Posts Tagged ‘Sussex spaniel’

Photo from Robert Milner's Retriever Training Site. The golden is a Holway.

Photo from Robert Milner’s Retriever Training Site. The golden is a Holway.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has come and gone, and like most years, I thought we’d have no meaningful discussion about how dogs might be encouraging people to breed and select for unhealthy attributes in dogs.

However, this year, there is a bit of a viral story going out about how preferred phenotype in the show ring might be deterimental to a dog. But unfortunately, it’s very low hanging fruit.

The story started with this pretty good post from My Slim Doggy  about how fat the Westminster Labradors actually are. And I should note that yes, these dogs are fat, and the behavior of the dog show apologist set on that page is abominable. 

That’s a story in itself, but it’s not the absolute worst case I can think of.

The thing about Labradors is that they are the most popular breed in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, and they are probably the most common “breed dog” in the world today. They are also arguably among the most useful dogs, for they not only are used for retrieving game, they are now the most common guide dog breed. They also great sniffer dogs, and they use to assist people in wheelchairs. There are many, many things this breed can do, and because the typical member of this breed is also among the most docile of dogs, they are very, very popular as family pets.

As a result, they exist in many, many different lines and what might be called “sub-breeds.” There so many different types of Labrador that it would take me too long to describe them all to you, and then I’d probably miss a bunch.

Labradors that are bred for the show ring are an extreme minority of the breed. And as a result, what happens in the ring really does not affect the survival of the breed as a whole.

And not only that, even if a Labrador has a tendency toward portliness, this problem can be easily remedied through a regime of diet and exercise.

So if the biggest problem that Labradors have from being shown is that the show specimens are a often quite fat, this is not such a big deal.

And the simple reality is that the Labrador breed is not a prisoner to the show culture. You can easily get a Labrador that is not a “labrabeef.” And it’s not that hard.

The real scandal is the countless breeds that are.

Within that Sporting group, there is actually very good example of a dog that has essentially been doomed to extinction through selection for a very exaggerated phenotype.

Unlike the Lab, it’s not a very common dog at all. In fact, unless you’re a dog nerd like me, you may have never heard of it.

The breed I’m talking about is the Sussex spaniel.

The Sussex spaniel is doomed. It cannot be saved. You can write it on a rock. It’s done.

The Sussex spaniel is the last survivor of a stupid fad that swept the early British dog fancy– the desire to breed extreme dwarfism in spaniels.

Sussex spaniel

The Sussex spaniel has an illustrious history as a land spaniel in the South of England, but then dog shows got their mitts on them and things haven’t been the same since.

The two most common fancy spaniels in the early British fancy were field spaniels (which were usually black or black roan) and the Sussex, which was liver. Both of these dogs are ancestral to the two breeds of cocker spaniel that exist today, both of which descend from a Sussex/field cross named Obo. Before that, all small sporting land spaniels were call “cockers” as a generic term.

The fad was to breed them as short-legged as possible, and in some situations while doing beating on relatively flat ground and in heavy cover, a dwarf spaniel would have have been of some use.

But the twentieth century has largely supplanted both the field and Sussex as gun dogs. English working cockers and springers are the sporting spaniels of the UK, and in the US, main sporting spaniel is the working English springer. Welsh springers are still worked, and they have a lot going for them, too. And if the right celebrity were to own one, they could suddenly experience a popularity rise that they might not be able to handle.

And there are even working strains Clumber spaniel, which have bred out most of the exaggerated mass and loose eyelids that you see in the ring.

Field spaniels have been saved through the addition of English springer blood, and they are no longer dwarfs.

But the Sussex remains.

Col. David Hancock writes about the fate of the Sussex:

The history of the breed standard of the Sussex Spaniel tells you a great deal about show gundog fanciers. The standard in use in 1879 didn’t include words like massive, brows and haw or mention a rolling gait. In 1890, in came ‘fairly heavy brows’, a ‘rather massive’ appearance and ‘not showing the haw overmuch’. In the 1920s, in came ‘brows frowning’, a ‘massive’ appearance and ‘no sign of waistiness’ in the body. These words were approved by the KC, the ratifiers of all breed standards. In 1890 the breed’s neck had to be ‘rather short’; from the 1920s it had to have a long neck – in the same breed! The need for this breed to walk with a rolling gait is, relative to the long history of this admirable little gundog breed, relatively recent. Here is a breed of sporting spaniel, developed by real gundog men,subsequently, with the connivance of the KC, altered to suit show dog people, most of whom never work their dogs. It is a sorry tale, with echoes in other breeds.

