There is, apparently, a bit of confusion about the history of field spaniels and dog shows. It is commonly believed by the field spaniel owners, that the field spaniel was the first breed to be developed for dog shows, but there is a number of reasons to question that notion a little bit. Firstly, the breed field spaniel wasn’t recognized by the American Kennel Club until 1894, compared to the first ever modern style dog show already held in 1859 in Great Britain, and although the year for the Brittish Kennel Club recognizing the breed was earlier, I couldn’t find the exact year for the time being (will keep looking), and before that, it is confusing, to say the least, where our beautiful breed originates from. The first field spaniel breed standard might date from 1878, which is likely to be the breed standard for the cocker spaniel, however, considering the early classification was field spaniels divided into two subgroups; the cocker and the springer, the field spaniel didn’t have a standard of it’s own. The Kennel Club published a breed standard in the late 1890’s and a relatively modern field spaniel breed standard is as fresh as from 1920.
The field spaniel is a working breed and has always been, there is, at least, enough certainty to say that much. Its main function is to be a bird flushing dog. This chapter in The Dogs of the British Islands – articles and letters compiled by J.H. Walsh published on January 1, 1867, written by “Avon” provides an interesting reading for field spaniel owners, and a clue as to in what sense the breed was developed “for showing”:
This clearly makes a call for the short-legged variation of a field spaniel that we all know from historical photographs as “a field spaniel”. However, if you read the whole thing, it is clear that there is no such specific breed as the field spaniel at the time this conversation took place. (This is from a series of letters between dog breeders and judges, as far as I understand, send to be published in a newspaper, hence the use of nicknames rather than the author’s real name.) In this sense, it would certainly suggest that the field spaniel was, indeed, created to dazzle this particular show judge. It is also to be noted that in the same book, there was a mention of black spaniels owned by Mr. F Burdett, that were worth a mention, a stock of dogs that are leading us towards the modern field spaniel, but not before a lot of cross breeding with the already established Sussex Spaniel occurred.
The dog shows at the time were different, though. The shows were completely functional and they were meant for NOTHING BUT helping breeders develop the best possible hunting and working dogs, by evaluating the merits and failures of each individual as breeding stock and it was a completely an unheard of idea to breed dogs merely for their looks. “To dazzle the judges,” therefore, would have meant to have the dog to display the best possible hunting qualities a judge could dream of. These shows were nothing like they are today, the dogs were loosely categorized to groups based on their size and intended function rather their “breed”, which, at the time, was a very loose concept (seems it referred to an individual breeder’s specific type rather than an established breed), allowing a lot of freedom for the breeders to develop the dogs the way they best saw fit.
The first modern type English dog show was held in Newcastle in 1859, as a charity fund raising event. However, these dog shows that field spaniel history mentions were a completely different affair altogether, and were held for decades prior to this as far as I understand. In fact, “a field spaniel” was not originally a name of a breed, but a classification meaning dogs that would hunt on the field or dry land, and several breeds were later developed under “field spaniels” under their own breed name, the cocker spaniel (named after their specific prey bird), the English springer spaniel (named after his ability to sprint faster than the field spaniel that is a ridiculously (adoringly) slow to sprint, perhaps?) and others to name a few. The water spaniel and the field spaniel are two examples of dog breeds that were, in a way, “leftovers” of this classification, and never got themselves a proper breed name, or, on the other hand, were eventually considered the standard form of their type, out of which other types derived from. This is not to say that other spaniels would have been bred from the field spaniel, but that they were entered into the show group of field spaniels as by their intended function, regardless of their genetic origin, and were considered “a different type of a field spaniel” as in, a different type of a field-working dog.
I wouldn’t know, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they organized impromptu field tests for the dogs during the same shows, after all, whatever it took to determine the actual working qualities of the individual dogs and the breeder’s capacities to reproduce those qualities would have been what mattered – not what the breed description said. One must understand that these shows were organized to provide working dogs for farmers, hunters, and other working men who were very practical, and generally speaking, not very concerned about the way their animals looked, apart from was their coloring easy or difficult to see in the foliage, was their tail easy to spot during a run and such traits. The idea of developing the aesthetics of a dog would have been a whimsy of a gentleman, who has more time and money to spend on a dog that is more a luxury than a necessity, hence the development towards the folly of good looks combined with amazing working qualities.
Ironically, “Avon” got his low and sturdy hunter, but it turned out this low dog wasn’t a very agile one and was apparently difficult to hunt with in challenging terrain. The experiment was over, but what would continue to be a very poor-reputed dog would never gain the popularity it so richly deserved, but after the numbers of the field spaniel twiddled to only 6 in total, and 4 of breeding quality (or age) in the entire world, after the WWI and WWII all in Britain, the breed was brought back by careful breeding and restored back to the “original” (if you can call it that) longer legged form.
Companion dogs already existed of course, but there would have been no reason to show them because the only purpose they ever had was to be endearing and to look pretty to their owners; the runts, the mutts, the whatnot creatures that were otherwise useless to the working men. The addition of these breeds to the show ring would have become after the dog shows became a form of entertainment for the masses, particularly the higher classes. Although modern day field spaniel owner rarely hunts, we never know when we will be needing those qualities again in the future. A true field spaniel fancier should never lose the sight of the fact our breed is a hunting breed, even if he is the fanciest looking hunter ever rummaging through the forests and fields!