The Sporting Group contains in it some of the oldest breeds of dogs who have been helping men hunt for many centuries. The dogs that belong to this group still help sportsmen hunt wild birds. For this reason they are sometimes called “bird dogs” or “gun dogs:” Although these breeds are kept as pets in many American homes, they have not forgotten their ancient skill. They make fine hunters for people who want to train and use them for that special purpose.
Perhaps the best known breed in the whole Sporting Group is the cocker spaniel. He belongs to the largest dog family, the spaniels, but he is the smallest of all dogs that are regularly used as gun dogs. He got his name from the days when he was used to hunt woodcock. This is a small bird which keeps low to the ground and often hides in thick underbrush. Because the cocker was smaller than other hunting dogs, he could flush this bird better than they could. First he was called the “dog for woodcock,” then the “cocking spaniel,” and finally just plain “cocker.”
Like all the members of the spaniel family, the cocker is a very old breed. He was first brought from Spain to France and England some time around the middle of the fourteenth century. No one knows whether or not Spain was the country of his origin, but because he came to France from there, the French named him “Espagnol” (pronounced Ess-pan-yole ), which is the French word for Spaniard. In English, “Espagnol” became “Spaniel:” Ever since those days, he has been a favorite hunting companion and family pet, first in Europe and later in America.
The cocker is a short dog with strong neck and shoulders. A grown cocker weighs about twenty-five pounds. He has a beautiful head with long, floppy ears and very large, intelligent brown or hazel eyes. His silky coat of flat or wavy hair may be colored all black, all red, all cream. Or it may be black and white, red and white, black and tan, or even black and tan and white-enough different colors to suit anyone’s taste! He has fine feathers of hair on his legs, his ears, and his chest, and his short tail wags with an enthusiastic language all its own. The cocker seems to love children as much as grownups, and every member of the family soon learns to love him. Because he is reasonably small, he is quite at home in a city apartment, as long as he gets enough outdoor exercise. And because he can still hunt if he is trained, he is also at home in the country.
English Springer Spaniel
The English springer spaniel looks much the same today as he did long ago when he was first raised as a hunting dog by the Dukes of Norfolk in England. He was called the “springing spaniel” then because his particular method of hunting birds was to make them “spring.” This means he startled the birds from their hiding place in low bushes or grass so they flew up into the air where the hunter could aim his gun at them.
Like all bird dogs, the springer is trained not to harm or eat the game his master has shot down. A famous story illustrates this training in a wonderful, but sad, way: Long, long ago, in Europe, a prince and his springer came back from hunting with a bag of eleven partridges. The dog’s keeper had just laid out the birds on a table in a small room when the prince called him to do an errand. The keeper ran out of the room, closing the door behind him and leaving the springer there. The errand must have been an urgent one, for it kept the prince and his servant away from the castle for several days. When the keeper returned to the room where he had forgotten the dog, he found all the partridges still on the table, untouched. But the good, obedient springer had died of starvation!
The English springer is larger than the cocker, with long legs that make him a fast runner. His coat is either flat or wavy, and usually a dark liver color and white, or black and white. He has long ears and a short tail and big, alert eyes that are hazel color when his coat is reddish, or black if his coat is black and white.
American hunters who first used springers while visiting England liked them so much that they brought some of them to this country. They are now one of the favorite American hunting dogs, as well as dearly loved companions for either country or city.
Irish Water Spaniel
The cocker is called a “land spaniel,” because he does his work on the land. But there are also “water spaniels,” who are trained to retrieve wounded birds from water as well as from land. One of the best known of this kind of spaniel is the Irish water spaniel. He is descended from the English water dog which no longer exists today.
The Irish water spaniel is the tallest member of the spaniel family, but except for having the same floppy ears, he looks almost more like a poodle than like the cocker or springer. Instead of having their flat, silky coat, he has thick hair curled in tight ringlets that cover his legs and keep him dry when he is in the water. He wears a topknot of these curls in the middle of his head, and his tail is long and almost hairless, like a rat’s tail. For this reason, he is sometimes called the “rat-tailed spaniel.” His most usual coat color is a solid red brown, like liver, and his eyes are nearly always dark.