The so-called ‘Chocolate Drop’ spaniels of Richard Mace have their admirers in the field. Originating in a cross between a working Cocker and a Sussex Spaniel, they are seriously effective working spaniels, strong, biddable and determined. In the last ten years, pedigree Sussex Spaniels have only been registered in these numbers: 89, 98, 70, 82, 68, 79, 77, 74, 61 and most recently 56. What would you want? A dying breed prized for its unique rolling gait, characteristic frown and waistline-free torso? Or a proven worker benefiting from a blend of blood? Gundog breeds which lose their working role soon lose their working ability and then the patronage of the shooting fraternity. I see much to admire in the Sussex Spaniel and long for a wider employment for them in the field.

I would love it if those “Chocolate Drop” spaniels became part of the Sussex breed and reinvigorated it.

But that is not going to happen.

Having written about Sussex spaniels before, I have rarely met with more obtuse dog fanciers than those associated with Sussex spaniels.

Too many of them are part of the blood purity cult, and the breed is also caught up in the double speak of “dual purpose” breeding that I so often encounter in gun dogs.

You will often hear people who have a rare gun dog breed brag about how their breed hasn’t split in type like golden and Labrador retrievers have.

The reason why golden and Labrador retriever have split so much is that they are actually used quite a bit, and the dog shows require parts of the phenotype that are largely antithetical to efficient movement on the land or water. The excessive coat in show goldens makes them easily bogged in the water, and the lack of soundness in many show Labs makes them easily worn out while doing retrieves.

These minority breeds, though, exist within a culture that is obsessed with the Delusion of Preservation.

Part of that delusion isn’t that you must keep the breed pure at all costs.  Within rare kennel club-recognized breeds, there is also a delusion that you have to show in order to breed. The standard make the breed unique, and if you really want to preserve it, you have to test it against the standard.

The problem with standards is they are like scripture:

They are written by fallible people and by devious people, and they are then interpreted by fallible and devious people.

So these very rare breeds become trapped in the show culture.

And though people are using the dogs at tests and working events, they aren’t selecting for those traits alone.

But working springers and cockers are.

And there is absolutely no way that Sussex spaniels can survive this situation.

No redneck hunter is going to go out and buy a Sussex when he can get a springer from working lines for third to half the cos and no waiting list.

But Sussex spaniel people are still trapped in the hope that it might change.

But it can’t.

This is now a show dog that is trying to be preserved within the show system itself.   Fewer and fewer people want this dog, and fewer people know that it even exists.

And whatever the merits the breed might have, it’s just not going to make it.

And then you have its very real problems as a breed:

Not only is it the gun dog with the rolling gait, it is also the only gun dog I know of that has problems with its discs (a common dachshund malady) and a very high incidence of hip dysplasia– 41. 5 % are affected according to the OFA.

Would a serious gun dog person go out of his or her way to get a dog with those sort of structural problems?

They would take their chances trying to slim down a fat Lab!

Obesity in show Labradors is discussion worth having, but it’s not the biggest problem with dog shows.

Labradors are not trapped. They are thriving as no other breed ever has.

But the dog fancy really is destroying breeds

It’s just that it’s not destroying those breeds that have a life outside of the fancy.

With this going on with breeds like the Sussex spaniel, it makes all the attention we’re giving to obese Labradors seem a bit trivial.

Dog shows really aren’t that important to the breed population of Labrador retrievers, but they are the main constraint facing the Sussex spaniel.

And this is where the Sussex will go extinct.

I don’t know when, but it is almost certainly going to happen.

It’s trapped, and no one is saying anything.











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This image comes comes from a painting by Abraham Cooper in the early to middle part of the nineteenth century.  I would estimate that this painting was done in the 1830’s.  Sir Edwin Landseer, the man kneeling before the spaniel on the right, looks to be in his early 30’s.

The only copy of this image I can find is in James Watson’s  The Dog Book (1906).

The spaniel that is facing Landseer– and the likely retriever of the woodcock he is holding– is a Sussex spaniel

And it is very much unlike a Sussex spaniel of the modern era.  It is also post Rosehill-breeding, which suggests that even after Mr. Fuller established his strain, these dogs were often longer leg than they became as show dogs.


