Welsh Springer Spaniel

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

The Welsh Springer Spaniel is a breed that has been in existence for several centuries, and although many people confuse it with the better-known English Springer Spaniel, it has a long, independent history and very different traits to its more famous cousin. Typical of a spaniel breed, the ‘Welshie’ is an energetic and enthusiastic dog, is great with children, and generally reliable with other small pets. They have a cheerful disposition, although can be sensitive to criticism, and are often distrustful of strangers.

The breed’s natural athleticism and high energy levels mean that daily exercise is a must to prevent them becoming bored and overweight, but the ease with which most are trained provides the opportunity for committed owners to enrol in flyball or agility training, outlets which the Welshie thrives on. The beautiful plumed coat is relatively easy to care for, but prospective owners must be prepared to brush and bathe their dog on occasion to keep it in good condition. The breed suffers from remarkably few significant health problems, although hip dysplasia and subsequent development of osteoarthritis are unfortunately common. The average life expectancy for the Welsh Springer Spaniel is 12–15 years.

About & History

The Welshie is descended from a group of dogs known as ‘Land Spaniels’ (as opposed to ‘Water Spaniels’, e.g. the Irish Water Spaniel), used from around the sixteenth century to flush and retrieve game on the hunt. Nobles throughout Europe tended to keep a great many spaniels for this purpose, with each region developing dogs possessed of traits suited to their particular needs. Although eighteenth century writings describe a ‘Welsh Cocker’, this is generally believed to have been a misnomer applied to the forerunners of the modern breed, rather than implying some close relationship to the Cocker Spaniel.

The Kennel Club failed to recognise this as a breed in its own right for some time throughout the 19th century, with Welshies being shown together with English Springer Spaniels, differing only in colouration. The Welsh Springer Spaniel was finally formally recognised by the UK Kennel Club in 1902, and by the American Kennel Club four years later, in 1906. While the English Springer’s popularity led to it becoming the more dominant of the two breeds, the Welsh Springer Spaniel has always had a very devoted following, and sustained efforts at conserving and improving the breed through the twentieth century, meaning that its future is relatively secure.

In a model which should be followed by many breed associations, the Welsh Springer Spaniel clubs place great emphasis on their dogs’ working traits, with hunting trials and field tests being highly valued measures of the dogs’ quality.

Appearance

Welsh Springer Spaniel Large Photo

The Welsh Springer Spaniel is a relatively angular-looking dog, due to its lean build and sloped forequarters. However, as with any working breed, its overall shape should be proportionate, with the tendency for some dogs to be overly ‘leggy’ being discouraged. The skull is slightly domed, leading through a pronounced stop to a medium-length muzzle. The cheekbones are usually quite prominent, lending to the angled appearance of the dog. The eyes are dark brown or hazel, oval-shaped and with a kindly appearance. The feathered ears are set mid-way up the skull, and are shaped as an inverted teardrop, hanging to the side of the face.

The neck and back should be firmly muscled, with the neck and loin being slightly arched, perpetually ready to leap into action. The tail is usually carried level and may have a slight upward curl towards the tip. The forelimbs display marked angulation, with the point of the elbow being carried well behind the furthest point of the shoulder, giving a generous angle to both the elbow and shoulder joints. The hindlimbs are lean and muscular, and the legs should have strong, but not heavy boning. Feathering of both fore- and hindlimbs is marked.

The breed has a glossy, flat coat, which should never be wiry or wavy, and is dense enough to provide some protection against the elements. Red and white is the only colour combination seen in the breed. Male Welsh Springer Spaniels are usually around 48 cm (19 in) tall at the withers, with females standing 46 cm (18 in) in height. Average weight ranges are 18 to 25 kg (40 to 55 lb) and 16 to 23 kg (35 to 50 lb) for males and females, respectively.

Character & Temperament

The Welsh Springer is a cheerful, enthusiastic, and energetic breed, the sort of dog that will greet an owner’s return after even a short absence with sheer, unbridled joy. They are very gentle dogs, and make excellent family pets, especially if introduced to children while young. This gentleness is also reflected in their sensitivity to criticism or harsh treatment, which the breed does not respond well to.

Due to the origins of the breed, and the nature of the work they were required to conduct, they are not strongly independent characters, usually looking to their owners for guidance in new situations. For the same reasons, they are always eager to please, and constantly trying to guess at and comply with the owners intentions. They also tend to be wary of strangers, preferring the company of those they know, rather than adapting the ‘there are no strangers, only friends I haven’t yet met’ attitude of other breeds, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

As discussed below, this is an athletic and high-energy breed, and without adequate amounts and intensity of exercise, the Welshie can become hyperactive, sometimes manifesting in undesirable behaviours, such as destructive digging or chewing. However, this should not be viewed as a fault, but rather an indication of an unfulfilled need for stimulation.

Trainability

Photo of Welsh Springer Spaniel puppy

As a working breed, the Welsh Springer Spaniel displays above-average intelligence, although they can be somewhat easily distracted. Their desire to please means that training does pay off, but owners need to approach training correctly, by introducing it in short sessions, in environments where distractions are minimised, and by making it stimulating. For example, it would be unfair to expect a Welshie to learn a new command in the middle of a town park, where passing dogs, humans, and birds provide constant diversions from the owner’s directions.

