November 30, 2022
By Chris Midgette
Often called the “Little Brown Dog,” or also known affectionately as the “Swamp Poodle,” I have been lucky enough to have grown up with the Boykin spaniel breed my entire life. My dad got his first little brown dog while he was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina after graduating from college. He wanted a duck hunting dog and was originally looking at a Lab, but dad’s commanding officer (my mom) made an executive order that she did not want a dog with a tail. With options limited, my dad started searching for an alternative, but he also happened to be stationed in the home state of the Boykin spaniel. Mom and Dad got the family’s first Boykin in 1979, and since then, there’s always been a little brown dog—or four—around us to clean up our spilled food and retrieve our ducks.
The History of the Boykin Spaniel
The Boykin spaniel has an intrepid and interesting history as no one actually knows which breeds the first Boykin was bred from. All we know about the precursor of the Boykin, is that supposedly, a brown spaniel-like stray dog came up to Mr. Alexander White when he was on his way to church one Sunday. Mr. White ultimately took a liking to this wandering pup and decided to take it home where he found the dog liked to retrieve. Mr. White gave the prestigious name of “Dumpy,” to his hunting companion. White’s friend, Mr. Lemuel Boykin ended up crossbreeding Dumpy and their descendants to a plethora of different breeds to ultimately develop what we now know as the Boykin spaniel.
Some of the breeds that we do know are in the Boykin’s bloodlines are: Chesapeake Bay retriever, Springer spaniel, Cocker spaniel, and American water spaniels. There are purportedly some pointing breeds in the original bloodlines, but the Boykin is now bred to be “an aggressive flusher.” The modern slogan for the Boykin is the “dog that doesn’t rock the boat” as a large majority of South Carolinian duck hunters were hunting the swamps in canoes and did not want a large dog trying to get in and out.
Hunting With a Boykin Spaniel
While a lot of people throw around the “versatile hunter” term a lot, Boykins are not versatile in how they hunt, but rather what they hunt. Boykins have helped turkey hunters break up the flock so the hunter can call back an old tom. They also make great flushers of pheasants, grouse, and quail. They make excellent duck dogs and can retrieve Canada geese (albeit a little slower than a Lab would). The Boykin is one of the few true American breeds and so ingrained in South Carolina culture that in 1984, September 1 became known as “Boykin Spaniel Day,” which also happens to be opening day of dove hunting season in the Palmetto state.
Boykin Spaniel Breed Traits
Due to the different breeds in their lineage, their coat can range from straight to moderately curly, but should always be medium length. Coat color has been described from liver to chocolate, but essentially any shade of brown is found. Only a small amount of white on the chest is allowed to be present if the pup is to be registered with the Boykin Spaniel Society.
They have amber eyes that can pierce your soul when you happen to miss that layup of a shot. They are taller than the English cocker spaniel, with height at the withers being 15.5-17 inches, and weigh anywhere from 30-40 lbs. in males, with females bring slightly smaller. They have typical spaniel ears or “burr magnets” if not trimmed up some before the season. I highly suggest investing in some Mane n’ tail if you’re planning on upland bird hunting with them.
Boykins can sometimes be a little soft, like my older pup, Cooper. If I put a little growl in my voice, you would have thought I’d just told him he’s never going to get truck snacks or a chicken nugget ever again. On the flip side, my younger pup, Traveler, can be extremely stubborn at times and sometimes I just have to accept that. I like to think that’s his Chessie blood showing itself. While you may find some people calling them “destroykins” on certain Facebook pages, they are perfect buddies in the house with proper obedience and exercise, just like any other hunting breed.
While small in stature, they are not small in energy and that energy needs to be burnt off in some form or fashion. The number one thing I typically tell people when they tell me they’re thinking about getting a Boykin is: “It’s not a Lab.” I mean that Boykins are Boykins, they are not a miniature Lab and do not mature at the same speed or act the same. I jokingly say that Boykins have ADHD, they tend to get bored easily if you’re doing the same drill over and over.
On the positive side is their personality. They will without doubt let you know what they’re thinking, they’ll amaze you with their extraordinary hunting abilities one moment then just decide they want to go chase a butterfly the next. My dad had a dog that was hell on geese, didn’t matter if it was 200 yards away, he was on it. He once dove four times under water to catch a crippled Canada. Other times, we may hit a teal and it fell 15 yards away, dad would send him, he’d just sit there as if to say, “You think I’m jumping in the water for that little thing?”
Who is the Boykin Spaniel For?
I would highly recommend a Boykin to someone that has a lot of patience and is big on positive reinforcement in their dog training. The Boykin is like other spaniels in that they just want to please their owner. While their tails are docked, it doesn’t stop their nubs from going a thousand miles an hour when they get excited. Boykins are perfect for almost any type of bird hunting from upland to waterfowl, but I would not take them to sea duck hunt off the coast of Maine in January. I have hunted mine in the single digits, but I also had them protected from the wind and a towel to dry them off when they got out of the water. They do very well in warm weather, but they are not super-dogs. If possible, I still try to find a shady spot in a dove field even if that means sacrificing the best shooting. There are some situations that are more conducive to have a pointer versus a flusher or having a thick, curly-coated Chessie instead of a 40-lb swamp poodle, but the Boykin is definitely a jack-of-all-trades.
Additional Boykin Spaniel Resources
The first place anyone should go to in order to find information on the Boykin spaniel is the Boykin Spaniel Society (BSS). There is more information on the breed itself, but also a list of Boykin breeders. The BSS has done a great job of protecting the breed from its own popularity and has started the Preferred Breeders program to help ensure healthy breeding practices. A preferred breeder does not mean that that litter is definitely coming from a hunting line (although most of them are), it means the breeder has done certain amount of health tests that the BSS suggests.
No doubt with social media there is a lot more access to finding a dog trainer nowadays. With that being said, not all trainers do well with the temperament of a Boykin. I once was talking to one of the best Boykin trainers in the country and when I asked him why he never got into Labs, he said, “Because I don’t want to know how easy I could have it.” When looking for a trainer, I would suggest seeing if they’ve worked with the breed before or are at least knowledgeable about the Boykin.
Growing up with the breed obviously makes me partial to these little brown dogs. I’ve hunted with a lot of dogs over the seasons and with some amazing bird dogs, but the more I keep hunting with these little browns, the more I’m impressed with what they can do. I remember in middle school when I was hunting in Virginia with my dad who had drawn a swan tag that year. We had been told swans were in the area and sure enough we did our best Ric Flair “Woo!” to entice it to come to our spread. Dad knocked the big white bird down with his double-barreled 10-gauge and sent our Boykin, Rebel, after it. Sure enough Rebel dragged that bird that was easily three times his size back to us. Boykins may at times be a handful but there are two things that you can count on: They will always entertain you and they will always have heart!