Choosing an English Springer Spaniel – Selecting the Right ESS for your Family

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to English Springer Spaniels" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk - DVM. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Dr. Joanna de Klerk - DVM

Once you have decided the breed for you is an English Springer Spaniel, the first decisions may seem to be, male or female, liver and white or black and white? But although these are fundamental considerations, they are just a matter of preference, and neither gender nor color are a factor in what makes for a good dog, and the right fit for you. You may even completely change your mind on both counts when you connect with a particular dog.

So where should you look for your new dog? And once you have a breeder or shelter in your sights, what should you be looking for in the dog that is to share your life? This chapter will guide you through these decisions, to help you avoid the pitfalls, and be sure that the dog that comes home with you is the best fit for your future together.

Purchasing or Rescuing?

The English Springer Spaniel is a pedigree dog that comes with a fairly high price tag. If not, there will be a reason. The Springer Spaniel can be a complex breed, and sometimes puppies are chosen with no forethought, or the owner finds they cannot commit to the demands of the breed. These dogs that have been let down find themselves in rescue, many with issues that were not initially of their making. Or you may see a private advertisement for a dog needing a good home, and feel drawn to its plight. You may feel that when there are unwanted dogs in the world, the right thing to do is to consider rescue first. This is a noble intention, as long as you are prepared for potentially rehabilitating a damaged or untrained dog, or taking a dog with health issues. If you have the experience, and can fully commit to this responsibility and possibly extra financial cost over the dog’s lifetime, then it can be very rewarding to adopt a dog from a rescue center.

English springer spaniel on grass
Photo Courtesy – Billy McKechnie

It is important to note that rescue centers do not give their dogs away for free. There will always be an adoption fee of several hundred dollars. This is to cover some of the dog’s expenses, but also to ensure that the dog is taken for the right reasons by an owner who is prepared to commit to it. Otherwise rescue dogs would be taken for profit or dog fighting. Rescue dogs are almost always neutered to prevent further breeding.

If you have not owned a Springer Spaniel before, and especially if you are a new dog owner, then there are good reasons why you might start out by buying a puppy from a breeder.

It is a misconception that by buying a puppy, you are starting with a blank canvas. Your canvas is not entirely blank; it has been primed by the genetics of the dog that you buy. This will be discussed later in this chapter. However, any adult dog is the product of both nature and nurture, and the nurture component is in your hands when you start with a puppy. The first few months after you bring your puppy home are vital in setting him up for adult life, so as long as you know what will be expected of you in these early months and are prepared to put in the work, there is the best possible chance of turning out an excellent dog while forging a close bond between you right from the get-go.

Sometimes Springer Spaniel puppies will turn up in rescue, if, for instance, a pregnant Springer has found her way into the shelter, or a litter of newly born pups has been dumped (which is rare with a valuable pedigree breed). This may seem an ideal compromise for those who really want to rescue but don’t have enough experience for an adult dog with issues. However, these puppies will come from unknown bloodlines and unknown parentage. They may be crossbreeds, and they may carry genetic conditions that will only become apparent later in their lives, so this needs to be considered if you have the opportunity to rescue a puppy.

In buying a puppy from a breeder, you have the assurance of taking on a known quantity. You will know the bloodlines and temperaments of the parents, you will know they do not carry any genetic health conditions, the puppies will have been whelped and weaned with close attention to their health, and they will have had appropriate contact with their mother and littermates during their first weeks of life. Your puppy will come to you having had veterinary checks, vaccinations, worming, and certification, and if you wish to show your dog, you have the pedigree certificate that you will need in order to register your dog with the Kennel Club in your country.

There is no right or wrong decision whether to purchase or adopt; it depends entirely on the owner’s preference, experience, intentions, and finance. Whichever route you choose, at the end of the day, a lucky dog will be starting or restarting his life in a loving home.

The Differences Between Working and Show Lines

The most important consideration in selecting an English Springer Spaniel is the distinction between working lines and show-bred or “bench” lines. The gene pools between these lines have been almost entirely segregated since the mid-twentieth century, and as a result, the divergence has resulted in two quite different sets of dogs. This fact is often completely overlooked by the prospective owner, and is the most significant contributor to Springer Spaniels being given up to rescue centers when their new home does not work out.