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(Source for image)

This Sussex isn’t as exaggerated in build as many of its breed.

I like the untrimmed topknot.

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Sussex spaniels are in deep trouble, but if you read propaganda from their breed clubs, they are long-lived and healthy. Sussex spaniel breeders would rather live in denial than take the steps to solve the breed's problems.

Breed clubs are notorious for inflating the average age of their breeds– especially if the breed is rare.

Most people know about the health problems in golden retrievers and boxers, so it’s really not useful to deny that these dogs have problems. In fact, it’s much more to the club’s benefit it takes health issues seriously.

Well, with rare breeds, one can sort of fudge it. Many people have bought into the notion that if a breed is less common, then it will have fewer health problems. That’s because that a breed club has more power when the dog is lower in popularity. More popular breeds have more people breeding them, and the power structure within those breeds is greatly decentralized. With rarer breeds, the club has much more power over what gets done. As a result, its very commonly stated that popularity is a curse for dog breeds, which results in all sorts of health problems. And there is some truth in it, but the corollary that comes from it is ultimately false– that rarer breeds are going to be more healthy because the breed club has more power over them.

It’s very easy to deny health problems with  certain dog breeds. Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever fanciers continue to deny that their breed is the shortest-lived of all retrievers, and that it has real issues with autoimmune disorders, which are likely the result of low genetic diversity within the breed. You can do that with tollers, but you cannot deny that golden retrievers have a very high incidence of cancer. People already know that golden retrievers have cancer issues.  You can’t deny it.

But you can if they are pretty rare. Most people who own pets from these rare breeds don’t talk to each other, and if one of their dogs dies, the problems really aren’t discussed widely.

So the breed clubs can get away with what are obvious lies.

Here’s a good example of a breed club lying about the longevity of a breed:

The Sussex Spaniel Association (of the UK) makes this claim on its website:

Generally the Sussex Spaniel is long lived to 14-16 years. The Health Survey of the Breed has been completed, and results are available to members from the secretary.

There is a breed health survey that the KC did on its own. The Survey had 42 deaths reported, which is a good enough sample from a breed that is both quite rare and quite inbred.

The results show that “generally” (which is such a weasel word), the breed’s median age at death was 11 years and 2 months, which is just slightly younger than the all-KC breed median of 11 years and 3 months. The most common cause of death was cancer.  And the dogs tended be diagnosed with inherited diseases at very young ages.

How is 11 years and two months 14-16 years?

It’s not.

The truth is this breed has been in trouble since before there was ever an institutionalized fancy or a closed registry system.

The breed we call the Sussex spaniel today is derived from a strain of liver spaniels that was found by Augustus Fuller in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries., who owned the estate called Rosehill Park in Sussex.  He’s usually referred to as just “Mr. Fuller.” The Fuller family made its fortune with Jamaican sugar plantations– meaning they were direct beneficiaries of the slave trade.

The Rosehill spaniels were heavily inbred, for at the time, it was accepted that inbreeding was the best way to establish a strain.  In the eighteenth century, English agriculturalists had managed to greatly increase the productivity of livestock through intense inbreeding. The notion of breeding “in and in” for “improvement” was at the heart of English animal breeding practices at the time, for these ideas had first been promulgated by an agriculturalist named Robert Bakewell, who saw improvements in the English longhorn, the Leicester longwool sheep, and the shire horse through such extreme inbreeding.

Works for sheep, cows, and horses. Must work for dogs.

Well, it didn’t.

A supposed rabies outbreak hit the Rosehill spaniels in the 1840’s.  There is some debate about whether this disorder actually was rabies or whether it affected the spaniels or the hounds. But at some point after the 1840’s, the original Rosehill strain disappeared. There were a few dogs at other estates, and it is from these dogs that the Sussex spaniel breed was developed. The two major strains that make up the Sussex spaniel were the Wolland strain, which was heavily inbred, and the other was the Newington strain, which had some liver English water spaniel crossed in.

Whatever destroyed them, it is possible that intense inbreeding may have made the Rosehill spaniels more susceptible to disease, for we know that inbreeding reduces MHC haplotype diversity and reduces the effectiveness of the immune system over the generations.  The remnants of the Rosehill strain were outcrossed to liver English water spaniels and to the old short-legged field spaniel.

