All breeds of Spaniel type dogs can claim an ancient, rich, and noble heritage; the Sussex Spaniel is no different. Although, developed in England, alongside other Spaniel breeds, the Sussex has a somewhat arduous past. A victim of near extinction on more than one occasion, the Sussex Spaniel has been the subject of sloppy cross-breeding in order to maintain type. This cross-breeding has made the Sussex Spaniel a sometimes difficult breed to successfully indentify and categorize, despite his lengthy history.
A type of Land Spaniel, the Sussex variety was originally bred in 1795, by Augustus Elliot Fuller, the owner of Rosehill Park Estate, in Sussex County, England. He is given credit for the development of the Sussex Spaniel as a sturdy field dog, able to easily penetrate dense brush in order to flush game for the hunter, with large feet to cope ideally with the heavy Sussex clay and dirt. Fuller’s cross-breeding in the creation and development of the Sussex Spaniel is believed to include the early variations of the Springer Spaniel, the Field Spaniel, the now extinct Norfolk Spaniel, and possibly some hound breeds. These crosses would thus deliver the original breed of the Sussex Spaniel.
The Rosehill breed of Sussex Spaniel and the only type in existence at the time nearly became extinct when a sickness spread throughout the estate’s kennel. Vero Shaw, in his work, The Illustrated Book of the Dog, published in the 1800’s, described the sickness saying, “the kennels at Rosehill… the birthplace, so to speak, of the breed were depopulated by that dreadful canine scourge, dumb madness.” Dumb madness most likely was a reference to rabies, as it is often called a “madness” when being described, and is always fatal in animals once symptoms become evident.
After the decimation of the breed through the Rosehill kennel incident, Sussex Spaniels became few and far between. Purebred specimens became hard to find and even harder to acquire. By the 1870’s there were several differing breeds of Spaniel all claiming to be of the Sussex variety, however, few could prove purity. Old Rosehill blood surely ran through these Spaniels, but to differing degrees, and cross-breeding had much diluted the pure bloodline. At this same time, some admirers of the breed took an interest in the revival of the Sussex Spaniel, and slowly, the breed began to reappear.
The Sussex Spaniel was shown throughout the latter half of the 19th century, although some difficulties in categorizing this particular breed were documented. Originally there was no specific category for a Sussex Spaniel, and purebred specimens were rare to see; often not being seen at every show. Because of this, when available, even the inferior specimens had to be considered, which accounts for the diversity seen within the Sussex breeds being shown in the 1870’s. Further, the Sussex Spaniel was put into the broad class listed as “Field Spaniel”, which basically covered any larger Spaniel type breed. The Clumber, Springer, and Sussex Spaniels often competed together in this class, although their specific skills and attributes varied greatly.
During this time, the Sussex Spaniel could only be listed in Field Spaniel, Other Than Clumber, or in Large Spaniel class distinctions. But eventually, breed admirers were able to obtain a special class distinction for the Sussex Spaniel in 1872 when the Committee of the Crystal Palace Show allowed a special prize for the Sussex breed. Later that year, other shows, such as Nottingham, would take from the Crystal Palace example, including the Sussex Spaniel as a distinct breed classification in their shows. The Birmingham show followed suit in 1874 when it also established a special class distinction for the Sussex Spaniel, and since he has been seen as a specific breed class in show.
In 1882, a man named Moses Woolland became involved in breeding Sussex Spaniels, alongside his other Spaniel breeds and within a few years his breed of Sussex Spaniel, shown and bred under the Bridford prefix, began to dominate the English show ring. In 1887, Campbell Newington of Rosehill Kennel obtained a Sussex Spaniel for breeding and show purposes. This was a successful time for the Sussex Spaniel. Through the refined breeding standards of both Woolland and Newington, the Sussex Spaniel would develop a consistent quality and breed type that remains unmatched even today. Following their success, J. E. Kerr, of Harviestoun Castle in Scotland, also began breeding and successfully showing Sussex Spaniels in 1909.
Even with this success, the Sussex Spaniel would again face difficulties in the early part of the 20th century. British Sportsmen were beginning to desire a more all-purpose hunting dog. Speed in the field was becoming the preference, and a dog with longer legs was being sought. World War I also had a major impact on the breeding of the Sussex Spaniel, and many other dog breeds. With money and resources being allotted for more pressing needs during wartime, many breeders were unable to support their kennels and the breed was in danger of being completely lost.
