The Norfolk Spaniel was a breed of gun dog developed in England to hunt birds. There is a huge amount of debate as to the breed’s origins and whether or not it was actually a distinct variety or not. This debate began in the 1800’s and has continued up to the modern day. The Norfolk Spaniel was very well-known across England where it was considered the most common dog in the country for several decades of the late 19th Century. It is commonly said that the Norfolk Spaniel went extinct, but that is only partially true. In the early 1900’s, the Kennel Club lumped many varieties of Spaniel into the English Springer Spaniel breed, including the Norfolk. The breed did lose its status as a unique breed, but the modern English Springer Spaniel is mostly descended from the Norfolk Spaniel. Many researchers actually believe that the Norfolk Spaniel is actually just another name for the English Springer Spaniel, although this is disputed.
The Norfolk Spaniel is considered one of the breeds that is most similar to the very first Spaniel to reside in the British Isles. The Spaniels are a group of gun dogs known for their small to medium size, longish feathered coats, and ability to locate and flush birds. The Spaniels are some of the oldest gun dogs and are possibly Europe’s oldest bird dogs. Spaniels have been very well-known in Western Europe for centuries, but since they were developed long before written records were kept of dog breeding very little is known for sure about their ancestry and how they first arrived in Great Britain.
The English word Spaniel comes from the French word, “Epagneul,” which is typically translated to mean, “Spaniard,” or “Spanish.” Because of this, most researchers claim that Spaniels originated in the nation of Spain. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any evidence to support this theory other than linguistics. It also seems odd that almost all Spaniel breeds originated in France and England, not Spain. Perhaps most damaging to this explanation’s likelihood is the timeline. Spain did not exist as a nation until the late 1400’s. Prior to that time, the area of modern Spain was composed of a large number of Christian and Islamic kingdoms which were engaged in an entangled web of alliances, dynastic marriages, and wars. Records of Spaniels are definitive from the 1300’s, well-over a century before Spain existed. Additionally, the fact that the English word for Spaniel comes from French suggests strongly that Spaniels were already known in the British Isles at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when the French language first began to influence English. Because of these discrepancies, modern researchers have come to doubt a Spanish origin for Spaniels. Some claim that the Spanish connection is nothing more than one of history’s oddities, such as how the Deutsch Dogge or Boarhound, a German breed that has absolutely nothing to do with Denmark, came to be known in English as the Great Dane. Others claim that the name has simply been mistranslated. “Epagneul” could imply Hispania, a Roman Province which was located on the Iberian Peninsula, rather than the modern nation of Spain.
There are now three major theories as to how the Spaniels were developed. The most common is that these dogs were developed by Celtic tribes. Those who support this theory usually claim that the Welsh Springer Spaniel is the closest of all breeds to the original Spaniel. Supporters of a Celtic origin for Spaniels usually point to Roman records as evidence. Hunting dogs were one of Britain’s primary exports for the entire period of Roman rule. Little is known for sure about these dogs, but many have claimed that they were Spaniels. This identification is little more than speculation and these dogs are just as frequently assumed to have been Terriers or a scent hound similar to a Beagle or Harrier. If true, this would mean that the Spaniels are some of Britain’s oldest dogs and that dogs very similar to the Norfolk Spaniel were present in England for thousands of years. It is very possible to combine a Celtic ancestry and an Iberian origin for these dogs. Prior to Roman occupation, most of Iberia was inhabited by a people closely related to the Celts known as the Celtiberians. It is possible that the Celtiberians kept Spaniels and gave them the name of their homeland.
It is also suggested that Spaniels are descended from East Asian companion dogs that were introduced to Europe as a result of Roman era trade routes. In fact, a number of East Asian breeds such as the Tibetan Spaniel and Japanese Chin do closely resemble Western European Spaniels. However, there are no records of these dogs ever entering the Roman Empire which has always cast doubt on this theory. It also doesn’t explain how medium-sized, long-snouted hunting dogs descended from miniscule, brachycephalic companion animals. Perhaps most importantly, recent genetic tests have shown that Spaniels and East Asian dogs are not closely related, and that any similarities between them are the result of similar breeding preferences rather than an actual relationship.
