All dogs are lovable and have earned their place in our hearts and homes, but not all breeds are equally comfortable in the field and on the couch. That's where the English Springer Spaniel comes in. These dogs were bred for hunting, but also excel in the show ring, and make excellent pets for owners who can dedicate the time and energy to train and exercise them.
Origin and History
Spaniel-type dogs are counted among the oldest breeds. The ancestors of modern spaniels likely originated in Spain (hence the name) sometime in antiquity, but their direct lineage is not perfectly known. At some point, these dogs were introduced to Britain - perhaps as early as the late Roman Era, or even during Caesar's invasion of the island - where they would eventually be developed into the various spaniel breeds known today.
Later, as breeders developed the spaniel's hunting characteristics, their popularity for working upland game grew substantially. Spaniels even catch a mention from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in The Wife of Bath's Prologue, where he references these dogs in bawdy fashion. Likewise, William Shakespeare drops a reference to spaniels in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Helena proclaims, "I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, the more you beat me, I will fawn on you."
Originally bred to work with their handlers to find and "spring" game, or flush it from dense cover, the direct ancestors of the Springer Spaniel showed remarkable skill as hunters, and they were heavily favored for it. Near the end of the 17th Century, spaniels in Britain were largely separated into water and land breeds, though no English Water Spaniels exist today. Around this time, the first usage of the term "Springer Spaniel" appeared.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) officially recognized the breed in 1910, and the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association, the parent club for the breed, formed in 1924. English Springers have been going strong since then, though the breed has informally split between bench (or show) lines and field (or sporting) lines.
With their silky coats and unique, exuberant personalities, English Springers are immediately recognizable as ideal companions. Though these dogs have high levels of energy and require training and socialization, they make good pets for those who put in the time and effort to work with them.
Bench Versus Field Lines
The AKC does not recognize a difference between field-bred Springers and show Springers in the breed standard. Nonetheless, there are two types of ESSs: those bred primarily for their hunting and sporting characteristics, and those bred to conform in appearance to the breed standard.
At one time, English Springers have held dual championships in both the show ring and at field trials, but those days are long gone. Not since the 1940s has a member of the breed been recognized as a champion in both the show bench and at field competitions. As a result, modern Springers bred for show have a distinctive look, with a longer coat and a "saddle" of coloration on their back.
Conversely, dogs from field lines are much more variable in appearance, given that their breeding has not emphasized conformance to the standard. Instead, field-bred dogs are selected for a variety of characteristics that help them excel as hunters, including the quality of their nose, their athleticism, intelligence, and eagerness to please. These dogs can be tall or compact, and have all sorts of coat coloration patterns.
English Springer Spaniels are athletic, hardy dogs bred to go to work in the field hunting game. They are tireless, strong, medium-sized dogs. Males typically stand close to 20 inches at the shoulder, and weighing somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds. Females are slightly smaller, measuring 19 inches at the shoulder and weighing in closer to 40 pounds.
Show ESSs sport a double coat with an outer layer that may be flat or wavy, and a very fine, soft inner layer. Their coat is meant to guard against the elements, allowing these dogs to slip through the water and easily brush off burrs and thorns they might encounter in the field. Per the breed standard, their tails are usually docked, where this is allowed.
Acceptable colors include black or liver with white; predominately white with black or liver markings; blue or liver roan; and tricolor. White portions of the coat can be flecked with ticking, which are small spots of color visible over or beneath the white fur.
Dogs from field lines do not visually conform to a set breed standard, though they do exhibit a soft, sleek coat that is meant to aid their hunting efforts. Coloration varies in field dogs, as does overall head and body shape. Most field ESS coats are either liver and black with white, or generally white with liver and black markings or ticking. These dogs may not be immediately recognizable to those only familiar with show lines, but they are closely related to their show brethren.
Ancestors of this breed are carefully selected to work closely with humans as hunting dogs, and are extremely eager to please their handlers as a result. English Springers want to make their people happy, and will do just about anything to stay close to their family. They love interacting with their owners and reward affection with undying devotion.
