One of the few breeds to be developed completely within the United States and entirely after the turn of the 20th century, the Boykin spaniel is a new kid on the dog block. Named after the tiny South Carolina town in which the breed was first created, the Boykin spaniel was developed as a hunter custom-built for the swampy American southeast.
Delightfully spirited companions, these spaniels are super intelligent, eager to please, and energetic. Their highly adaptable nature makes them great pets in almost any environment as long as they get enough exercise. Outstanding as hunters and as family members, they’re adept at obedience, agility, and retrieval competition work as well.
Adult Boykin spaniels stand 16–18 inches tall and usually tip the scales between 35 and 40 pounds, placing them between the English cocker and English springer spaniels in terms of size. Boykins are solid-colored, appearing in chocolate, liver, and brown shades, occasionally with a splash of white on their chests. Their eyes are similarly dark-colored, most usually in brown or amber tones.
Boykins’ coats are of medium length, and the dogs carry thick undercoats as well, to help keep them warm and dry in cold, damp areas. Their coats may feature some feathering on the chest, legs, belly, and ears, and some Boykins have a top knot, similar to the Llewellin setter. At birth, Boykins come with tails that are roughly the same length as their bodies, but for hunting dogs, these are usually docked shortly after birth to prevent the longer tails from getting caught or injured on underbrush or trees in the field. Additionally, their webbed feet make them excellent water retrievers.
Boykin spaniels’ temperaments are similar to those of most of their spaniel cousins: They are extremely intelligent, eager to please, and full of energy. They share the adaptability of English cocker spaniels, and can do well in most any living environment, provided their exercise needs are met. If you’re not a hunter, exercise can be as simple as a long walk every day or some time playing fetch in the backyard. Boykins have incredible stamina and make great hiking, biking, and jogging companions as well.
That energy and athleticism also mean Boykins are enthusiastic participants in agility, hunting, and obedience competitions and love anything that allows them to get wet. One of the traits the Boykins were developed for was the ability to hunt from a boat. As a result, these “swamp poodles” are great passengers in canoes and kayaks, with a well-earned reputation for staying calm on moving decks and not, well, rocking the boat.
Because of Boykins’ extremely loyal, human-centric personalities, they do not do well being left alone for long periods of time. Boykins who are by themselves often or are expected to live in outdoor kennels can become stressed and lonely, experiencing separation anxiety that most commonly manifests itself through destructive chewing, digging, and stress barking.
Like the majority of spaniels, Boykins make effective watchdogs, but poor guards. They are alert and friendly enough to bark every time a stranger makes their way to your door. Once a newcomer is inside the house, however, Boykins are far too welcoming to have any strong territorial traits.
If you are a hunter, it’s difficult to find a better companion than this little brown dog. Boykins were originally bred to be turkey and waterfowl retrievers, hunting the swamps of South Carolina from flat-bottomed boats or canoes. They hold their cool around gunfire and learn and respond to hand and whistle signals well. Their extremely high stamina and tolerance for warm weather have also made them excellent companions in dove fields, and their good speed for their size and eagerness for the hunt has even made them effective at driving larger game like deer.
Can you throw a ball? Does at least one of the doors in your house go outside? Congratulations! You’ve got everything you need to make a Boykin spaniel happy. Boykins develop deep bonds with their people, and will happily go where they go and live where they live, just so long as they can get outside and work off some of that energy every day.
Boykins are easy enough to maintain that they’re a good fit for novice pet owners. But it's important to note that Boykins will require an hour or two outside every day, and they get bored easily when not supervised. For this reason, seniors may want to look elsewhere, as Boykins are definitely suited to households that are more active.
They do very well in households with children, although any youngsters should also be supervised well and taught how to responsibly play with their dogs. Boykins love people, but can quickly decide smaller ones aren’t their cup of tea, if there are a couple of bad experiences.
Boykins live well with other dogs and have a low prey drive, so cats shouldn’t be a problem either. If you are getting a puppy, though, begin socializing her within the first few months so she doesn’t develop fear responses to larger dogs and understands cats are friends.
The Boykin’s coat features a thick undercoat, so seasonal shedding will be a factor, no matter what you do. Give your spaniel’s coat a good brushing two or three times a week to keep it free of debris and mats. If you’re a hunter or hiker, giving the coat a quick pre-brush before any activity will help to keep the coat from clinging on to burrs and sticks. And any time your Boykin has been splashing around in saltwater or ponds with algae, you’ll want to give her a freshwater spray down soon after.
Paired with regular brushing, Boykins can stand to be trimmed every couple of months or so, depending on how long you like your dog’s hair to be. A bath every 90 days or so should be plenty to keep any Boykin fresh and shiny.
Boykins are relatively healthy dogs, with very low instances of many of the ailments that are common to other dogs. There are, however, two health concerns to be aware of. First of all, Boykins have a very high susceptibility to hip dysplasia, with nearly 30 percent of the breed suffering from the condition. Because the breed is so new, that number has been dropping in recent years as the Boykin Spaniel Foundation has worked with breeders and veterinarians on selectively breeding the trait out of the dogs. But for now, it is still an issue that an alarming number of Boykins deal with in their later years.
“We’ve created all of these dog breeds through selective breeding,” Dennis Riordan, DVM, of the Riordan Pet Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, says. “The only way you can ensure specific traits is to selectively inbreed dogs. Until those breeds are ‘perfected,’ for lack of a better word, you’re going to concentrate those (bad) genes as well.”
Additionally, if you wish to feature your Boykin spaniel in hunting or agility competitions, you’ll want to get her DNA tested for Exercise-Induced Collapse (EIC). EIC is a genetic trait found primarily in labradors and various other breeds of retrievers, as well as the Boykin spaniel.
“They get overheated or overworked, and they just drop,” Riordan explains. “It’s not a seizure, but they just can’t move their legs for about 15 minutes. Some dogs grow out of it, some dogs have it from birth, but it doesn’t appear to affect life span or overall health. It’s just something that owners have to be aware of.”
The Boykin spaniel has the distinction of being one the few breeds created wholly within the 20th century, and entirely in America. They are also one of the most recent AKC-registered breeds, having received full recognition in 2009.
The first precursor to the breed was a small, stray spaniel-type dog who took a liking to a Spartanburg, S.C., banker named Alexander White as he was walking near his church one day in the early 1900s. White kept the little dog, whom he named Dumpy, and noticed he had an aptitude for retrieving. So he sent Dumpy for further training to his friend and hunting partner Lemuel Boykin in the neighboring town of Camden. Boykin spent time training Dumpy and testing his natural hunting abilities, turning him into a very effective turkey and waterfowl retriever. Eventually, Dumpy became the foundation upon which the Boykin spaniel breed was built.
Boykin reported using Chesapeake Bay retrievers, springer spaniels, cocker spaniels, and American water spaniels in future breedings. For decades, the Boykin spaniel was almost exclusively found in the swampy wetlands around Camden, S.C., until hunters visiting from other parts of the country began to take notice of the area’s spunky little water dog.