Posts Tagged ‘gundog history’


This brace of red spaniels comes from Pisanello’s Vision of St. Eustace.  This painting comes from the early Renaissance and the Quattrocento.  As you can see, the spaniels are not large dogs at all, but small spaniels have always had a function. They can charge through the undergrowth far better than larger dogs. These spaniels were certainly appealing dogs, and it did not take long for them to become pampered house pets in various parts of Europe.

However, in the Northern Renaissance, one can find a depiction of a larger spaniel type. The Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving is Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), which features a large spaniel. The spaniel represents faith and loyalty as the Christian knight rides into a land of tribulations. (When I first saw this engraving in college, I stared it for a long time. It made me feel Medieval.)


It is from these old spaniels that land and water spaniels eventually evolved, as did the setters and the toy spaniels. Some HPR’s have ancestry with these dogs, too. The retrievers, carrying the blood of the water spaniels and setters, also descended from these dogs.

There is some speculation about where spaniels come from. The most common theory is the one articulated by Virginia Woolf in Flush: A Biography:

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity. Therefore it is not strange that the origin of the name itself is lost in obscurity. Many million years ago the country which is now called Spain seethed uneasily in the ferment of creation. Ages passed; vegetation appeared; where there is vegetation the law of Nature has decreed that there shall be rabbits; where there are rabbits, Providence has ordained there shall be dogs. There is nothing in this that calls for question, or comment. But when we ask why the dog that caught the rabbit was called a Spaniel, then doubts and difficulties begin. Some historians say that when the Carthaginians landed in Spain the common soldiers shouted with one accord “Span! Span!”—for rabbits darted from every scrub, from every bush. The land was alive with rabbits. And Span in the Carthaginian tongue signifies Rabbit. Thus the land was called Hispania, or Rabbit-land, and the dogs, which were almost instantly perceived in full pursuit of the rabbits, were called Spaniels or rabbit dogs.

I actually am not so bold as to say that spaniels came from Spain. I think they were originally used for rabbit hunting, and because European rabbits populated that continent from Spain, the dogs got associated witha that word “Span.”  I really don’t think the evidence that says they came from Spain is all that good. However, I do believe that the pointer breeds got their start in the Iberian Peninsula.

Where do spaniels came from?

The Celts of France and Belgium had lots of different dogs. They had herding dogs and the first modern scenthounds. In fact, all scenthounds derive from Celtic dogs that were bred to follow trailes in those European forests of yore. They also were known for having red and white dogs that had feathering that were used for hunting birds and rabbits.

These dogs eventually became the oysel dogs that were used in the Middle Ages for flushing birds and rabbits for the falconer’s birds to swoop down upon.

Spaniels are the ancestors of most dogs we called gundogs, sporting dogs, or “bird dogs.”  We have very good representations of dogs of this type from the early Middle Ages onward. The dogs themselves may have dated back to the time of Julius Caesar, but it is difficult to say whether these dogs were spaniels as we would understand them or even ancestors of modern gundogs.

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