Back to Saga Welsh Springer Spaniels

Abstract: Comparison of Welsh and English Springer Spaniels

A Tale of Two Springers
One from England, one from Wales, these two ancient spaniels command attention wherever they go.

By Betsy Sikora Siino
(Reprinted by permission; originally appeared in Dog Fancy Magazine, April 1993)
One day, a guy was walking down my street with this dog on a leash. I saw him, and I just about attacked the poor man. It was love at first sight."

So says Sandra Ilmanen, who points out that the object of her affection was not the man, although he did prove to be quite nice, but rather the man's dog: a Welsh Springer Spaniel. Within a week, she had a puppy. Since that day, she has had many more, and she cannot now imagine life without them.

On the other hand, Naia Libeu has never had to imagine life without the Welsh's cousin, the English Springer Spaniel. Since childhood she has lived with these sprightly dogs, her best friends. "They are not the easiest dogs to live with," she says, "but I think they're the most fun."

Related by appearance, instinct and name, each of these attractive, ancient spaniels possesses unique features, unique talents, unique character. What they share is a profound love of the human species, a love that has earned them a coveted niche within the human heart.


To understand the springer spaniels, an introduction to the spaniel family is in order A special group of dogs originally bred for hunting small game, primarily birds, they are talented retrievers with strong, compact bodies, floppy ears, docked tails and soft feathering.

While the English and Welsh Springer Spaniels differ in size, shape and color, they also stand apart in popularity: The English ranked 20th in 1991, while the Welsh came in a distant 103rd.
Photo by Kent and Donna Dannen

But beyond talent, a most endearing spaniel trait is the love of people reflected in the dogs' soulful eyes. This "spaniel stare" has endeared them to humans for centuries.

Through the centuries the breeding of spaniels was elevated to an art form in Europe, including in the British Isles, the homeland of the English and Welsh Springer Spaniels. With a talent for retrieving on land or in water, these dogs earned their name for their ability to "spring". or flush, game birds from their hiding places. In the case of the English Springer, the name might further describe the dog's exuberance. Not what one would describe as a calm dog. The English Springer seems at times to hit the ground on springs rather than feet Most English Springer owners would agree that the term "jumps for joy" is one their dogs illustrate daily.

Photo by Sharon Eide

The spring in the English Springer's step is a manifestation of the affection it feels for those who share its life, obvious to anyone who has ever witnessed the bond between this dog and its owner. "They really need to be your best friend," says Naia Libeu. "When they are, they will go everywhere with you. You do not even go to the bathroom alone.


One of the oldest British spaniels, the English Springer has developed its affection for humans through the hundreds of years it has spent with our species. A special favorite among the British elite, it was often called upon to work with setters in the field. Attractive as well as effective, the English Springer has long served as the inspiration for hunting portraits. and so historically popular was it in the field that it gained prominence in America long before it was recognized by Britain's Kennel Club in 1902.

Spawned from a different British locale is the English Springer's calmer cousin, the Welsh. "Our dogs are a nice, calm breed to live with." says Sandra Ilmanen. now proprietor of Saga Welsh Springers in California. "They're excellent house dogs, and they're not too demanding. They're quite happy just to sit there at your feet."

They are also quite happy to Hunt having been bred to do just that in the isolated mountains and valleys of Wales. With gentle, quiet dignity and a tireless work ethic, they came to reflect the Welsh people themselves. Lacking the funds to finance multibreed packs of specially trained hunting dogs, the average Welshman often had to rely on a single springer as his partner in the field. So emerged a versatile dog that spent its days in the fields and its evenings by the fire with the family, sharing the camaraderie and guarding the household. This versatility remains with the dog today.


For the last 30 years, Naia Libeu and her husband Larry have been involved in the showing, both conformation and obedience, of English Springers.

Sadie, a 7-year-old English Springer Spaniel, has the liver and white coloring commonly seen in the breed
Photo by Barbara J. Augello

"They're clowns," says Libeu, describing the dogs that have for so long owned her heart. "They have a real clownish personality, and if they do something bad, you have to be able to look at them and say, 'Isn't that cute.' And then when you laugh, they do it more." For owners with such a sense of humor, the breed can adapt well to either city or country living--as long as it gets plenty of exercise to expend its abundant energy and plenty of mental stimulation to teed its natural curiosity.

