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Outdoor Life

Gundogs by Tom Davis
We were lounging around the cabin after a long hard Opening Day, a day made longer and harder by balmy mid-September temperatures, jungle-thick foliage, and the rust that accretes on hunters of both the two- and four- legged varieties during the off-season. Our dogs sprawled on the floor, twitching in sweet dreams of grouse; we worked on our bottles of Rolling Rock, wiped down our scatterguns (secretly hoping to curry favor and make them one with our intentions), and talked of all the things that bird hunters talk about when company is good and the grinding pressures of job and family seem far, far away.
I don't recall how or why it came up, but in the course of the conversation someone asked me - as a guy who spends a fair amount of time talking to serious "dog people" - the following: "Which breed, in your opinion, has the most loyal supporters?"

It was a no-brainer if I'd ever heard one. "The Boykin Spaniel" I replied, jumping on the question the way Barry Bonds jumps on a hanging curve ball. "No contest".

My experience with Boykin Spaniel owners is that fanaticism is the rule rather than the exception. The only breed that's even in the same ballpark in this respect is the English Cocker, which leads me to theorize that an inverse relationship exists between the size of the dog and the intensity of the devotion displayed by its partisans. In the nearly twelve years that I've authored this column, the single nastiest letter I've received was from a disgruntled Boykin owner. The kicker was, I hadn't said anything bad about the breed - I just hadn't, in this (former) subscriber's estimation, said enough good things about it!

Jim Killen, who's done numerous paintings of Boykins (including the immensely popular 1988-89 South Carolina Duck Stamp), discovered just how loyal the breed's fans are when he was selected Artist of the Year for the 1987 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. Killen created what is now regarded as his "signature" image, School Daze, expressly for the show - but when he and wife Karen traveled to Charleston to unveil it at a special board of directors meeting, he got the shock of his life. Word had leaked that the Boykin spaniel - the state dog of South Carolina - was not among the six breeds represented in the painting, and the Killens were greeted by a roomful of people wearing pins that queried, "Where's the Boykin?"

"They were really disturbed by this," says Bob Russell, a prominent Boykin breeder who has since become a close friend of the Killens. "They'd never heard of a Boykin spaniel before, and when they asked the chairman what it was, he introduced them to me. The outcome was that they came out to my place bright and early the next morning (Russell's Pooshee Plantation lies a few miles north of Charleston) and took over 200 photographs of my Boykins, from puppies right on up through trained dogs.

"Then Jim went home and did the smart thing: He did a painting of a half-grown Boykin - my dog Boxer, 'Pooshee's Box'a Chocolates - and called it Late for School. He very courteously sent me a photograph of the image, and I called him and told him to be sure to bring the painting when he came for the show. The publisher of the Post and Courier, our newspaper, was a friend of mine, so I arranged to have Jim, Boxer and the painting photographed on the steps of the courthouse here in Charleston. I wanted to get Jim out of the doghouse because he's such a nice guy."

American sportsmen who've had the pleasure of rough-shooting in the U.K. almost invariably remark on the ability of British spaniels springers and cockers both - to hunt with incredible dash and desire while remaining happily compliant to their handlers' wishes. This is perhaps the biggest reason why the English cocker has become so popular on this side of the pond: it hunts with tremendous fire, but its great biddability and eagerness to please, keeps the flames from burning out of control (mostly).

The same can be said, I think, of the Boykin. It's been observed that the average Boykin has the energy of three "normal" dogs, and this is certainly true of the ones I've seen in action. They seem to be everywhere at once, their short legs a blur, their stub tails vibrating like tuning forks, their bright eyes blazing. The role most often played by the breed is that of "pick up dog" on dove shoots and/or Plantation-style quail hunts, and you can bet your last dollar that when a Boykin's finished hunting dead, the field's as clean as Grandma's best china

What ultimately sets these brown dynamos apart, though, is not their hyperkinetic style. It's the way they combine this high-revving way of doing things with a devotion to their owners that is unsurpassed among the sporting breeds (and which, as noted previously, their owners repay in kind). A Boykin looking to its master for direction doesn't merely make eye contact; it locks on like a laser beam.

Patricia Watts, whose Hollow Creek Kennels in Leesville, South Carolina, is the home of eleven Boykins (at last count), likes to tell about the time she and her dog "Mouse" attended a Rick Smith training seminar. "At one point Rick used Mouse to illustrate a training technique," laughs Watts. "She performed beautifully - but the whole time Rick was working with her, she never took her eyes off me. It was as if she was asking, "Am I doing OK?"

"But that's typical of Boykins," Watts elaborates. "Their dedication to their owners is just extraordinary, and they're so intelligent - far beyond anything else I've known in the dog world."

Watts is one of the few Boykin enthusiasts who uses her dogs not only as retrievers, but as flushers. "They adapt to upland hunting very quickly," she says. "I've taken my dogs to South Dakota on several occasions, and you can see the light come on when they have their first encounter with a wild pheasant. They really put their training to work then."

She adds, "Boykins have the athletic ability - and the heart - to handle any kind of terrain. They're great hunting dogs, great family dogs, and I believe their compact size is an advantage, too. That's why I call them 'The 21st Century Dog.' They're not perfect, of course, but I've always said that if you're looking for perfection, you don't want to get involved with dogs - or children."

You won't be surprised to hear that a Boykin advocate as strong as Patricia Watts is the person willing to field questions about pups, the breed or the new club: You can contact her at 1018 Asbill Court, Leesville, SC 29070;. Regarding her own pups, Pat is more adoption agency than seller. Don't even ask unless your Boykin will live inside.

Article reprinted with permission from the Author.

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