It is especially sad for a Springer Spaniel to be given up by its owner, as this breed bonds particularly closely with its primary caregiver. So although English Springer Spaniels are adaptable and capable of transferring their affections, it is initially stressful for a dog of this breed to lose the person to whom they have become attached.

English springer spaniel puppies
Photo Courtesy – Tori Loudermilk

Although most breeders will take a dog back if things do not work out, these dogs will have missed out on the vital early weeks of training and socialization that are important to set them up for adult life. And as it will usually be the more intense working dogs that are returned, they will have missed the early higher-level training they would have received, so they are at a disadvantage and less attractive to huntsmen. It is important that these dogs should not be let down by ensuring they go to the most appropriate homes from the outset. Many responsible breeders of working lines will only let their puppies go to homes where they will be worked.

On the other hand, not every dog from working lines will turn out to have an aptitude in the field, and these more sensitive dogs may adapt well to life as domestic pets, as they will have had some early training and socialization. So situations may arise when an adult (or adolescent) working-bred dog is sold by a breeder as a pet, but as a general rule, owners looking for a dog to share family life should look at show lines.

Show-bred Springer Spaniels are different from their working cousins in both looks and temperament. In appearance, they are larger in size, less wiry, with a longer coat, longer ears, and a squarer muzzle. So even without a pedigree certificate, for example when a dog turns up in rescue, it is usually possible to identify whether a Springer Spaniel is from working or show stock. Of course there may be some crossover where unregulated breeding has taken place.

If you intend to hunt with your Springer Spaniel, then you will be looking at working lines and for a puppy to forge that close working relationship and high level of training required of a gundog. A dog from working lines will have more stamina, higher energy, and greater athleticism than his show-bred cousin. However, he is still a dog that craves human companionship, and will love to live in his owner’s home given the chance, rather than the traditional gundog kennel.

This distinction is stressed throughout this book simply for the fact that it is so often overlooked, or because prospective owners choose a dog from working lines because they live in country houses. The most critical thing in choosing any dog is committing to caring for it for its whole life, barring unforeseen circumstances. So the right fit is imperative. For this reason, understanding the distinction between working and show lines is so important for the welfare of the dog.

Researching the Establishment

If you have decided to buy a puppy from a breeder, a very good place to start is with the Kennel Club in your country. The Kennel Club website will have a searchable database of breeders offering dogs for sale in your area, and you will have the reassurance that the breeder is approved and inspected. This means that your puppy will have been bred from quality breeding stock, clear of genetic health conditions, and from parents with superb temperaments. It means that the health and welfare of the parents, especially the mother, has been a priority as well as that of the puppies.

English springer spaniel parti color
Photo Courtesy – Ro Cox

By choosing an approved Kennel Club breeder, you will know that you are encouraging responsible breeding and not falling into the trap of inadvertently buying from a backyard breeder or puppy mill. These breeders are unregulated and the mothers are often started too young, bred from continually and into their senior years. This is a welfare issue and will also impact on the health of the puppies. They may be bred with no regard for genetic problems, and not receive basic health care, screening, worming, and vaccinations before being separated too early from the mother. If you see a litter of puppies advertised online, on a noticeboard, or in the newspaper, you may not make the association with a puppy mill, as the puppies are usually shown to prospective owners in a clean and tidy front room that is no indicator of the squalor around the back. You may even see the puppy with a female that is purported to be the mother, but may be a different dog. Apart from purchasing an unknown quantity in terms of bloodlines and future health conditions, you will not be able to show an unregistered dog in conformation classes if that is something you might like to do in the future. But being aware of puppy mills is a welfare issue above all else.

If you already know any English Springer Spaniels whose temperaments appeal to you, it is worth asking the owners about the bloodlines of their dog, and the breeder who produced the dog. Bloodlines are generally a reliable indicator of what to expect in an adult dog, and whereas all dogs have their own unique character, especially Springer Spaniels, broadly speaking you will have a better idea of what you are buying. You may of course have to wait for a litter to become available, but registering an interest with a breeder will mean you are notified when the time comes.

If you are purchasing a dog from working stock with the intention of participating in field trials, you will stand the best chance of competing at this level if you buy from a breeder with proven dogs. Likewise, if you wish to show your dog, you need to look for bloodlines that have done well in conformation classes.