He is not a beautiful dog, but because he is easy to train and loyal and a fine hunter, he makes an excellent country pet. He is also a good watchdog.
The Irish setter is perhaps the most popular of the three setter breeds. These dogs developed from large spaniels who were called “setting spaniels.” They were given this name in olden days when hunters sometimes caught their game with big nets. The setting spaniel was trained to find its bird, then “set” or crouch close to it very quietly, so as not to frighten it away. The hunter could then throw his net over the dog’s head and trap the bird in it.
The Irish setter was also called the “red spaniel,” and in some parts of Ireland he is still called that. He is much larger than a spaniel, however, and always has a beautiful golden-red coat. He carries his long, feathery tail high, like a waving flag, except when he is pointing at game with his nose. Then he stands like a statue, his tail held straight out and very still. Since people no longer hunt with nets, the Irish setter now helps hunters find wild birds by pointing, rather than by setting.
He is also a good swimmer and very devoted to his master. A recent newspaper story illustrates both these qualities: A hunter was returning from a hunting trip with his Irish setter when his car plunged through a bridge and into a river. The setter wasn’t hurt, but the hunter was knocked unconscious. When he gained consciousness several hours later, the setter was still holding his master’s head above water!
In spite of his size, the Irish setter can look very sad and discouraged if he is treated harshly, so it is important always to be patient in training him, and always to speak gently to him. But he has a happy-go-lucky disposition when he is treated kindly. Although he is rather large for the city, he is such a natural gentleman that he makes as good an apartment pet as he does a country companion.
The retriever family of dogs were specially developed to find, pick up, and carry game back to their masters. When birds are shot on the wing, they nearly always fall into water or on land far away from where the hunter is standing. The retriever saves the hunter the bother of looking for his game.
But it isn’t much help to train a dog to retrieve fallen birds if he chews them with his sharp teeth. Hunters long ago learned that they needed a dog who could both find their game and bring it to them unharmed. Such a dog was the retriever. He had a “soft mouth,” which meant that he could carry a wounded or dead bird without hurting it at all. He also had two coats of hair, one under the other, to keep him dry and warm in the coldest water. The earliest known retrievers were brought to England on boats that fished near Newfoundland, Canada. One of the most popular breeds of retrievers is the Labrador.
Although he really came from Newfoundland, he was first called a “Labrador spaniel” and later plain “Labrador.” He is a large dog, so strong that he can work in any kind of weather. His coat is smooth and thick. He can swim faster than dogs with long coats because ice cannot form so easily on his short hair. He has broad shoulders and a wide head that holds a very intelligent brain. Usually he is all black, or all yellow, with brown, black, or yellow eyes. His tail is like an otter’s-long, round, thick at the body, and tapering to a fine point at the end.
Labrador puppies are sturdy and easy to raise. Sometimes they don’t reach their full growth until they are two years old. They are especially devoted to children and they love to play and are most eager to please their masters. This makes them fine pets, as well as wonderful hunters, for a country home.
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
The Chesapeake Bay retriever is one of the few breeds developed in the United States. It is believed this breed started from two Newfoundland puppies who were saved from a ship that was wrecked near the Chesapeake Bay around the year 1807. These puppies were mated with local hunting dogs.
The Chesapeake Bay retriever is a big dog that weighs as much as seventy-five pounds. He has powerful legs that enable him to swim against strong currents. His coat is dense and short, with an oily undercoat of wool which protects him from cold weather and water. His ears are small, his tail medium long, and his muzzle short and rounded. His color, which blends easily with the color of the landscape, can be anything from dark brown to can or straw color. But his eyes are always yellow!
He is not a handsome dog, but he is a favorite of American sportsmen. He is an excellent watchdog and such a willing worker that he makes one of the best of all country pets. One Chesapeake Bay retriever has been known to retrieve as many as three hundred ducks in a single day’s hunting.
