There has been a much-needed overhaul of breed standards, says David Tomlinson, although show and working animals are often still worlds apart. A Slumber spaniel, anyone?

While certain breeds evolved long before anyone had ever thought of breed standards for them, others were bred selectively to conform to their breeder’s written vision of what they were trying to produce, says David Tomlinson.

For wild greys and redlegs, you need a worker that’s keen, thorough and won’t mind the brambles. So which is the best gundog for partridges? Alec Marsh finds out.

If it’s not a labrador, what makes the perfect family gundog? David Tomlinson considers the options.


Which came first, the breed standard or the breed? It’s a bit like the conundrum of the chicken and the egg, but the truth is that certain breeds evolved long before anyone had ever thought of a breed standard for them – the saluki is a good example – while others were bred selectively to conform to their breeder’s written vision of what they were trying to produce. The classic example is the Korthals griffon, a Continental pointing dog.

Edward Karel Korthals, the breed’s creator, wanted a versatile hunting dog. He regarded the existing British breeds as too fast, the Continentals too slow, so sought to combine the two in a tough, adaptable animal. Thirty years of rigorous selective breeding, culling any animals that didn’t reach his expectations, led to a breed standard that hasn’t been changed since he wrote it. Today, there’s no such thing as a show or working strain of Korthals griffon: all the dogs bred are expected to be able to work, just as they have to conform to the breed standard before being allowed to enter competitions. As a result, the modern Korthals griffon looks almost identical to the dogs pictured alongside Edward Korthals more than 100 years ago.

The Continentals take gundog breeding seriously, with no litter of pups being bred without the approval of the local breed master. Here in Britain we have a different approach: show dogs have to conform, more or less, to the breed standard, though this does depend to a large extent on the judges’ interpretation of it. The standard for the English springer spaniel, for example, requires an approximate height of 51cm (20in), yet virtually every show springer exceeds this. In contrast, it’s rare these days to see a 51cm trialling springer – most are significantly smaller, their only similarity to their show-bred cousins being in their name. There has never been a test at a field trial to ensure that the dogs competing conform to the breed standard.

Though the English springer was recognised by the Kennel Club as a breed in its own right in 1901, it wasn’t until 1934 that the English springer spaniel clubs of England, Wales and Scotland approved the first breed standard. I’ve no doubt that most springers in those days were 20in high at the withers. The standard was revised again in 1969. In 1982, the Kennel Club (KC) took responsibility for all breed standards, and many of these were standardised and shortened in 1989. Today, the Club holds the copyright for the breed standards of all KC-recognised breeds, and they can only be changed with the KC’s approval.

The most radical overhaul of breed standards took place after the screening of the BBC’s Pedigree Dogs Exposed, in 2008. The programme revealed that few, if any, of the existing breed standards took into account the dog’s health and many of the requirements, such as flat faces and screw tails, were dangerous. As a result, all breed standards were scrutinised and many were rewritten, though whether the breed clubs and specialist judges took notice of the changes is debatable. It’s notable that in 2016 a German shepherd won best in breed at Crufts, despite a sloping back impeding its movement.

Of sporting dogs, the Clumber spaniel’s breed standard saw the greatest changes. The word ‘massive’ was dropped and the revision called for a weight reduction from the existing ‘ideal’ of 80lb for dogs and 65lb for bitches to 65-75lb for dogs and 55-65lb for bitches, insisting that ‘the Clumber should be firm, fit and capable of a day’s work of beating in heavy cover’.

James Darley, founder of the Working Clumber Spaniel Society and one of the most influential figures in restoring the Clumber to its rightful place as a working dog, believes that these weights are still far too high, suggesting that 45-55lb for dogs and 35lb-45lb for bitches would be more likely to result in dogs that can work.

In his recently published book, Rebirth of the Royal Spaniel, Darley points out that “the notion of expecting a spaniel of 80lb, or even a little less, to hunt for long periods, in thick cover or difficult terrain, is simply ridiculous to a field sportsman. The dog will exhaust itself in no time just carting its own body weight around.” He points out that the Clumber also suffers numerous hereditary defects and diseases, ranging from entropion to hip dysplasia.

When I met Darley to discuss his book, he told me that he believes that the existing KC breed standard for Clumbers should be scrapped and that they should revert to the original from 1904, drawn up by the 40 individuals who joined together to form the Clumber Spaniel Club. This might well have been based on the spaniels portrayed by the artist John Emms at Clumber Park in the 1880s. It’s a great idea, but bound to be rejected by today’s Clumber Spaniel Club, the members of which would end up with unshowable dogs. Perhaps the latter could become a new breed, the Slumber spaniel, the name Clumber retained for the smaller, fitter and healthier working types?