German Spaniel

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

Rare outside its homeland, the German Spaniel is almost always kept as a hunter. It was originally bred as a peasant’s dog after the German state revolutions of the nineteenth century, and it still retains its essential versatility, stamina, and strength. It is a medium-sized but strongly boned spaniel that is an extremely keen worker, and though it is extremely sociable with humans and other dogs, it is considered to have too high a prey drive to be a suitable pet for most owners.

Its wavy coat is weather-resistant and easy to care for with occasional swimming helping to maintain its condition. The breed needs a lot of exercise, having been bred to spend entire days in the field, and it needs a secure outdoor space when at home. Health problems are rare in the German Spaniel, and it has an average life expectancy of 12 to 15 years.

About & History

The German Spaniel is known as the Deutscher Wachtelhund, or “German quail dog” in its native Germany, and has a long and relatively well-documented history. It is descended from a now-extinct hunting dog called the Stoeberer, which was first mentioned in literature from the early 1700s. This progenitor was said to have a nose at least as sensitive as a Bloodhound, which is an impressive claim, though impossible to prove at this point in time. Stoeberers were generally owned by the ruling classes, who had the monopoly on hunting in Germany around this time. However, after the peasant revolts of 1848, the common man was also given the right to hunt, and he needed a more versatile dog that could serve in the place of a pack of different, specialist breeds.

After much cross-breeding of Stoeberers with other spaniels and water dogs, Frederick Roberth is credited with having established the Wachtelhund as a distinct breed by around 1890. Another avid dog breeder, Rudolf Friess, held great influence over subsequent development of the breed, and advocated breeding two separate lines, with the brown dogs being recognised for their greater short-distance speed and ability to bring game to the gun, and the brown-roan dogs having greater long-distance speed and the ability to follow a scent trail over huge distances. Although this breeding policy continued for decades, it is no longer practiced today.

The breed finally made its way out of Germany in the mid-twentieth century, when several individuals were exported to the United States. Unfortunately, it has never made much an impression there, as it is believed there are fewer than one hundred German Spaniels registered with the United Kennel Club at the present time. While not many are being used for their original intended purpose, some are employed in Canada to hunt black bear, a reflection of their natural courage. Similarly, German Spaniels enjoy some limited popularity in southern Sweden in hunting boar – another fearsome animal to face down.

Appearance

German Spaniel Large Photo

This is a solidly built, medium-sized spaniel with a long, wavy coat. It has a long back in relation to its height, and appreciably strong bone structure. Its noble head has a squarish skull and a slight stop leading to a strong, broad muzzle and a dark nose. The lips are tight, and pigmented according to the colour of the coat. The slightly oblique eyes are dark brown in colour, and have tight-fitting lids, which, again, are pigmented to match the coat colour. The ears are typically spaniel-like; long and pendulous, with generous fringes of curly hair.

Both the neck and back are muscular, with athletic contours leading to a croup that slopes down to meet an extremely expressive tail, which is unfortunately still docked in the countries where the German Spaniel is kept. The chest is very broad and moderately deep, and the abdomen is reasonably tightly tucked. Orthopaedic problems are relatively common in the breed, so particular attention should be paid to the conformation of the limbs. Both fore- and hindlimbs must be straight and upright when viewed from the front or behind, and there should be good angulation at the shoulder, stifle, and hock joints to allow normal motion and to provide plenty of cushioning during prolonged exercise. The upper limbs are strongly muscled, and the lower limbs have broad, heavy boning. The paws should be tight and oval-shaped, with well-developed pads.

The German Spaniel has strong, somewhat coarse hair that is reasonably long over most of the body, but especially so on the rear of the legs and the tail. Though it is generally wavy, it is more curled on the ears, nape of the neck, and at the tail base. As indicated in the History section above, it is traditionally seen in two colours:

  • Solid brown
  • Brown roan

Less commonly, red may replace the brown, and both colour variations are permitted white markings. In terms of size, male German Spaniels measure 48 to 54 cm tall (19–21 in), and weigh 22 to 25 kg (48 to 55 lb). Females range in height from 45 to 52 cm (18 to 20 in) and weigh 18 to 21 kg (40–46 lb).