However, the Sussex spaniel that came up in the new institutionalized fancy was kept mostly through inbreeding. Virtually every text I find on Sussex spaniels talks about how inbred they are– and several of these are nineteenth and early twentieth century texts.

This breed had periods of popularity in Britain as a sporting spaniel, but it almost always collapsed.

The dogs were often described as “delicate,” which is not at all what one would want in a gun dog.

Now, the breed may be capable of doing gun dog work, but that’s not the issue.

The issue is whether it is fit for it.

And if you actually look at the Sussex spaniel objectively, its structure actually drives much of its lowered popularity.

Sussex spaniels have a lot of health problems, not all of them the result of intense inbreeding.

Inbreeding has likely increased the incidence of severe heart problems in the breed, but inbreeding likely didn’t increase the likelihood of the dogs getting hip or elbow dysplasia (over 40 percent have hip dysplasia and at least 20 percent have elbow dysplasia) or suffering periods of paralysis from Intervertebral Disc Disease.

These are all derived from the dog’s structure, which is based upon a heavily-built dog with dwarfism. Dwarf dogs have relatively short legs and longer backs, and this puts stress on the spine. If a disc ruptures or bulges from these stresses, pressure is put on the spinal cord, and the dog is paralyzed. It’s usually temporary, but it can be permanent.

This means that Sussex spaniels have a very high likelihood of being put out of commission for weeks at a time– and a lot of these dogs are going to have both hip and elbow dysplasia.

These structural problems mean that very few people want them as gun dogs– and it’s been that way for a long time.

But that means that the population will stay very low, and very few people will be engaged in trying to breed these dogs, which means fewer and fewer dogs and more and more inbreeding.

Now, as if that weren’t bad enough. The breed very nearly died off during the Second World War, when British dog fanciers were not breeding dogs.

A woman named Joy Freer managed to re-establish the breed’s number from the five dogs that survived World War II, and she very proudly inbred from them.

So this breed has essentially been screwed since the middle to late nineteenth century.

It’s literally holding on by only a thread.

It has spent the decades since World War II circling the drain.  Its popularity continues to decline, and there is no evidence that this trend is changing.

But its breeders continue to make up facts about how long the breed lives.

If they actually were into saving the Sussex spaniel, they would change some of its conformation– and they would allow outcrossing with other spaniels.

Both of these are heresies in Sussex spaniels.

No one wants to admit that the conformation of the dog is destroying it from a functional perspective, and because it is largely structurally unsound, very few people actually want it.

Which just makes its problems that much worse.

I will get some negative comments on this post. I guarantee that most of them will come in the form of people with anecdotes about how good their Sussex spaniels are at hunting or how long one or two of their dogs lived.

Those are nice stories.

But those stories are not scientific data. If you can’t understand this, please do not comment on this blog post, for you simply don’t get what I’m talking about.

Anecdotal evidence is nice, but nothing can be generalized from it.

So until someone shows me a study with at least 40 dogs in it that shows Sussex spaniels live to be 14 to 16 years old on average, I am going to call the Sussex Spaniel Association’s claim a lie.

It is a lie.

It may be a delusion, but delusions are the lies which the liar refuses to admit are untrue.

Which makes them much more dangerous.

The Sussex spaniel is a very good example of a breed that has been ruined the dual forces of extreme conformation and extremely low genetic diversity.

The dog may have had a future had it been bred for greater structural soundness and with some concern for its genetic diversity.

But unless someone begins an outcross program in the breed, it is doomed.

The extinction will be slow, but it will come.

It’s been a long time coming.


“It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

–George Costanza

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Yes. Don’t adjust your glasses. That caption says “Boosey:  A Sussex Spaniel.”

This image comes from Country Life Illustrated (1 May 1897).  The article in which it appears is on Borzoi coat color.

The actual text on this dog also appears in Country Life Illustrated (17 April 1897):

In the Sandringham Kennels last month died another aged favourite, a Sussex spaniel, by the name of Boosey, whose colouring (lavender-grey) resembled that of the Korthal Griffon [Wire-haired pointing griffon], and its jet black ears gave a very pleasing contrast to the faithful, intelligent face. Boosey had led quite a sporting life, for she invariably accompanied her royal master in the field, and proved a rattling good worker. Boosey was a great favourite of both the Prince and the Princess of Wales, and had reached the respectable age of fiftean years.