Inquiring about the Parents

If you are adopting an English Springer Spaniel from a rescue, you are not likely to have any information about the parents. This is due to the fact many dogs find themselves in rescue with no background information. But in the case of those that do come with pedigree papers, these are usually held back to protect the anonymity of the previous owner. Nevertheless, any genetic conditions known to the rescue will always be communicated to the adopter.

English springer spaniel looking up
Photo Courtesy – Charles Phillips

In all other cases, it is important to inquire about the parents of the puppy you are considering. This is because the dog will inherit elements of both parents in its temperament, conformation, field abilities, and overall health. If the breeder seems to be withholding any information when asked about the parents, it is time to walk away.

You should make certain that the mother of your puppy is over 20 months of age and has not produced a previous litter within the past 12 months. If you require Kennel Club registration for your dog, this will not be provided if the mother has already had 4 litters or is over the age of 8 years. She should also not have had more than two previous caesarian sections, and the puppies should not be the product of mating between father/daughter, mother/son, or brother/sister. Usually, the father will come from a different breeder, which keeps the gene pool clear of the problems caused by incestuous breeding.

You should always be able to see the mother of the puppies, who will be with the litter if they are not yet weaned. You may reasonably ask to make an appointment to see the father also if he is kept elsewhere. A copy of his pedigree certificate in any case should be available to view from the owner of the mother.

When you look at a litter of puppies, the only reliable indicator of what they will look like as adults is the appearance of the parents. If you cannot see the father in person, the breeder should be able to show you a photograph. Look for good proportions, especially if you intend to show your dog.

Genetic testing

Both parents should have been screened and scored prior to mating to ensure they are not carriers of the inherited conditions that can affect English Springer Spaniels.

Kennel Club Assured Breeders are required to test for Acral Mutilation Syndrome (AMS), Fucosidosis (FUCO), Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), Goniodysgenesis/Glaucoma (G), and Phosphofructokinase deficiency (PFK). The British Kennel Club lists dogs on their website that have tested clear or have carrier status.

Dogs that have tested clear have no copies of the mutant gene, and their offspring will be unaffected.

English springer spaniel puppy on grass
Photo Courtesy – Carol Farmer

Dogs that have tested as carriers have one copy of the mutant gene, and one normal gene. The normal gene ensures that they do not suffer from the condition, but they have a 50% chance of passing on the mutant gene to each puppy.

Dogs that have two copies of the mutant gene are classed as affected. They will develop the disease and should never be bred from. Their offspring would either be affected or carriers, depending on the status of the other parent.

Carrier status dogs will appear to be unaffected, but if a backyard breeder produces a litter from two carrier parents, there is only a 25% chance any puppy will be clear. There is a 50% chance any puppy will be a carrier, and a 25% chance any puppy will be affected. Registered breeders may breed from one carrier parent as long as the other parent is clear. In this case, there is a 50% chance any puppy will be clear, and a 50% chance any puppy will be a carrier, but will not go on to develop the condition.

The scores in which most potential buyers are especially interested are those for hip and elbow dysplasia, which is discussed in Chapter 15. Springer Spaniels can be affected by this hereditary condition where the hip socket or elbow joint develops abnormally, making the joint unstable. This will lead to lameness as early as young adulthood and arthritis later on. It is heartbreaking to see an active dog like an English Springer Spaniel in pain, and corrective surgery is extremely expensive, so it stands to reason that owners are on their guard for this potential future problem.

Hip and elbow dysplasia tests are not DNA tests, but the scores are determined by X-ray after the age of one year. The X-rays are reviewed by a panel of official radiologists and orthopedic specialists and assessed by two scrutineers, for consistent application of the standard.

Hip dysplasia scores range from 0-106, which is an aggregate of the scores for both hips. The breed mean score for the English Springer Spaniel is 12.9, so the parents should both score lower than this.

Elbow dysplasia scores range from 0-3. Both elbows are graded, with the higher score being recorded. Breeding dogs should score 0.

