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Palmetto State Pup: The Boykin Spaniel

Frankly, a Boykin spaniel really does sound like the perfect dog.

JUMP AROUND Gidget, born in 2013, is the surfer girl of Thornhill Kennels at Heronwyck Plantation in Beaufort.

Story by Robyn Passante + Photos by Mark L. Atwater

Just about every dog owner thinks his particular breed is the best. But when you talk to people who have Boykin spaniels, you get the sense that a dog’s superiority might not be all that subjective after all.

Because frankly, a Boykin spaniel really does sound like the perfect dog.

“Their temperament is very pleasing. They’re happy dogs, they enjoy being with people tremendously. They’re very family-oriented, very sports-oriented,” says Leslie Kern, a Boykin breeder who owns Thornhill Kennels in Beaufort. “The only ‘con’ about Boykins is they just don’t live long enough.”

For Kern and many other Boykin spaniel owners, 14 to 16 years is simply not long enough to enjoy the company of such a wonderful companion and hunting partner.

“The biggest reason I wanted a Boykin is it’s a medium-sized dog that has what I would consider almost a human intelligence. They want to please so much that they train really well, and they have huge memory capacity,” says Bluffton resident Dave Harris, who bought his first Boykin spaniel, Buddy Boy, from Kern three years ago. “They’re just hard-working dogs.”

In the realm of dog breeds, the Boykin — South Carolina’s state dog — is a younger variety. The first Boykin was bred and trained in the early 1900s by L.W. “Witt” Boykin, a planter and sportsman in the community of Boykin, just outside Camden. Its small size was perfect for the small, sectioned boats South Carolina waterfowl hunters would take into Carolina swamps and rivers.

BEST FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS Boykins are friendly, eager, loveable, merry and trainable. This mellow housedog and tenacious bird dog was once South Carolina’s best-kept secret.

“They’re known as ‘the little brown dog that doesn’t rock the boat,’” says Kern, whose Boykin spaniels sell for about $2,000 each. “They’re wonderful swimmers, great retrievers. So they’re duck dogs as well as flushing spaniels. It’s a sporting breed. It’s a dog that really enjoys being outdoors, having things to do.”

Males grow to about 45 pounds, and females average 35 pounds. Kern was training her Brittany spaniel the day a trainer handed her a Boykin puppy, the runt of the litter, and asked her to socialize it with her three dogs.

“At that point, I think I’d been in South Carolina about 10 years, so I knew what they were but I didn’t have one,” she says. A temporary houseguest quickly became a permanent family member, as Kern fell head over heels for little Bella.

“I owe everything to her, all my success, all my joy, the entire passion,” says Kern, who became a Boykin breeder, her first two litters from Bella. “She basically just stole our hearts. She was the cutest little thing, she absolutely loved to retrieve. She was cute, she was perky, she had a tremendous amount of tenacity for seeing things through. And everybody just loved her.”

Harris similarly came to be a Boykin believer after having and loving other breeds, including a Labrador retriever.

“Labs are good, but the difference I think is a lab is kind of already programmed to do what they’re doing. But a Boykin is pliable to the point where you can customize how that dog is trained to hunt and react.”

Buddy Boy worked with two professional trainers for a year and a half and is now a Hunter Retriever champion and Harris’s partner for hunting ducks, doves, geese, quail and, soon, pheasant.

“The cool thing about these dogs, just like a Lab these dogs mark in the sky with you. They’re looking at exactly what you’re looking at and they will not retrieve until you command them to retrieve on ducks,” he says. “And the strength of their mouth is very, very soft, so you don’t have a dog who’s chewing into your game. They’re carrying it and they’ll hand it to you.”

Harris says Boykins like Buddy are superb flushers, not pointers. “He’s always turning back and making sure I’m within sight.”

The Boykin spaniel’s chocolate brown coat and long ears make it look regal, yet cuddly. Harris, though perhaps a tad biased, says Buddy is top dog in the looks department.

“Buddy is noted as one of the best-looking Boykins that anybody has ever seen,” he says. And though he is extremely obedient, Harris says he has his own unique personality and preferences.

“He likes to hunt duck best,” he says. “When you’re sitting in a blind and he’s snuggling up beside you, when you look left he looks left, and when you look right, he looks right, and when you shoot, he’s looking at you like, ‘Do you want me to go now?!?’”

Boy Oh Boykin

Breed: Boykin spaniel (aka Swamp Poodle, Little Brown Dog)
Weight: 25-35 pounds female, 30-40 pounds male
Hypoallergenic: No
Life span: 14-16 years
Temperament: Energetic, companionable, eager, intelligent, friendly, trainable
Exercise requirements: 40 minutes a day
Energy level: High
Tendency to drool: Low
Tendency to snore: Low
Tendency to bark: Low
Tendency to dig: Low
Social/attention needs: Moderate
Price: $2,000
Fun facts: [1] Sept. 1 is Boykin Spaniel Day in South Carolina [2] A few members of the Boykin family call Hilton Head Island home, including the parents of reality TV star Shep Rose. [3] The dog is nicknamed “little brown dog” because of the color of its coat, which is usually dark chocolate, brown, or liver [4] The breed is just the right size to ride in a boat with a hunter and is known as “the little dog that doesn’t rock the boat.”