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Breeder Buzzwords – The Cocker Spaniel

The American Spaniel Club Inc. predates the American Kennel Club by three years. Founded in 1881, the organization originally began to promote the interests of all sporting Spaniels, and eventually became the parent club of one of the world’s most beloved of all dog breeds – the (American) Cocker Spaniel.

Spanyells were first mentioned in the 14th century, and the name was used to refer to a type of dog used for hunting in thick cover as well as in water. Both land and water Spaniels have been used for sport ever since, and with the advent of conformation exhibitions, the land varieties were categorized as either Clumber or “Spaniels, Field, Cocker and Sussex.”

“By 1870, we hear only of Field Spaniels, who were divided into two categories of over and under 25 pounds in weight,” according to The Country Life Book of Dogs by S. M. Lampson. The smaller dogs were especially proficient on woodcock and were eventually called “Cocking” or Cocker Spaniels. Recognition as a separate breed was granted in 1878.

Ch. Obo II, a black dog whelped in 1882, is generally considered the father of the Cocker Spaniel developed in the U.S.

By the early years of the 20th century, Cockers had become extremely popular throughout North America, and selective breeding – most likely with Toy Spaniels – resulted in a wholly original Sporting dog. Supporters of the “English” type agreed to avoid interbreeding with the “Americanized” dogs, and formed their own parent club in 1935.

In her book, The Truth About Sporting Dogs, canine historian C. Bede Maxwell refers to the time when today’s Cocker Spaniel was just emerging. “In the 1940s, it was still possible to come up with a major winner that was in all respects predominantly English Cocker type. By then, however, the developing American type was in competition already clear to see. Heads had become reshaped. Necks became an item of major importance. Shortness of back became emphasized by handling pose. A lengthened thigh favored the development of the magnificently-spectacular gait. Coats were lengthened – and lengthened – and lengthened.”

“Spaniel breeds have traditionally been in a state of flux,” Maxwell continues. “In America, the sorting out was made much more difficult in that there came to be a strong urge to produce an entirely new type of Spaniel altogether.”

A Cocker Spaniel named Ch. My Own Brucie was just that type of Spaniel.

Whelped in 1935, the black dog was awarded Best in Show at the 1940 and 1941 Westminster Kennel Club dog shows for breeder/owner Herman Mellenthin of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. This pair of wins catapulted the breed’s visibility among the general public, and a genuine love affair ensued. Since that time, the Cocker has reached the pinnacle of popularity in periodic waves, most recently from 1983 to 1990.

The Cocker’s sustained popularity has led it to become more of a companion than a gun dog. However, the breed does retain the instinct to flush and fetch and, in 1995, a buff-colored bitch named Ch. Pett’s Southwest Breeze CD MH WDX became the first of her breed to earn the AKCs Master Hunter title.

Today’s “Spaniel Club” continues to promote Cocker interests in the U.S., although it also offers classes for the entire family of flushing Spaniels at its annual limited-breed show. At this and every AKC all-breed event, the breed competes in three color varieties in the Sporting Group.

Registrations for this American original in 2012 place the Cocker Spaniel 27th among the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.

The Cocker Spaniel is a colorful American original with the support of the nation’s oldest breed parent club. Photo by Dan Sayers.

A Cleanly Chiseled and Refined Head
The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes the head of the Sporting Group’s smallest member as “cleanly chiseled and refined.” Photographs of the watershed dog My Own Brucie reveal a Cocker Spaniel that brought to life a hunting dog of unmistakable refinement.

Perhaps nowhere does the modern breed differ more from its ancestral stock than in the make and shape of its signature headpiece. The Cocker’s head is truly a breed hallmark.

Well-proportioned and “in balance with the rest of the dog,” the head embodies much of the breed’s essence. The skull is described as “rounded but not exaggerated with no tendency towards flatness,” with cheeks that are not prominent, owing to the chiseling of the “bony structure [zygomatic arch] beneath the eyes.” The muzzle is “broad and deep, with square even jaws,” and measures “one-half the distance from the stop to the tip of the nose” when compared with “the distance from the stop up over the crown to the base of the skull.”

The Cocker Spaniel’s refinement is further emphasized by the standard’s section on the details of the head. Expression is defined as “intelligent” and “alert,” but also “soft and appealing.” The slightly almond-shaped eyes are “round and full” and dark brown in color, “the darker the better.” The nose, with its well-developed nostrils, is of “sufficient size to balance the muzzle and foreface.” The long ears are “of fine leather, well feathered, and placed no higher than a line to the lower part of the eye.” The upper lip is “full and of sufficient depth to cover the lower jaw,” and the teeth are “strong and sound, not too small.” The teeth meet in a scissors bite.

