How Gundogs Work

Working English Springer SpanielWorking English Springer Spaniel

To this day, gundogs are used for their natural ability to hunt. This can be done purely on a hobby basis. Alternatively, Field Trials designed to test and determine a dog's natural hunting ability, are conducted on a competitive basis. Four different specialized Field Trials are commonly conducted. Firstly for Setters and the Pointer (English), secondly for Spaniels, thirdly for Utility Gundogs and lastly for Retrievers. While the Utility Gundogs do all the tasks of the specialized Gundogs and the Retrievers obviously retrieve, we believe a brief outline of the specialized way Setters and the Pointer (English) and the Land Spaniels find game, needs further explanation.

How Setters and the Pointer (English) Work

'Honouring' the first dog's point'Honouring' the first dog's point

The dog(s) begins by searching around the edges of the field. This helps to burn off the dog's initial exuberance. It also assist the dogs to establish their bearings and familiarise themselves with the type of smells are required to seek. The dogs then systematically work back and forth, starting near the huntsman and gradually working further and further afield until the bird or game is found. When two dogs work as a team, one works close to the huntsman while the other goes further afield. If either dog finds game, the other dog assists. The correct manner in which the dog assists is to be aware of where the huntsmen and the other dog are positioned. They also respond should the huntsmen send them towards an area such as undergrowth beside a river.

Flat Coated RetrieverFlat Coated Retriever

Once game is detected the dog freezes, the Pointer in a more upright position than the Setters which generally crouch. If other dogs are present, they also freeze, "honouring" the first dog's point. The pointing or setting dog remains motionless until the huntsman is in position. The huntsman might also give a command instructing the dog to remain still, remaining in this 'frozen' position until the game is shot. Once shot, it is the Retriever's job to bring the game back to the hunter.

Field Trials

Field Trial CertificateField Trial Certificate

Many modern Setters and Pointers still retain this instinct to find game and 'freeze', despite never having been used for their original purpose. But it is important to understand that, from the earliest times, ethical huntsmen would select only what they wished to eat, releasing the small or young ones.[1] 

Historically Field Trials have been popular since gundogs became specialized. In a Trial, dogs should exhibit the desire to range and search for game and the ability to locate and point game either on their own or working with a brace mate. They should also be tractable, capable of retrieving game from land or water and delivering tenderly to hand. They should also be able to trail wounded game and show no signs of gun shyness. They must be over 6 months of age, and should be sound representatives of their breed and free of any major defects that could detract from the functionality of the dog. The Qualifying Certificate shown here for a Field Trial is for a Weimaraner, a qualifying in a Utility Gundog Field Trial in Victoria Australia in 1960.

How Land Spaniels Work

Working English Springer SpanielsWorking English Springer Spaniels

The primary purpose of Land Spaniels was to cause the game to run (or fly) out of hiding places into the open so the hunter could capture (or shoot) it. Some were also trained to retrieve the shot game. Historically, any small dogs that were trained to flush out game were called Spaniels. In 1570, Dr. Caius divided Spaniels into Land Spaniels and Water Spaniels. Today there are many more breeds of Land Spaniels popular today than Water Spaniels with Berwick and others describing the appearance of the Water Spaniel in 1790. He also described a Springer or Cocker and the King Charles[2].

Cocker Spaniel 1947Cocker Spaniel 1947

To understand how Spaniels were then adapted to do this specialized work, it is necessary to also consider the early types of guns. These were muzzle loaders which took considerable time to load. So, every shot had to be accurate. The actual shot then projected in a cone, rather than being the one single potentially fatal bullet we know today. This cone of shot put the dogs at risk of being injured. This required Spaniels that did not move fast and disturb the game which had to remain still while the shot was being prepared. So a Spaniel that had shorter limbs that could work in thick cover was developed. Spaniels flushed their game out of the undergrowth, so working in front of the gun.

Today we recognize eight different spaniel breeds, seven varieties of Land Spaniels with the Cocker Spaniel being the especially popular in the 1930's. The eighth variety is the only recognized breed of Water Spaniel we know in Australia today, the Irish Water Spaniel.

References and Further Reading

"The Spaniel Separation Saga" by Jane Harvey was also published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue 1, 2016 Page 10

[1] Gilbert Leighton-Boyce 'A Survey of Early Setters' Self-Published London 1985 ISBN 0-9510417-0-3 Pages 5 and ix.

[2] Edward C Ash, 'The Cocker Spaniel' published by Cassell and Company, Ltd, London, 1935 Chapter 1 pages 14 - 24.


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