I never had a dog as a child and certainly hadn’t considered myself to be a dog person. So the decision to introduce Darcy, a black field spaniel, into my household was something that no one had ever expected of me. I also didn’t predict that the addition of this dog would have such an affect on my life.
I researched every breed known to man for at least six months before going through with it. Basically, surfing the internet and reading any reference book that I could find. And through it all, this one breed kept coming back up on my radar, the little known and exceedingly rare field spaniel. The pictures I saw of this stunning solid coloured dog - either black or liver - gave the impression of a good house companion who would still share my enjoyment and love of the outdoors. The breed descriptions seemed to fit my lifestyle too. Field spaniels are unusually docile, active, sensitive and independent, all traits that make him a good versatile dog. I had read that the field spaniel was an upstanding sporting spaniel for the country dweller, but also ideally suited as a dog you could live with.
Once I had decided on my breed, I contacted all the breeders I could get a hold of and considering I had fallen in love with a fairly rare breed, I was lucky to be the proud owner of a black male puppy after only eight months of waiting.
My original intention for this dog was sleeping on the couch, basic pet obedience classes and as he got older, going for those lovely late evening walks with me. However, all that research had pricked my curiosity and I began to explore other activities we could do together.
"While he has much to do and learn in each of his respective performance arenas, it will never matter how many ribbons he has won, or what records he has broken because it is his work as a therapy dog that has had the most impact."
Therapy work was the first thing that held my interest and was also something I felt that I could give back to others in the community. I started training Darcy to be a calm biddable dog. This may not have been as easy a task as I thought it would initially be, but Darcy’s sweet nature and his calm quiet focus when working on something held out in the end. Sadly though, I realized after only a short while that there was an age limit to joining the local therapy dog program and I would have to wait almost a year before I could attempt the test.
In the meantime, it seemed like a good idea to explore other local "doggy" activities so that we could see just what suited us both. Flyball was a disaster for us! Darcy just ran off with the ball wanting to have us catch him instead of playing the "game". Obedience, while good for his development, bored him very easily. Tracking was something he was really keen to do, but with only one class nearby once he’d graduated from it I didn’t know where to go from there for him to progress.
This led me to agility. It took quite some time to locate an agility arena nearby, but once found, Darcy’s enthusiasm to run and jump was finally unleashed. His "quiet calm focus when working" did not hold true in this sport and the first half of his training was spent just trying to slow him down enough to go where directed. For a normally quiet dog that does not bark, he certainly changed when we would approach the agility compound.
Darcy was about six months old when it was brought to my attention that I should consider showing him. Since I had initially bought Darcy as a pet, I had just naturally assumed in my inexperience that he must only be "pet quality". I had only really heard about shows from TV or the movies, but had never thought that it was something we should take up. My neighbour, who bred and owned dogs himself, was the person who first suggested the idea of showing. He informed me that Darcy was a well constructed dog who had a sparkle in his eye and attitude in the way he moved. He persuaded me to help him train with his dogs. This mixed with some encouragement from friends in the field spaniel community who liked Darcy’s type and I was soon encouraged to attend a few shows. I was quickly hooked.
I had entered Darcy in the closest show to home, optimistically expecting him to take Best in Show his first weekend out. I bathed him with my limited experience and groomed him in a way that I thought at the time was quite skilled. The rest of the time I spent trying to mimic those around me. Our first outing was not the best experience; Darcy escaped in the ring and ran round joyfully (you may have noticed a pattern by this point). Despite the setback, I didn’t give up, and with some dedication was able to gain his title. It was one of my proudest moments when Darcy finished as a Show Champion. He was just over a year and this had been achieved completely owner-handled despite being new to the game. As this breed is rare in Canada, this meant that we had very limited breed competition and had to do so by placing in the group against all sporting dogs.
By just living with Darcy on a day to day basis, he had quickly ensured that I would fall in love with this breed with a passion. With my love of the outdoors, and my keen interest in the performance aspect of dogs, I looked towards the hunting side of field spaniels. A lack of trainers in my area had so far restricted my interest in this. When Darcy was over a year, I finally found a trainer nearby who was willing to take the both of us on. At this time it was basic training with a view to perhaps try out a hunt test in the future
I bided my time with these other activities which brought me back to the original plan I had for Darcy, that of therapy work. Once Darcy was old enough, I signed up for the grueling three hour test that would determine whether or not we’d make a good team for this type of work. The combination of shows with large numbers of people, hunting with it’s exposure to gunfire and all the noise in loud agility halls, made sure that the tests did not faze Darcy one bit. We both passed with flying colours. I was soon required to attend seminars to learn about hospital hygiene, animal transmitted diseases and other such concerns when doing therapy work.
We were soon placed in a hospital ward dealing with rehabilitation patients. The sheer joy that the patients, both young and old, exude when they saw Darcy poke his little black head in the doorway was always a delight to witness. We could barely walk down the hallway without someone calling us into their room and having Darcy climb onto their beds while they talked and fussed over him. Darcy has never been keen on doing tricks on demand over and over again, but he has made up for this by doing other little things that the patients adore. His specialty is to climb into the patient’s beds, lay his head against them and gently fall asleep while they pet him.
It amazes me how much this simple act can cheer up people who are facing some of the worst times in their lives. For a short time, Darcy is the dog that they had to leave back home. Though this seems to be a simple routine, Darcy knows when to it’s time to be calm and he knows when it’s time to try to be a bit playful. Despite how taxing the visits are on him, Darcy still wags his tail whenever he walks into a new room.
We took Darcy’s love of hunting up a stage recently and spent a concentrated effort to get him ready to enter a limited stake field trial. When the day came, it was one of those that live with you forever. Darcy not only performed well in front of all the working English springer spaniel aficionados, but made breed history in winning this stake. This is a first for the field spaniel breed in North America. Darcy is currently spending his time as a special on a limited show circuit, loving the thrill of hunting his birds, continuing to improve in the agility ring and doing his therapy work.
Darcy is still a very young dog. While he has much to do and learn in each of his respective performance arenas, it will never matter how many ribbons he has won, or what records he has broken because it is his work as a therapy dog that has had the most impact. For his patients, there is nothing more important than his weekly visits to give them someone to lean on when they need it and to fall asleep in their arms when they are tired.
Darcy’s impact on my life has been profound. I could never see myself without a dog now and have recently acquired my first liver field spaniel, Ember. She is an equal joy to her "big brother" and just as keen to get the job done. The breed is especially adapted to this type of versatility but I will always think that Darcy is special. He has allowed me to give back to the breed and to my local community, especially to those who have lost more than most.
Editor's note: Read about Darcy and Sonya's field trial experience in Pride and Prejudice.