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Breeder Buzzwords – The English Cocker Spaniel

Most canine historians accept the idea that the Spaniel is of Spanish derivation. Sporting dog authority C. Bede Maxwell, however, does not count herself among them.

In her masterful work, “The Truth About Sporting Dogs,” published in 1972 by Howell Book House, Maxwell writes, “We know…,by available documentation from British archives, that by channels of diplomacy he moved between countries and courts, as gifts between Kings and Princes, Lords and Ladies. Those same archives establish that Elizabethan-age Spaniels moved from England into Spain, which was then the premier world power. No one seems as yet to have provided any record of Spaniels brought into England from Spain.”

In whichever direction they may have traveled, Spaniels were known of in Britain and on the continent by the 14th century. The name was used generically to refer to a type of dog used for hunting in a wide variety of environments on game both feathered and furred. Size, stamina and intelligence determined under which conditions and for which purpose a dog would be put to use.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Spaniels were divided by water and land varieties, with the latter eventually categorized by color and size as either “Springer-Cocker,” “Field or Cocker” and “Marlborough,” or Toy Spaniels. Dogs of each category were often born in the same litter, and the (English) Cocker Spaniel was principally developed from parti-colored dogs weighing less than 25 pounds, many of which had a roaning or ticking to their coats.

In 1892, the Kennel Club (England) recognized the Cocker Spaniel as a separate breed, an act that forever distinguished it from both Springer and Field Spaniels. The breed quickly became popular in Canada and the U.S., where crosses with Marlborough Spaniels took the newly recognized breed in a whole new direction.

As the Cocker became increasingly popular as a family pet in this country, supporters of the “English” type agreed to avoid interbreeding with the “Americanized” dogs. They formed the English Cocker Spaniel Club of America in 1935, and worked diligently towards achieving recognition of the “original” type.

One of the staunchest supporters of the English Cocker was Mrs. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge. Mrs. Dodge’s sponsorship significantly aided the cause of those who sought to preserve the breed in this country. It is largely through her efforts that a breed standard was approved and AKC recognition granted in 1946.

Another early supporter of the breed was Mrs. Anne (Hone) Rogers Clark, whose first Best in Show win came in 1950 with an English Cocker Spaniel. Mrs. Clark was devoted to the breed and wrote extensively on preserving breed type. In the parent club’s Illustrated Standard, published in 1995, Mrs. Clark asserts, “From the Standard, we must ascertain what is correct type for the English Cocker Spaniel… An untypical Cocker that is sound is useless. A typical Cocker that is sound is priceless.”

Author Maxwell best expresses the essence of the merry little English Cocker, I think, when she describes the companion that introduced her to dogs: “Fussy had nothing to learn from me, she had been work-trained before she came into my ownership. I was the one that learned—from her! She showed me her quartering pattern, her tenacity of purpose, the use of her nose, her joyousness, her tenderness to carry. One morning she revolved endlessly around my legs, tail a’whirr, and when she finally got across that she had something for me, and I put down my hand, she placed therein an unbroken egg that she must have carried for half-an-hour at least!”

The merry little English Cocker continues to surprise and delight today, as evidenced by its 2011 registrations that place it 63rd of the 173 AKC-recognized breeds.

The English Cocker Spaniel is a colorful character with a melting expression and a very merry tail. Photo © Isselee/Dreamstime.

Alive with Energy

The hallmark of any Spaniel is a happy disposition, and the English Cocker Spaniel is no exception. The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes “an active, merry sporting dog” that is “alive with energy.” The breed that has enjoyed the support of so many women of distinction may be a field dog, but it is certainly no wallflower.

“His enthusiasm in the field and the incessant action of his tail while at work indicate how much he enjoys the hunting for which he was bred,” says the standard. The breed’s movement is characteristically lively, and any activity will showcase the inner happiness with which the breed is blessed.

A “willing worker and a faithful and engaging companion,” the English Cocker’s temperament is described by the standard as “merry and affectionate, of equable disposition, neither sluggish nor hyperactive.” The parent club’s Judges Education Handbook emphasizes that correct temperament is a “vital component” of the dog. “Shyness, timidity and aggressiveness are atypical of this breed,” it says.

In a 1984 AKC Gazette breed column titled, “What About Temperament?” Mrs. Harry Clark refers to the breed’s active, yet retiring, temperament: “As for English Cockers, let us all remember the words of that undeniable authority, Mr. H. S. Lloyd: ‘It is of the utmost importance that the reserved, sweet, kindly, retiring character of the (English) Cocker be preserved.’”

