October 01, 2018
Springer spaniels can be great hunting dogs and a pleasure to wingshoot over — if you invest the time to prepare them for the field.
For the hunter who is primarily interested in pheasants, grouse, woodcock and quail, with a secondary interest in other small game and waterfowl, an English springer spaniel is ideal. They are easy to train; naturally close working; hunt with speed, aggressive power and determination; and are superb retrievers.
The first step in training a hunting springer is getting a good student. Serious hunters and field-trialers have been breeding and training quality field springers for generations, often in rural settings with wild birds.
Springers are normally black-and-white or liver-and-white color combinations and top out around 50 pounds. Hunting springers are distinctly different from show dogs, and although show spaniels can hunt, hunting spaniels are bred for the job and are generally much better at it.
We want our dog to energetically cover the area in front of us in a windshield wiper pattern, sniffing the air and ground, filtering out the extraneous scents to find and make birds fly. Then, when we shoot one, we expect the dog to retrieve and return it to us unharmed.
Plenty of books and videos deal with specific training techniques, but springers are easy to train to hunt close, respond to whistle and voice commands, and retrieve game gently to hand. How much more completely you train your spaniel depends on how much time you have and your expectations. I have hunted my spaniels during their first year of life with more than adequate success.
We begin training puppies on voice and whistle commands and retrieving as soon as they come home from the breeder. Aside from retrieving, only three other signals are required for control in the field: “sit,” “come in” and “come around.”
Spaniels are normally trained with a high-pitched whistle without a pea inside, which makes much less noise than a normal whistle. Tiny spaniel puppies will aggressively retrieve a balled-up sock and “come” to a whistle trill (three pips) and HUP (the traditional spaniel sit command) to a single whistle pip. Later, we develop that windshield wiper coursing with two pips on the whistle, which tells them to “come around.”
Once birds and guns are introduced into the equation, instincts take over from there. Use training collars very judiciously to solve training problems.
The erratic bounding strides of spaniels, their windshield wiper coursing in front of the hunter, and the speed with which they move through coverts often confuses birds into hunkering down. When a springer crosses a live-bird scent, their tail announces their find as they throw themselves back and forth across the scent to find the bird and make it fly.
Spaniels don’t lock up and point at the source of a strong scent; rather, they attack it. If their frenzy is contained in a small area, the bird is probably hunkering down. In a few seconds, it will fly.
If, on the other hand, the action is back and forth but progressing away from the origin, then the bird is moving. The dog will catch up with it somewhere up ahead. It’s your job to keep in position for the flush. All gun dogs miss birds, but spaniels generally cover ground more thoroughly than pointers, albeit less of it.