Our journey into the world of Polish Hunting Spaniels

We did not know it at the time, but on 8th December 2018 our lives changed when a nest of 10 puppies was born 1500km away in Poland. It would take a few months to find our way to her, and even longer to realise a small, furry creature had set us on a path we never could have imagined – including thousands of kilometres of driving to dog shows despite never having any interest or intention!

At the beginning of 2019 we decided it was the right time to look for a second dog: we had just moved into a house in a dog-friendly area and our work circumstances suddenly changed to more suitable for a puppy. We had a working cocker spaniel and wanted another one but finding one in the Netherlands proved to be much more difficult than we expected.

There were only a few breeders, and none who had any health or quality standards: for example, we walked away from a nest of puppies where the dame’s legs were so short it could have been a dachshund and a breeder whose cockers so tiny they barely weighed 10kg. Importing from the UK looked like a near-impossible option too as well because there were few breeders who cared about health or agreed to sell abroad.

In search of a spaniel puppy

Just as we were losing faith, a Polish woman replied to my Facebook question about working cocker breeders: might I be interested in Polish Hunting Spaniels?

I had never heard of the breed, but I was getting desperate – we had an unexpected window of opportunity to dedicate a lot of time for a puppy and did not want to wait for a year, so I turned to Google and before I knew it, I was on a flight to Warsaw. I had become increasingly aware of the impact a good breeder can make on a dog and to live up to my own standards, I also wanted to meet the breeder before making my choice – however strange it might have seemed at the time.

I had read that you should let the breeder choose the dog for you so I steeled myself – I was choosing a life partner for the next decade so it was more important to make a rational choice rather than emotional one. If I am completely honest, back then we just wanted a dog, and our biggest concern was how the puppy would get along with our older dog – little did we know that some years later we would spend more time in Poland than in our respective home countries!

Fast forward a few years, we slowly started to realise what a star we had stumbled on when the small creature we had brought home grew into a talented young lady: she impressed dog trainers from an early age by outperforming adult dogs as a 5-month-old puppy at detection courses and showing a natural aptitude to agility at 11 months. She was the gift that kept on giving because she took everything in her stride – including travelling across Europe several times. Gently but firmly, she nudged us into becoming “dog people” who do course after course and read book after another – just so that we could be who she needed us to be and give her the life she deserved.  

We had no ambitions when it came to dog shows – if anyone had said to me only three years ago that I would end up driving 8500km just to go to dog shows, I would have thought they are crazy. At first, we went because we felt it was our duty – getting the breed recognized in different countries had required the effort of many people, and the least we could do was to turn up a few times. If not us, then who? Each time the judge’s comments made me more curious to learn about dog anatomy and movement – and the more I learned, the more I understood what a hidden gem this breed truly is.

A quick look at the competition

Before I met Polish Hunting Spaniels, I thought I would never have any other kind of dog than working cocker spaniels because their character resonates with my soul. They are also one of the closest equivalents to the PSM and I have been asked many times what the differences between the breeds are, so I will use them as context for why I think our breed is unique.  

After observing the breed for a decade, it seems to me that working cocker spaniels are facing serious challenges. They became wildly popular after being seen with, e.g. Prince William and David Beckham, which has resulted in thousands of haphazardly bred working cockers sold at high prices. Although reputable breeders certainly exist even in mainland Europe, it feels like the long-term future of the breed has many question marks over it.

Even before, there were typically three types of breeders: hunters, agility or other dog sports and those who only ever bred their dog once, and each type had their own problems*. Most cockers in the UK today come from pet dog breeders have little knowledge or skills, so little thought goes into choosing the breeding pair beyond geographical convenience and health testing is seen as both expensive and unnecessary. Hunters focus on working ability but rarely sell dogs to pet homes or do health testing – and often have high COI because of popular sire syndrome**.

Similarly, breeders who focus on agility prioritize performance, which, despite caring about health, can lead to selecting for characteristics that give a competitive advantage like size. As a result, I often see dogs who are 5cm smaller than the show cocker spaniel standard and only 60% of the weight, which seems like a substantial departure from the breed’s origins: a pheasant weighing 1.2kg is 8% of a dog’s body weight when they’re 14kg but double into 15% when the dog weighs 8kg.