Okay. Um.

I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but the royal family had a crossbreed among their shooting dogs (!)

I don’t doubt that Boosey was probably born to a Sussex spaniel bitch, and the majority of her litter mates probably were probably very typical golden-liver Sussex. 

This is what happens when a litter has two fathers. The supposed father of Boosey’s litter was likely a fine Sussex spaniel, but some sort of terrier or lurcher got in with the mother while she was still in heat.

I don’t doubt that Boosey was an excellent gun dog. She was likely trained to be a Sussex spaniel, and because she was raised among “her mother’s people,” she took the task quite well.

Because this dog was a royal possession, I don’t think anyone would have admitted that she likely wasn’t a purebred.

But I don’t know how anyone could think that his dog was purebred. It may be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where no one wants to say the obvious about something that might be embarrassing to an important person– even if it’s so obvious that a child could see it.

But it appears that one of the Sussex spaniel ladies at Sandringham was a tramp.


Sandringham is the  large shooting estate in Norfolk that Queen Victoria purchased 1862.

It was the home of Edward VII and Alexandra, and the Prince of Wales mentioned as Boosey’s owner is George V. He was born on the estate and grew up shooting there.

George V loved gun dogs and shooting and spent most of his leisure time at Sandringham, which was better known for its Clumber spaniels than its Sussex.



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There has to be some sort of genetic basis for the golden liver color. The dogs definitely have the recessive brown skinned genotype b/b, but I think there is another factor that makes the golden liver color. I don’t think it can be blamed upon environmental factors, and all Sussex spaniels, at least that are being bred now, are this color.

Rawdon Lee thought that the existence of “sandy” (golden) colored puppies in the early litters had something to do with it and that all Sussex were all carrying the e/e genotype. However, I have never heard of a sandy colored Sussex being born today. If they were carrying this genotype, at least 1/4 of all Sussex spaniels would be gold in color, and 1/4 would be dark livers. This is clearly not the case.

I think there is another gene that modifies the liver. It may exist in other breeds, but it is just passed off as a shade of liver or chocolate or bronze or red. (This color has many names). Because Sussex are the only breed in which this is the only color allowed and because it fits under a shade of liver, I don’t think it has been studied all that closely.

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Possessed Sussex spaniel

(Source for image)

Another reason why they aren’t so popular:   They are possessed.

“Are you the keymaster?”


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Modern Sussex spaniel

The dog is a museum piece, though it might be a good family dog.

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Some actual Rosehill Sussex

These dogs both appear in works by Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh). They lived in the middle of the nineteenth century:

The dog above is George.  George was of Rosehill breeding, and although a short-legged dog, he is not extremely so. Many spaniels of the time had relatively short legs, but it was never as extreme as the old show-type field spaniel or the extreme type that eventually became the modern Sussex spaniel.

Here’s another depiction of George in a Stonehenge work.  He is accompanied by another dog named Romp.  George is the background; Romp is in the foreground.  Neither is as exaggerated as a modern Sussex.

These dogs have short legs, but they are not extreme.  The difference between these dogs and the modern Sussex is the difference between any working breed of basset in France and the show basset hound that was developed in England.

Have a look at this fawn basset of Brittany. It has relatively longer legs than the show basset we know in the English speaking world and is still widely used for hunting in France and in other
European countries.

Most rabbit hunters in the US don’t use bassets, and if they do, they use the French breeds, crosses between the English breed and the French breeds, basset/beagle crosses, or very rare field line bassets, which often have a few harrier ancestors. They don’t normally use the show dogs. They are just that inefficiently built.  English bassets have been bred for show and pet for many generations, and very little consideration has been given to their working ability. (See this video to get an idea what happened to the English basset.)

The same thing happened to the Rosehill Sussex spaniel. Breeding for extreme short legs became a major fad in the show ring, which later became part and parcel of the breed standard. Fuller wanted a short-legged dog that gave tongue when on the hunt, but he didn’t want something that was so short-legged it was nonfunctional.