Character & Temperament

This is an extremely energetic breed, ever alert and eager to be on the move. It also very docile and accepting of strangers, never showing unprovoked aggression, and its confident nature means it is not easily “spooked”, so it is generally trustworthy around children. The Wachtelhund’s extremely strong prey drive means that it becomes bored easily, and if kept confined or under-stimulated, it is likely to express its frustration vocally, or to take to digging or chewing destructively. Although it is sometimes kept in kennelled accommodation, it is happier when afforded constant contact with its owners. While it is extremely sociable with other dogs, it will see smaller animals as prey, so it is not suitable for homes with non-canine pets.

Trainability

Photo of German Spaniel puppy
Paesslergung / Wikipedia.org

The German Spaniel is easily trained to its life as a hunter, and retrieving, tracking, and dispatching prey come naturally. While it will be quick to wander from its owner’s side when in outdoor spaces, it can be relied upon to return without protest.

Although socialisation is important for any dog, it should not present any difficulties for this amiable breed, and it is not known for being slow to house-train. Unwanted behaviours, for example, incessant barking, are usually the result of inadequate stimulation rather than poor upbringing or training.

Health

It is often said that the German Spaniel is a hunter’s dog bred by hunters, and those heavily invested in the breed have done an outstanding job of keeping it free from serious inherited problems. However, like all pedigrees, there are several conditions that prospective owners should be aware of. In particular, deviations of the limbs can be seen, which can lead to impaired mobility and the premature onset of arthritis.

  • Elbow dysplasia An inherited deformity of the elbow that manifests in growing pups when their weight reaches a point that distresses the misshapen joint. Best prevented through x-ray screening of breeding animals.
  • Epilepsy – Like the Springer Spaniel, the German Spaniel suffers from a familial form of epilepsy, albeit to a lesser extent. Affected dogs will have seizure episodes of varying intensity throughout their lives unless medicated.
  • Hip dysplasia – Another inherited cause of joint pain and lameness, this time affecting the hind limbs. Signs are generally obvious by seven months of age, and may be seen as stiffness after lying down or reluctance to jump. Like elbow dysplasia, can be detected in breeding dogs during x-ray examination.
  • Patellar luxation – In dogs with bowed hind limbs, the kneecap may slip out of its normal position, causing discomfort and a very awkward three-legged gait. In most cases, the kneecap will pop back into position intermittently, but this back-and-forth movement is likely to eventually lead to arthritic change within the knee joint. Corrective surgery is generally very successful.
  • Sebaceous cysts – The German Spaniel’s oily skin is prone to developing these lumps containing accumulations of cheesy material. Though the cysts are relatively harmless, they may become infected or irritated, necessitating their removal.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The German Spaniel should ideally be able to exercise more than it rests, and on days when it is not hunting, should be given several hours of vigorous activity. Even with this amount of exercise, it retains an alert and sprightly demeanour at home, and is certainly not a dog for owners that consider themselves couch potatoes.

Grooming

Although the thick coat does shed heavily, especially in spring and autumn, it does not require intensive grooming. Weekly to twice-weekly brushing should suffice for most of the year, with occasional baths as required. Professional grooming is not essential, although keeping the long feathers on the limbs and around the perineum clipped can help in keeping the dog clean. The pendulous spaniel ears need regular cleaning with an appropriate ear wash to prevent ear infections.

Famous German Spaniels

While the breed is more likely to be found wading through mud than sharing the red carpet, some of its founding members have retained their celebrity among the Wachtelhund fraternity. Lord Augusta is seen as the male from whom most modern German Spaniels have descended, with the female Baby auf der Schanze being credited with introducing the roan colouration that is still seen today.

Cross-Breeds

With so few German Spaniels being found outside of hunting circles, they are seldom deliberately cross-bred, with no recognised designer dog offspring.

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