Many believe that Spaniels are the descendants of Middle Eastern dogs that were brought back to Europe by knights returning from the Crusades. This theory is perhaps the most plausible of all. For countless centuries, the nobility of the Middle East has greatly preferred the Saluki to all other breeds. The Saluki is not only a hunting dog, but the coats of many of these dogs are remarkably similar to that of the Spaniels, especially the feathering found on the ears, tail, and legs. Most of the Crusades were going on during the 11th through 14th Centuries, when the Norman influence on the English language was strongest, and many of those who fought in them were Anglo-Norman knights. There is even a possible connection to Spain. From the 700’s to the 1400’s, much of the Iberian peninsula was controlled by Islamic Moorish invaders from North Africa. It is quite possible, and perhaps likely, that some of these conquerors brought Salukis with them into Spain. Perhaps the French and English first encountered these dogs there and mistakenly assumed that they had been developed by the Spaniards.
However and whenever the Spaniels first arrived in England, they became some of that country’s most common dogs. The earliest definitive records of the existence of Spaniels comes from 1387. In that year, the French Count Gaston de Foix described the Epagneul and its uses. He discussed how the breed was used both to flush birds from cover and to retrieve them from water. This seems to imply that there was originally one type of Spaniel, and that it was a very versatile dog. From the very earliest mentions of Spaniels, these dogs specialized in hunting one type of game, birds. Spaniels are among the oldest of bird dogs, and possibly the first group to become so specialized to hunt winged game. Spaniels are so old that they predate the invention of hunting firearms. The earliest Spaniels worked in much the same way as modern ones do, using their keen noses to locate birds that are hiding in thick brush or reeds. The dogs then barked at or jumped into the vegetation to flush the birds into the air. While modern hunters shoot the birds with a gun, their predecessors either threw nets on them or released a trained falcon to kill them.
As has been mentioned, Spaniels were initially all of one type. That unity did not last for long and there were very quickly a number of different distinct varieties. The first division was probably between hunting Spaniels and the toy-sized companion Spaniels kept by upper-class men and women throughout Western Europe. The next separation was based on hunting environment. In England, Spaniels were divided into Land Spaniels and Water Spaniels. Some claim that this distinction occurred after the dogs were already present in England. Others believe that Spaniels had already been divided prior to an English arrival since even the earliest discussions of the breed in English already mention both Land and Water Spaniels. Early descriptions of the Water Spaniel mention often mention that it was either Collie-like or Poodle-like. Because of this, many believe that it may have been the result of crossing Collies and Poodles with Land Spaniels.
The Land Spaniel became one of the best known dogs across England. When Johannes Caius wrote The Treatise of Englishe Dogs (the first book dedicated to British dogs) in 1576, described both the hunting style and the appearance of the Land Spaniel. He wrote that Land Spaniels were, “Nearly all white. If they have any spots, these are red, and scarce and big. There is also a red and black variety.” This description closely matches that of both the Welsh Springer Spaniel and the Norfolk Spaniel. In 1637, the Italian naturalist Aldrovandrus described the Land Spaniel in greater detail writing that it possessed, “Floppy ears, the chest, belly, and feet, white, picked (ticked) out with black, the rest of the body black.” The differences in these descriptions may indicate that there were a number of different varieties of Land Spaniel in existence as early as the 1600’s. They may also indicate the introduction of English Water Spaniel blood. For many centuries, English breeders regularly crossed land and water spaniels to improve both breeds. The English Water Spaniel was usually described as a white dog with liver spots and it has long been suspected that those colors were first introduced to other Spaniel breeds by the English Water Spaniel.
Extraordinarily useful for hunting birds, the Land Spaniel was one of the most popular dogs in England for a number of centuries and was one of the only breeds kept by both the lower and upper classes. Land Spaniels accompanied English explorers and settlers across the world. In fact, a Land Spaniel was one of two dogs brought to American on the Mayflower alongside the Pilgrims. Although it is unclear exactly when the process started, somewhere around the 16th or 17th Centuries a new breed was developed from the Land Spaniel. It was originally a type of Spaniel known for its unusual method of “setting” when it located birds. The dog became known as the Setting Spaniel and was later crossed with other breeds to develop the English, Irish, Irish Red and White, and Gordon Setters.
