Our history is studded with the names of top sporting dogs, from Ben of Hyde to Banchory Bolo, and careful breeding has ensured their excellence lives on, says Matthew Dennison


Matthew Dennison charts some of the most famous sporting dogs through history, from spaniels to cockers, who have made a name for themselves in the field.

Popular sires have had an unhealthy level of input into the gene pool of our sporting breeds, which may be damaging. Could outcrossing be the secret to a long and happy life, asks David Tomlinson.

A dog’s name should be short, punchy and easy for them to recognise, but while many human monikers fit this bill, some names simply suit pups better than people, says David Tomlinson.


Within a decade of the first official field trial for spaniels – held at Sutton Scarsdale in 1899 – animalier Arthur Wardle set about his masterly Field Spaniels of the 20th Century. Seven of Wardle’s eight subjects were champion sporting dogs, including the black cocker Ch Jetsam Bowdler and a dark-coated, mournful-eyed field spaniel, Ch Shillington Rona, regarded by contemporaries as “the best coloured field spaniel seen up to now”. Organised field trials were in their infancy; the Kennel Club, founded in 1873, had only recently recognised several spaniel breeds, including, in 1902, the English springer (the following year, a liver-and-white springer called Beechgrove Will, bred by Mr Winton Smith of Boreham Wood, became the breed’s first champion). Wardle took considerable pains to capture accurately the distinctive qualities of the Clumber, springer, cocker, field and Sussex spaniels on his canvas. His preliminary sketches were unusually highly finished. For Wardle’s painting was more than purely decorative. Among the dogs he painted were the progenitors of many subsequent champions.

Ch Shillington Rona, herself descended from the famous Victorian liver-roan field spaniels Alonzo and Ch Fop, would become the ancestress of a number of coloured field spaniel champions, while Ch Jetsam Bowdler – a winner in field trials and at Crufts, distinguished by her compactness of body – played a key part in the evolution of black cocker spaniels in England. She was, wrote her owner, early cocker enthusiast Mr R de Courcy Peele, the model “for the modern type of cocker”. By 1924, the author of The Popular Cocker Spaniel could claim that de Courcy Peele’s kennels had “produced champion after champion with monotonous regularity”.

Champion dogs like de Courcy Peele’s ‘Bowdler’ cockers have influenced not only the appearance of breeds, but their performance. A century ago, this was the case with the red-and-white Welsh springer spaniels bred at Ynysygerwn in South Wales by AT Williams, whose family, he claimed, had worked Welsh springer-type spaniels since the 18th century. Williams used his dogs in place of beaters for flushing game. Several, including Roverson of Gwern and his sire Rover of Gwern, became field trial champions and, among Welsh springer enthusiasts, established essential characteristics for the breed. Writing in The Field in 1903, Williams highlighted a perennial concern: that breeders preserve dogs’ character, type and fitness for purpose. To this end, his dog Corrin became the first Welsh springer to be photographed. It, too, played its part in the breed’s development, successful in the field, as a show dog and at stud.

Doyen of early smooth fox-terrier breeders Francis Redmond proved an exacting patron when he commissioned from Wardle the painting of his Totteridge
kennels known as The Totteridge XI. Redmond began showing smooth fox terriers in the 1870s. At the annual show organised by the Fox Terrier Club in 1897, he set “quite a record in dog show annals” by winning so many classes that his prize money exceeded 200 guineas. Redmond selected 11 dogs for Wardle’s picture. Conscious of the reputation of his kennels, but concerned to maintain breed standards, he is recorded as repeatedly interfering in Wardle’s painting, requiring adjustments to the dogs’ appearance to bring them closer to the ideal. Of course, Redmond got his way. In 1907, the author of The New Book of the Dog argued that “no one has made such a study of the breed, reducing it almost to a science” and noted that, without some input from a Redmond sire or dam, other smooth fox terriers were unlikely to achieve show-ring success.

Redmond’s fellow fox-terrier fanciers included Kathleen Pelham-Clinton, wife of the 7th Duke of Newcastle. Although none of her smooth fox terriers rivalled Redmond’s Ch Donna Fortuna, considered by judges of the time the best fox terrier ever entered for competition. The Duchess bred a number of champion sporting dogs, including Clumber spaniels and smooth and wire-haired fox terriers. Ch Cackler of Notts, her best-known wire fox terrier, took numerous prizes and enjoyed a successful career at stud: in 2000, the Kennel Club described the Duchess’ ‘of Notts’ dogs as the foundation of today’s wire fox terrier, and Cackler as an ancestor of every wire fox terrier across the globe. At a time when aristocrats were the celebrities of the age, the Duchess’ championing of these hardy working dogs did much to promote their popularity, especially after Lord Dudley gave Edward VII a terrier sired by Cackler, whom the King called Caesar and who achieved worldwide fame in 1910 by walking behind the King’s coffin in his funeral procession. Significantly, despite her success in the show ring, the Duchess remained concerned by her dogs’ working origins and, in particular, their robustness. In 1928, she described her fears that “we are getting terriers too much like a great slashing blood horse of the Aintree type, not a fox catcher”. She concluded: “Bone and strength in small compass”, a terrier should stand “like a cleverly made hunter”.


