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The Water Heritage of the Springer Spaniel: The Case for Water by Bill Cosgrove

There is a movement afoot, a committee underway, who is devising a recommendation to remove the water series from the national championships. If enacted, it would result in a basic five land series format to the nationals with no water series! Although a seemingly benign move, it could have a far-reaching effect on our current gene pool and the working water heritage of the English springer spaniel. Here is what is going on.

A committee has been commissioned by our breeds' parent club, the ESSFTA, to investigate a summer warm weather water qualifying test - as opposed to the current format of two "judged" water series at the national championships. The proposal of the committee will go something like this: instead of two judged water series in the national championship format, they will recommend a summer "water qualifier", resulting in no water at the nationals. If this proposal were to go through, it will dramatically reduce the value of a springer spaniels desire and strength in the water... over time. The current water test at our national event is the last in a series of judged tests in route to a possible national title. It is at its minimum "a test on the nerves" and at most, a "real pressure cooker" to the handler. To the dogs that are strong in the water, it is one more exhilarating chance to make a retrieve, to those less strong, it is an unpleasant task they are being told to do. Which of those two dogs do want passing on their genes to future generations? It is a fact that our national champions and national placing dogs have considerable more influence over future generations.

"A summer water qualification test is as different from a judged water series at the nationals as a weekend golf outing (with your buddies) is from the final round of a major!"

The water series has been part of the national championships since their beginning, some 70 years ago. It is one of the reasons the working springer spaniel is a competent water retriever today. A summer water qualification test is as different from a judged water series at the nationals as a weekend golf outing (with your buddies) is from the final round of a major!

While no one is deliberately attacking the ESS's water heritage, nor is the gene pool being deliberately weakened, over time that may well be the outcome. With some understanding of gene traits in dogs and the manner in which we control them, it is understandable how it could come to pass. Many of the breeds have seen their working heritage or original purpose diminish over time. Examples being breeds that are being developed strongly for the show ring, or breeds who have watched their original intent disappear in the modern day society. Some of the breeds' parent clubs openly discuss splitting the breeds between working and show stock. If we stop asking the springer spaniel to enthusiastically enter water - regardless of the conditions - to retrieve downed game, that trait will soon be lost from the gene pool.

A number of our clubs put on what we call "summer fun trials and water tests". The water test is usually a sanctioned event and the dogs that complete them are credited as such with the AKC's registry. It will count towards a field title, if the other qualifications are met. Having witnessed and participated in many summer water tests, I can tell you first hand that some pretty border line performances have been given passing marks. And this is on a warm afternoon when a dog might want to enter the water just to cool off. These dogs can eventually become "field champions".

Maintaining the strong working heritage of the springer spaniel is something very near and dear to me, as it should be to anyone with more than a tepid interest in working spaniels. Worthy of mention is that our cousins, the cocker spaniels, are not talking about this move.

"But don't be fooled. The real reason is to create a national championship without the emphasis of "entering the water willing to make a retrieve"."

My credentials to advance the voice of opposition are as follows: in addition to decades of involvement as a breeder, judge, hunter and field trailer, I am unique in that I served on Janet Christensen's committee to revise the Conduct of Judging Field Trials publication - and how the water test/series is viewed was one of our focuses. I also served on the Green Book committee responsible for developing the Field Trial Management publicatio on how to run a field trial event. I will be judging both the Canadian National Championship and the U.S. Open National Championship this fall.

Having spoken to several field governors, I have a pretty good understanding of what is being offered in the way of explanation. But don't be fooled. The real reason is to create a national championship without the emphasis of "entering the water willing to make a retrieve".

Here is a list of points being discussed:

The spaniel is not meant for cold water... as is sometimes the case at our national championship.

While the springer is certainly not the first choice as an utility cold, rough weather water dog, they should be willing if not eager to enter. A cold morning upland hunt can result in a bird being dropped in cold water. Likewise, mixed bag hunts, puddle jumping waterfowl, and moderate duck blind hunting in cold weather are acceptable applications for the highly versatile ESS. To the point of all-day water fowling in cold water, cold weather shore line and rough water, these conditions may well be too much for the ESS and the retriever breeds are by far the best choice.

Worthy of mention is that the ESS has ambassadors singing the praises of the breed in Alaska! There is an element of drive, desire and toughness in the DNA of top ESS field stock that could easily be bred out in a few generations if our most "breedable" nationals winning/placing dogs never are called upon to prove their worth in sometimes cold water. There is also the option of going the route of our Canadian neighbors. There, nationals take place in October because it offers the best possible conditions.

The poor manner in which water tests are being conducted.

The test set up will always vary as locations and condition change. There are some very specific things that can be written to help standardize the test. One example would be whether or not to use a launcher. If so, how it is to be set up? Shotguns firing popper rounds as opposed to the starting pistols. Size of the body of water, location of water - secluded vs. docking areas, how the birds are handled, wings intertwined, one throw bird, etc... These kinds of things can be written into standards. I believe in a high expectation of quality when conducting a field trial. This would reach beyond the water test to the grounds, parking, accommodations, etc...

Retriever trial and hunt tests are not run in water below 55 degrees.

This statement was made to me by a field governor who is involved on the committee to do away with water at nationals. It is being used to substantiate the idea that if the Labs and golden arenŐt hardy enough for cold water, we should not be putting our "lesser" springers in it.