With this breed, the focus must be on praise and reward of good behaviour, rather than criticism of mistakes, as harsh treatment may lead to the dog becoming withdrawn, impeding long-term progress. Welsh Springers can be somewhat slow to house-train as puppies, although confusion sometimes exists as to whether the puppy has soiled inappropriately, as many display submissive urination when being approached or petted. Crate training may be useful to accelerate the training process, although this breed should not be left unattended in their crate for long periods, as separation anxiety can develop over time.

Health

For a pedigree breed, there are remarkably few recognised health problems in the Welsh Springer Spaniel.

  • Cataract – Although this is most commonly a condition seen in advanced years, hereditary cataract development may be seen in Welsh Springer puppies. Signs develop from 8–12 weeks of age, with pale deposits appearing in the ocular lenses, which affect vision and usually progress to cause blindness in the first one to two years of life. As this is an inherited disorder, affected animals should not be used for future breeding, and adults having produced affected puppies should be removed from the breeding stock.
  • Distichiasis – The growth of accessory or abnormally located eyelashes, which may rub on the surface of the eye, causing discomfort. Signs are usually seen from a young age. Surgical excision of the abnormal lashes is usually curative.
  • Entropion – This condition normally affects the lower eyelid, which is scrolled inwards to again allow the hairs of the lids to rub on the eye’s surface. Simple corrective surgical procedures can provide relief, however, it may be necessary to delay definitive correction until pups are fully grown, in which case temporary ‘tacking’ of skin below the eye can be performed by a veterinary surgeon.
  • Glaucoma – A weak predisposition exists in the Welsh Springer Spaniel to developing glaucoma, or increased fluid pressure within the eye. This is likely to be an inherited problem, as signs can be seen from as young as 10 weeks of age, and females are more commonly infected. The increased pressure leads to discomfort, enlargement of the affected eye, and likely visual impairment.
  • Hip Dysplasia – This is the most significant of the breed’s recognised health disorders, with Welsh Springer Spaniels consistently rating poorly in breed ranking tables. The ball-and-socket joint of the hip forms as the result of an extremely complex coordination of multiple growth plates in young dogs, and slight disturbances in only one or two of the many growth centres around the joints can lead to malformation and significant mobility problems. This most commonly manifests as lameness in pups of 6–12 months of age, and while many will outgrow the initial period of joint pain, most affected dogs will go on to develop osteoarthritis of the hip joints in later life.
  • Hypothyroidism – Poor thyroid function is usually the end result of an autoimmune process of destruction of thyroid tissue. Low thyroid hormone levels lead to a decrease in metabolic rate, which translates to weight gain, lethargy, exercise intolerance and skin/coat changes, with hair loss frequently being the symptom most noticeable to owners. Treatment of this condition is simple and effective, with oral supplementation of thyroid hormone leading to improvement in symptoms within 6–12 weeks.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – This degenerative ocular condition usually manifests between 5 to 7 years of age, with loss of visual acuity occurring due to death of sensory retinal cells in both eyes. This is a relatively late onset compared to many other breeds, meaning that it is possible affected dogs may have entered the pool of breeding animals before displaying symptoms.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Welsh Springer Spaniels are extremely energetic and require a large amount of regular exercise. Simple lead walking is not really sufficient to keep the breed in good health mentally and physically. They are very well-suited as running companions, and benefit hugely from participation in well-structured, stimulating activities, such as flyball or agility classes. Without around two hours of exercise per day, a Welsh Springer Spaniel is likely to become overweight and frustrated, which will usually manifest as mischievous or hyperactive behaviour. This is not a breed for a couch potato, or for those looking for an ornamental lap-dog.

Grooming

The Welshie’s coat is quite easy to care for, as it tends to be quite resistant to tangles and knots. However, due to its length and feathering, it does require brushing or combing at least twice a week to remove burrs and grass seeds. The coat does shed a moderate amount, which may be an issue for some owners. Professional grooming is worthwhile on occasion to tidy the fringes around the ears, limbs, and chest, although this is not strictly necessary.

As for any dog, other routine tasks which should be carried out include clipping nails and brushing teeth. Because of the tendency for spaniels to have waxy ears, ear cleaning is important, as low-grade bacterial and fungal ear infections can go unnoticed. When cleaning a dog’s ears, ensure an appropriate product is being used, as veterinary surgeons commonly see damage to the delicate structures of the middle ear caused by inappropriate otic medications or even kitchen ingredients. All of these should be introduced at a young age so that they become well-accepted by the dog. This will also facilitate stress-free veterinary visits in later life.

Famous Welsh Springer Spaniels

The Welsh Springer Spaniel has kept a low profile over the centuries, with few truly famous individuals:

  • Corrin, the first dog of the breed to be photographed
  • Goitre Lass, a well-known bitch that produced several champion pups

Cross-Breeds

Welsh Springers are occasionally crossed with other gundogs to promote particular traits. Some of the breeds they have been interbred with are:

  • English Springer Spaniels
  • Golden Retriever
  • English Pointer

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