French Spaniel

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult French Spaniel

The French Spaniel is a versatile hunting dog with noble roots extending back through the courts of Europe over centuries. It is a docile and sociable dog that loves children and mixes well with other pets. It is most at home in the field, where it assumes a variety of roles, setting, pointing, and retrieving game. However, as a pet it retains its eagerness to please its owner, and is a very loyal companion. The French Spaniel’s nature is completely devoid of aggression, and it may be easily intimidated by more boisterous dogs, rough handling or harsh treatment.

It is a very athletic dog that needs at least an hour of vigorous exercise daily, though it is generally calm and content once this need has been met. Lack of exercise or isolation, for example, being left at home while the owners are working, can cause troublesome behaviours due to boredom and frustration, with digging and nuisance barking chief amongst these. Its fringed coat requires regular grooming and clipping to maintain its appearance, but it sheds relatively lightly. Health problems are exceptionally uncommon in the breed, which has an average life expectancy of 11–13 years.

About & History

Like other spaniel breeds, such as the English Springer Spaniel and Cocker Spaniel, the French Spaniel is likely to have been derived from Spanish and Portuguese hunting dogs of the Middle Ages. However, the existence of spaniels was first recorded in written history in the fourteenth century by Gaston III of Foix-Bearn. The spaniels of this time were an ill-defined group of dogs used for hunting and retrieving game – mostly wildfowl. Unlike many of the types of dog at the time, this group began to undergo the process of selection and refinement into distinct breeds as early as the fifteenth century, with the King Charles Spaniel and French Spaniel being well-established independent breeds by the mid-1600s. While the King Charles Spaniel roamed the royal corridors of England, it was the French Spaniel that found favour in Versailles and Saint Petersburg, both as a hunter and companion. It retained its noble patronage for most of the next two centuries, and was admired for its speed and gentle mouth when retrieving wounded game.

In the 1850s, the French Spaniel was crossed with the English Setter to begin a long breeding programme that was to create another breed that is still in existence today – the Brittany. Despite this use as a foundation breed, the French Spaniel began to lose popularity as a hunting dog in its homeland, with foreign gundogs being brought in to replace it. Father Fournier, a French priest, is widely credited with having saved the breed from extinction in the early twentieth century when he founded a breeding kennels in Saint Hillaire and successfully established a healthy population to continue the lineage. Though the breed is recognised by the Federation Cynologique Internationale, it is not registered with any of the major national kennel clubs at this time.

Appearance

French Spaniel Large Photo

In terms of appearance, the French Spaniel has more in common with the setter breeds than with other spaniels, being tall and “leggy” – though it does share facial characteristics with the English Springer Spaniel. It has a somewhat square skull, with the sides being parallel, and it has a pronounced stop above the convex nasal bridge. When viewed from above, the muzzle is slightly shorter than the skull. It has well-fitted lips that are quite tight in comparison to some spaniels, and a scissor bite. The oval-shaped eyes are large and expressive, of a cinnamon to dark brown colour, with prominent upper lashes. The ears are set at eye level, have long fringes of wavy hair, and are carried close to the cheeks.

The neck is muscular and arched, and the back is strong and straight. Increased muscling is evident in the loins and rump. The chest is very deep and moderately well-sprung, and the abdomen is tucked. The tail is set a little below the level of the back, and is usually carried below horizontal with an upward sweep. It carries long fringes of hair that taper along its length. The limbs are lean and angulated, with moderate weight of bone and tight, arched toes. The French Spaniel’s movement is flowing and easy, and surprisingly powerful when in full flight.

The skin of the eyelids, lips, and nose is brown. The breed has a silky coat that becomes longer and wavier on the ears, the backs of the legs, and on the tail. The hair around the face is shorter and finer. The coat colour is generally white and brown, with a white blaze running from the nose to the forehead, though black and roan markings are also permissible.

The FCI breed standard requires males to be 56–61 cm (22–24 in) tall at the withers, and females to be between 55 and 59 cm (22-23 in). The weight range for both males and females is 20–27 kg (44–59 lb).

Character & Temperament

The French Spaniel is a calm and docile dog that is considerate and gentle in its approach to children. It is extremely sociable, both with other dogs and with humans. It enjoys and demands attention from all quarters, and is possibly one of least appropriate breeds to choose as a guard dog due to its affable nature.

As a hunting dog, it has strong pointing and retrieving abilities, and it is this hunting instinct that means it will naturally form an especially strong bond with one member of the family, whom it will be particularly eager to please. However, this is a dog with plenty of love to share, and it will always have plenty of time and respect for other people in the home as well.

