It seems we live in a world dominated by specialists. Hunters and their dogs are no exception. These days, there are specific breeds for every kind of hunting in our province. You name it — grouse, ducks, geese, rabbits, or deer — and there’s a pointer, retriever, or hound that has had its ancestral abilities honed by dedicated breeders to excel at hunting specific quarry.
The pendulum has swung so far that way in recent times that there’s little talk or consideration for the rough shooter, which, by definition, is a generalist — a hunter open to whatever a day afield has to offer. Be it fur or feather, if legal game presents itself, a rough shooter will be happy to follow. In most cases, an English Springer Spaniel is his or her dog of choice.
Like the rough shooter, an English Springer Spaniel’s skill-set makes it a jack of all trades. A true flushing dog, a springer uses its excellent nose to follow scent and flush game within reasonable shotgun range. This takes equal portions of prey drive and the ability to handle well, something most springers tend to balance.
Then and Now
The breed has its origins in Europe, dating back as far as the mid-19th century, as an all-round game dog. Today, in the trend to fill specific niches, the springer has been positioned as the classic pheasant dog. This isn’t without justification.
A springer’s ability to work bird scent in thick cover and push its quarry into flight makes it a natural for wild pheasants. However, it seems that with pheasant numbers low to nil in most of Ontario, the breed is suffering a little neglect from many Ontario gun-dog enthusiasts.
This is a mistake. A springer has the uncanny ability to roll with any circumstances this province has to offer, often turning a bad day of grouse hunting into a great day of jump-shooting beaver ponds for woodies.
Meddling or Moulding
Like so many sporting breeds, somewhere during their long history, fanciers outside of the sporting world have taken the breed and bred lines with an eye towards the show ring. Today, many hunters believe these people are responsible for ruining various breeds. I tend to believe the show folks acted without malicious intent, but in what they deemed to be in the best interest of the breed. This being the case, it can’t be argued the show-dog people, in an effort to manage coat, colour, and conformation, have inadvertently sacrificed their dogs’ original skills as hunters.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than with the springer spaniel. Today, there are two distinct breeds called English springer spaniels. One is from bench (or show) stock and the other, more notable to hunters, is field bred. The two have moved far enough down their evolutionary paths that they have little in common and now hardly even look like they share the same ancestor.
Because of this, prospective buyers of springer pups must make sure they’re buying out of the stock suitable for their intended use. Oh sure, you might be able to get a bench dog to hunt for the gun, but even if it does, seldom will it do so with the flair of a springer bred for the task.
Field-bred springers lack the long, flowing coat of their prancing show-ring cousins. Instead, they have a lightly feathered, more manageable one. They’re also lighter in bone, to facilitate endurance in the field. But, in the nose and their ability to find game, then exuberantly present it for the gun, is where the field-bred variety truly separates from its bench cousin.
As an example, one early season day a couple of falls ago, my pal, OOD’s Steve Galea, and his springer, Callie, collected a grouse, a varying hare, a wood duck, and a goose Steve, with Callie by his side, stalked on the river’s edge. Callie, a small springer in stature, but not in heart, handled it all with an enthusiasm only a springer can. She even managed to bring the big gander to hand through still- standing marsh grass. No limit of any species was harvested that day, but the action was steady.
In a province where most of us can’t realistically figure on a count each time out, knowing a springer is happy to take them as they come says it all.