Because there is no breed standard for the working type cocker, there is considerable variation in appearance, structure, and size which had seemed like a positive thing: it was framed as being a consequence of focusing on the working ability over “superficial characteristics”. In the working cocker community, showing dogs is largely seen as vanity and breed standards as unnecessary because the focus is on ability. I have come across this attitude a lot – even from people who are serious agility competitors, conduct extensive health testing, and are veterinarians themselves.

* If you want to read more about the breeding issues in working cockers, here’s a well-known working cocker breeder’s page on it: https://working-cocker.nl/en/rasse-info/zucht-von-working-cocker-spaniels-im-allgemeinen/

** If you want to read about the health issues when breeding working cockers, here’s a page from the same agility cocker breeder: https://working-cocker.nl/en/rasse-info/gesundheit/

Why Polish Hunting Spaniels are special

As much as I loved our working cocker spaniel, when she got older our visits to a canine physiotherapist revealed issues that had been accumulating over the years due to slight structural flaws. Like most hunting dogs, she always enjoyed the outdoors at full speed, overriding feelings of discomfort. It is this athletic spaniel lifestyle that makes correct and fit-for-purpose structure particularly important for the wellbeing of our dogs.

Unlike the close cousins (working type cockers and springers), the Polish Hunting Spaniel exists as a result of deliberate design – the genius of which becomes clear when you study the breed standard. “Form follows function” when it comes to dogs: every part of the dog influences their physical abilities and well-being through facilitating movement, and the smallest of imperfections has negative consequences that accumulate over time. For example, tail carriage influences the dog’s balance; the length of the back impacts the dog’s reach, and the shorter the reach the more steps are needed, which makes the dog tired more quickly.

The more I study canine movement and anatomy, the more impressed I am at how cleverly our spaniels are designed: each detail of the PSM breed standard is optimized for function and performance. It does not matter how much hunting talent a dog has if their structure is not fit-for-purpose – they will not last long in doing the work and will suffer in the process. That is why both breed standards and having dogs formally evaluated for structure by specialized professionals (dog show judges) is crucially important for the future of a breed such as ours.

Additionally, our close-knit breed community is a huge strength because we can support each other and work together. I believe in being the change you want to see, so I’m excited be a part of our community’s collective drive for FCI recognition because it creates a focus on a healthy and diverse population without compromising on ability and temperament.

The bright future of the PSM

I come from a marketing background, so it comes naturally for me to think about the PSM as an innovation – an improved version of the working spaniel. I see a big opportunity for our breed in the future because there is no working type spaniel of the same size, temperament and ability that also has built-in quality standards like we do.

We also have some of the best features from other spaniel breeds. Compared to cockers who are designed for the high intensity sprints of UK style hunting, the PSM smartly conserves energy when not working – a characteristic of the field spaniel. And unlike cockers who are known to “have a mind of their own”, PSMs are much less likely to question the judgment of their boss – much like springers, but in a smaller package.

However, PSMs are more than just copies of other spaniels – they have a unique history, origin story and above all a vision that no other working spaniel breed has because they have not been consciously shaped. They reveal their quirks and special skills once they have already won you over, and most of us never look back when we have been infected by the PSM virus.

Beyond my personal love of a certain dog type, I believe that our breed has many transferable skills that can be applied in different modern “dog professions” in addition to their original job. Polish Hunting Spaniels are just as enthusiastic, driven and determined as the spaniel breeds that are more established in e.g., working as sniffer dogs and in dog sports like agility but additionally come with a serious, focused mindset when they are working and a calm disposition at home which makes them easier to live and work with.

The essence of a PSM is their intense love for working closely with their human. Originally it was because it was essential for humans because they needed to hunt food for survival – in the future, I see many ways for PSMs to fulfil their role not only as companions but e.g. doing valuable work as medical detection dogs, searching for lost humans and sniffing out ivory smugglers. For me, this is a noble mission because there are few other breeds equally well suited for these jobs.

I’m proud to be a small part of the history of our breed and can’t wait to see what the future brings.

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