This section is from the book "British Dogs: Their Varieties, History, Characteristics, Breeding, Management, And Exhibition", by Hugh Dalziel. Also available from Amazon: British Dogs.
The spaniels, as we now understand the term, are a numerous family, which has by modern breeding become split up into many divisions, most of them pretty clearly defined, but, in some instances, more by arbitrary selection of the few for special honours from the great body of the family on account of one special property than from general excellence, as, for instance, the black field spaniels, for whom modern fashion reserves all bench honours to the exclusion of parti-coloured dogs.
The wisdom of this I have always thought doubtful, and, indeed, rather more than doubtful, and, in my opinion, our present classification - the classification adopted at our shows - and the standard of excellence required in dogs to win ignores the important, and, indeed, absolutely essential point of view to a sportsman, that of apparent working capacity. We have allowed the arbitrary and ornamental points to supersede the useful, and this is especially so in the rage for black spaniels to the exclusion of others in the class now known as "field spaniels." Even the name is not over-happily chosen; for in the wood, the covert, the brake, or the hedgerow the land spaniel, as he was originally called, is still more at home than in the field, unless we use the term spaniel in the wider sense adopted by our fathers as applied to the setter, and even the pointer, which was frequently known as the smooth spaniel.
That covert hunting has, however, for many generations, ever since the introduction of fowling pieces, been the spaniel's great forte, there can be no denying, useful as he often proves at different work. The poet Somerville writes on this topic in terms as emphatic as they are stirring to the soul of a sportsman:
But if the shady woods my cares employ In quest of feathered game, my spaniels beat, Puzzling the entangled copse; and from the brake Push forth the whirring pheasant; high in air He waves his varied plumes, stretching away With hasty wing. Soon from the uplifted tube The mimic thunder bursts, the leaden death O'ertakes him; and with many a giddy whirl To earth he falls, and at my feet expires.
With this in view we have to consider whether the modern spaniel, as encouraged by and bred for dog shows, is an improvement or otherwise, and whether the plan followed by those who have the management of such shows has not done a direct injury to the breeding of a very large, widespread, and most useful class of dog, simply because they do not accord with the distinctions of colour and other minor points arbitrarily set up.
First, let us briefly glance at the history of the spaniel, or rather at a few of the very meagre notices of him which we get at wide intervals. I believe the first notice of the spaniel by that name in English occurs in "The Maister of Game," by Edmund de Langley. He says, "the houndes for the hawke cometh out of Spayn," and describes him as white and tawny, with large head and body, not too rough in coat and with a feathered tail; he further describes their general character and action, and their use in the netting of partridge, etc, and also refers to their use in the pursuit and capture of waterfowl.
The spaniel also occurs in the list of breeds of dogs given by the Sopewell Prioress in the "Book of St. Albin," published I486, but she gives no description of it. A century later Dr. Johannes Caius, in his book, "English Dogges," says of spaniels, there are two sorts, one "that findeth game on land," and one "that findeth game on the water," and the same distinction is observed by all later writers up to the present century.
Nicholas Cox, in "The Gentleman's Recreation," published 1677, copying Markham, I believe, describes the land spaniel as "of a good and nimble size, rather small than gross, and of a courageous mettle; which, though you cannot discern being young, yet you may very well know from a right breed which have been known to be strong, lusty, and nimble rangers, of active feet, wanton tails, and busy nostrils, whose tail was without weariness, their search without changeableness, and whom no delight did transport beyond fear or obedience."
Spaniels were in olden times also known by the name of the game they were kept to, as "a dog for the partridge," "a dog for the duck," "a dog for the pheasant," as in our own day we still have the cocker, or dog for the woodcock; but at what date the term "springer" or "springing spaniel" was introduced I do not know, but presume it must have been when the qualities of the setter or " setting spaniel " became fully developed and permanently fixed by breeding setters from known setting spaniels only, and keeping the breed of questing spaniels distinct; the term springer was probably given to them on account of their natural disposition to rush in and flush or spring their game.
In the "Sportsman's Cabinet," 1802-3, spaniels are treated by "A Veteran Sportsman" under three divisions - the springing spaniel; the cocker spaniel, in which latter class he includes the Duke of Marlborough's Blenheims, now only recognised as toys; and water spaniels. The springers are described as differing but little from the setter of that day, except in size, being about two-fifths less; the engravings given in illustration from drawings by Renaigle do not, however, bear this statement out, the setter's muzzle being truncated and the flews deep, as though crossed with the Spanish pointer; while the springer, although shown with open mouth, is evidently comparatively pointed in muzzle, and also shorter in the back, and, indeed, very much more like the comparatively leggy but compact, active, merry-looking dogs still seen in numbers throughout the country, and turning up in plenty at some West of Eng-land shows, than the very long-backed and excessively long heads and muzzles of the black field spaniel of the show-bench.
I do not wish to be understood as objecting to the black spaniel: his beauty is undeniable, and the colour is no innovation, black having always been recognised; and black and tan is also mentioned by old writers, but I say that in length of body and stamp of head they are a departure from the old type, and for working qualities a departure in a wrong direction. If we take our present illustration of Mr. Holmes' Flirt, it must be admitted she does not look like a dog suited for a day's hard work in a rough country, although she may do to potter about the outside of a hedge, or put up a rabbit in turnips, and Flirt is a good representative of the most fashionable and winning strain, and shown with great truthfulness by Mr. Wood, the artist, in our engraving.
What we want is a dog, more compact, with shorter and stronger muscles coupling the back ribs and hind quarters; and if the present fashion is to be maintained - the prejudice in favour of black colour, long backs, and setter-like heads - I plead for two classes at all shows, if their purpose is to improve the various breeds of dogs for sporting purposes. One class for other than self-coloured dogs, representing the old springer most generally diffused throughout the country, and weighing over, say, 251b., and a corresponding class for cockers weighing from 181b. to 251b., and I think it would not be difficult for sportsmen to agree as to a standard of points by which they should be judged.
The spaniel is not only the oldest breed we have that has been kept to the hunting of fur and feather, as a help to hawking, netting, and the gun, but he is still the most generally useful of our game dogs, as he is the most universal favourite; in field or covert no dog works so close as a well-bred and well-broken spaniel; neither fur nor feather can escape him; no hedgerow is too thick, no brake too dense for him to penetrate and force out to view of the sportsman the reluctant game; he is a most active, ardent, and merry worker; his "wanton tail," ever in motion while he quests, increases in rapidity of action with that tremulous whimper that tells so truly that he is near his game, and says to his master, in tones that never deceive, "Be ready; it is here."
The spaniel is no less a favourite as a companion and house dog, for which his watchfulness, sagacity, and fidelity, equally with his gentleness of manners and handsome appearance, eminently fit him.
The present classification of spaniels, according to the Kennel Club Stud Book, is, field spaniels - in which, as already observed, blacks almost invariably usurp the whole of the prizes - Clumber spaniels, Sussex spaniels, Irish water spaniels, and water spaniels other than Irish, and the now purely toy varieties, Blenheim and King Charles spaniels. Having referred to the older style of spaniel, the parti-coloured specimens of which (and these are in a large majority of the whole) are practically excluded from bench-show honours, I shall proceed with a description of the several varieties named, beginning with the modern favourite.