Although cocker spaniels don’t always get it right, they have fantastic characters and big hearts
The spaniel is one of the oldest “type” of hunting dog and today the cocker and springer spaniel are among the most popular gundog breeds seen in the shooting field. Spaniels were especially bred to flush game out of dense brush. By the late 1600s spaniels had become specialised into water and land breeds.
The extinct English water spaniel was used to retrieve waterfowl shot down with arrows. Land spaniels were comprised of setting spaniels – those that pointed their game so hunters could catch them with nets, and springing spaniels – those that sprang pheasants and partridges for hunting with falcons, and rabbits for hunting with greyhounds.
During the 17th century, the role of the spaniel dramatically changed as wing shooting with flintlock guns became popular and the role of the spaniel became more refined. Springing spaniels would lay the foundation of all modern day flushing spaniels. In a single litter of spaniels, the larger pups, anything over 25 pounds in weight would become springer (springing) spaniels, the smaller pups, under 25 pounds in weight would become known as a cocker (cocking) spaniel. Size alone was the only difference.
The name cocker came into being in around 1800, at this time they were being used a great deal for woodcock shooting. As they’re smaller, they were able to work better in thick dense cover that the larger breeds could not get through. The early strains of cockers were widespread throughout the UK, but it was in Wales and in Devon that they were most numerous and this was probably due to the type of dense low cover found in those parts of the country.
It is generally accepted that when myxomatosis killed off most of the rabbit population during the 1950s, the popularity of the cocker spaniel also declined along with the interest in rough shooting, and as a result the gene pool was greatly diminished. The late Keith Erlandson is often credited with improving the breed’s performance and by the early 1970’s the cocker once again started to gain in popularity. Today you would be hard pushed to visit a shoot and not see one working in the beating line, picking-up or sitting at a peg in some cases you may see a cocker doing all three at the same time!
Cockers have fantastic characters and although they don’t always get it right, they always give 100 per cent effort. It never fails to amaze onlookers how such a small dog can manage to carry a large cock pheasant or a hare but it just goes to show what big hearts they have. One of their best characteristics is their game finding ability and the way they can take the line of a wounded bird or a legged rabbit. Peter Jones in his excellent book “The Working Cocker” says that in his opinion the cocker spaniel is better on wounded game or runners than a springer. This could be down to the fact that the cocker’s nose is closer to the ground, but he believes it is more likely that the smaller spaniel has a more independent nature…in fact they quite often think they know better than their handler.
Most of the modern lines of cockers have a very strong hunting instinct and this can overcome any desire to retrieve, so it is important to develop their retrieving from an early age. Some people say the cocker can be hardheaded and more difficult to train than a springer, but like all gun dogs each individual will have its good and bad points, generally they do not take to harsh handling or being reprimanded and they can be quite sulky, tell a cocker off and he will remember it for days!
Because of their size they do not suit all aspects of shooting. For example, they do not make great wildfowling dogs and they are not particularly happy sitting at a peg all day, although there are always exceptions. During a shoot day you can always tell a cocker owner, he will normally be covered in mud up to just above his knees, as they say you don’t own a cocker, you wear a cocker!
Cockers come in various colours ranging from golden to black with chocolate, roans, and tri colours. In fact the UK Kennel Club recognises 26 different colour variations, there is still quite a variation in the size of the dogs; some handlers prefer the smaller type although you can get cockers that are almost the size of a springer.
Cocker health checks
In recent years health testing in cockers has become a much discussed issue and as it stands there are three main conditions to look out for:
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): This is an inherited eye disease, there are many different types of PRA but the one most commonly seen in cockers is General Progressive Retinal Atrophy (GPRA) also known as prcd-PRA. This disease results in night blindness gradually leading to total blindness, both parents need to carry the PRA gene for the disease to occur.
Familial Nephropathy (FN): This is a fatal kidney disease in young cockers which was quite prevalent in the breed in the 1980s until research established that this was also a hereditary condition. A control scheme was put in place by The Cocker Club and in recent years only a very small number of confirmed cases have been reported.
Acral Mutilation Syndrome (AMS): This condition is seen in puppies and results in lesions growing on the feet and the infected pups tend to lick or bite their own pads resulting in self-mutilation. This is an inherited disease and both parents have to carry the gene and carriers should only be mated to dogs tested normal (clear) to avoid producing affected pups.