These dogs need companionship and do best in homes with near-constant company. This means ESSs are not well suited to owners who are away for long periods of the day. They certainly don't do well locked outside by themselves.
When they accompany their owners outdoors, even for a simple walk around the block, many English Springers turn into focused hunting machines. Some are more laid back in their approach, and others display a laser-like focus on their task. However, nearly all ESSs are alert and active in the field, and less experienced owners may struggle to keep up.
New owners may struggle with these high-energy dogs, but for those with some experience and enough time to dedicate to them, English Springers make wonderful pets. They are friendly, loving, intelligent dogs who want nothing more than to make their people happy.
What is "Springer Rage"?
Also known as rage syndrome or sudden onset aggression, this is a condition that sometimes appears in show-bred Springer Spaniels, though it is also associated with Cocker Spaniels and some other breeds. Its exact cause is unknown, and it may be related to dominance aggression or some form of neurological disorder.
The good news is that field-bred Springers do not appear to suffer from this condition nearly as often as dogs from show lines. Reports of field-bred ESSs displaying rage syndrome are exceptionally rare, and it is possible dogs from these field lines do not display rage syndrome at all.
Dogs who exhibit this behavior may suddenly become extremely aggressive and physically attack anyone nearby, including their family members. This aggression is distinct from normal agitation and other negative behaviors. It isn't always obvious what triggers an episode. Dogs that display sudden onset aggression at first appear mildly disoriented, but quickly become abnormally aggressive.
Rage syndrome is probably different from other forms of aggression because it is likely the result of a neurological condition. Many researchers believe that rage syndrome is caused by an epileptic disorder that somehow affects a dog's emotional control.
This is probably what accounts for the dog's initial confusion, giving way to exaggerated aggression, followed by calm. Immediately after an episode, a dog who displays rage syndrome may go back to normal, acting as if nothing happened. This is extremely unsettling for owners, as it can be difficult to predict when an afflicted dog may become aggressive.
Even though Springer rage is scary, most ESSs do not develop problems with aggression. Most sources agree that the condition is rare and appears to be genetic. There is no test to determine if a puppy will develop rage syndrome. If you suspect your dog suffers from this condition or you witness an episode of Springer rage, take steps to ensure your and your family's safety, and immediately contact your veterinarian.
English Springer Spaniels combine their exceptional intellect with an eagerness to please that makes them among the most trainable of breeds. They are playful, inquisitive, quick-witted, and adaptive in training situations. Springers take well to positive reinforcement training methods and learning through play, and you should begin training and socializing as soon as you can bring your puppy home.
The upside is, they are fast learners, and are very easy to train. However, the downside is that these dogs absolutely require a lot of engagement from their owners, becoming depressed and displaying bad behavior if they are not trained properly. While you may be able to get away with less frequent training sessions if you keep another breed, you definitely need to plan on consistent daily training for your ESS.
English Springers excel at dog sports, and are very athletic. They need to work, but when they are mentally engaged, their eagerness and problem solving are impressive.
This breed does not do well with excessive down time. English Springers need daily activity, preferably with a period of elevated cardiovascular exercise. Taking your ESS for a half-hour walk, followed by a rousing game of fetch, is the bare minimum daily requirement for this breed.
Puppies also need exercise, but it is important to limit their stimulation and the strenuousness and frequency of play to prevent injury to their young bodies. Short play sessions focused on basic training are best for ESS puppies.
English Springer Spaniels are highly active, driven dogs. They were bred to tirelessly pursue game, and as a result, they have nearly inexhaustible energy reserves. They are so eager to work, they can even push themselves to the point of exhaustion, so you need to make sure they are resting appropriately. However, when their needs are met, they can easily shift gears and lounge around with their people, remaining calm around the house.