And that’s exactly what happened to Sussex spaniels by the end of the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, the dogs of the Rosehill type began to look like this:

This dog is Ch. Bridford Giddie. He was bred by Moses Woolland, who did use his dogs in shooting, but it doesn’t seem to me that any consideration was given to this dog’s working conformation. If he had any competence in the field, it was in spite of his conformation, not because of it.  This is precisely the conformation that leads to slipped and herniated discs, which is not a trivial matter at all. My father had a hunting dachshund when he was growing up. The dog was very good at hunting all sorts of things, but he was always having slipped discs and had to be confined for long periods of time.

From that conformation distortion, the Sussex has never recovered. The field spaniel, which used to have even shorter legs, has corrected this flaw. It could potentially recover, for it does have many traits that might make it a good working gun dog. I don’t see the same future for the Sussex, which never was all that popular.

I find it interesting that some people use Sussex spaniels to hunt birds. I also find it interesting that Cavaliers can be used to do the same.  It doesn’t mean that either are the first choices for working spaniels or that others might be better choices.

In the real world, breeds succeed or fail on two metrics. One is they can be perfectly conformed for their task in terms of both body and behavior. So long as their utility still exists, the dogs will exist. The other way a breed can succeed is to become popular in the pet market, which is not always a positive development. The pet market is quite fickle and so many different breeds have risen and fallen according to its undulations. Often, what becomes popular in a pet becomes detrimental to the dog’s original function. For example, the really long hair on an American cocker spaniel that so many people love must be chopped off if the dog is ever to be used as a flushing spaniel. And that’s why the working American cocker is about as rare as Sussex spaniel.

The Sussex spaniel failed on both metrics. Very few people want to use them for work. I have never heard of a blue-collar grouse hunter going out of his way to get a Sussex over a working English springer or working cocker.   Although Sussex are nicely natured dogs, it is unlikely that this breed will ever become popular as family pet.  It just isn’t cute enough. People like bassets and spaniels, but the combo is a little off-putting.

Fuller’s experiment may have worked for a time, but the show ring distorted his creation. Its breeders lost site of what this breed should be, and time went on, the forces of creative destruction nearly swept the breed away. It exists now a relic, a museum piece that we certainly should examine for what it tells about what can happen to virtually any breed.

Breeds have to adapt to changing conditions. They cannot remain stuck in time. Conformation has to be based upon a reality that can be empirically verified.

And when breeders allow their breeds to wind up in these positions, extinction isn’t a far off possibility. At some point, there won’t be enough genetic diversity in the breed to sustain itself, or the number of people actually breeding these dogs will be so low that it will be impossible to keep things going.

It’s happened before.

It will happen again, and if I were a betting man, that would be my wager on the Sussex spaniel’s future.

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This Sussex spaniel’s name was Moses, and he was featured in W.D. Drury’s British Dogs, Their Points, Selection, And Show Preparation (1903). The actual text on spaniels is by W. Arkwright.

The caption for the depiction of Moses goes as follows:

Fig. 66 represents the Sussex Spaniel Moses, a dog that has never been exhibited. He is descended from the Bridford and Rosehill strains, and is a remarkable instance of reversion to type.

The original Sussex spaniels were known by their color, which was a unique “golden liver.” I have not checked the genetics of this liver, but it could be a version of liver dilute.

Contrary to what many breed publications suggest, this breed was not created by Mr. Fuller of Rosehill Park. Sussex had always been known for liver and liver and white spaniels, which made the county unique. For much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,  the majority of land spaniels in England and Wales were red and white. The red and white coloration would remain popular in Wales, and these red and white dogs would become the basis of the Welsh springer spaniel.

It was this Mr. Fuller who bred the first short-legged Sussex spaniels, and it was upon his rather tightly bred strain that the modern Sussex spaniel breed was founded.  Moses had Rosehill ancestry, but he possessed long legs.  The original dogs were long-legged, and this is what Drury means by the dog being a “reversion to type.”

The modern Sussex spaniel is on its knees.  Although a member of the breed won BIS at Westminster in 2009, the breed is extremely rare. It is considered a “vulnerable native breed” in the United Kingdom.

The dogs are not widely used by sportsmen– anywhere.

And amazingly, this problem is not new.