Until the early 1800’s, Land Spaniels were bred almost entirely for working ability. As a result, they were quite variable in appearance, with dozens of distinctive localized varieties found throughout England. These varieties were regularly crossed with each other in the hopes of developing the best possible dogs. The English began to divide their Spaniels by size, with the larger ones becoming known as Springer Spaniels and the smaller ones becoming known as Cocker Spaniels. This division was first recorded in the Cynographia Brittanica, written by Sydenham Edwards in 1801. The Springer Spaniel was so named because it would spring (flush) birds into the air. The Cocker Spaniel was so named because it was primarily used to hunt woodcock. These distinctions were more generalizations rather than a solid rule. The two dogs were treated as the exact same breed and were often born into the same litters. As time passed, the Welsh Springer Spaniel was treated as a separate variety as well, but based on coat color. This dog too was regularly interbred with both English Springer and Cocker Spaniels until the 20th Century.
In the 1700’s, breeders of English Foxhounds began to keep organized studbooks of their dogs in order to keep them pure and improve their hunting stock. These efforts proved so successful that fanciers of other dog breeds began to emulate them. The first record of an attempt to create a pure bred line of Springer Spaniels comes from 1812, when the Boughey Family of Shropshire developed the Shropshire Spaniel. Another early attempt was the Norfolk Spaniel. It was believed for many years that the Norfolk Spaniel was developed by the Duke of Norfolk by crossing the Land Spaniel with a Black and Tan Terrier. However, dog researchers were unable to find any support for this claim, and the Dukes of Norfolk from later in the 19th Century denied their family had any involvement with the breed, although their ancestors had kept Sussex Spaniels. Many writers claimed that the breed earned its name because it was either developed in Norfolk or was most popular there. Others found no connection between the breed and Norfolk of any kind and claimed that the name was a complete mystery. It appears that the Shropshire and Norfolk Spaniels were closely related. Some say that one was descended from the other. Others claim that they were the exact same breed with interchangeable names. Still others treat the Shropshire Spaniel as a standardized version of the Norfolk Spaniel. Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence to properly analyze any of these possibilities, and the true relationship between the two breeds may never be known.
The Norfolk Spaniel became very popular throughout England during the 19th Century. It was most common in rural areas where bird hunting was becoming extremely popular. By the 1860’s, the breed was certainly the most common gun dog found in England, and most likely the most popular breed of any kind. By this time, the keeping of studbooks had evolved into the hosting of dog shows to determine the best available specimens. Many breeds began to be bred for appearance as much as working ability. The Norfolk Spaniel was initially immune to this treatment. The dog continued to be regularly crossed with all other Spaniel breeds, as well as several non-Spaniels. Almost all the major dog writers of the period including Stonehenge and Dalziel describe how the breed was not kept pure in any sense. As time went by, a number of fanciers and the Kennel Club put an increasing emphasis on keeping the Norfolk Spaniel pure bred.
It was during the late 1800’s that a major debate began as to what the true nature of the Norfolk Spaniel was. Some claimed that the dog was a distinct breed, albeit one that was regularly crossed with other dogs. This was the minority position, however, and most believed that the dog was a type of Springer Spaniel. Most held that the dog was a distinctive variety of Springer Spaniel, but was still the same breed. These experts treated the dog primarily as a liver and white colored variant, in much the same way that a modern American might refer to a Black Lab or an Apricot Poodle. A few authors took the position that there was absolutely no difference between the Norfolk and Springer Spaniels, and that they two names were completely interchangeable with each other. The author Rawdon Briggs Lee expounded this position the most forcefully, claiming that there had never been any difference between the Norfolk Spaniel and other Springer Spaniels. In 1890, F.H.F. Mercer took a more moderate approach, claiming that the Norfolk Spaniel may have once been a unique breed, but its purity was entirely gone. In 1885, the Spaniel Club was formed. In that year, the club recognized that the Norfolk Spaniel was a unique variety and treated it as such.