A generation later, another aristocratic dog fancier enjoyed similar prominence. Following her husband’s death in 1929, Lorna, Countess Howe focused on canine interests. Labrador retrievers proved her favourites. A relatively new breed, recognised by the Kennel Club as recently as 1903, labradors were dogs on the up: from 1908 onwards, they convincingly outperformed the previously more favoured flatcoat retriever in field trials, laying foundations for their popularity in the shooting field. By the late 1920s, the popular press noted the shifting fortunes of the two breeds: “Flat-coated retrievers,” stated the Daily Mail, “have been side-tracked latterly, labradors having eclipsed them completely alike on the show bench and at field trials.” In 1932, the Countess won Best in Show at Crufts with a black labrador called Bramshaw Bob. The same dog took the title again the following year. In 1937, the Countess won Best in Show for a third time with a labrador called Cheveralla Ben of Banchory.

In total, four of Lorna Howe’s dogs became dual champions, but for the Countess none rivalled her first show bench and field trial champion, Banchory Bolo, whom she afterwards described as “a long way first” among her best dogs. Bolo’s was the sort of heartening career beloved of dog owners: a difficult animal, who had defeated a number of owners by the time of the Countess’ purchase in 1918, he was finally successfully trained after several false starts, including the dog impaling himself on the spikes of an iron gate in his determination to escape. Lorna Howe nursed him back to health and success as field trial champion in 1920 and, two years later, in the show ring. In 1923, Bolo’s importance was recognised when the Labrador Retriever Club presented his owner with a plaque made by Garrard (then the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co), featuring three miniature paintings of the dog by Reuben Ward Binks. Despite her subsequent successes with the breed, it was one of these paintings that Lorna Howe used as the frontispiece to her book, The Popular Labrador Retriever. Bolo’s reputation survives in other ways: a white spot on a labrador’s paws, behind the pads, is known as a ‘Bolo mark’ or ‘Bolo pad’.


Labradors like Bolo, bred by the Banchory kennels, enjoyed remarkable success in pre-war field trials. Their record stood until the 1980s, when FTCh Breeze of Drakeshead became the only dog to date to win the International Gundog League (IGL) retriever championship in three consecutive years. On the third occasion, at Sandringham, as judges were reaching a decision, HM The Queen informed them of a wounded partridge at some distance: it was Breeze who successfully undertook the retrieve. Other dogs bred by John and Sandra Halstead at their Drakeshead kennels won the IGL retriever championship, including FTCh Westead Shot and FTCh Raughlin Pete, but it is Breeze, a descendant of FTW Dipper of Drakeshead and FTCh Drakeshead Tinker, who set the bar.

The Queen’s interest in labradors, eclipsed for the public by her fondness for corgis, is well known among sportsmen. Like many of her tastes, it was one she inherited from her father and grandfather. At Sandringham in 1911, George V established a strain of black labradors. The next decade, his son, later George VI, began breeding yellow labradors – descendants of the first yellow labradors, Ben of Hyde and his son, Neptune – both as pets and gundogs. As a child, Princess Elizabeth played with yellow labradors Glen, Mimsy, Stiffy and Scrummy, but in the 1960s, with headkeeper Bill Meldrum, she embarked on a breeding programme to produce a Sandringham field trial champion. Her efforts were markedly successful: Meldrum produced a number of champions, including Sandringham Salt, Sandringham Ranger, Sandringham Slipper and The Queen’s favourite, Sherry of Biteabout. The best-known of her champions, Sandringham Sydney, was out of Sherry of Biteabout, but famously failed to inspire the same bond with Her Majesty.

HS Lloyd, who was described by fellow breeder Hester Higgens as “an eloquent advocate of the genuine cocker”, could have had little idea, when he published The Popular Cocker Spaniel in 1924, of the glittering career that lay ahead of him as an owner and breeder of cockers. Beginning in 1930, three of Lloyd’s dogs won Best in Show at Crufts, each twice, culminating with the second win, in 1950, for his blue-roan bitch, Tracey Witch of Ware, a descendant of his earlier champion Luckystar of Ware. Tracey Witch achieved widespread popularity after a near third win in 1953 and the use by dog-food manufacturer Spratt’s of an image of the dog by canine artist Frederick Thomas Daws. Although her career was confined to the show ring, wins at Crufts in the Sporting Group and Gundog Group ensured that her influence extended to working cockers. In the early 1970s, her impact was matched by that of a Northern Ireland-bred cocker, Speckle of Ardoon. By then, the cocker was suffering the fate of many once-fashionable breeds: a slump in popularity, especially in the shooting field. Speckle’s triple victory in the Spaniel Championship in 1972, 1973 and 1974 rekindled serious interest.

Time and again, careful breeding has yielded generations of sporting champions for leading kennels. Since 1999, the Duke of Beaufort has boasted a string of hound-class championship winners at Peterborough, esteemed for their ability in the field as well as their size, including Bailey 2003 in 2004 and, in 2010 and 2011 respectively, two winners out of Bailey 2003, Doublet ’09 and Doynton ’09.

Today, champion sporting dogs continue to shape breeding patterns and breed reputations, and successful kennels dominate competitions until new blood displaces them. As throughout their history, Britain’s working dogs embody the efforts of dedicated sportsmen, breeders and trainers. Thanks to their stewardship, fitness for purpose – enshrined in the canine heroes of the past – remains uppermost among criteria for success.