Sussex Spaniel

Catharine Hennessy
Dr Catharine Hennessy (DVM, North Carolina State University)
Photo of adult Sussex Spaniel

The Sussex Spaniel is an unusual spaniel that was originally developed as a sporting dog. Considered a gun dog, they excel in flushing and retrieving wounded or dead game in dense underbrush. Their long, low build, combined with massive body features gives them a distinctive look. Facing extinction a number of times historically, the breed has survived thanks to preservation efforts of enthusiasts.

As with most sporting dogs, Sussex Spaniels are energetic, but tend to be less so than other similar breeds, such as Springer Spaniels and retrievers. They need adequate exercise but are less active indoors than their spaniel and retriever relatives. This makes them a versatile family dog that can adapt to many environments, from apartments to larger family homes. While they are perfectly content to lounge indoors, they do need frequent walks and thrive when able to run daily. The Sussex is a long-lived breed, generally 14 to 16 years.

About & History

The Sussex Spaniel originated in Sussex, England in the mid 1800’s. The breed development is attributed to Augustus Elliot Fuller, a wealthy landowner and avid sportsman. Desiring a thick, low dog to retrieve wounded game in the dense underbrush of the area, he reportedly crossed spaniels with hounds, creating the Sussex Spaniel. His spaniels were distinctive, with much longer backs and lower build than more common cocking and springing spaniels. A few breeders continued with Fuller’s work after his death in 1857, with earliest known show recognition in 1862. When the American Kennel Club was formed in 1884, the Sussex Spaniel was one of 10 breeds included in the stud book. Unfortunately, as with many breeds, the population suffered during the world wars.

Joy Freer, a breed enthusiast in the United Kingdom, obtained her first Sussex Spaniel in 1923. She began a breeding program, which ensured the survival of the breed during the war. In addition to her breeding program, she actively worked her dogs in the field, maintaining their integrity as gun dogs. The breed is characterised by its soft mouth, its tendency to bark (or give tongue) when on scent (which helps the handler keep track of the dog while in the field), is rarely gun shy, has more stamina than the similarly built Clumber Spaniel, but lacks the speed of English Springer and Cocker Spaniels. The Sussex Spaniel has enjoyed some popularity as a gun dog in the UK, but less so in the United States, due to the differences in terrain encountered in the field.


Sussex Spaniel Large Photo

Sussex Spaniels are distinctive in their appearance. They are low to the ground, with short thick legs and a long back. Their overall build is considered massive, built for both strength and maneuverability, and well suited for running through undergrowth. The head is wide with a deep, square muzzle. The top of the head has a moderate curve, with an indentation in the middle, and comes to a full stop. The brows are heavy, resulting in a frown. The eyes are hazel, large and soft, without showing the third eyelid (haw). The ears are thick, large and low set. The lips are somewhat pendulous.

Sussex Spaniels have a short, thick neck, carried only slightly above the back. The back is level without prominent withers. The chest is round, both wide and deep, leading to a slight waist. The legs are short and heavily boned. The forelegs can be straight or slightly bowed, but the hind legs should be straight, leading to large, round feet.

Males and females are similar in size and appearance, with males slightly larger. The breed ranges from 33 to 38 cm in height and 16 to 20 kg in weight. The coat colour is always rich, golden liver and generally solid, with only a small amount of white allowed on the chest. The coat is generous and fine, and either flat or slightly wavy. There is an adequate undercoat for winter. The neck is marked with a frill. The tail is docked at 13 to 18 cm and is moderately feathered. The legs are feathered, but should be kept clean and shorter below the carpus and hocks. The feet are feathered and may require trimming to keep mats from forming.

When in movement, the Sussex Spaniel should have a powerful, smooth, yet graceful gait. The head should be carried low while hunting, and the tail should move freely, but be carried level with or slightly lower than the back. The gait is unique to the breed and is described as “rolling”.

Character & Temperament

As with all sporting dogs, the Sussex Spaniel is energetic, but can be more reserved indoors than their spaniel counterparts. Typical of the other spaniel breeds, they are friendly and cheerful, and get along well with other dogs, cats (if introduced early), and older children. They are protective of their owners and families.