W. Arkwright writes in 1903:

In the last Edition of “British Dogs,” the article on Sussex Spaniels commenced with a question as to whether this variety had become extinct! This question, at that time asked satirically, could not be, at any rate as regards the Rosehill strain, answered to-day with an unqualified negative. For, sad though it is to have to write such words, the fancy Sussex of to-day is only fit – for a dog show; and though possibly he may still claim to be Sussex, the Spaniel – i.e. the working – element exists in him no longer. It is safe to say that the only good workers of the present day are of very mixed descent; but whether the fresh blood will be successful in electrifying the breed into new life, depends on whether a band of practical sportsmen will take the necessary trouble. As this is more than doubtful, we must prepare to look upon this grand old breed as moribund, especially as the Sussex, when young, is as delicate to rear as the Clumber himself.

Personally, the writer has refreshed his strain with much outside blood of other liver-coloured Springers, and by this he has restored its excellent working properties; but he has failed so far in grafting a vigorous constitution on to the old characteristics.

That means that the Sussex spaniel was in trouble over 100 years ago.

The show Sussex were something of a scandal in the British gundog circles. Arkwright writes about a dog that appeared in Stonehenge’s work, and how this dog became the basis for formulating a standard. Although quite short-legged and heavily built, he was not like the show dogs of the early twentieth century:

“Stonehenge,” in his work published 1857, selected a brace of the Rosehill Spaniels as representing the true type of the Sussex. These were bred by Mr. A. E. Fuller, of Rosehill, Brightling, Sussex, and descended from the celebrated stock of Mr. Moneypenny, of Rolvenden: one of the brace, named George, “Stonehenge” retained in his later works, because he so perfectly represented the breed. This George is undeniably typical and workmanlike; but he does not resemble in the slightest the pudding-headed, distorted cripples of the present show-ring.

This breed nearly disappeared during the Second World War, and it was saved from perhaps as few as ten individuals. It had taken forty years and a war to bring the Sussex spaniel to near extinction.

It was saved, but not in a form that is sustainable. Those few dogs that had working characteristics don’t have working characteristics that most hunters actually want. Their short legs have utility in places like Sussex, which are both heavily wooded and brushy but also relatively flat.  Short-legged dogs have a much harder time in mountainous terrain, especially if the dogs are supposed to cover vast distances in search of birds. Birds fly, and it is much more important to have dog with more endurance and less exaggerated conformation. That is probably why short-legged bird dogs have mostly been failures.

So the Sussex’s future was as a pet or show dog. The problem there is it just isn’t as cute as the cockers.  Sussex are not as easy to train as those breeds, which, incidentally, partially descend from it.

The Sussex’s conformation and tendency to give tongue while one the hunt strongly suggest that Mr. Fuller used some form of basset to introduce those characteristics in his spaniels. Sussex is on the southeastern coast of England and borders on the English Channel.  Hastings is located in Sussex, which is the place where, as we all know, that William the Conqueror defeated King Harold.  The basset peculiar to Normandy would have been a likely choice for an outcross.

But having that much scenthound in them has a cost. In the modern era, the goal was to have sweet, well-behaved pet spaniels. Sussex are, like bassets, very good-tempered but stubborn.

So the breed wound up failing to meet the needs of sportsmen and the pet market.

Its health isn’t that great either. 41.5 percent of Sussex spaniels tested by the OFA have hip dysplasia. The breed has several hereditary heart problems, and like many dogs with long backs and short legs, it has problems with herniated discs.

Now, I am not saying that the fortune of this breed would have been saved if its fanciers had gone along with breeding for a conformation closer to Moses, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

But the breed had a bigger problem. Mr. Fuller inbred his Rosehill line, and the whole breed became based upon his Rosehill dogs. Then it became a fad to breed them for very short legs for the show ring.  The show dogs were rarely worked, and then its novelty as a show dog wore off.  With such nonfunctional conformation, the dog began to languish, which Mr. Arkwright noticed in this account.  And as it became rarer, it became more inbred, and with the tiny population that survived the Second World War, inbreeding got even worse.

The breeders of the nineteenth century did not recognize the need to breed for a functional conformation. Perhaps if they had understood that breed standards have to fit the breed’s function, the Sussex spaniel would be in a better position now.

The Sussex spaniel is an important cautionary. It is very easy for breeds to go sideways when the breed standard and the whims of the show ring conflict with functional conformation.

No breed can reign forever as a show dog or pet. That popularity always wains.  Therefore, it is important that breeds still be bred for their original function. They will have some place to go when the fickle public moves on, and the only place they can go is with their work. Of course, some breeds can luck out and find new work, but it is still important that conformation fit a reality that can be empirically verified.




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