Supply is outstripping demand for spaniels and the harder it is to sell puppies, the less discriminating some breeders are about checking out potential owners. This means more spaniels end up in rescue or welfare organisations, increasingly displaying the same obsessive-compulsive symptoms as caged big cats


Head-tapping, pacing back and forth, shadow-chasing and flesh-chewing are distressing behaviours normally associated with caged big cats. However, increasingly, the same obsessive-compulsive symptoms are being exhibited by springer spaniels coming into the care of welfare organisations.

“Too many English springer spaniel puppies are being bred and supply is outstripping demand, especially at a time when people can’t afford unnecessary luxuries like puppies,” says Selina Clarke, national coordinator of English Springer Spaniel Welfare. “The harder it is to sell puppies, the less discriminating some breeders are about checking the suitability of homes and potential owners. Too many pups from working lines go to people that don’t understand how much exercise the minds and bodies of working breeds need.”


Rhyannon Boyd of Northern English Springer Spaniel Rescue (NESSR) claims that 99% of the dogs the charity deals with are from working strains. “The trouble lies in the middle and lower end of the springer world, where the motivation for breeding is to make a few quid or to carry on the line. From a litter of seven, one or two might find shooting homes but the rest will probably end up as pets in unsuitable circumstances.”

Unlike many dog rescue organisations, NESSR actively seeks out working homes, but anyone hoping to pick up a ready-trained gundog on the cheap is likely to be disappointed. “Fully trained working dogs tend to come our way when they’re old and the owner can’t or isn’t willing to pay vets’ bills,” says Rhyannon.

However, for those with patience and prepared for hard work, taking on a rescue spaniel can prove highly satisfying. Robin Foster, who works on a large shooting estate in Lancashire, rehomed springer Tia two years ago. She had been bought as a companion for a German shepherd – both dogs were home alone all day while the owner worked – but soon found herself in the care of NESSR.

“She’d had no training but was like a sponge and responded very well. She loved the attention and stimulation,” says Robin. Tia has spent two years in the beating line but will start picking-up this season. “I’m really pleased with her and it’s great to think we’ve taken a dog that wasn’t in the best circumstances and given her a home where she is out three or four times a day and doing the job she was bred for. She’s inspired some of my colleagues to take on a rescue.”

Sue Axtell’s experience of rehoming proves that it is never too late for a dog to tap into its working heritage. “I got Piper, my springer, last August. I needed another dog for beating because my Brittany could no longer manage a whole day. Piper was abandoned in kennels and is around five or six. He’s obviously from a working strain because the kennel maids noticed that he would flush birds but not chase them when on walks. On a shoot I take ‘first-drive sausages’ in case of emergencies but after the initial excitement he settles and is remarkably patient. At home, he likes to play tag with my deerhound but once they’ve chased each other around the garden they just cuddle up together.”

While most dogs end up in kennels because their working instincts prove too much for uninformed owners, occasionally gundog breeds find themselves homeless because they didn’t cut the mustard in the shooting field. Furthermore, when times are tough financially, some people will claim they can’t justify keeping a dog merely as a pet.

Jake, an Irish water spaniel, was adopted from the Dogs’ Trust by Carole Spencer. “Jake was bullied by the other dogs,” she recalls. “He was grossly underweight, used to eat his poo and had such severe kennel cough the vet thought he might have distemper.” Happily, Jake is now fighting fit and living an idyllic life five minutes’ walk from the Spey and a short drive from the Moray beaches. “He shares a huge garden with four chickens and is a favourite with the local children who say he reminds them of Scooby Doo,” says Carole.

Louise Bailey from the Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club confirms there are other cases of dogs that were bought to work needing to be rehomed. “Water spaniels are big dogs and slow to mature. Although they learn extremely well, they require more time and patience than a labrador,” she says. “But breeders would rather have puppies back than see them in an animal shelter. I deal with only three or four dogs a year needing a new home, and most are due to a change of personal circumstances. It is a vulnerable breed – most years fewer than 200 puppies are born – so we have waiting-lists for pups and, fortunately, rescue dogs.”

Rarity has saved these and other spaniels from being rescued in any great number: breed societies report that only three Sussex and a lone field spaniel have been rehomed this year. However, scarcity hasn’t been the saviour of one. “I’ve been dealing with rehoming Clumbers for 10 years. A typical figure is 12 a year, which doesn’t sound a lot but when you consider there are only about 2,000 in the country it’s a worrying proportion,” says Sue Williams, rescue coordin-ator of the Clumber Spaniel Club. “Rehoming peaked in the early Nineties when a Clumber won Crufts. Suddenly they became the must-have dog; breeders took advantage of this to make money and didn’t place pups properly. Clumbers look beautiful in the ring and the youngsters are like adorable teddies but they grow into large, hairy, stubborn dogs that dribble everywhere. They are not for everyone.”

Robert Nettleton has kept and worked Clumbers for many years. He also acts as a fosterer, caring for and assessing homeless dogs until they can be placed permanently. William was one such dog. He arrived in 2002 but never left, having got his paws under the table and a place in Robert’s heart.

“William had been found wandering Norwich. He was underweight and in desperate need of clipping. He didn’t even respond to basic commands and was lively to the point of being uncontrollable, which, I suspect, is why someone got rid of him. He responded so well to basic training that I took him to a gundog trainer. It took a while to get to grips with picking-up game but he’s been a good working dog.

“Although Clumbers are expensive, a lot end up needing new homes, probably because they are bought as appealing puppies with little thought to their needs as adults,” Robert continues. “We’ve become a designer society in which pedigree dogs are bought for their looks or being fashionable.”

Many worry that working cockers could suffer from being the next “big thing”. Rhyannon’s organisation has started taking in more: “It’s already a huge problem as working cockers are now so popular and trendy within the pet community.” Happily, though, many appreciate the industriousness of these busy little dogs. Hearing Dogs for Deaf People takes spaniels of all breeds. “They are good to train because they are easily motivated by food or toys, friendly and eager to please,” says Gemma Walton from the charity. “However, their hunting instincts can make them very active so we take care to match them with energetic partners.”

Working cocker Cody was spotted in Battersea Dogs’ Home by a Hearing Dogs selector. Today he helps his deaf owner, Susan, by alerting her to sounds such as the smoke alarm, doorbell and cooker timer, letting her know when she’s received a text message and even predicting when she is about to have an epileptic seizure. “He guides me to my chair, so I can sit down and minimise the risk of injuring myself,” reveals Susan.

The armed forces and police use rescues as sniffer dogs. “It’s great to see them doing such an important job but I’d rather we didn’t have so many dogs for these services to choose from,” says Rhyannon. “The only way to reduce the numbers of spaniels needing new homes is to stop overbreeding and the irresponsible sale of puppies to unsuitable homes.”

Northern English Springer Spaniel Rescue
Tel 01670 760346

English Springer Spaniel Welfare
Tel 01752 691579
English Springer Spaniel Welfare.

The Field Spaniel Society
Tel 01825 840211
Field Spaniel Society.

The Cocker Rescue Scheme
Tel 01273 890701
The Cocker Spaniel Club.

Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club
Tel 01782 551026

Clumber Spaniel Club
Tel 01453 812210
Clumber Spaniel Club.

Sussex Spaniel Association
Tel 01933 665562
Sussex Spaniels.

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