"The idea that some judges have decided to call it a water series on a pass/fail basis not only is wrong, but does a disservice to the breed."

As this did not make sense to me, I made a couple of calls to some of the top retriever trial amateurs and professionals and found this statement to be completely false! There is absolutely nothing written as a rule, recommendation and procedure or otherwise regarding the temperature of water. Nor is there anything written about avoiding cold water in general. Not in trials, not in hunt tests. What I did learn is that most trainers do apply a "common sense" approach to limit their training and work in very cold water. In a typical retriever training session, a dog might be asked to complete a quadruple blind retrieve in water, spending upwards to 20 minutes at a stretch in cold water, and then repeat the same drill. It is how they must train. And when you consider this rigorous training throughout a dog's life, the retriever's exposure to cold water far outweighs that of any spaniel... they are bred for it.

A typical spaniel water test might involve a maximum of five minutes in the water, although probably more like three to four minutes. Also the retriever trainers will use vests and heaters to help keep their dogs safe and comfortable when working in cold water. One particular trainer commented about having bedding in their crate, limiting their run in the bitter cold, drying them off, keeping them hydrated, etc... The trainers who I spoke to, did comment that they do not want to over-train in bitter cold water because a dog might become softer in their water work. I would compare it to training in the heat; too much and you run the risk of burning out a hard running dog.

The water test is not being judged.

Like the strength of a flush and the degree of steadiness - or marking ability, for that matter, it may sometimes seem that a judge is not "judging" a mismark or weak find, from the gallery, when in fact they are. The idea that some judges have decided to call it a water series on a pass/fail basis not only is wrong, but does a disservice to the breed. Throughout history, our best minds have put into text the manner in which an ESS is expected to perform in water. To disregard that is no different than disregarding a poor flush or a poor mouth.

Passing on weak water performances will weaken the gene pool. These dogs, if titled and particularly if place in nationals, will pass along this trait to their offspring. The genetics will proliferate faster than you can shake a stick at!

We have a test for water shyness. Why would anyone want to turn a blind eye? Another point not to lose sight of - which came out of my conversation with a long-time, notable retriever trialer is this: field trials are meant to be competitive. Their very purpose is to determine the better dogs, not test all dogs against a standard. An example of this is whether or not all 25 dogs called back to the water series enter and swim out to retrieve a fallen bird in cold water... pass/fail. The purpose of the water is to differentiate if some of them will do it better. Or, stated differently, will the water expose a weakness in a dog? That is what competition is. That is why we field trial our dogs. That is what will keep the breed strong. I must repeat, it is no different than the strength of nose, flush, marking, mouth, biddability, etc...

Reducing the time it takes to conduct a national.

When I heard this, I thought, "Isn't that why we raised the qualifying standard from one to two points to reduce the qualifying field?" And if that works, why now would there be a need to reduce a series? Why wouldn't we simply raise the standard by another point... and then another? The reality is that the economy may well affect the number of entries for the foreseeable future.

Implementing a summer "qualifying" water test.

I find it ironic that a summer qualifying water test is being advanced as a safer/better alternative to the national water series. Having been to number of "summertime" water tests and water trials, I can tell you that I am always concerned with the dogs' exposure to heat. It is not only me, but every other competitor searching desperately for shade. It is the whole day cooped up and exposed to hot weather that worries me far more than a cold day or cold water, for that matter. I find it ironic that if we are truly concerned about the health and welfare of our dogs, how come we are not having a serious discussion about putting a moratorium on hot weather trials?

My dogs have failed past water tests #$%#&@%!

There are trailers who feel that the water at the nationals is their Achilles heel. I know because I have heard it from them. Having a dog or two that lacks drive in the water and then breeding those dogs will create a problem, no doubt. They have bred these dogs and are (perhaps unintentionally) producing dogs with a weak water gene. As one of our most reputable breeders put it to me: "The fact that one or two dogs fail the water at the nationals every year is a good reason to keep doing it!" ...from Janet Christensen.

The ESS is the quintessential upland pheasant dog, why expect them to be reliable in water?

When I heard this I was honestly taken back. Particularly considering whom I heard it from. It sums up my greatest fear. It is the kind of thinking that is only once removed from saying goodbye to ESS water work and is a travesty to the future of the breed. While the English springer spaniel may well be an expert on pheasants, they will perform quite well in a wide range of situations and on a variety of game. They are among the most versatile of all gun dogs. Their retrieving is second only to the Lab. And their desire in water makes them an awesome breed. For decades and centuries, breeders have nurtured their gene pool. It did not happen by accident. To have such a special breed with so much natural talent, why would we ever settle for just a good pheasant dog?

While this political process takes place, I believe there is a risk to the ESS. Over time, through selective breeding of national dogs, "dumbing" down their desire in water may be at stake!

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Bill Cosgrove

Bill Cosgrove owns and operates Ivanhoe Country Kennels where he also breeds and develops springer spaniels under the banner of Ivanhoe Springer Spaniels. Bill has been judging for 20+ years and will be judging his 5th National Championship this fall. He has championed numerous dogs and has won and placed in National events. Ivanhoe's Irish Twist was an inductee in the BDHOF class of '09. Bill was an active trial gun.

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Spaniel Journal - your source for flushing spaniel training, hunt test, field trial & hunting information