In his 1994 book “The Intelligence of Dogs,” author Stanley Coren lists the English springer spaniel as the 13th smartest dog breed. Originally bred to be tenacious hunters, the English springer spaniel has developed a reputation as a friendly, eager-to-please family dog who is just as comfortable with family play time as he is flushing gamefowl.
Aside from being masterful hunting companions, springers are well suited for agility and obedience competitions, make excellent running companions, and have gained renown for their easygoing, loyal dispositions.
One of the main traits that sets the English springer spaniel apart from other breeds is the level of difference between show-bred (or “bench”) and field-bred examples. While the two types are registered as the same breed of dog, they are in fact genetically distinct from one another and have been for over 70 years.
Bench-bred English springer spaniels usually stand about 20 inches at the shoulder, and adults weigh 45–55 pounds. The field-bred dogs, having been cultivated with an eye towards staying nimble in tall grass for flushing pheasants, are generally a couple of inches shorter and about 5 pounds lighter.
Bench-bred springers have longer ears, a more barrel chest, and a longer, silkier coat that is darker in color—usually black and white or liver and white. Field-bred, meanwhile, feature a slightly shorter, longer body with a coat that is shorter and has a more wiry texture and a thicker undercoat. They also tend to be predominately white in color, with patches of liver or black. Both dogs make equally good family pets, but knowing the fundamental differences between the two will help a potential owner make an informed decision.
“Anytime show traits are involved in breeding, something else is sacrificed,” says Dennis Riordan, DVM, of the Riordan Pet Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa.
For bench and field-bred springers, that sacrifice will mostly be in the “looks vs. abilities” area. Field-bred springers will instinctually be the better hunting dog, but will also have more variation in size or coloration. Obviously, the latter will matter less to you if you’re looking for a camping buddy. Meanwhile, bench-bred springers may take a little more work to train to the gun, but they will also adapt more readily to a home-and-family lifestyle, and may have slightly lower requirements for physical activity or a higher threshold for boredom.
Both dogs have the same basic lifespans, health concerns, and general temperament. But in other respects, “It’s tremendous how much variation you can find within the breed,” Riordian says.
Whether bench or field-bred, English springer spaniels are highly intelligent, playful, extremely social dogs. They love water and will look for every opportunity to get wet. English springer spaniels get along well with children and other animals, though the field-bred springers may have their hunting instincts triggered by cats or other small animals. Similarly, if left to their own devices in a backyard, it may be at the peril of any lingering birds.
English springer spaniels are active, curious, and energetic dogs. They are eager to please humans, but will require training to keep from becoming unruly. This is a dog that will require regular outdoor exercise. But as long as those needs are met and it’s provided with plenty of social time with people, an English springer spaniel can adapt readily to any kind of living situation, from downtown apartment to sprawling ranch.
Despite their hunting nature, English springer spaniels are fairly indifferent watchdogs. Bred as a field hunter, aggression towards strange humans or other dogs was an undesirable trait that has been actively bred against. They may alert bark as someone approaches the door, but always in more of a friendly greeting than any kind of warning.
The English springer spaniels’ high intelligence makes them willing and able training partners. They pick up on new tasks quickly, and the hunting breeds can be easily trained to only track and chase specific breeds of gamefowl.
This intelligence, coupled with their natural desire to hunt or work, also makes the English springer spaniel an excellent candidate for agility coursework, as well as hunting and obedience competitions. English springer spaniels are happiest when they have a job to do, and will relish the daily training and practice these events require.
As with any breed, the more you can understand about a pup’s bloodlines, the better you can gauge how an individual pup will behave.
“Pay attention to the parents,” Riordan says. “The mother is most often the one that’s available, but take a look at both parents, if you can. Watch their demeanor and you’ll have a good clue about the pups.”
As mentioned, the English springer spaniel can adapt to a wide variety of living spaces and situations. The two constants that must be a part of their lives, however, are physical activity and human interaction. Both breeds of English springer spaniel are dogs that will require daily outdoor activity time, preferably with plenty of room to run. Once mature, they make good jogging companions and will play fetch until you’re too tired to throw any more.
Similarly, both versions of the dog will also bond with the humans in the house quickly and intensely. This can result in separation anxiety if they are left alone for more than a couple hours at a time, which can in turn result in destructive chewing or stress barking. If left outside unattended for long periods of time, a bored springer can become a digger who might destroy your flower beds if left to his own devices.
Those considerations aside, English springer spaniels have been known to adapt well to a wide variety of living situations and have reputations as low-maintenance, easy-going companions.
English springer spaniels’ grooming needs are pretty basic. The field-bred dogs are slightly easier to maintain, as their hair is less prone to matting or retaining burrs and debris, but both versions will benefit from a brush-down twice a week. They can be moderate shedders, especially in the spring, when they will drop their thick undercoat.
English springer spaniels aren’t afraid of a little mud and dirt, so dogs that spend a lot of time outside will require more bathing. As a general rule, both versions of the dog should be bathed once every three months or so.
As with most dogs with long ears, ear infections can be a problem for English springer spaniels, and owners should inspect and clean their ears regularly, to prevent inflammation in the ears.
Additionally, obesity is a problem for the breed, especially if their physical activity needs aren’t being met. Obesity can create or exacerbate joint, back, or gastro-intestinal problems, as well as triggering the English springer spaniel’s higher than average propensity for diabetes. Talk to your vet about how much and how often you should feed your springer spaniel to help with weight management.
Springer spaniels are also among the most common breeds diagnosed with the genetic disorder known as rage syndrome—in fact, the disorder is sometimes referred to as “springer rage,” though it has also been found in poodles, Dobermans, and cocker spaniels. Regardless of breed, rage syndrome is an extremely rare condition that results in a dog exhibiting brief, explosive moments of extreme anger, before reverting back to their normal disposition almost immediately. There is no external trigger for rage syndrome, and after an outburst, the dog will commonly appear to have no memory of the incident. Since rage syndrome may be caused by mini seizures in a dog’s brain, anti-seizure medication might help to limit the outbursts, but it should again be stressed that rage syndrome is an exceedingly rare occurrence.
“I just don’t see that as a common trait,” Riordan says. “I know it exists, but I wouldn’t chase someone off buying [a spaniel] because of that issue.”
The term “spaniel” was first used to describe a breed of dog in the 1576 Treatise of Englishe Dogs. By the turn of the 19th century, dogs of the same spaniel litters were being seperated into “springing,” “hawking,” and “cocking” classes, based primarily on size and weight. This eventually led to the separation of the cocker, springer, and hawking (now the Welsh springer) spaniels into genetically different breeds, with the English springer being recognized in 1902 by the English Kennel Club. The English springer came to America in 1907, and was first registered with the AKC in 1910.