The secret of the Spaniel’s appeal is really no secret at all. Good looks, a beguiling expression and an unbridled enthusiasm characterize the breeds that comprise one of the dog world’s most enduring families of gun dogs.
During the 15th century, dogs with feathered coats and dependable noses were used to assist falconers in pursuit of partridge and other fowl. These versatile performers worked on land and in the water, happily flushing their way into the hearts of gentlemen hunters on both sides of the English Channel.
In time, Spaniels were divided into water and land varieties, and some of the “land Spaniels” were eventually used to “spring” game within range of the gun. Among the oldest varieties of such dogs were those favored by the Celts of Brittany, Scotland and Wales.
In her book, “The Truth About Sporting Dogs,” published in 1972 by Howell Book House, C. Bede Maxwell writes, “Most medieval art and tapestry depict hunting dogs as white, but here and there one occasionally glimpses color. Then we have, of course, the Turberville division of French hunting dogs by color. Caius, writing at about the same time as Turberville, wrote of British Spaniels that ‘for the most part their Skynnes are white, and if they be marked with any Spottes they are commonly Red, and somewhat great withal.’” Maxwell goes on to add, “Sizeable red-and-white patching remains modernly the endowment of the Welsh Springer Spaniel, a dog of ancient Celtic associations.”
The modern Starter, as the Welsh Springer Spaniel was also known, may represent the prototypical Spaniel. However, it was not until the late 19th century that these dogs were distinguished as a separate breed by color, size and hunting technique.
AKC recognition for the Welsh Springer occurred in 1906, four years after the Kennel Club (UK) had done so. Although never a popular breed in either country, the Welsh Springer Spaniel nonetheless possesses the essential elements that endear fanciers to Spaniels the world over: physical beauty, an affectionate nature and an active devotion to fieldwork and family.
In 2011, registrations for the breed placed it 130th of the 173 AKC-recognized breeds.
Attractive and Active
According to the General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard, “The Welsh Springer Spaniel is a dog of distinct variety and ancient origin, who derives his name from his hunting style and not his relationship to other breeds.” With this introduction, the breed is clearly distinguished from its more contemporary cousins.
The Welsh Springer is “an attractive dog of handy size, exhibiting substance without coarseness.” The Welsh Springer Spaniel Club of America’s illustrated standard describes the breed as “a working Spaniel that performs the job for which he was originally intended with an economy of effort while still maintaining an aesthetically pleasing picture.” This is one breed meant to get the job done and look good while doing it.
As an “active flushing Spaniel,” the breed should be presented in the show ring “in hard-muscled working condition.” The Illustrated Standard describes a “sturdy dog, solid to the touch,” and highlights the breed’s slightly rectangular proportions, moderate angles, overall balance and unexaggerated appearance.
This lack of exaggeration is extended to the Welsh Springer’s attractive red and white coat. It should be “thick enough to protect him from heavy cover and weather,” according to the standard, but “not so excessive as to hinder his work.”
A Unique Head
“The Welshie has his own size, his topline, his degree of feathering and very much his distinctive head type,” according to Maxwell, while the AKC breed standard describes the breed’s head as “unique,” and emphasizes that it “should in no way approximate that of other Spaniel breeds.” The illustrated standard defines unique as, “free from any sort of exaggeration.”
The head of the Welsh Springer Spaniel is proportionate to the body and never coarse or racy. The back skull width approximates its length. Muzzle and skull are about equal in length, although the top plane of the skull is “very slightly divergent” from the muzzle without appearing “down-faced.” The skull is “slightly domed,” and the muzzle is “straight, fairly square and free from excessive flews.”
According to the illustrated standard, “The entire head when viewed from above should be slightly wedge-shaped and a very soft wedge-shape when viewed in profile.”
Welsh Springer Spaniels have a soft expression created by “dark to medium brown,” oval-shaped eyes of medium size, with tight eye rims and dark pigment. Chiseling below the eyes, as described by the illustrated standard, should be “clean and contoured.”
The breed’s ears are a distinguishing characteristic and are “set on approximately at eye level and hang close to the cheeks.” They are “comparatively small,” and their “gradually narrowing” shape is “somewhat like a vine leaf.” Unlike most Spaniel breeds, the ears of the Welsh Springer are only lightly feathered and do not reach to the nose.
As expected of a hunting dog, the nose of the Welsh Springer has “well-developed” nostrils. Color is “black or any shade of brown,” and a pink nose is to be “severely penalized,” according to the AKC breed standard.
Ancient Red and White
The Color and Coat section of the breed standard describes a coat that is “naturally straight, flat and soft to the touch, never wiry or wavy.” The coat’s importance to this hunting breed is emphasized by its “sufficiently dense” quality that makes it “waterproof, thorn-proof and weatherproof.”
Feathering is moderate on the back of the forelegs, hind legs above the hocks, chest and under the body. The illustrated standard states, “The Welsh should be shown in a neatened, but natural-looking, trim. The coat should not look barbered, shaved or blunt cut.” Hair quality is paramount, and texture is of greater importance than coat length.
The rich red and white coat of the Welsh Springer Spaniel marks the breed as “ancient” in origin. Maxwell describes the red and white coat patterning as “tenacious within the breed.” She writes, “The Welshie’s red is red, glowingly so. His white gleams, and the dark eyes, nose, eye-rims lend softness not found in the lighter hazel-and-flesh combination.”
“Any pattern is acceptable,” according to the breed standard, and “any white area may be flecked with red ticking.” The illustrated standard indicates that ticking may be of “any amount,” and that both red and white “must be somewhere on the body” with no preference given to “one type of marking over another.”
A full mask, with red over both eyes, is preferred but not essential, and the presence or absence of a blaze on the head is “insignificant,” according to the illustrated standard. Likewise, a red thumb print on the top of the skull known as the “Llanharan spot” may be present.
The Welsh Springer remains a loyal and affectionate hunting partner today, a distinguished Spaniel marked with the colors of an ancient past.