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In Praise of Little Dogs

Don't call a Brittany a spaniel; any Brittany owner within earshot will be quick to correct you.

"They're not spaniels," says Dr. Bo Ackerman, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Brittany Club, who has raised and trained three national champions, as well as the current Iams pet food company's Brittany All Age Dog of the Year. "In 1980, the American Brittany Club asked the American Kennel Club (AKC), and the AKC agreed, to drop the name 'spaniel' from the Brittany. The reason is that the word spaniel has the connotation of being a flushing dog. The Brittany is a pointing dog."

Brittanies originally were developed in France and take their name from the Brittany region there.

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"They needed a versatile dog they could hunt feather and fur with," Ackerman explains. "They could afford one dog, so that one dog needed to be able to do everything - retrieve ducks, hunt upland game birds, hunt rabbits, that kind of thing."

The story goes that tail-docking (cutting the tail off the dog soon after birth) began because the enthusiasm of the Brittany's tail gave their position away.

"The land was all owned by noblemen, and they reserved all the rights to the game on their land," Ackerman says. "The peasants were all starving, and they hunted game to keep themselves and their families alive. They started docking tails so the dogs wouldn't have a long tail sticking up in the cover and be more easily spotted by the noblemen."

The first Brittanies made it to American shores in the 1940s. Those dogs were not as long from front to back, and were a little shorter and wider in stature than they are today.

"We've Americanized the breed, and they've become a little more lanky, with a little shorter coat," Ackerman points out. "They're longer in the back now and have a more refined head."

Today, there are two distinctly different Brittanies, the French Brittany and the American Brittany. An American Brittany can be orange and white or liver and white; a few are a combination of the two colors, but they're never dark or black. The breed standard calls for a dog between 17 1/2 and 20 1/2 inches tall and between 30 and 40 pounds.

"The French Brittany is a smaller dog," Ackerman says. "Its average weight is probably in the mid-20s, and it can have a darker coat and a black nose, and is a closer-working dog. In the AKC-recognized registry of American Brittanies, black is a disqualification for being a show champion."

Today in the United States, the Brittany is mostly used for upland game birds.

"People use them on the dove field to retrieve doves, and they can retrieve ducks," Ackerman adds. "A Canada goose can be a challenge to a Brittany, but a Brittany can handle a puddle duck or a small migratory duck. They're also happy to run deer and chase rabbits if you let them get away with it. We work pretty hard to convince them to stick to upland game birds."

The old stereotype of a Brittany as a close-working, foot-handled hunting dog isn't accurate any more, Ackerman says.

"You can train them to be whatever you want them to be," he says. "But horseback field-trial Brittanies run every bit as big and wide as the biggest pointer. They run on the same grounds that the big pointer trials run on, and they do the same things the big pointers do."

The only real difference between a Brittany and a pointer in that regard is stamina.

"A pointer can be in a dead sprint for three hours," Ackerman notes. "A Brittany can only do it for an hour. It just doesn't quite have that stamina."

On the other hand, it is possible to take any of his field-trial dogs to the woods and hunt woodcock or other close-in birds with them.

"The advantage to them is their versatility," he says. "They're happy to be your pet, to travel with you, to sleep in your bed. But then you can woodcock hunt with the same dog you hunt on the prairie with."

Many people's first impression of a Boykin spaniel is of a compact chocolate Labrador retriever with a curly or wavy coat. Or maybe of a cocker spaniel crossed with an Irish setter. Since Boykin spaniels are not terribly common, and are a relatively young breed on the hunting scene, even longtime bird hunters often don't recognize a Boykin right away.

Pamela Kadlec owns Just Ducky Kennel and is a professional trainer who specializes in Boykins for both retrieving and upland work. She's spent so much time with the dogs that she's written a book, Retriever Training For Spaniels.

Kadlec says the history of the Boykin spaniel is somewhat shrouded in mystery. What is known is that the breed originated from a small spaniel-type dog found in Spartanburg, S.C., in the early 1900s. A banker named Alexander White rescued the little dog and took it to his friend, Whit Boykin, who was experimenting with dog breeding to create a small multi-purpose retrieving breed. Boykin trained the little stray, which became a great hunter and the foundation of the Boykin spaniel breed. Other breeds involved in the development of the Boykin were Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Springer spaniels, cocker spaniels and American water spaniels.

The Boykin Spaniel Society formed in 1977, and by 1980 it had established a breed standard and begun a registry.

"The breed standard calls for a dog with no more white than a little allowed on the chest," Kadlec explains.

A dog must be between 15 and 18 inches and must weigh 30 to 40 pounds. Bitches are smaller, at 14 to 16 1/2 inches and 25 to 35 pounds. However, since this is such a recently developed breed, there's still a lot of variability in it.

"You can find some that are over 50 pounds and more than 18 inches tall," Kadlec notes. "Another breeder may have pups that weigh in under 25 pounds and under 14 inches tall. Some Boykins make great house dogs, but others are high-maintenance dogs that require daily exercise and training."

Since its standardization, the breed has achieved recognition by the UKC and the North American Hunting Retriever Association, and it's gained in popularity across the United States.

"In 1984, opening day of dove season was named Boykin Spaniel Day," Kadlec says, beaming. "And in 1985, the Boykin was named the State Dog of South Carolina."

If the hunting ability of the Boykin could be distilled into one word, that word would be "versatile."

"Nowadays the Boykin is the perfect all-around hunting companion," Kadlec says. "He'll fetch your doves and ducks, flush and fetch your quail and pheasants, and track your wounded deer."

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