Photo by John Gribb
Field-bred English springer spaniels are the most versatile sporting dog commonly found in America. Sure the Germanic “versatile” breeds, with their avid protagonists, do a few things in the field exceptionally well and the lovable Labradors are a joy to be around. At the other extreme, very few pointer owners even want versatility from their upland bird specialists. To each his own…
Pointers, setters and the Germanic “versatile” breeds all handle the job of finding upland birds well, but it is rare that one is permitted or able to locate and retrieve a hare, cottontail, squirrel or duck. Many don’t make retrieves, let alone water retrieves, worth a hoot.
Labrador retrievers, along with goldens and Chesapeakes are wonderful around water and waterfowl and they can easily be taught to handle upland birds, but frankly, they are rather methodical in the fields. I spell that “boring.”
For the busy, one-dog-owning all-around outdoorsman, the hunter who enjoys the full scope of small-game action in the field, the best choice is a field springer spaniel.
Springers handle upland game with the panache of a pointer while almost always working within gun range for the inevitable flushed birds. They equal most any retriever in the fetching of downed or crippled game, can track and flush bunnies and handle water retrieves in all but the harshest conditions.
My springers have hunted rabbits, squirrels, ducks, geese, pheasants, grouse and woodcock in the Northern states and I recently determined that they make wonderful quail dogs, especially in thick cover where pressured quail hide, even though flushing is a non-traditional but equally effective approach to the Southerners’ favorite bird.
Hunting seasons are too short, and if a sportsman can afford the time or money to keep only one dog, it ought to be a springer. Together, they can get into the field from October through March and chase something.
WHY A SPRINGER?
What makes springers the best and most versatile dogs?
Bird dogs fall into three general categories: pointing dogs, flushing dogs and retrievers with their names describing the strongest attributes of each category. What makes one dog perfect for one person and wrong for another has much to do with the owner’s personality and expectations. Some hunters revel in seeing big-running bird dogs that lock up mid- stride and hold steadily pointed at a bird while the hunter ambles into position. Others focus on waterfowling, so their primary objective is a non-slip retriever that is strong, dependable and weatherproof.
All dogs add immeasurably to the hunting experience, but only one breed can do it all exceptionally well.
Where the primary interest is upland birds, including pheasants, grouse, woodcock and quail, and the secondary interest is in small game and waterfowl, a springer spaniel is the ideal dog.
The springer is a breed almost custom-made to work in thick woods because they are naturally close- working dogs, normally ranging no more than 40 yards from the gun in open cover and much closer in the thick stuff.
Springers get the job done with style, speed, aggression, power and determination. They work thick edge cover, open fields, standing crops and they also bust brush.
Springers rarely venture out of range, they look back to the hunter constantly and they communicate. Two-way communications is important while hunting, and a springer will often tell you what kind of bird they are working and what the bird is doing, if you “listen” to the signs.
Springers are flushing dogs and are bred to try to catch their prey, so there is more language to read than with a pointer where a point is unmistakable in its meaning.
Let’s look at how springers handle each of the primary upland birds, the signals they send and how the hunter supports the effort.
Pheasants are the largest upland game bird (other than turkeys) and probably the most exciting challenge for upland dogs. Most experts agree that for the lone hunter on foot the best dog for pheasants is the springer. With erratic bouncing strides, springers search like a windshield wiper, coursing left and right at top speed, which helps confuse sitting birds.
Experienced hunters know that pheasants would rather run and hide than fly, but they normally don’t run out the other end of a field the moment you enter. They just stay far enough ahead of a hunting party as necessary to feel comfortable.
When a springer crosses fresh bird scent, what I like to call warm body scent, the signs are simple to read. The dog’s tail goes crazy in an uncontrolled frenzy to find the bird and make it fly. The action is best described as wanton disregard for body and limbs as the dog throws itself back and forth across the moving scent path.
