In 2009 history was made during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show when a little brown dog trotted away with Best in Show at this famous dog show. That’s a long time to wait for a breed that’s been recognized by the American Kennel Club since the very beginning of the club itself. It is still not recognized as a viable hunting companion by the larger brethren of the sport, but this may all be changing if a few fanciers have their way, since the Sussex Spaniel is a very good gun dog and should, at the very least, be celebrated as one by the very people who carry forth the breed’s torch for generations to come.
Trainer Don Krueger of Orion Guided Services of Oregon can tell you, “For a man or woman who loves the outdoors but is not in the peak of condition, a Sussex makes a great choice in gun dogs if you want to do some hunting.” Indeed, you won’t have to invest in a horse, nor will you have to spend hours each week on a treadmill in order to keep up with a Sussex on the weekends. What you will have is a great time in the field and, if you’re a good shot, a chance to stuff your game pouch, as the Sussex – even though it’s spent generations on the couch, in the backyard and in the show ring – still has its instincts for field work well intact, and has a nose on par with the very best that the Sporting Group has to offer. Krueger should know – he’s the trainer behind the breed’s first Master Hunter, Ch. Sundowners Swing That Music, MH, a dog owned by Jan Hepner and bred by AKC judge and Sussex expert, Pluis Davern.
Davern, a retired professional handler, began in Golden Retrievers in 1967 and fell for the “darling little brown dog” in the early ’80s. A seasoned dog trainer who ran her now-famous Sussex, the late Int. Am. Can. & Mex. Ch. Sand Creek’s Up to Snuff, CDX, SH, to his Senior Hunter title, Davern gives us some insight into the breed’s natural ability. “They’re a soft breed and you can’t be too strong with them in training because they don’t require that, don’t want that and will shut down on you, but if you allow them a little time and expose them to the field, they’re delightful.
Some people say that the Sussex isn’t very smart, but as soon as this comes off the lips of this ar rogant species that we are, I am instantly suspicious of the speaker, as Sussex Spaniels are very smart, quite manipulative, and their drive to do hunting is much stronger than the average Sussex Spaniel person really understands or knows. They’re very active and yet they have the delicious ability when they walk into the house to settle down; they have an off and on switch that is often missing in a field-bred English Springer or Labrador, yet they are remarkably birdy.”
Indeed, Davern and Krueger agree that in, say, a litter of four, all can easily become hunting companions. This known fact may have a lot to do with the tiny gene pool that Sussex breeders have long lamented, but if it’s made life difficult for the breeder projecting pedigrees it’s also a surprising plus for the breeder who wants to maintain the breed’s desire to hunt.
Says Davern, “One of the nice things about this breed not being so popular is that people aren’t just breeding to whatever is currently fashionable. Our gene pool is very small and the hunting gene is very concentrated.” However unknown the breed was before, the Westminster Best in Show win by Ch. Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee (known as ‘Stump’) has put the spotlight squarely on the Sussex. Don Krueger is guarded about this and warns would-be profiteers to be careful of how they breed their dogs, suggesting that, “In order to not lose the Sussex’s wonderful hunting style, each of us in the breed must make sure that we don’t change the breed so that it is competitive against a field-bred Springer. The Sussex is a slow, methodical worker. He wasn’t designed to hunt fast and furious through a field. As a club, we will not allow our Sussex to run in a Spaniel field trial unless we are able to have a field trial that is specific to our breed. In this way, we can keep the breed whole and not suffer the problems of other breeds like the English Springer, the Labrador and the Pointer, which are largely split between bench and field types.”
For all of Krueger’s concern, the bigger fear is that people in the breed just won’t take their show dogs out to the field to prove their value as a hunting dog. With regard to the Westminster winner, Davern says, “Stump is a delightful dog. Of course, no dog is perfect, but there are so many wonderful things about this dog.’’