Spartanburg, S.C. A parishioner took the little dog in, found that it had some aptitude for hunting and sent it to his hunting partner, L. Whitaker Boykin, to train at his home in the Boykin community just outside of Camden.
Boykins were developed by cross-breeding dogs such as Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Cocker, Springer and American Water spaniels. The dog was originally bred in the early 1900s as a hunting dog, so its early bloodlines were developed to produce those pointing, retrieving and flushing instincts.
Finding and flushing were the two main jobs that Boykins did when fall turkey season came along in South Carolina in the early part of the 20th century. Typically, wild turkeys live in flocks year ’round, except for the two or three months in which the spring mating season falls in the Southeast – anywhere from early March through mid-May.
Fall turkey hunting is still practiced in several Southeastern states, and where legal, a variety of hunting dogs are employed to extend a walking hunter’s range in the woods. The dog works well out in front of the hunter, quartering through the woods or fields, until he comes upon the scent of a group of turkeys.
Boykins will quarter close to quail hunters and flush these birds. He follows that scent the way a pointer or setter follows a covey of quail that’s worked its way into a broom straw field to feed. But instead of pointing when he finally finds them, the dog races into the middle of the flock, often barking, while flushing birds to all points on the compass.
At least one Alabama quail guide uses Boykins and pointers together. The Boykin sticks very close to the hunters – about 10 yards – while the pointers cast for birds. The pointers point quail they find, and when the hunters approach, the Boykin flushes and then retrieves the quail. The system allows the pointers to spend the maximum amount of time looking for birds, gives the hunters a good shot at the birds and, since the Boykin is far more interested in retrieving than the pointers, gets the birds to hand faster.
Lattimer said that his 17-year-old Boykin has been a joy for his family, especially his kids, and it has even proved to be an excellent fisherman, despite that causing a few tense moments.
“When we take him to the lake, when we’re sitting there fishing, we’ve got to put out a rod for him,” he said. “We just put out a rod with a float on it and no hook or bait, and he’ll just sit there, transfixed, and just stare at that float for hours. Now, if you hook a fish and get it up near the bank, you’ve got to get it in fast, because he wants to get in and retrieve that fish.”
eding with other forms of spaniels continued into the mid-1970s, when the Boykin Spaniel Society was formed. Breed standards were set, and in 1979, a “foundation stock” of 677 Boykins was registered. As of 2000, about 15,000 Boykins have been registered, and the breed has been recognized as a member of the United Kennel Club’s Gundog Group.
Like most breeds, Boykins do have a few health problems that seem to occur occasionally. Hip dysphasia is common, and owners or people looking into purchasing a Boykin puppy can have the dog evaluated by a veterinarian. Plus, the tendency can be pinpointed through breeding records.
Likewise, Boykins tend to have cataracts in their eyes, plus skin conditions. Again, a detailed look at the dog’s ancestry can call attention to potential problems of these types. Skin conditions can often be alleviated by changing the diet or by administering medications that can be obtained from veterinarians. Careful breeding can often eliminate the problems from potential bloodlines.
The Boykin Spaniel Society advises Boykin owners to get their puppies checked for hip dysphasia and skin problems at an early age so they can be certified as clean breeding dogs and so the likelihood of problems can be lessened.
For more information on the Boykin Spaniel, the Boykin Spaniel Society is an unbeatable source. Write P.O. Box 2047, Camden, SC, 29020; call (803) 425-1032; or access the group’s Web site at http://www.boykinspaniel.org/. The Web site has links to lists of dog owners and breeders, including Kadlec, as well as historical information about the breed and articles on training Boykins for various hunting tasks.
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