Monday, September 23, 2013

Early History of Spaniels 1500-1700

Today there are 26 breeds of Spaniels, but in 1500
there were only two, the Land Spaniel and Water Spaniel.

Land Spaniel and Water Spaniel
Illustrations from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658)

The Land Spaniel crept forward then flushed game.  Hunters either ensnared animals in nets, or used trained falcons and hawks to grab birds in flight.
Land Spaniel, Etching by P. Tempest, mid 1600s
British Museum

The Water Spaniel flushed game in water.
Water Spaniel, 1799
British Museum

In 1576,  cynologist Johannes Caius described the generic land spaniel, “The most part of their skins are white and if they be marked with any spots, they are commonly red, and somewhat great therewithal, the hairs not growing in such thickness but that the mixture of them may easily be perceived.  Other some of them be reddish and blackish, but of that sort there be but a few.”
The land spaniel
Print by Jan Verkolje, Dutch, 1680
British Museum

I don't know why, but Caius described the generic water spaniel with much more detail: "His head should be round, with curled hair, his ears broad and hanging, his eyes full and lively, his nose short, his lips like unto an hound's, his neck thick and short, his shoulders broad, his legs straight, his chine square, his ribs with a compass, his buttocks round, his thighs brawny, his belly gaunt, his pasterns strong and dewclawed, and his fore-feet long and round, with his hair in general long and curled, not loose and shagged; for the first sheweth hardiness and strength to endure the water, and the other much tenderness and weakness...” 
Woodcut of Water Spaniel
French, about 1700
British Museum

Caius believed the word spaniel derived from the dog's country of origin, Spain or Espagna.  Others say the name is a derivative of the French verb espanir, which means to crouch in a low position.
The Water Spaniel is on the left, the Land Spaniel on the right.
William Smith, Spaniels, engraving on paper, 1831
Victoria and Albert Museum

The invention of the firearm and subsequent interest in gun hunting changed the way Spaniels were bred. For instance when the flintlock replaced the wheelock, the time lag between the trigger and discharge was eliminated, meaning birds could be shot in flight. 
I'm not pretending to know anything about antique guns, but
the wheel lock is on the left, the new and improved flintlock above right.

As technology continued to assist hunters, different types of Spaniels were bred.  Small spaniels flushed game under brush, others flushed birds and retrieved them.  Today there are 26 Spaniel breeds worldwide.  You can see 110 vintage images of old-time Spaniels at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
F. Barlow, intaglio print, 1640
Victoria and Albert Museum


  1. A great post!!! Enjoyed learning about this breed of dog. Checked the link and had a look through the many different varieties of this breed and I was particularly taken with the Kooikerhondje from the Netherlands. Such a sweet looking dog, so pretty!!!!

  2. The Stabyhoun, a rare and beautiful breed originating in The Netherlands, has a lot of similarities to the Water Spaniel. They were frequently painted in the mid-16th century. Check them out on

    Thank you for posting this!

    1. Lovely dogs. Thanks for sending the link. I'll keep my eyes open for 16th c. paintings of the breed.