Much of the debate as to the uniqueness of the Norfolk Spaniel has to do with its color. Most descriptions of the breed claim that it was liver and white. By the end of the 19th Century, it was assumed that the Norfolk Spaniel was always liver and white, and this is the position taken by the Kennel Club and the Spaniel Club. Others believe that the true Norfolk Spaniel came in a wider variety of colors. It is hard to ascertain whether or not the Norfolk Spaniel had other differences from other Springer Spaniels because most of the discussion on the breed related to coloration. Other descriptions of the breed were virtually identical to those of other Springer Spaniels.
As the years went on, there was an increasing emphasis on keeping different breeds pure and standardized. In 1902, the Kennel Club decided to unify the different varieties of hunting Spaniel. In that year, Spaniels began to be formally separated. The Cocker and Springer Spaniels were formally separated into different breeds. At the same time, the Clumber and Sussex Spaniels were separated from the Springer Spaniel. All other varieties of Springer Spaniel were lumped together into the English Springer Spaniel. Among these was the Norfolk Spaniel. There was little doubt that the vast majority of dogs included in the new English Springer Spaniel breed had previously been classified as Norfolk Spaniels. The Kennel Club actually seriously debated calling the English Springer Spaniel the Norfolk Spaniel instead. However, it was decided that the term Norfolk Spaniel exclusively implied liver and white dogs, and the Kennel Club went with the option they considered more inclusive.
From 1902 onwards, the Norfolk Spaniel was treated as the English Springer Spaniel. Until World War I, a few sources continued to treat the Norfolk Spaniel as a distinct variety, but not afterwards. The debate as to the breed’s identity has continued to this day. Some claim that it simply ceased to exist as a distinct variety, and provided the majority of the genetic heritage of the modern English Springer Spaniel into which it was absorbed. Others claim that the Norfolk Spaniel and the English Springer Spaniel are the exact same breed with two different names. Either way, the modern English Springer Spaniel breed is primarily descended from the Norfolk Spaniel continuing the heritage of that breed right down to the present day.
The appearance of the Norfolk Spaniel was quite variable as it was so regularly crossed with other dogs. The Norfolk Spaniel was virtually identical in appearance to a modern working-line English Springer Spaniel. The breed stood about 17 to 18 inches tall at the shoulder and weighed approximately 40 pounds. The dog was sometimes described as being very much like a smaller English Setter. Most descriptions of the breed say that it was quite thickly built, or stocky. Both the legs and back of the Norfolk Spaniel were straight. The majority of later Norfolk Spaniels were liver and white, although at one point they may also have appeared in black and white and red and white as well. The breed was known to have large colored markings, although many dogs had heavy ticking as well. The dog had along snout which provided a larger area for scent receptors. The Norfolk Spaniel possessed typical Spaniel ears, long, dropped down, and heavily feathered. The dog’s coat was medium-length, but considerably shorter than those of show-line English Springer Spaniels.
Little was written of the temperament of the Norfolk Spaniel, other than comparisons between that variety and other Spaniels. The dog was said to form extremely close attachments to its family and suffered greatly when outside of their presence. The breed was also known to be an extremely versatile hunter, capable of working in a variety of terrain and hunting numerous species of game. The Norfolk Spaniel possessed a keen nose and natural hunting instincts. Despite its devotion to its family, the breed was known for being very difficult to train.
It was supposedly the least tractable of all Spaniels, and was frequently stubborn and disobedient. Many breed members were thought to be excessively noisy, constantly barking and making as much noise on a hunt as a breed such as an English Foxhound. Some sources indicate that the breed was ill-tempered. This may actually be an indication that the dog suffered from a common behavioral problem among English Springer Spaniels and English Cocker Spaniels known as Springer Rage or Cocker Rage. This condition is typified by sudden outbursts of aggression which the dog is apparently unaware and has no memory of.