Both have plenty of fans, says David Tomlinson
So you’re looking for a spaniel, rather than a Labrador. But that’s just where the decision starts. What sort of spaniel would suit you best? What are you considering in the springer vs cocker debate?
There’s plenty to say in defence of each breed – and each also has its detractors too. So I’ve written a step-by-step guide here which will help you clarify your decision so that you can make an informed choice.
Springer vs cocker spaniel – the pros and cons of each
- Springers have a size advantage over working cocker spaniels
- Cocker spaniels have a better engine and more staying power than springers
- Cockers are thought to be ‘prettier’ than springer spaniels and come in more colours – solid black, browns and gold to blue and lemon roans.
- Springers are heavier. A a typical working cocker will weigh between 13kg and 14.5kg, a springer around 20kg.
- Cockers are smaller which gives them the plus of being more portable in a car or living in a cottage.
- However the bigger springer will be able to manage heavy game. Although a cocker will do its best and some can manage to carry a goose!
- A springer is probably a better picking-up dog
- But a cocker will be an excellent addition to a field of retrievers
- Springers tend to be cheaper than cockers. However the price of gundogs has gone through the roof lately, due to Covid.
- However cockers don’t eat as much as a springer so your food costs will be smaller.
- Cockers are more sensitive than springers and need patient training.
- Springers have shorter ears set higher on the head than a cocker spaniel and a longer muzzle.
- Springer spaniels need more exercise than a cocker spaniel. They love swimming. Springers also like to roam and then check back with their handler.
Spaniel popularity figures
- According to the Kennel Club’s (KC) figures, cocker spaniels are more popular, with 23,297 registered in 2018, compared with just 10,152 English springers.
- But these figures fail to distinguish between working and show strains of the two breeds, while there are certainly far more pet cockers than springers.
- A lot of pure-bred working English springers aren’t registered anyway.
Not so popular in the 1960s
Cocker spaniel numbers were much lower in the 1960s and as a result the quality of working dogs was mostly poor. However, over the next three decades numbers went up and the cocker breed steadily recovered. Today the smallest of the sporting spaniels is considered an excellent sporting companion.
Working characteristics of spaniels?
Back in the 1950s the springer was called “the ideal rough shooter’s dog, while for anyone who requires an all-rounder the breed will appeal as being most versatile… English springers, if of working stock, love working in cover and water, and are easy to train, besides being very hardy.”
On the other hand, the cocker was described as having a “lovely, fast, happy action and a grand nose” while they “are small enough to penetrate the densest cover of which they are very fond”. However, the writer went on to say that cockers “are not so easy to train as the springers, being rather more selfish and inclined to think about themselves instead of about what the trainer requires of them”.
However since then both springers and cockers have changed considerably.
Hard to train?
Today cockers are not considered hard to train because the modern breed is more biddable. Cockers have a natural playfulness that may be testing for the novice trainer but then springers can also be challenging.
How the springer has changed
In the last 50 years the springer spaniel has changed in appearance. Those used for field trials tend to be small and quick, while the standard breed is bigger and heavier with plenty of colour in the coat.
Which wins the beauty contest in the springer vs cocker comparison?
- To be honest most people choose a dog by what it looks like rather than how it performs.
- Some springers are good-looking, but many will never win a prize for attractiveness.
- On the other hand working cocker spaniels can be very pretty and come out top in the springer vs cocker beauty contest. They also come in different colours from solid black, browns and gold to blue and lemon roans.
- Finding a traditional, handsome working springer is increasingly difficult. The breed standard allows dogs to be 20in at the withers — most show dogs are taller than this, and the majority of working dogs rather smaller. Cockers also range widely in size, but overall a typical working cocker will weigh between 13kg and 14.5kg, a springer around 20kg.
Which spaniel is more expensive?
The running costs of a springer will be higher as it eats more. But the puppies may be cheaper.
Pre-Covid prices a working cocker spaniel was likely to cost around £700. But a cocker’s running costs will be less as it doesn’t each so much.
Something to look out for when buying a cocker spaniel
Watch the dog’s COI (inbreeding coefficient). In recent years a small number of fashionable cocker sires have been used on a large number of bitches, with the result that many cockers have a relatively high COI, which is not good for the breed’s long-term health. You can check the COI of your puppy’s parents (assuming they are registered) on the Kennel Club’s website.
Though both cockers and springers are bred to do exactly the same job, it’s worth remembering that the bigger spaniel of the two, the springer, will find retrieving heavy game that much easier. Some remarkable little cockers will retrieve cock pheasants that weigh almost a third of their own weight, but it’s a bit of a struggle.
If you want a picking-up dog, then a springer is the better bet, though a cocker is a wonderful complement to a team of retrievers.
I don’t know how many English springer spaniels there are in the UK, but my guess would be between 160,000…
Full-time gundog trainer and A-panel spaniel judge
Springer vs cocker – how to decide
At the end of the day it’s your choice. Go with your gut instinct and go for the puppy you find pleasing and the breed you like. Mind you, you could think about a sprocker (a cocker/springer cross). They are deservedly popular and pure spaniels.
This article was originally published in 2017 but has been updated