Posts Tagged ‘spaniel 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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The Sussex spaniels is one of the older breeds of spaniel. The modern dog has short-legs and a long back, although it did not always have those characteristics. In fact, look at this depiction of the breed by George Stubbs:

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The dog at the horse’s feet is listed as “Springer spaniel,” which did come in wider array of colors than the modern breed.

However, the Sussex dog to the right looks like a much larger spaniel than what we call a Sussex spaniel today. It is rapidly become a Museum piece dog, along with the Clumber spaniel, the other heavily set spaniel.

Today’s dog looks like Tootsie Roll, and it is almost extinct. No one wants a short-legged spaniel, even if it can charge through the cover a little better.

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These are working cockers. By the standardized view of spaniels, these are technically English cockers. These are the working form of cocker spaniel, and there are no specific lines of American cocker that can be used as high level hunting dogs. (Although there are few brave breeders and handlers who try).

Most North Americans know about working type English springer spaniels, which have similar conformation to these dogs. I associate the English springer as a gun dog of the pheasant country in the Midwest (where I also place the golden retriever) or in some stuffy British baron’s hunting preserve.   Both working spaniels are high energy dogs, and like all species bred for behavioral traits (such as bird sense and biddability), the appearance tends to vary.  Both working English springers and cockers have less feathering than the show forms of English springer and English cocker, which is useful if you’re running a dog throug the brambles and bracken.

These two breeds have a close ancestry. Through most of their history, the big ones were called springers and the little ones were called cockers. The in-between sizes were later categorized as field spaniels. All three exist today, but the field spaniel is rarely used as a gun dog (because it’s a very rare dog anyway). The cocker and springer have similar show forms. Both have the rage syndome in their show lines, which causes otherwise friendly dogs to attack without warning. The springer has fewer colors than the cocker, although there were red English springers well into the twentieth century. (Welsh springers are red and white, of course.)

Does anyone know whether Clumbers and Sussex spaniels are still used for flushing birds? The Sussex was portrayed as the sporting spaniel in George Stubbs’s paintings of pastoral scenes and country sports. It later became a short-legged, long backed dog that was crossed with the field spaniel. When field spaniels developed the same traits, both breeds fell out of favor. Clumbers don’t look like any breed of gun dog, and from what I’ve seen they don’t really act like them either. They were a pets owned by a few nobles, who really didn’t want a fast flushing dog. The were kept at the royal family’s Sandringham estate, but I heard they were shot, when Edward VIII, who was a patron of the dogs at the estate, abdicated the throne.

Because we’re talking about flushing dogs, my grandfather had several interesting dogs for this purpose. He used Norwegian elkhounds to flush ruffed grouse, which sounds strange, but these dogs do have some interest in birds.  He also trained his chihauhua to flush grouse, too. The grouse would think the chihuahua was a fox and would fly from the ground and perch in a tree where they could be easily shot. The chihuahua appeared to be a weird form of red fox, which the grouse fear above all else. However, when a fox comes, the grouse perch in trees, rather than taking to the air, as they do when confronted with a dog. I know it’s not good sportsmanship to shoot perched birds, but using a chihuahua as a flushing dog is one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard of. It’s right up there with the pack of 15 jack russells that are used on black bears.

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