English Springers are susceptible to several breed-related diseases:
Epileptic disorders (rare): Epilepsy is a condition characterized by seizures, and various forms of the disorder can afflict ESSs, though most dogs do not suffer from the disease. There may be a higher instance of these disorders appearing in bench-bred lines, and there is some indication that Springer rage syndrome is related to some as-yet unspecified form of epilepsy.
Hip and elbow dysplasia: This condition, which results from abnormalities in a dog's hip and elbow ball joints that are often hereditary, causes long-term pain and discomfort, and may potentially lead to disability if left untreated.
Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA): This condition is caused by several diseases that impact the dog's photoreceptor cells in the eye. Over time, PRA leads to degeneration of these cells, eventually resulting in blindness.
Phosphofructokinase (PFK) disorder: A metabolic disorder that causes problems with glycosis, the process through which the dog's body generates energy, PFK is associated with ESSs and can lead to lethargy, anemia, and even liver failure if not properly treated and managed.
Retinal dysplasia: Characterized by a malformation within the dog's retina, this condition often results in visual impairment.
Many of these conditions are heritable. Only purchase puppies from responsible breeders who perform genetic screening on breeding stock. Talk to your breeder and ask to see proof of screening tests on a prospective pet's parents. Also, seek out a veterinarian who you trust and whose practice you are comfortable with to ensure your dog receives proper healthcare throughout their life.
Most English Springer Spaniels live between 10 and 14 years, though some exceptional members of the breed may reach the age of 18 years or more.
Maintaining a show ESS coat is much move involved than keeping a field coat in good condition. Show coats require weekly brushing to remove dirt, debris, and excess hair, and to prevent matting. If you plan to keep your dog in a show coat, which is typically medium length with flowing lines and feathering, you are best off taking your dog to a professional groomer.
If you are maintaining a field coat, trimming to a desired length may be advantageous. English Springers typically do not require frequent bathing, so give them a bath only as needed to protect natural oils in the coat. Trim nails regularly, though active dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors may naturally wear down their nails.
Famous Members of the Breed
English Springers have enjoyed popularity for more than a century, and many notable members of the breed have distinguished themselves. Former President George H. W. Bush had a female ESS named Millie, and Tilda Swinton and Oprah Winfrey have kept members of the breed.
Many ESSs have achieved celebrity status. However, one dog in particular is often cited as the first English Springer Spaniel to arrive in North America. This spaniel came over on the Mayflower, and their travel to the New World is recorded in journals kept by the pilgrims.
However, though this dog is often referred to as an English Springer Spaniel, the reality is that the breed had not yet been established. All land spaniels were essentially the same at that time. Regardless, this unnamed spaniel was one of the first European dogs to set paw upon the shores of Plymouth Bay in what would become Massachusetts all those years ago.
Purchasing or Adopting an English Springer Spaniel
If you want to explore this breed further, start with the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association, the parent club for the breed in the United States. It maintains a breeder directory and offers resources to prospective ESS buyers.
Above all else, meet with your breeder and discuss your interest in English Springers. Ask questions, find out if the breeder performs health screening and genetic testing, and inquire about the temperament of both parents. Don't rush in, and make sure this is the right breed for you. Any quality breeder will insist on engaging you in a dialogue before buying, so don't be tempted to purchase a dog site-unseen on the same day you meet the breeder.
English Springer Rescue America: The ESRA operates nationally with a focus on rescuing, fostering, and rehoming English Springer Spaniels.
Mid Atlantic English Springer Spaniel Rescue: This organization provides rescue and adoption services for the breed primarily along the East Coast.
Springer Spaniel Rescue Inc.: This rescue primarily addresses rescue and adoption needs for ESSs in the Western United States.
Is This Breed Right for You?
Ask yourself if you can dedicate the time, care, and attention English Springer Spaniels require. If you have some experience training dogs, live an active lifestyle, and can provide for the health and nutritional needs of your dog, the ESS might be the perfect pet for you. Because this breed is high-energy and highly active, they don't make the best dogs for new owners, but they are so easy to train and eager to please that they fit well in almost all responsible households.