Amongst the chaos that is war and its aftermath, a breed enthusiast by the name of Joy Freer obtained and began to breed his own line of old-style Sussex Spaniels in 1923 and in 1925 Freer bred her first champion. However, a new conflict had emerged in Europe, and World War II would bring the Sussex Spaniel to the brink of extinction once more. The number of Sussex Spaniels registered in the England during these war years would grow exceedingly low. Freer is credited with having saved the English bred Sussex Spaniel from going extinct. Having kept eight Sussex Spaniels during the war, it is reported that she may have even gone without food herself to spare the dogs from starving to death. The Sussex Spaniels saved by Freer and their subsequent litters would form the foundation stock for the modern Sussex breed. In Spite of the efforts of Freer and other breeders, in 1947 only ten specimens of the breed were registered with the English Kennel Club.
The Sussex Spaniel not only has an English history, but he has an American history too. And as the Sussex was one of the first recognizable Spaniel breeds, it was included among the first dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1884. Although there were a few Sussex Spaniels registered in the AKC stud book in the late 1800’s, imported Sussex Spaniels began to be seen with more frequency in the United States during the 1920’s and 1930’s. There is even a report of one of the last imported Sussex Spaniels of this time being rescued when a German U-Boat torpedoed the ship he was traveling on. In 1924, Oak Mermaid became the first Sussex Spaniel import to be officially registered with the AKC. The litter between Oak Mermaid and a Scottish import called Clackmannanshire Scotty, would be the first purebred Sussex Spaniel litter born in America. Oak Mermaid would go on to found an American line of Sussex Spaniels that would endure six generations.
During World War II, several people are documented as breeding Sussex Spaniels in America. Because of their commitment, during this time in history, more Sussex Spaniels were alive and well in America than in England, or any other country. American litters of Sussex Spaniels would continue to be bred into the 1940’s and 1950’s. There is however, no direct connection between those American bred litters and the Sussex litters bred in America today. The last documented puppies from those 1940’s and 50’s litters was in 1957. The new litters currently being bred in America are descended from imported Sussex Spaniels brought from England in the 1970’s.
Some breeding of the Sussex Spaniel continued in England and America through the late 1900’s. And in 1981, a group of Sussex Spaniel enthusiasts founded the Sussex Spaniel Club of America Inc. (SSCA), the AKC recognized parent club of the breed. Then in 1992 the best registration numbers recorded to date where seen when 123 Sussex Spaniels were registered in England. Since that time, howver, the number of registered Sussex Spaniels has remained low in both America and England.
The Sussex Spaniel is currently listed as a “Vulnerable Native Breed” by the Kennel Club of Great Britain, and has been since 2004. This distinction is for English dog breeds with less than 300 registrations per year. In 2007 there were only 60 Sussex Spaniel puppies registered in the UK and 45 in America. Other parts of Europe would see much fewer registration numbers.
Despite its low registration numbers, in 2009 a Sussex Spaniel called “Clussexx Three D Glee”, also known as “Stump”, took home the coveted Best in Show, at the 133rd Westminster Kennel Club Show. At ten years old, Stump was the oldest dog ever to win the title.
As is the case with rare breeds, the owners of one or two successful litters often play a significant part in the longevity and continuity of the breed type. This is clearly the case with the Sussex Spaniel. Were it not for the efforts of these dedicated breeders, the Sussex Spaniel’s very existence would be in question. Even with this being the case, however, the Sussex Spaniel remained a less than common breed throughout England and America, as a general rule. As of 2010, the Sussex Spaniel is ranked 155 of 167 breeds as most popular by the AKC.
The Sussex Spaniel is of a solid build, with firm muscles and a substantial stature. The breed is longer than it is tall, standing only about 13 to 15 inches at the withers. Average weight is 35 to 50 lbs. The Sussex Spaniel sports a low and rectangular outline.
Overall, the Sussex Spaniel’s head is well balanced, with a wide skull, having a moderate curve from ear to ear; broad, heavy, with a full stop and an indentation at the center; neither truly flat or apple-headed. With teeth that are set square to the strong jaw, the Sussex Spaniel possesses a perfect scissors bite.
The ears of a Sussex Spaniel are typical of the Spaniel breed. Long and thick, set low (just about eye level); they are lobular in shape. The ears lie close to the skull. With large, soft eyes of exquisite hazel coloring and a heavy brow, the expression of the Sussex Spaniel is somber, almost as if he is frowning.
The shoulders and neck of the Sussex Spaniel are short and strong. They hold his massive head just above the height of his back, producing a level topline. The chest is well developed, deep, and round. He has considerable girth, being both muscular in depth and width. The back is long and muscular. The hindquarters of the Sussex Spaniel are wide-set and heavy-boned; with large knees and short strong legs. The feet are round and well padded; amply feathered between the toes, with a low-set, commonly docked tail.
The coat of the Sussex Spaniel is abundant, thick, and flat, with a slight wave in some cases, but never curls, and a weather resistant undercoat. The ears and tail are covered in thick, soft hair. Forequarters and hindquarters are slightly feathered.