The first golden retrievers came to the United States in the early 1900s and have become very popular. They are descended from a troupe of Russian circus dogs that toured Britain in Queen Victoria’s days. An Englishman was so impressed by their beauty and intelligence that he bought them all. On his estate, they very quickly learned to hunt deer and retrieve game. These dogs were bred to bloodhounds, and their puppies were called “golden retrievers” because of the lovely color of their coats.
The golden retriever weighs about sixty-five pounds when fully grown. He is very sturdy and loves to run over fields and hills on his strong, round feet. His head is broad, with dark, wide eyes that have an alert, kindly expression. His ears are small, his tail long and straight. The golden shade of his flat or wavy waterproof coat makes him a beautiful animal. He is one of the best allround hunting dogs, both on land and water, with an especially soft mouth that wouldn’t hurt the smallest bird, and the very keen nose of a bloodhound. Since he is as gentle with people as he is with birds, he makes a fine pet for a family who lives in the country.
Golden retrievers seem to know their work even when they are very young. At one kennel where this kind of dog is raised, the owner called out of his pen a six-monthsold puppy named Piper. Now, Piper was so little that he had not yet had any training. He was still fat and awkward, with clumsy puppy feet and a puppy grin on his face. He jumped up and down, begging to play, but his master made him sit down at his side. Then the owner took a live duck from its cage, tied its feet together, and tossed it far away into some deep, soft grass. Like a flash, Piper ran to the spot where it had fallen, sniffed around a little, then came trotting back, the duck held so gently between his jaws that it didn’t quack once. And Piper held it so exactly balanced that neither the duck’s feet nor its head hung down to catch in bushes or brambles. This example of what a puppy can do will give you an idea of how valuable a full-grown golden retriever can be to someone who likes to hunt.
The pointer is believed to have come originally to England from Spain, where he was called the “perro de punta,” or “the dog that points.” He is one of the oldest purebred gun-dog breeds. He gets his name from the way he stands like a statue the instant he scents game ahead, his nose pointing to the spot where it is hiding, his long tail held straight and stiff behind him. There are stories that tell of pointers who have stayed pointing at hidden partridges for as long as an hour and a quarter.
The pointer is medium-sized, with strong muscles and feet that have thick pads to help him run over rough country without getting cut. His coat is short, flat, and marked either black and white, yellow and white, or liver and white. He has rather short ears, dark eyes, and a long, straight nose to balance his long, straight tail. Even as a small puppy, he can often be seen pointing at something he scents.
Thousands of American sportsmen value him as their hunting companion, but he must be carefully trained when young so he does not grow up to be wild or willful. Because he needs lots of outdoor exercise, he would probably be more at home in the country than in the city. Also, since he is slow to make friends yet very loyal to his master, he is an excellent watchdog.
The Weimaraner breed is very new to our country. There are only a few hundred of these dogs in America, although they were developed in Weimar, Germany, as long ago as 1810. The name is pronounced “Vy-maron-er” and means “one who lives in Weimar:”
This is the city where this breed was originally raised to hunt the wolves, deer, bear, and mountain lions which lived in the nearby forests. He was considered so valuable that many, many years ago, the Weimaraner Club of Germany allowed its members to keep only those puppies which measured up to its high standards of looks, personality, and ability. That is one reason that all Weimaraners today look the same and have the same wonderful hunting talents they had long ago.
Americans are learning to appreciate this large dog and use him to hunt birds. He is an excellent pointer and retriever, with a very soft mouth. He has been nicknamed the “gray ghost” because of his unusual short, silvercolored coat and because he moves so quietly and quickly through the fields when he is hunting. It is said that he can run almost as fast as a greyhound.
He has a fine head with beautiful, intelligent bluegray or yellow-brown eyes. His tail is short, but his legs are long and so powerful that he can work all day without getting tired. In spite of his flat coat, he can also stand very cold weather. Because his original German breeders were so proud of him that they treated him like a house companion as well as a hunter, he is affectionate with human beings.
He makes an ideal watchdog and a fine pet for young children.