Springers don’t lock up, focused on the source of a strong scent, but rather suck in the live aromas from the air and attack the source. If the frenzy is contained in a small area with the dog lunging in tight circles, the bird is probably hunkering down nearby. Hunters need only wait a few seconds for the flush. If, on the other hand, the action is back and forth but progressing in a direction away from the origin, then the bird has found an escape route. The dog will catch it somewhere up ahead, so it’s time to get moving and stay ready.
Springers also use ground scent as well as airborne scent when searching for game. All gundogs miss birds, but springers generally cover the ground more thoroughly than pointers — just less of it.
Ruffed grouse or partridge live in thick cover and even thicker cover. In normally dense habitat, such as alders, poplars or more mature hardwoods, the whole flushing scene unfolds very quickly. Partridges do not hang around for long on the ground when a dog is breathing on their tail. They either fly immediately or jump into a tree and hide. The advantage with a springer is that the story unfolds at closer range than with a big-running dog and at least we get a snap shot.
All dogs have trouble with grouse. Good pointers can handle inexperienced early-season birds that will hold tight, but later in the season it gets more difficult. Even when birds are pinned, grouse will often hold tight until just as you’re crossing a log o
r get tangled in some vines, and then they flush with a startling roar from underfoot. Springers make them fly now!
In the thickest stuff, the kind of cover preferred at times by ruffed grouse and woodcock, a springer spaniel really shows its advantages. Given the choice between flushing a woodcock from a tangled alder patch on my own or with a dog, I’ll pick the dog. Because woodcock and grouse in thick cover hold well in their secure hiding places, there is plenty of warning when a springer crosses fresh scent. Springers will do the brush busting regardless of how thick the brambles, and you will see the birds fly instead of just hearing them or wondering where they went.
Quail are a pointing dog owner’s dream, at least when they are in good quail cover. They hold beautifully while hunters amble into position and flush in a tight covey for exciting going-away shots.
Pressured quail often seek refuge in the thickest blowdowns and tangles. Springers will not give a hunter one of those classic “point-and-shoot” scenes depicted in sporting art, but they get the job done and are equally proficient following up singles or dealing with pressured birds. They also handle cripples and retrieves better than most pointers.
Though not a primary quarry of springers, snowshoe hares, cottontails or waterfowl can extend the hunting seasons and add to the fun. A springer will never match the tracking ability of a beagle on a bunny or the powerful swimming of a big Lab on a 50- yard retrieve through icy waters, but they turn in respectable performances no matter what the game.
HOW TO BUY A SPRINGER
Springer spaniels are attractive dogs that always appear in various black and white or liver (brown) and white color patterns. Typical males weigh about 50 pounds and females are nearer to 40 pounds.
Springers are considered to be members of the sporting group, according to the American Kennel Club, but in truth there are two distinct types of springers: show springers and field springers. As is the case with several other popular sporting breeds, show dogs have been bred to emphasize standard cosmetic characteristics with little regard for developing natural hunting traits.
THE GAME FARM DOG
Serious hunters have been breeding and training quality dogs for generations, often in rural settings and with wild birds. But with dwindling hunting opportunities and greater demands on time, some dog people began forming “game farm” organizations so they could work their dogs year ’round and preserve the hunting instincts in their sporting dogs.
Members of these groups organize field trials during which they test fully trained dogs for superior performance in live hunting situations. The idea is to identify the most outstanding achievers. These outstanding dogs with their inherited talent and trainability are the ones selectively bred to maintain and advance the hunting characteristics.
Field-bred or hunting spaniels are still beautiful animals, but they look different than show dogs. The most obvious differences are shorter, less flowing hair and longer tails. Show spaniels can hunt and sometimes hunt well, but field trial or hunting springers are made for the job. Hunters should always buy field-bred springers.
Reputable field trial dog breeder referrals are available from the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association at www.essfta.org.