Looking at the Puppy

Going to look at a litter for the first time is very exciting. You may be expecting to form an instant bond with one of the littermates in particular, and know that he or she is destined to share your life. Or you may be worried about how to choose, and be uncertain what you should be looking for. Assuming you have done your homework and are going to see a litter of Kennel Club–registered English Springer Spaniels, you can be confident that any puppy you are offered has the best chance of a healthy life. Also, if you are looking for a pet you will be looking at dogs from show (bench) lines, and if you are looking to hunt with your dog, you will be choosing from a litter of working-line dogs. So you can be assured that although the puppies are a long way from revealing their adult personalities and potential, their bloodlines will predispose them to becoming the dog that is the best fit for you and your family.

A good time to visit the litter is when the pups are around six weeks old. By this time, it will be clear that the puppies are healthy and they will have begun to interact with each other and to be handled. Do check with the breeder if any of the puppies are already reserved. Often they will be wearing a colored collar, but with Springer Spaniels that have unique markings, this may serve sufficiently for identification. You don’t want to set your heart on a puppy that turns out not to be available.

Your first impressions of the puppies’ living environment is important. It should be clean and sufficiently spacious with clean water available, and the puppies themselves should be clean. Pay special attention to the back end for any signs of diarrhea. Are the puppies playing happily and confidently? Do they look well fed? They should have a healthy curiosity toward you.

Ask the breeder for permission to pick up each puppy in turn. They should be comfortable with being handled. If they are not, it may be an indication of a dominant puppy, or a more general sign that they have not been socialized. Check the puppy’s eyes for discharge, and sniff their ears for infection. Have a look at the pup’s mouth to check for healthy pink gums and a correct bite. The upper teeth should close over the lower teeth. Check the navel for an umbilical hernia, and the male pups for two descended testicles. If these are not apparent yet, they should have both dropped into the scrotum by eight weeks and by the time you collect your puppy.

By now, you will probably be feeling drawn to a particular puppy or at least to have narrowed your choice down. If you do not yet have a lot of Springer Spaniel experience, it is wise to choose neither the most active nor the quietest of the litter, but to aim for the middle ground. If you still can’t choose, ask the breeder for advice. Their experience is ideal to draw upon in selecting the puppy most suited to your circumstances. In most cases, the breeder will want to be sure their puppy is going to a good home, so don’t panic if you are asked questions yourself. After all, a caring breeder is just as invested in the puppy as you, his future owner.

When the puppy is 8-10 weeks old, you will be able to bring him home. And that is where the fun begins!

Considerations of a Rescue Dog

It has already been mentioned that if you are adopting a dog from a rescue, in most cases you are taking on an unknown quantity in terms of genetics. However, if you are adopting an adult dog, his personality will have already developed. This can be useful, unless he has been emotionally damaged by past experiences. In these cases, you need to be a special person to help the dog rehabilitate. Many people find this challenge especially rewarding, if they have the compassion and resilience to handle it.

As your dog is unlikely to come with a pedigree certificate or any known parentage, it is wise to take out insurance for veterinary fees from day one. This will ensure that if the dog is going to develop genetic health conditions, such as hip or elbow dysplasia, you will be covered, as any condition for which the dog has been treated before cover was taken out will be excluded for life. These lifelong conditions can turn out to be extremely expensive, and if a dog does not have veterinary cover, most owners would not be able to afford thousands of dollars for an operation that could radically improve their dog’s quality of life.

If you are adopting an elderly dog, some insurers will not issue policies for dogs over a certain age, usually eight years. However, others will accept dogs of any age, but the premiums will reflect the risk. Although the years ahead of you may be short, be prepared for heavy financial costs when taking on an elderly dog. Some rescue organizations will continue to fund or subsidize the veterinary costs of an older dog.

When you adopt from a rescue organization, any follow-up is usually on the part of the adopter letting the rescue know how well things are turning out, but the rescue takes on a lifetime commitment to the dog known as rescue backup (RBU). This means a reputable rescue will take the dog back if things do not work out, and the adopter cannot sell the dog or pass it on without permission from the rescue. This is to ensure no rescue dog ever falls into the wrong hands again in its lifetime.

Choosing your English Springer Spaniel is very exciting, but also something that should not be rushed into without considering the points raised in this chapter. But with a little background research under your belt, you will have the best chance of finding a canine partner that will slot right into your life and share many happy years ahead.

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