With solemn but curious brown eyes, the mahogany spaniel in the doorway gazes upon a visitor. A well-formed male with power in his stance, the dog pads gently forward, in a slow, assessing approach. His big brown nose investigates the newcomer.
They say that Field Spaniels can be reticent when first meeting a stranger, but once they accept your friendship they become warm and welcoming. Lucky we are that this bighearted, compact hunter is alive and well to leap into laps and flush woodcock for his hunting companions. The Fieldie very nearly stepped off the pages of history, treading a whisker’s breadth away from being tragically lost to gentleman hunters and spaniel enthusiasts. Breaking free from his multi-sized, many-colored ancestors (once all lumped together as “spaniels”), his recent emergence and beauty almost caused his demise. But today he enjoys an enthusiastic following and a solid breeding program that will ensure that we can enjoy the company of these glorious, adventure-loving animals forever.
The first Field Spaniel in the United States was registered with the AKC in 1894 — Coleshill Rufus, a dog bred by Mr. J. Smith in Warwickshire, England, whose Coleshill line exerted long influence over the breed. The relatively new breed had been developed over the previous four or five decades in England, but its roots go much deeper than that, as far back as the ancient, largely undifferentiated, spaniels.
The word spaniel reveals that the dogs came to Britain by way of Spain. The breed name Field Spaniel actually obscures its history, since for many centuries, spaniels were separated into “land” and “water” spaniels, depending on their function. To complicate matters, any spaniel that was active in land hunting could be called a “field spaniel.” Thus, the Field Spaniel didn’t become a distinct breed until the mid-1800s.
With the rise of dog showing as a popular sport sanctioned by Queen Victoria’s participation, breeders looked for a new spaniel breed that could wow the judges. They sought to create a black spaniel (hunters generally preferred working dogs to have a hit of white on them, making them easier to spot from a distance). Created largely out of crosses between English Cocker Spaniels, so-called “Welsh Cockers,” and Sussex Spaniels, with a generous dose of various other spaniels, Fields were initially all black, but quickly developed other colors, such as liver, roan, or golden liver, all potentially with tan points, and white on the chest or throat. From the start, they were longer and lower than the average spaniel, with a uniquely chiseled head. Show records from the turn of the last century reveal that the Field Spaniel was a popular and competitive breed.
An Unfortunate Departure
The Fieldie, however, was not destined for steady popularity. Two decades after his entry as a registered breed, he disappeared from show rings and hunters’ sides-nearly into extinction. AKC records show that the last Field Spaniel during that period was registered in 1916, not to be seen again until the late 1960s. Why did the Field Spaniel languish and disappear for nearly 50 years? How did he spring back to life as today’s all-round, versatile performance dog?
Carole Kaye, librarian of the Field Spaniel Society of America (FSSA), says, “The Field Spaniel of the late 1800s was a popular show dog, and widely used as a gundog.” His popularity may have spurred the nearly disastrous demise of this striking, solid-colored spaniel.
In most pictures and records of the early 20th century, his conformation closely resembled that of the Cocker. AKC judge Dorothy Macdonald explains, “In 1900, the difference between a Cocker and a Field was one of weight. Under 25 pounds: a Cocker; over: a Field. The common saying was ‘before breakfast a Cocker, and after breakfast a Field.’ ”
As his popularity soared with the exhibition fancy and with hunters, the two groups’ diverse breeding goals changed him from a versatile, compactly athletic all-rounder to a uniquely exaggerated, heavy-coated, low-to-the-ground, slow-moving, massive-headed spaniel.
According to the style of the day, hunters wanted a dog who would not outpace them in the field, but who would boast a precision tracking nose. So they loaded the medium-sized Field Spaniel’s gene pool with more muscular, heavier-boned, lower-slung, avid trailing breeds such as the Sussex and Clumber spaniels-and even the Basset Hound! Breeders, attempting to make his head more rectangular and his eyes larger and more soulful, added a dash of Irish Water Spaniel.
Breeders’ mixed goals for his form and function produced exaggerated conformation and a loss of hunting stamina. The early 1900s saw a much-changed Field Spaniel, who no longer appealed to show ring fanciers, to working hunters, or to pet owners who had loved him when he was more true to spaniel type. In The Field Spaniel: A Complete and Reliable Handbook, Becki Jo Hirschy, herself a Field Spaniel breeder and trainer, explains that the breed had been re-created to the point that a writer of the late 1800s likened him to “a cucumber or a caterpillar.”
A Return to Type
After a long period away from the spotlight, the Field Spaniel began his comeback in the mid-1950s, guided by a few breeders who remembered what he had looked like in the late 1800s. Insightful breeders resolved to rebuild him with a form that would regain his once admired function as hunting dog and handsome companion.
Rachal Sager (of Seaclaed Kennel), who has handled over 75 AKC breeds since 1980 and who piloted Field Spaniel Ch. Winterose Dustin Windstorm to number-one Field Spaniel, all systems, in 1996, says, “Looking back many generations into the earliest Field Spaniel pedigrees, you find three British outcrossings to English Springer Spaniels: L’ileRosebud (bitch, 1928), Dismal Desmond (dog, 1934), and the last Springer outcross, to black-tri-color dog Ch. Whaddon Chase Duke, in 1957.” The English Springer Spaniel was crossbred to the Field Spaniel in an effort to reclaim height, a firm topline, strong, straight fronts, and tireless athletic movement in the field.
While today’s Field Spaniel thanks the taller, less densely muscular Springer for giving him back a bit of leg height and athletic prowess, judges are careful to point out conformation departures from the Springer. Judge, breeder, and chair of the Field Spaniel judges’ education committee Nancy Clendenen asks, “Does it look like a Field Spaniel and not some other breed, particularly an English Springer in liver or black drag?”
Judges recognize a picture of a highborn, majestic, noble dog as painted by the Field Spaniel’s standard. The standard focuses on the “character and nobility” of the head. Breeder Michael Faulkner, judge of the Field Spaniel national in 1996 and 2003, agrees with Peggy Grayson, author of History and Management of the Field Spaniel: “The one sure way of telling the spaniel varieties from one another is to look at their heads. Heads set type, for without the correct head you have not got that particular variety of spaniel. Field heads should be quite distinctive from all other spaniel heads.”