They tend to be dominant, and will need to see leadership from all non-canine members of the household. While barking during hunting is characteristic of this breed, Sussex Spaniels are not known to bark excessively unless they are bored. Destructive behavior resulting from separation anxiety and boredom can occur.


Due to their intelligence and energy level, Sussex Spaniels need early training using positive reinforcement techniques only, as punishment will likely lead to indifference. As with most dogs, an early start with obedience and adequate activities is needed to prevent destructive behaviors. House-training is generally easy, and they have excellent recall.


The Sussex Spaniel enjoys a long lifespan of 14 to 16 years and is generally a healthy, hardy breed, although due to its rareness, suffers from a lack of genetic diversity. This lack of diversity (or inbreeding) contributes to health issues in the breed. The following diseases are notable, and may be addressed with improved breeding selection.

Hip Dysplasia

This genetic disorder leads to pain and arthritis in the hips, which can start early in life. Prior to breeding, it is recommended to have the hips of both dogs and bitches scored by an expert. To prevent progression of this disease later in life, exercise should be moderated until 6 months of age.


This condition usually manifests in the skin of Sussex Spaniels. They can be allergic to foods or to environmental triggers. While environmental allergens can be impossible to eliminate, a restricted diet may be suggested by a veterinarian to address this.


Abnormal eyelash growth, or distichiasis, can occur in Sussex Spaniels. With this condition, the eyelashes grow on the inner part of eyelid, rubbing against the cornea, causing discomfort and leading to corneal damage, scarring, and eventually blindness due to the scarring. If the condition causes eye irritation, surgical correction should be considered.

Ear Infections

While not necessarily a genetic issue, ear infections tend to be recurring in this breed. The ears of Sussex Spaniels are large and heavy, providing very little airflow. Regular cleaning should be performed to prevent infections. If the ears become infected, prompt treatment is recommended to prevent chronic inflammation from causing changes to the ear, including thickening of the canals and polyps.

Heart Issues

Two different types of heritable heart conditions are seen in Sussex Spaniels.

  • Patent Ductus Arteriosis occurs when a normal prenatal connection between the left and right side of the heart, does not close after birth. This is a serious medical condition and requires early surgical correction.
  • Pulmonic Stenosis is a narrowing of the pulmonic artery leading from the heart to the lungs. In more severe cases, it can cause exercise intolerance, coughing, fainting, and can lead to heart failure. Treatment options are limited and generally only available through a specialty facility. Individuals affected with either condition should not be bred.


This relatively common endocrine disorder is seen in many breeds. Symptoms include dry skin, poor coat, weight gain and lack of energy. A simple blood test followed by lifelong, inexpensive hormone replacement therapy are recommended.

Back Pain

Due to the relative length of the Sussex Spaniels’ back, they are prone to back pain and even Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). Back pain episodes are usually treated with rest and anti-inflammatory therapy, but can require surgery in severe cases to address paralysis. Keeping this breed active and slim are excellent preventative measures.


All deep-chested breeds can suffer from bloat, a condition where air is swallowed and becomes trapped in the stomach. The stomach can twist, preventing the air from escaping. This is a medical, and in some cases, a surgical emergency.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Sussex Spaniel enjoys an active lifestyle. While they can appear lazy indoors, spending hours lounging on the floor or couch, they require plenty of activity. Multiple walks daily are a minimum requirement, but this breed is happiest when able to run free in the garden, with time and room to romp and play. Many will retrieve, as they were bred for this purpose, and are great outdoor companions for active, older children. They are well-suited for agility and flyball.


The coat and ears of the Sussex Spaniel require regular care. While routine trimming is not needed, daily brushing is optimal to keep the coat, as these dogs are moderate shedders and feathers and undercoat will mat if not regularly brushed The nails will need to be cut monthly if they are not worn through activity.

Frequency of bathing is determined by outdoor activity. Daily tooth brushing, as with all breeds, is recommended. Owners of Sussex Spaniels will need to pay close attention to the ears. The ears should be cleaned at least weekly with a solution purchased specifically for canine ear flushing.

Famous Sussex Spaniels

The Sussex Spaniel is still a rare breed and has not achieved stardom yet. However, a 10-year-old Sussex Spaniel, Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee, nicknamed "Stump", won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2009, bringing attention to the breed. He remains the oldest dog to win this title.


There is no known cross-breeding of the Sussex Spaniel.

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