A Melting Expression

“His head is especially characteristic.” So says the breed standard in its description of the English Cocker’s general appearance.

Distinguishable from other Spaniel breeds, its head is “strong, yet free from coarseness, softly contoured, without sharp angles.” According to the standard, “Much of the refinement characteristic of the English Cocker head depends on the chiseling under the eyes and the delicately grooved stop.”

Expression is described as “soft, melting, yet dignified, alert and intelligent.” The medium-sized, slightly oval eyes are set wide apart, with tight lids and inconspicuous haws that may or may not be pigmented. The eyes are dark brown in color, “except in livers and liver parti-colors where hazel is permitted, but the darker the hazel the better.”

“Taken as a whole, the parts combine to produce the expression distinctive of the breed,” according to the standard’s section on the head. These parts include the eyes, naturally, but all features of the head combine in a way that is pure English Cocker: ears lie close to the head and are low set, “extending to the nose,” with a fine leather and “long, silky, straight or slightly wavy hair”; the skull is “arched and slightly flattened when seen both from the side and from the front,” with a brow that appears in profile to be “appreciably higher than the back-skull”; and the planes of the skull and the “well-cushioned” muzzle, with square, “but not pendulous,” lips are “roughly parallel.”

A Compact Body

The English Cocker Spaniel is a moderately constructed dog of substance. Despite its relatively small size, the breed is nonetheless a determined and versatile worker that gives the impression of “strength without heaviness.”

“Compact and well-knit” is how the standard describes the breed’s body. The chest is deep, but “not so wide as to interfere with action of forelegs, nor so narrow as to allow the front to appear narrow or pinched. The well-developed forechest presents a prosternum “projecting moderately beyond shoulder points.” The brisket “reaches to the elbow and slopes gradually to a moderate tuck-up” and the ribs are “well-sprung and springing gradually to mid-body, tapering to back ribs which are of good depth and extend well back.”

The English Cocker’s back is “short and strong,” with short loins that are “broad and very slightly arched, but not enough to affect the topline appreciably.” The tail that moves constantly while the dog is in action is ideally carried horizontally off a “gently rounded” croup with no tendency to “fall away sharply.”

An anonymous article in the Judges Education Handbook titled, “English Cockers Afield,” perhaps best summarizes the usefulness of the breed’s compact make and shape, and cautions against any tendency towards Setter-like construction: “The standard supports the dog’s function…The broader dog with a level topline and low center of gravity can turn faster. The taller animal with the sloping topline will hunt with its head up like a Setter, and not go under the cover like a Spaniel.”

A Silky Coat

The beautifully furnished coat of the English Cocker Spaniel is distinguished from that of its cousins principally by its color. Unlike other Spaniel breeds where color is limited by breed or variety, just about any color and color combination is permitted in this breed.

The Coat section of the breed standard indicates “various” colors are acceptable.

“Parti-colors are either clearly marked, ticked or roaned, the white appearing in combination with black, liver or shades of red,” according to the standard. The solid color is preferably “broken” on the body and “more or less evenly distributed,” although the absence of body markings is allowed.

Acceptable solid colors include black, liver and “shades of red.” Although a small amount of white on the throat of a solid-colored dog is acceptable, white feet are not, and in neither case does the presence of white markings make the dog a parti-color.

Tan markings, when they appear, are to be “clearly defined and of rich shade” and may be present “in conjunction with black, livers and parti-color combinations of those colors. Black and tans, and liver and tans are considered solid colors.”

The color range of English Cockers exhibited in 2001 appears in the parent club’s handbook. The statistics for that year indicate the strength of the blue roan that continues today. Of the 204 dogs included in the study, 113 were blue roan and only 24 were golden/red, the second most common color. Other colors included black, 20; blue roan and tan, 13; orange roan, 11; and black and white, 10.

The breed’s colorful, silky coat is generally trimmed “to remove overabundant hair and to enhance the dog’s true lines.” The standard cautions that this should be done with restraint so that the dog appears “as natural as possible.”

An active and attractive Sporting dog, the English Cocker Spaniel remains an enthusiastic hunter of solid construction, with a distinctive head, merry disposition, silky furnishings and a tail that just won’t quit.

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.