However, the most notable feature of the Sussex Spaniel’s overall appearance is the golden liver-color of that coat, a characteristic that is unique to the breed. It is also a widely debated subject as to the purity of a Sussex Spaniel specimen.
Historically, in the show arena, there have been cases of solid darker colored Sussex spaniels. Such examples as dark liver, black, puce, and even sandy colored Sussex Spaniels have been reported. It has been generally established that for the dog to be considered a purebred Sussex Spaniel he must come from golden-liver colored parents as well as be of that same color himself. One such case is documented in the aforementioned book by Shaw, The Illustrated Book of the Dog. It states:
“As in other varieties of dogs, colour has been a fruitful cause for discussion amongst admirers of the Sussex Spaniel, and although specimens of the correct shade have appeared in public, and won prizes at great shows, there have been objections raised against them on the grounds that they were not pure Sussex; no indeed were they such. The case of George, at Birmingham…is a case in point for here was a good livercoloured dog, the offspring of black parents.”
The book The Dogs of the British Islands, written by J.H. Walsh, and published in 1882, further supports the argument presented by Shaw when it states, “(a) dog must possess a proper liver colour to constitute him a Sussex Spaniel, but he must also be descended from parents of that hue.”
Few breeds possess a historical standard of purity often based mainly on color, and apart from these debates, the Sussex Spaniel is one of the only breeds able to claim a general continuity of appearance since their inception in the late 18th century. The Sussex Spaniel’s appearance has remained virtually unchanged. The rich golden-liver color (seen specifically in this breed) and his long, low, somewhat massive body suit the purpose for which the Sussex Spaniel was originally bred.
More than some other Spaniel breeds taught to thrive happily in a calm home enviroment, the Sussex Spaniel was bred to be a hunter; greatly skilled at flushing game, he is a proven retriever as well. The Sussex Spaniel is moderate in speed and agility, but possesses boundless enthusiasm for the hunt.
The Sussex Spaniel is often compared to the Clumber Spaniel in size and appearance, but his hunting style is very different. Where the Sussex Spaniel differs from many other Spaniel breeds is the original purpose for which he was bred; he is known to be exceedingly vocal during the hunt. The Sussex Spaniel was bred to inherit the barking gene, and for this purpose, his lineage may include members of the hound breeds. This finely tuned skill was useful in communicating his progress to the hunters while in the field.
This characteristic is, like the color of his coat, a somewhat debated fact. Some say he is a barker, other say he is not. Mr. A. W. Langdale is quoted in The Illustrated Book of the Dog, as saying of the Sussex Spaniel:
“He is a noisy, babbling sort, that will rouse a cock from the densest covert; and so natural does this babbling seem to the breed, that even if out at exercise if one gets off the high road into a meadow, that same moment, no matter how young, down go their heads, and out comes the music.”
The book goes on to dispute Langdale’s opinion when it states:
“As a workman, the Sussex lays strong claim upon the sportsman. Though not mute, they are not ‘babblers,’ and in this respect, we must, with all due deference, differ from the opinion expressed above by Mr. A. W. Langdale, who describes him as a noisy babbling dog. The Sussex throws his tongue on covert, but that he is noisy few of his supporters will, we think, be brought to admit.”
The book, The Dogs of the British Islands, goes on to support the opinion that the Sussex Spaniel is not “noisy” when it states:
“…he also differs in possessing a peculiarly full and bell-like tongue, though still somewhat sharp in note. He is by no means noisy, except when first entered to his game, and it is easy to distinguish by his tongue whether he is on ‘fur’ or ‘feather’.”
The general opinion on the subject seems to be that he is more vocal than is common among the Spaniel breeds, as was the intent when he was originally bred. This tendency to be vocal can in some cases, carry over into their home life.
The “Baying” that made the Sussex Spaniel so valuable as a hunter in the field can make the Sussex quick to alert you to things going on around him, such as the slightest movement of people or things in his eyesight. The simplest movement, such as a person approaching, leaving, or even just someone crossing the street may warrant from your Sussex, a bark to alert you of the activity. This can make him a superb guard dog. It can also lead to him becoming a very annoying housemate. But the Sussex Spaniel is a highly intelligent dog and can easily be taught a command to silence his incessant conversation.
When properly trained and socialized from a young age, the Sussex Spaniel is a gentle and easy-going companion. They love to be around people and are active participants in their family life. The Sussex, like many Spaniels, can be an emotionally sensitive breed. When alone for long periods of time, the Sussex Spaniel may become anxious, which could lead to depression. When he is feeling anxious, the Sussex Spaniel can become extremely vocal and destructive.
