The prime responsibilities of the owners of a working dog breed are to preserve its unique qualities, safeguard its wellbeing and equip it for the future. It does not mean standing still, because that future may require an adjusted role for the dog.

The pace of life has quickened from a hundred years ago, and the needs of today’s sportsmen for spaniels demand more pace and punch from the Clumber than hitherto. The aim of breed enthusiasts must acknowledge such expectations, without attempting to turn Clumbers into

springers or cockers, drawing upon their particular characteristics – notably the scenting power of that big pink nose – and refining all their working attitudes and attributes, to give them an enduring role in the field.

Breeding by selection

It does not take a geneticist to know that the huge diversification of dog breeds – all descended from the wolf – is a result of artificial selection. The hand of man has shaped dogs to his various purposes – guarding, herding, rescue, hunting, sledding, decoying, ratting, retrieving, coursing, companionship, toy and fashion accessory.

The list continues to grow – guide dogs for blind and deaf people, support dogs for those with

infirmities, with handicaps or conditions including diabetes and epilepsy with sudden-onset crises, medical diagnosis dogs, sniffer dogs for drugs, explosives and fire accelerants, and more. What versatility! All achieved over a few centuries of evolution, a blink of the eye in terms of the 20,000 centuries since the slimy forebears of dogs and other mammals crawled onto land from the primordial soup, shook themselves, sniffed the air and cocked a leg on the nearest tree fern

– or their primitive equivalents.

Which is to say, selective breeding not only works, but works surprisingly quickly. It has been practised by mankind to adapt all kinds of animals besides dogs to domesticated or semi-wild varieties, from chickens to reindeer, guinea pigs to elephants, cats to carrier-pigeons, ferrets to cormorants, and of course cattle and horses.

Status on work, health, temperament, size

It has therefore proved possible, in the space of a few generations, to modify what the Clumber spaniel has become at the hands of owners whose primary interest is in exhibiting them at dog shows. There was much to be modified. Size, weight, length of back, length of coat, beetling brows, drooping eyes, foreshortened muzzle – all had become exaggerated to make the dog a caricature of a working spaniel. Temperament was inconsistent: the dog could be fierce and was too independent to be readily trained. The serious eye condition, entropion, where the eyelid is rolled inwards, was common. Hip dysplasia (more...) was so prevalent as to give the breed the worst hip status in the whole dog world. In the 1970s and 1980s it was no longer a practical proposition for a sportsman to take on a typical Clumber as a working gundog. Few of those who

tried stayed with the breed. One who did was James Darley.

However, it proved possible for a handful of like-minded enthusiasts, in due course coming together to form the Working Clumber Spaniel Society, to pick the best workers and healthiest and more modestly-sized specimens for breeding, while ignoring the Kennel Club’s “breed standard” which doubled the weight of this breed description in four stages during the 20th century.

The result was that over a quite short span of years the working gundog that was highly prized in Victorian and Edwardian times was in effect restored. Today’s working-bred Clumbers are perhaps half the size of their show cousins, with

low hip X-ray scores typically in single or low double figures, substantially free from eye defects; they are more athletic, and have stamina; they are eager to hunt, to find game, to please and to respond to training; they have a sleeker head, clear eyes and a longer muzzle, and a more practical coat. Yet they remain unmistakeably Clumbers. And they are regaining their place in the field on merit.

The challenge now is to maintain the improvement so that all aspects of a spaniel’s work are undertaken efficiently and reliably, and the breed becomes truly a practical alternative to the English springer and cocker, adding diversity and a bit of character to the options available to sportsmen.

Photo by Vicki Walton