Outdoors: Boykin Spaniels: Big heart... Small package

Courtesy Photo/Dave SartwellBoykin Spaniels are great companions for duck hunts.

Okay...it’s official...the most adorable retriever ever conceived is the Boykin Spaniel. Now understand, I am a lab and chessie lover when it comes to powerful retrievers smashing through the ocean surf to haul back a big canadian goose. But, for wood duck hunting in a swamp in Newbury, whacking a few mallards on the Essex marsh or bringing doves out of the field during a shoot, this small, intelligent and vigorous Boykin Spaniel may be just the retriever for you.

Because of their size, the Boykins are ideal canoe dogs. The males weigh 30-40 lbs. and measure 15.5-17 inches at the withers. The females are a bit smaller at 25-35 lbs. and 14-16.5 inches. Don’t let their diminutive size fool you. These are hard-going, wanting-to-please-you dogs that have bottom to them.

Their heavy luxurious brown coat keeps them warm in the coldest water and these little web-toed fellows can swim like a fish. They also have a effortless and balanced gait that makes them an ideal upland retriever as well. In the south they are prized in the dove fields.

Like most breeds of dogs, the Boykin was developed out of the old axiom “form follows function.” The first Boykin Spaniel was a stray dog that followed banker Alexander White home from church in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Many believe it may have been an American Water Spaniel cross. White named his dog “Dumpy” because he was a lot smaller than the Chesapeake Bay retrievers he had in his kennel. At the end of the duck season, he sent the little fellow off to his hunting partner and friend Whit Boykin for training. As an aside, the two of them were among the founders of the South Carolina Sportsman’s Association that advocated for environmental causes around the turn of the century.

The Boykin family had been farming in South Carolina in the Wateree River area since the 1700s on a piece of land called the Pine Grove Plantation near Camden. It soon became obvious that this little brown dog was a superior retriever. And, as important, because of his size, he was easy to handle in the small boats the hunters used in the rivers around the area. Boykin bred Dumpy to a small curly, reddish brown female he called Singo and the puppies proved to be outstanding dogs as well.

From that initial litter, Whit decided through selective breeding he could improve on the strain. Chesapeake blood was added to produce a stronger structure. Setter and pointer blood was added for scenting ability. Other breeds like the American Water Spaniel, the springer spaniel, the Brittany Spaniel were also introduced. Form followed function and before long he was producing little brown dogs that had small size, tremendous drive in the field and on the water, and had a very pleasant temperament.

Tourists from up north used to come to the area in the winter to get away from the harsh winters. Part of that escape often included hunting. Soon these “Yankees” were buying Boykins to take home with them. By the middle 1900’s the Boykin Spaniel was breeding true to a certain form and color. In the late 1800’s the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin were using a dog that, under the eventual breeding by Dr. Pfeifer of New London, was named the American Water Spaniel. These two separate breeding programs developed dogs that were remarkably similar with some distinctions.

For example, yellow eyes in an American Water Spaniel are a disqualifying feature while in the Boykins they are the norm. The personality of the Boykin is more outgoing, people friendly and sensitive while the American can be a bit more aloof and less demonstrative. Color and size are about the same. The Boykin folks dock the tails of their dogs. The breed was recognized by the AKC in 2009.

Because Boykin Spaniels are more sensitive than many retrievers, your training methods may have to be more gentle than usual. However, these little fellows really want to please, so positive reenforcement with mild discipline can bring great results.

If you are looking for a small, smart, friendly retriever that can be both a house companion and an excellent field dog with a lot of heart, you might want to look into this breed. 

Duck Season

The first duck and second goose season will be open Oct. 16-24 in the coastal region. The biologists tell us that the populations are in good shape so there should be a lot of opportunity to fill your limit this year. The problem with the goose season is not the number of geese, but public access to them. It will not be cold enough early on to force them off the protected fields into the marsh.

Upland Birds

There are a few spots on the North Shore that still host flighting woodcock. Look for low marshy spots in Dogtown, some areas around the reservoirs, and soft open ground in West Gloucester.. Although the real flight has not happened yet, a few really cold nights up north will see them rocketing through this area.  

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