The ideal home for a Sussex Spaniel is one in which there is a stay-at-home companion for him, or someone with a very flexible work schedule who can supply the much needed time and attention a Sussex Spaniel demands. The Sussex Spaniel is content to be lazy with you, but it is important to remember that he is a Sporting dog, bred specifically for the hunt and therefore requires plenty of daily exercise. He has lots of energy and great stamina; he will require vigorous activity to maintain his health and happiness.
The Sussex Spaniel is suited for apartment living based on their size, but if living in an apartment, his human companion should commit to an active, outdoor lifestyle to support the Sussex Spaniel’s exercise needs. He enjoys being in nature, and long walks, hikes, swimming, and backyard games should all be part of his regular routine. The Sussex does have a tendency to follow scents, and should be kept close to his human companion when outdoors.
Mental stimulation is important to the Sussex Spaniel as well. He can get bored easily and requires both mentally and physically challenging “work” to keep him entertained. Agility and retrieving exercises can be quite enjoyable to the Sussex Spaniel. Owners are encouraged to enroll their Sussex in classes and clubs for agility and fly-ball games.
The Sussex has been known as an easy-going sort, but he can also be stubborn and head-strong, making him a challenge to train. It is recommended for the Sussex breed, that training begin as soon as possible. The Sussex Spaniel only responds to positive reinforcement; harsh discipline will only lead to his refusal to cooperate and his generally ignoring your training.
The Sussex Spaniel may be small in stature, but the Sussex breed is smart, with a strong mind. Although not specifically mentioned himself among Stanley Coren’s listed breeds in The Intelligence of Dogs, published in 1994, his companion breeds, the Field Spaniel and the Clumber Spaniel are ranked 34th and 37th, placing them and in turn, the Sussex variety, among the “above average working dog” list. This classification represents the dogs’ ability to learn new commands within 15 to 25 repetitions, and his likelihood of obeying a first command 70% of the time or more.
The Sussex Spaniel will display dominance if allowed even the slightest opportunity, so leadership is a constant task. However, once pack order is established in the household, the Sussex Spaniel makes a good and loyal companion. Proper training and socialization of a Sussex Spaniel leads to a dog that possesses a temperament that is quite enjoyable; being patient with children, polite and gentle with strangers and other pets. He should however, be kept separate from birds and small animals as his hunting instincts may overcome him if not supervised.
When improper training or neglected leadership establishment has occurred, the Sussex Spaniel may display possessiveness of their family members, and can be impatient and wary of strangers and unfamiliar dogs. The Sussex can even be a bit snappy when annoyed if the proper household order is not established with him early on.
For the Sussex Spaniel to grow to be a well-adjusted member of the family and proper field companion, it is important, because of his intelligence and level of stubbornness, that he be exposed early on to as many people, places, and things as is possible.
The Sussex Spaniel was bred to be an outside dog, active and engaged in field work, and his unique coat reflects that. Said to resemble the color of bark, so as to be camouflaging, it is ideal in protecting the breed from cold weather, and allowing it to retrieve game from the frigid water. Because of his being a Sporting dog, the Sussex Spaniel’s coat requires only a moderate amount of fuss and grooming. Even when being shown, the Sussex is often left in a more natural state compared to other dogs of the type, and overall, a minimal amount of grooming is necessary.
The Sussex Spaniel is considered an average shedder. His coat should be brushed once or twice a week to maintain luster and remove loose hair. When this is done, the coat generally, will further maintain itself. Trimming of the Sussex Spaniel is really the owners preference, however, the ears and in between the toes should be trimmed regularly to maintain proper function and health.
A weekly at home grooming session of the eyes, ears, and teeth can help maintain the Sussex Spaniel’s appearance, as well as identify any possible health concerns in these areas, as the Sussex can be prone to ear and eye problems. Sussex Spaniel puppies have very sensitive teeth, and checking for crooked or jagged teeth is important during these early grooming sessions.
Overall, a healthy breed, the average lifespan for the Sussex Spaniel is 11 – 13 years. Like many other Sporting dog breeds, the Sussex Spaniel is prone to suffering from Canine Hip Dysplasia (CHD). According to research conducted by the Orthopedic Foundation of Animals, Sussex Spaniels are ranked 9th out of 157 dog breeds to display CHD, with 41.5% of Sussex Spaniels affected at the time of the study. As a breed, the Sussex Spaniel can often suffer from Otitis Externa (outer ear infection) as well as Trichiasis or ingrown eyelashes. Weight gain is also a concern for the Sussex Spaniel. Although common in the Sussex Spaniel, these are all treatable conditions.
Other health concern for the Sussex Spaniel include:
The following is a list of health concerns generally affecting Spaniel breeds, that may be seen in the Sussex Spaniel breed as well. These include: