Spaniels were developed in Britain as specialist hunters, originally classified by weight and color. The smallest of their kind were known as “comforter” Spaniels that principally enjoyed a life of leisure among society’s well-to-do families.

The ancestors of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel found entrée into royal circles. In the 17th century, the companionable little dogs became the favorites of Charles I and his son, Charles II, for whom the breed is named.

During the reign of Charles II’s nephew, William III, the lively little Spaniels were crossed with short-faced breeds such as the Pug. The domed heads and shortened muzzles that resulted were embraced by fanciers of the day. Eventually this new type replaced the original as the preferred companion of English ladies and gentlemen.

Not everyone, however, appreciated the new look. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was a statesman whose career spanned the reigns of five monarchs through the 17th and 18th centuries. He kept red and white dogs of the original type for hunting at his estate, Blenheim.

The original King Charles Spaniel had all but vanished by the turn of the last century, replaced by the breed known in the United States today as the English Toy Spaniel.

The modern history of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is generally considered to begin with a visit by American Roswell Eldridge to the Crufts Dog Show. Eldridge is said to have attended the show in hopes of finding little Spaniels of the type he knew as a child. When his search came up empty, the New York resident issued a challenge to breeders of the day.

Eldridge placed an ad in the Crufts show catalog offering £25 for the first place dog and bitch of the “old type” King Charles Spaniel exhibited at the show during the years 1926 through 1930. A small group of breeders took up his challenge, and efforts to reestablish a beloved British breed began in earnest.

In 1928, supporters formed a breed club and chose the name Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to distinguish their dogs from the more popular short-nosed Spaniels. The Kennel Club (England) recognized the breed in 1946.

The first dogs arrived in America in the 1950s, and this country’s original club for the breed, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club – USA, was formed in 1954.

In 1994, the American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club was created by breeders looking toward AKC recognition. A breed standard was approved in 1995, and official inclusion in the Toy Group occurred on Jan. 1, 1996.

In 2011, the breed ranked 21st in terms of registrations out of 173 AKC-recognized breeds.

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a popular Toy with a sporting character and a melting expression. Photo by Dan Sayers.

A Royal Appearance

Although Britain’s smallest Spaniels were sometimes used for shooting small game, it was as a companion to kings that the (Cavalier) King Charles Spaniel was royally suited.

Perhaps due to its small size, a “true elegance” exists in the Cavalier that lends the breed its “royal appearance.” These qualities are essential for establishing correct type.

The breed is neither leggy nor long and low as are some other Spaniel breeds. The standard’s section on size, proportion and substance dictates, “weedy and coarse specimens are to be equally penalized.”

The well-balanced body of the Cavalier is clothed in the silky, feathered coat for which the family of Spaniels is well-known. So important are the coat’s natural qualities that “trimming, sculpting or artificial alteration” of any kind is prohibited, according to the breed standard.

A Melting Expression

The head and expression of the Cavalier distinguishes the breed from its English Toy cousin. Head type is entirely unique for each, with the Cavalier possessing a “sweet, gentle, melting expression” that is an important breed characteristic.

According to the standard, the eyes are “large, round, but not prominent and set well apart.” Their color is a very dark brown with warmth that contributes to the characteristic “lustrous, limpid look.” This calm and peaceful expression is created with eyes that are correctly sized, shaped, placed and colored.

Prominent eyes that protrude or bulge, and small, almond shaped eyes are faulty. The breed’s expression may also be marred by a light eye color or by any visible white around the eyes.

The correct head displays “cushioning” or padding under the eyes that softens the expression. The skull is slightly rounded – never domed or peaked, with ears “set high, but not close.” The stop is moderate, and the full, slightly tapered muzzle measures approximately 1-1/2 inches in length. Lips are likewise full, but not pendulous. A “perfect, regular and complete” scissors bite is preferred.

Exaggerations of the skull and muzzle destroy the breed’s signature expression, as does a snipey muzzle or a head that lacks sufficient fill.

As its expression suggests, the Cavalier is a gay and friendly character, “non-aggressive with no tendency towards nervousness or shyness.” Correct temperament is essential. The breed standard states, “Bad temper, shyness and meanness are not to be tolerated and are to be severely penalized as to effectively remove the specimen from competition.”

A Colorful Companion

The single coat of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is soft and silky. A slight wave is permissible, but a curled coat is faulty.

The hair is naturally short on the head. Feathering appears on the ears, chest, legs and tail. Feathering of the feet is a breed characteristic that may only be trimmed between the pads and on the underside of the feet.

As directed by the standard’s section on coat, “Specimens where the coat has been altered by trimming, clipping or by artificial means shall be so severely penalized as to be effectively eliminated from competition.”

Coat color and pattern are very specific in the breed. Cavaliers are presented in four distinct color variations: Blenheim; Tricolor; Black and Tan; and Ruby. All colors are shown together without division by variety.

The Blenheim, named for John Churchill’s estate, possesses “rich chestnut markings well broken up on a clear, pearly white ground.” The chestnut color must cover both ears and surround each eye. A white blaze evenly divides both eyes and ears, where a chestnut-colored mark known as the “Blenheim spot” may appear. This unique, although not essential, characteristic is “desirable,” according to the standard.

In the Tricolor, “jet black markings [are] well broken up on a clear, pearly white ground.” Similar to the Blenheim’s pattern, ears must be black, with the color evenly spaced on the head and surrounding both eyes. A white blaze appears between the eyes, and tan markings above each eye, inside the ears, and on the underside of the tail are richly colored.

Black and Tan Cavaliers are “jet black” with “rich, bright tan” markings above the eyes, inside the ears, on the cheeks, on the chest and legs, and on the underside of the tail.

The whole-colored Ruby is “rich red” over the entire body.

Cavalier coats are silky, and the colors are expectantly rich. Black should not have a rusty cast. According to the standard, white marks on Black and Tans, and Rubies are to be faulted, as is heavy ticking on Blenheims and Tricolors.

The colorful Cavalier King Charles Spaniel’s royal appearance and melting expression have captivated kings and commoners for centuries. Thanks to one man’s search for the dogs of his youth, the breed remains a pampered pet in the modern world.