Hunting with a springer is like dancing, but in this case the dog leads. When working upland coverts, the hunter sets the general direction of the hunt and the springer will comply, but when game scent is located, the dog takes control. The process becomes a choreographed dance with the dog crisscrossing fresh scent, searching for the bird with increasing speed and enthusiasm until the bird is cornered. Meanwhile, the hunter jockeys for position.
Having no other way to escape the opened mouth of the pouncing dog, the bird flushes to escape as the spaniel “springs” into the air, teeth only inches behind its tail. The hunter, being adequately warned of the bird’s presence, stays within range and in position for the shot.
The goal is for our dog to energetically cover the area in front of us, sniffing the air or ground, filtering out the extraneous scents and find birds that try to hide or fly away.
When a shooter just edges a bird with a pattern of pellets, the dog is expected to track and retrieve the running cripple, even when the dog did not see the fall (blind retrieve), and then return the bird to hand unharmed.
Is that asking a lot of an animal whose natural instinct is to seek, capture and eat? It is, but hunters all over the country train sporting dogs of all breeds to those standards and more every day.
How a springer will be trained depends on how much time the owner has and what his expectations are. It is not hard to train springers to hunt close, respond to the whistle and voice commands, or retrieve game gently to hand. In fact, most owners hunt springers during their first year of life with more than adequate success.
The process of training puppies on whistle commands and retrieving begins as soon as they come home from the breeder. Plenty of training books go into how-to details, but training springer puppies can start with an aggressively retrieved balled-up sock.
Teach the dog to “Hup (sit)” to a whistle pip and “Come” to a whistle trill.
Incidentally, springers are normally trained with a high-pitched whistle without a pea inside, which makes much less noise than a normal whistle. By 4 months of age, we would have worked on the dog’s innate “windshield wiper” searching pattern and will have introduced blank pistols.
Once birds are introduced into the equation, instincts should take over from there. Springers love to chase birds and love to please their owners. Springers are simple to train but difficult to completely tame. Because of their enthusiasm, it is a challenge training them to be steady to wing and shot, and darn near impossible to stop them from the hot pursuit of a running rooster pheasant or a flushed covey of quail, though the professionals can do both.
For springers and other breeds that are naturally close working and constantly relate to their master, electronic training collars are generally unnecessary in field training and may even thwart natural hunting instincts. Very few springer professionals use them as a primary training tool.
Such collars do have their place, especially if you are on the far side of 50, but only after the dog knows what a command means and appears to be running wild or disobeying intentionally.
A situation like this occurred with my Skipper well after he became a dependable bird-finder and retriever. He liked to take a victory lap with thrown dummies during yard training and he would play “kee
p away” occasionally with retrieved birds in the field. My chasing after him had also become a game to him. One session with a training collar fixed that problem.
AROUND THE HOUSE
Springer spaniels also make great pets. Springers are strong, durable dogs — plenty of people kennel their springers outdoors during days and even nights with proper shelter. The spaniel personality blossoms with attention, however, and belonging to a family just brightens the dog’s temperament. Set the necessary rules and boundaries and welcome your new hunting partner into the family.
BECOME A TEAM
After a year or so of training, there are still lots of things a handler can teach a springer, like unmarked retrieves and hand signals, but there is little more that anyone can teach them about hunting and finding birds. They have the nose, they recognize game birds and they know how to find them. This is where most of us make mistakes, and for me it happened more than once because I’m a slow learner.
A wing-tipped grouse that Missy flushed fell along a hedgerow. Because the dog did not see the fall, I directed her quickly to that area and told her to fetch. She could not find the bird and soon set out running across the field. Because I was the boss and thought I “knew” where the bird was, I called her back repeatedly to the hedgerow until the scent trail was lost. We never found that bird, but it wasn’t the dog’s fault. Lead your springer afield, but also learn to follow.
Hunt quickly, hunt hard and have fun — that’s what a springer is all about. The joy they emote while bounding through the woods is contagious. It’s what upland hunting is all about!