But before we all run out to get one of these adorable dogs, as so many people do following their first encounter with this irresistible spaniel, Libeu warns that the dogs are not for everyone. They can be a handful for some and too heavy a grooming responsibility for others, both of which an owner may not discover until after bringing the wee pup home.

In determining whether the English Springer is the right dog for his or her family, the prospective owner must first decide what the dog's duty will be. This is an important step, for in recent decades, the breed has split in two distinctive directions. "We have a breed that is two breeds: the hunting springer and the pet/show springer-- and they are not even bred together," explains Libeu. "It has been years since we've had a dual champion who hunts and shows. They look completely different, too."

The English Springer's straight, sometimes wavy coat is found in three color patterns: black and white, liver and white, and tri-color. As Libeu explains, the show springer is ideally marked by a richly colored blanket across the back, a colored mask on a white face, and a white chest.

Color and markings are secondary to the breeder of hunting springers, however. While both the show springer and the field springer share the typical springer ears and coat, what truly matters in the field dog is hunting ability, not appearance.

"It's a sad situation," says Libeu. "It would be nice if somewhere along the line we could put our dogs together and end up with a dog that does both. But we're too far apart now. We have developed a very pretty dog, and nobody wants to give up anything to integrate our breed, which is a shame."


Also a shame is the English Springer's popularity, as it now suffers the slings and arrows of this curse.

The English Springer standard calls for a dog that stands 20 inches at the withers, 19 inches for bitches. According to the standard, a well-proportioned 20-inch dog should weigh 49 to 55 pounds.
Photo by Faith A. Uridel

With their sweet mugs showing up constantly in the media, and with the former First Dog being an English Springer of dubious conformation yet of wonderful temperament (as Vickie Harshman, breeder of both Welsh and English Springers points out), an inevitable increase in the demand for these dogs has led to an increase in sloppy breeding for profit.

The events leading to the English Springer's popularity have simply increased the need for puppy buyers to work with ethical, serious breeders. This begins by ensuring that a puppy's parents have been OFA-cleared for hip dysplasia, a genetic condition that, surprisingly, occurs even more frequently in the less- populous Welsh Springer. English Springer puppies should also be checked for progressive retinal atrophy, a hereditary blindness- causing eye condition common in the breed.

Temperament problems are also beginning to crop up in the English Springer, a breed that should be a gentle, friendly, people-loving dog. For this reason, Vickie Harshman urges prospective puppy buyers to work only with breeders who stand behind their dogs and thus help ensure that the English Springer remains the wonderful family dog it is meant to be.

Libeu agrees. "English Springers are really charming dogs," she says. "They make funny faces and they act silly, so they charm you. I just hope they don't become more popular than they already are. That isn't good for any breed."


What is good for the English Springer is lots and lots of grooming, a fact that comes as a surprise to many new owners. The beautiful show springer's flowing tresses do not just materialize overnight. They are the product of hours of brushing, combing, scissoring, bathing, shaving and -- for those who don't know the techniques -- countless trips to the grooming shop.

The English Springer's medium-length coat is flat or wavy, and dense enough to he waterproof, weatherproof and thorn-proof. While the pet English Springer's appearance need not mirror that of the slow dog, neither can the owner of such a dog ignore the coat. A mass of mats and tangles will result if that is the course one chooses.

Daily brushing is good for any springer whether it is a pet or a hunting dog. This prevents mats and removes shedding hair, and the dogs usually enjoy it, too.

Equally critical is regular attention to the dog's ears, the shape of which prevents air circulation, thus allowing a potential buildup of moisture and subsequent infection.


When Sandra Ilmanen "attacked" the gentleman with the Welsh Springer Spaniel several years back, her reason was simple. "I'd always loved Irish Setters, that lovely red color," she says. "And here was a dog that was Irish Setter red, plus white, plus it had freckles! And it was small enough. There just wasn't anything not to like."