Individual Cockers today remain quite capable of performing in the field and require a head that, although pleasing to look at, allows the dog to flush and retrieve. No single feature should be emphasized as each contributes to the beauty of this working gun dog. As noted by the standard, “A dog well balanced in all parts is more desirable than a dog with strongly contrasting good points and faults.”

The ASC’s “Blue Book” presents the ideal Cocker Spaniel through illustrations that include details of head and expression.

A Sturdy, Compact Body
Despite its rather diminutive size for a field dog, the correctly made Cocker Spaniel is built to perform. The smallest member of the Sporting Group is described by the AKC breed standard as possessing a body that is “sturdy” and “compact…with the overall dog in complete balance and of ideal size.”

Ideal adult height at the withers is 15 inches for dogs and 14 inches for bitches, with an allowance of one-half inch above or below the ideal. Dogs measuring more than 15½ inches in height and bitches more than 14½ inches are to be disqualified, whereas dogs measuring less than 14½ inches and bitches less than 13½ inches are to be penalized. “Height is determined by a line perpendicular to the ground from the top of the shoulder blades, the dog standing naturally with its forelegs and lower hind legs parallel to the line of measurement,” as directed by the standard.

Though small, the Cocker is no caricature. In proportion, the breed is “slightly longer” when measured “from the breast bone to back of thigh” as compared to the height measurement “from the highest point of withers to the ground.” The breed stands “well up at the shoulder on straight forelegs with a topline sloping slightly toward strong, moderately bent, muscular quarters,” according the standard’s general appearance section.

Never long and low, the breed’s sturdy, compact body possesses a “deep” chest, a “sufficiently wide” front, “deep and well sprung” ribs, and a “strong and sloping” back. Hips are “wide” and the hindquarters are “well rounded and muscular.” The body “must be of sufficient length to permit a straight and free stride,” and any trimming of the “silky, flat or slightly wavy” coat – in three separate color varieties: black; parti-color and any solid color other than black (ASCOB) – must be done prudently to “enhance the dog’s true lines” and should appear “as natural as possible.”

In a 1991 AKC Gazette breed column titled, “Judging Cocker Spaniels,” Dr. Bert G. Homen emphasizes the need to consider at all times the Sporting dog underneath the coat. “When the dog is posed on the table, you can still feel for proper brisket depth and shoulder placement, but you cannot really see what happens when moving the dog…The Cockers that are shown on a tight lead tend to lose their spontaneity of movement which normally allows a show dog to display its elegance or personality and balance with all ‘parts’ moving in perfect symmetry.”

Free and Merry
The hallmark of any Spaniel’s character is its cheerfulness, and the Cocker exudes this to a considerable degree. Together with its “keen inclination to work,” the breed’s true nature is above all, “free and merry.”

Temperament is described by the breed standard as “equable…with no suggestion of timidity.” A good Cocker, it may be said, never displays a bad temperament.

“Merry” also describes the Cocker Spaniel’s tail, a dependable indicator of a dog’s true intentions. “The docked tail is set on and carried on a line with the topline of the back, or slightly higher; never straight up like a Terrier and never so low as to indicate timidity.” The breed standard emphasizes the importance of the tail as an especially useful barometer while the dog is working. “When the dog is in motion the tail action is merry.”

The smallest Spaniel is universally lauded for its “merry” disposition as well as its “merry” way of going. If any dog could represent the notion of freedom, surely the merry little Cocker is the ideal candidate.

A reliably delightful companion that’s as versatile as it is beautiful, the Cocker Spaniel has secured its place by the hearth and in the homes of countless dog lovers in the U.S. and around the world.

Written by

Dan Sayers started “in dogs” through a chance encounter with a Springer Spaniel in 1980. A student of dogs ever since, he’s shown Spaniels and Hounds in the conformation ring and breeds Irish Water Spaniels under the Quiet Storm prefix. A dog lover with a passion for the creative arts, Dan has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator for many years. His feature articles and columns have appeared in Dogs in Review, Dog World and the AKC Gazette, and his design work has appeared in dozens of publications in North America and abroad. An interest in all things “dog” brought Dan to Best In Show Daily, where he gets to work with the most dynamic group of fanciers every day. He lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his partner, Rudy Raya, Irish Water Spaniel, Kurre, and the memory of Oscar, a once-in-a-lifetime Sussex Spaniel.