Perhaps the most difficult concept for judges to grasp in the Sussex Spaniel standard is color. The Sussex Spaniel standard makes reference to color in three separate sections. Under the General Appearance section, the standard states, “The rich golden liver color of the Sussex Spaniel is unique to the breed.” In theory, this is an incorrect statement as the Field Spaniel standard also lists golden liver as an acceptable color. In reality, however, the golden liver color of the Sussex Spaniel is unique to the breed.
Under the ‘Color’ section, the standard reads: “Rich golden liver is the only acceptable color and is a certain sign of the purity of the breed…
During the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, pedigree research will show that the Field Spaniel was heavily influenced by crosses to the Sussex. Both breeds shared a common outline, but differed substantially in head properties and color. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, it was quite possible to see a Field Spaniel that was golden liver in color. World War I changed that. During the war years and immediately afterwards, certain breeders of the Fields who were avid sportsmen set out on a mission to totally change the breed. This was accomplished through well-documented (and undocumented) crosses, primarily with the English Springer Spaniel. What resulted was a dog that would have been unrecognizable as a Field Spaniel in the show ring a mere twenty-five years earlier. Not only was the outline of the Field completely changed, but also the golden liver color of Sussex Spaniel vanished from that breed. Perhaps the genes responsible for the color remained hidden for a while afterwards, but almost certainly the proper golden liver color has not been seen in the Field Spaniel for more than a century. That the Sussex standard says the color is unique should be a strong statement to the judge that a liver color similar to other Sporting breeds is incorrect.
Under the “Color” section, the standard reads: “Rich golden liver is the only acceptable color and is a certain sign of the purity of the breed. Dark liver or puce is a major fault. White on the chest is a minor fault. White on any other part of the body is a major fault.” This section states that the Sussex comes in only one color—golden liver—but does not actually describe the color. Judges will rarely find a Sussex of the perfect color in their show rings. Unfortunately, when the perfect color does show up, the judge will often penalize the dog for the color because it stands out from the other entries. Although the standard doesn’t describe the golden liver color of the Sussex Spaniel, a major clue is found in this sentence: “Dark liver or puce is a major fault.” The converse of the statement indicates the correct color. In other words, golden liver is a light liver color.
Golden liver is unique to the breed not only to the actual color, but in another important way. Proper color in the Sussex Spaniel is caused not only by genetic factors, but also by exposure to the sun. The amount of sun exposure has a corresponding effect on the golden liver color. The more time a Sussex spends outdoors, the lighter the liver color becomes. This is why judges will often see variations in color within the Sussex ring. Sussex puppies are illustrative of this principle. A judge will not discover a six-to-nine-month-old Sussex of excellent color, as the puppy has not had sufficient time outdoors to develop the perfect hue. That the color of the Sussex should be light liver is not what is distinctive about the tint. (Owners of other liver-colored Sporting dogs will also notice a fading or bronzing in coloration with increased sun exposure in their breeds.) The special feature of golden liver is that it actually has a metallic sheen to it. Joy Freer, the former doyen of the breed, once said that the perfect color of a Sussex is akin to the color of an old sovereign coin. For those unfamiliar with a sovereign, it is made of gold. Most Sussex with limited sun exposure will exhibit the metallic golden luster on their muzzle, head, ears, and feather, provided that they have the proper genes. With more exposure to sunlight, the golden luster intensifies over the body, and the liver lightens. Some Sussex that spend most of the time outdoors will arrive at the perfect golden liver, with the metallic sheen covering the body. Even with perfect body color, the metallic gold sheen is generally more intense on the muzzle, head, ears, and feather.
Proper color in the Sussex Spaniel is caused not only by genetic factors, but also by exposure to the sun. The amount of sun exposure has a corresponding effect on the golden liver color. The more time a Sussex spends outdoors, the lighter the liver color becomes.
“Faults” is the last section of standard that mentions color. The relevant portion of this section states: “The most important features of the breed are color and general appearance.” “…Major faults are color that is too light or too dark, white on any part of the body
other than the chest …” Minor faults include “… white on chest …” In evaluating Sussex, judges must rank color and general appearance above all other features. In other words, perfect color and appearance trump all other features in terms of importance and must be given extra consideration. Judges often find a variation in color in the Sussex ring. Outside of perfection, there is a range of color that is acceptable. One exhibit may have good color, another excellent. At some point, the color becomes too dark or too light. When this occurs, the deviation becomes a “major fault.” A Sussex that is very dark or puce, i.e., the color of an Irish Water Spaniel, will earn the severest penalty, and should be placed below a dog possessing other less severe faults. The judge should not penalize as a “major fault” a dog with golden liver head, ears, and feather, but somewhat darker on the body. The judge, however, does take the deviation into consideration when deciding which dog has the best color.
As noted under the “Faults” section, color that is too light is severely penalized. A judge very rarely encounters this situation. A Sussex that spends a great deal of time outdoors and whose coat contains a lot of dead hair from the lack of proper maintenance will have a bleached-out appearance, with a color that is nearly white. This type of coloration is at the other end of the spectrum from puce and garners an equally severe penalty.
Although the standard does not mention it, the presence of tan points does occur in Sussex Spaniels. There are several tan-pointed Field Spaniels from the late 1800s that appear in the pedigrees of all Sussex Spaniels. Whether the tan points originate from the old Field Spaniel crosses, or from a more recent surreptitious cross with another Sporting breed, we may never know. Although the golden liver and tan coloration is quite beautiful, the standard states that “golden liver is the only acceptable color.” Tan points, however, are NOT a disqualification.