Trainability

Its eagerness to please, combined with the breed’s intelligence, means that the French Spaniel is a highly trainable dog. It has a sensitive nature, and should always be praised and rewarded for good behaviour, rather than reprimanded for misdemeanours, and the dog’s “favourite” person, or master, should generally be the one to teach new commands or tricks. Obviously, the breed takes naturally to hunting, but this instinct can also be used in retrieving and pointing games, for example, with items of the owner’s clothing, to great effect in order to provide mental stimulation.

As puppies, some can be slow to house train, and crate training can be useful in accelerating the process. This involves providing the pup with a secure space, such as a kennel, within the home in which he can be locked at night or when being left alone during the day. Having this defined space to call his own usually means that he will be reluctant to soil in it, and thus will pick up on the basics of indoor etiquette much faster.

Health

Health problems are very rare in the breed; despite its recovery from near-extinction in the past one hundred years, it remains robustly healthy. Just as certain health problems are prevalent in particular families, there are a few conditions that have been seen with some regularity in the French Spaniel.

  • Acral Mutilation and Analgesia – This distressing condition has also been noted in other breeds, including the German Shorthaired Pointer and English Springer Spaniel. The underlying cause appears to be a loss of sensation in the lower limbs of affected dogs, resulting in severe self-mutilation through licking, chewing and biting. It has been reported in a series of 13 cases in Canada, in which the dogs inflicted such severe injuries to themselves as to require euthanasia. It occurs between 3 and 12 months of age, and there is no known treatment.
  • Epilepsy – This is a common problem in many of the spaniel breeds, and appears to be inherited in certain families. The age of onset is generally between 6 months and 5 years of age, when signs such as seizuring, loss of consciousness, or even involuntary tics may first be noticed. Anticonvulsant treatments are available for the condition, but should only be used when the epileptic episodes are either severe enough or frequent enough to warrant their use.
  • Entropion – Inward scrolling of the eyelids of one or both eyes, causing hairs on the surface of the lids to rub on the sensitive surface of the eye. This causes discomfort, recurrent infections, and potentially loss of sight if left untreated. Surgical treatment involves removing a wedge of tissue from the outer lid in order to correct the abnormal conformation, and is usually straightforward and very effective.
  • Hip Dysplasia – First seen in pups between 5 and 12 months of age, this is a developmental abnormality of the hip joints, causing lack of mobility, stiffness, and pain, particularly after lying down for long periods. This is largely a genetic disorder, but owners can guard against its development by ensuring they feed a good quality dog food and by not exercising their young, growing French Spaniel excessively, especially in its first year.
  • Otitis Externa – The French Spaniel can be prone to chronic ear infections that may be either fungal or bacterial in origin. This is likely to be because its ears produce a relatively large amount of wax, and are set close to the head, thus being poorly ventilated. Long-standing infections can be very challenging to treat, and are therefore better prevented. This is best accomplished by having a cleaning routine, as described below.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The breed is enthusiastic and energetic when taken out for walks, and needs a minimum of an hour a day exercising with its owner. It enjoys chasing and retrieving games, which can increase the intensity of exercise and provide more satisfaction. However, it is important that the dog responds well to recall, as it can be easily distracted by sights and smells when off the lead in public places.

The French Spaniel is not suited to apartment living, as it also needs time to exercise its keen nose and other senses by being given time to amble around a garden during the day. Such seemingly trivial activity actually provides vital mental stimulation to hunting breeds, who are otherwise prone to boredom.

Grooming

The fine coat can be kept in good condition by brushing it two or three times per week to keep it free of tangles. This regular brushing also helps to spread oils from the skin through the hair. The fringes and feathers found along the legs, ears and tail may need to be clipped every three to four months to remove the inevitable knots that develop in these areas. As mentioned above, ear cleaning should also be performed regularly using a cleansing solution recommended for use in dogs.

Ear cleansers for humans, or even cats, are not suitable because of the different acidity of dogs’ skin. Unless there is an active ear infection, in which case veterinary advice should be sought, once-weekly cleaning should be sufficient to prevent a build-up of wax and debris. The dog’s nails should be trimmed whenever they can be heard to click on hard floors – this is something that should be introduced to the French Spaniel as a pup, as should tooth brushing in order to prevent dental disease in later life.

Famous French Spaniels

Though one may struggle to find the French Spaniel as a focus of media attention in recent times, Lady Wentworth, in her 1911 book entitled “Toy Dogs and their Ancestors”, describes the breed as a favourite of European royalty, and asserts that its existence predated that of the toy spaniels found in England at the time.

Cross-Breeds

It appears that French Spaniel owners firmly believe that they cannot improve upon perfection, as cross-breeds are exceptionally hard to come by.

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