The Welsh Springer's coat should be a rich red and white, with hair that is straight, flat and soft, never wiry or wavy.
Photo by Jeannine Kidd

Today Ilmanen competes in conformation, hunting trials and obedience with her Welshes. "The breed's versatility is one of the most wonderful things about them," she says. "The instincts are still there for hunting, and the intelligence is certainly there for obedience. Actually, a lot of us think they're a little too smart for us."

The Welsh is also a good choice for people who would like to show their dogs themselves, since there are not many professional handlers involved in the breed. "It's nice to be able to sell a puppy and tell people that if they want to try and show it themselves, they can," says Ilmanen, who speaks from experience.


Even grooming need not cause too much of a problem for newcomers owner-handlers. The dog's naturally flat body coat, white splashed with red, is of the low-maintenance variety. "And that beautiful red back just looks like that," says Ilmanen. "We don't do anything to it." What they do is brush the coat regularly, usually trimming the feet, the throat and the neck for show. Like the English, the Welsh has infection-prone ears that require a great deal of care. "As with any of the spaniels you've got to take ear care seriously," says Ilmanen, who prescribes routine trimming or shaving of the inside of the ears, along with regular ear cleaning (monthly for most; more often for field dogs).

Vickie Harshman can't help but compare the two, considering she is well-versed in grooming both. "The Welsh has a generally shorter coat," she says, "but it's also of a different texture. I can put both a Welsh and an English out there and let them run in the mud, then bring them in and leave them alone. In awhile the mud will just drop off the Welsh, while it will clump up and stay in the English Springer's coat." But what has truly captured the affections of the Welsh fanciers is not the relatively maintenance-free coat but the dog's easygoing disposition.

Described as "steady and sensible" by those who have spent time with the breed, the Welsh Springer is a tireless worker, deeply devoted to family and home. Like the English Springer, it is inherently people- oriented. Although its coat is engineered to withstand all extremes of weather, the Welsh is not a good kennel dog. It needs its family around.


The story of the springers is the tale of two dogs, alike in heart and spirit, if different in temperament, coat and political position. What these dogs share is the ability to capture our hearts. We cannot help but notice the richly patterned coat of the well-groomed English or the vivid red of the Welsh. Nor can we help but melt in the warmth of their soft "spaniel stares".

Both of these 4-month-old Welsh Springer Spaniel pups grew up to become show, field, and house dogs.
Photo by Sandra Ilmanen

Today the Welsh Springer remains rare in numbers, and that is exactly how its fanciers like it. "There has been very little casual breeding," says Ilmanen. "It's just too darn difficult. Generally we have to travel if we want to breed a girl. If you want to find a good male, you've got to travel. Your options are limited."

Yet despite such limitations, Ilmanen is quite happy with the way things are. "Sometimes we seem like the country cousins to the glamorous English Springer," she says. "The English have been bred for those beautiful perfect markings and all that lovely hair. I look at them and I say 'wow!' But I've never regretted my choice. I'm very happy with the Welsh."

While the elegant English is struggling with the problems of popularity, dedicated breeders are keeping its spirit alive, doing all they can to see that families that should have English Springers get dogs that embody the sweetness, the exuberance, the joy, that make a true English Springer the springy dog it is meant to be.

In speaking about what is best for the English Springer, a subject she is well-qualified to discuss, Libeu tells us what is best for the Welsh as well, and, frankly, what is best for all dogs: attention, companionship and a sense of belonging.

"The English Springer is not an easy dog if you just want an animal to throw out in the backyard," says Libeu. "They are house dogs. They love being outside with you, but they are not outside dogs. Their personalities do not develop when they're alone outside. You really need to have them live with you to develop their full personalities."

It is these personalities, those of both the English and the Welsh, that have made these dogs two of the mots enduring in the ancient culture of canines.

All materials are Copyrighted;
Article 1993 by Betsy Sikora Siino
Portions 1993-1997 by

Gary Ilmanen
Saga Research
All Rights Reserved