The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

How the cocker spaniel has changed

The breed is a firm favourite in the UK — but that comes at a cost, warns David Tomlinson

cocker spaniel

A cocker's merry disposition and small stature make it an ideal pet as well as an effective working dog

My first-ever dog was a remarkably handsome blue-roan-and-tan cocker spaniel. I loved him dearly, but he was inbred, neurotic and not really a nice dog at all. He was show bred, but I took him shooting and it was an infection of tetanus, picked up on a shooting day, that led to his early death at the age of five. Many years have passed since his demise and cockers — both show and working bred — have changed enormously, mainly for the better. (Read cocker or springer spaniel?)

The cocker spaniel today

To understand the cockers we have today, it’s essential to look back at the breed’s history. Perhaps the most surprising fact is that the cocker is an older breed than the springer. The first Kennel Club stud book, published in 1874, divided spaniels into three — field, cocker and Sussex — without a mention of springer. (You might like to read this history of spaniels.)

The chief distinguishing feature between a field and a cocker was weight: cockers had to weigh less than 25lb. It wasn’t until 1893 that these small spaniels gained their own place in the stud book as a separate breed, with the first breed standard drawn up in 1895. The Cocker Spaniel Club was founded in 1902 and it still promotes the breed 120 years later.

The early cockers were, of course, bred as shooting dogs and their small size made them ideal for hunting the densest brambles and the thickest bracken. They were the ideal spaniel for woodcock shooting, hence their name. Not surprisingly, their merry disposition and small size also made them popular both as pets and in the show ring.

No breed has won more Best in Show titles at Crufts than the cocker, with seven wins, the first in 1930 and the most recent in 1996. Six of those wins were notched up by the redoubtable H S Lloyd with dogs from his celebrated ‘of Ware’ kennel. (Read our suggestions for best dog beds.)

Despite the popularity of the pet cocker in the 20th century — they were the most popular breed in the 1940s and 1980s — the working cocker declined in numbers and popularity. English springers dominated in the shooting field and the working cocker became something of a rarity.

However, Peter Moxon, writing in his classic Gundogs: Training and Field Trials (1952), declared that the cocker was his second choice as a working dog after the springer, though he didn’t think they were as easy to train as a springer, being “rather more selfish and inclined to think about themselves instead of about what the trainer requires of them”.

cocker spaniel out shooting

Most cockers are bred with innate hunting instinct

Outstanding hat-trick

The working cocker reached its low point in the 1960s, when sporting writers bemoaned the breed’s decline and wondered if it would recover. It did, thanks to the dedicated breeding of enthusiasts such as Keith Erlandson, who made up no fewer than 20 field trial champions, five of them cockers.

Erlandson scored a hat-trick of wins in the Cocker Championship with his outstanding bitch FTCh Speckle of Ardoon, taking the title in 1971, 1972 and 1973, and it was these wins that marked the turning point in the cocker’s history. Erlandson demonstrated how well a cocker spaniel could perform and interest in working cockers slowly increased and numbers started to recover.

The working cocker had reached such a low point in the 1960s that many thought it would take a miracle to revive its fortunes. Rumours still persist that it wasn’t a miracle that performed the turnaround, but a subtle and secret infusion of springer blood. Whether that is true is debatable, but cockers and springers are spaniels that shared the same ancestry until the breeds diverged at the end of the 19th century.

cocker spaniel working

Cocker spaniels are ideally suited to working the thickest cover

Bouncing back

The start of this century saw the cocker firmly entrenched as a popular choice as a shooting dog once again, while its rise in popularity has led to a corresponding decline in that of the English springer.

It’s not just in the shooting field that cockers have become more numerous. Once again, they are one of the most popular pets in the UK, with more than 20,000 registrations a year putting them third behind the labrador and the French bulldog. Many people take on working cockers without appreciating that they have been bred to work, not sit on the sofa. In Cocker Spaniel Best of Breed, Derek Shapland writes: “The working cocker is bred with a highly developed hunting instinct and natural energy, which can be more than the prospective pet buyer can cope with. Whether these energies are channelled into country pursuits or other sports, such as obedience or agility, it is essential that owners find an outlet — or frustrations will result.”

In my view, a much better pet is a cockerpoo, an attractive cross-breed without the same hunting drive.

Cockerpoo gundogs

David Alfille, who runs the beating team at Holbeam Wood, with a trio of cockerpoos

Cocker spaniel evolution continues at pace. Andrew Robinson, a leading breeder and trainer of working cockers, feels that these spaniels have changed considerably in the past 20 years. He said: “They always varied a lot in size and type, but generally they tended to be stocky, powerful little dogs, often wilful and of independent spirit, but with bags of natural ability. Over recent years, they have changed to a finer, more racy type.”

Andrew believes this is because many trialling enthusiasts have switched from springers to cockers and looked for the same pace and pattern that springers deliver. He said: “It’s very common now to see small, wiry trialling cockers running a fast, flat pattern, which was not how they used to hunt at all.”

Andrew believes field trials have exerted a considerable influence on the breeding of the cockers we see in the shooting field today. “The high-drive, high-pace ‘sprinters’ of the field trial world do not always produce shooting dogs that are easily managed and are good all-rounders that will hunt and do some peg work and keep quiet,” he said. “We have always tried to keep a balance in our dogs between competition and work in the shooting field. Unfortunately, a lot of trial dogs will not see a normal shooting day until their competition days are over, by which time their genes may be well spread around.”

Andrew’s concern about the state of cockers was echoed by a number of other cocker enthusiasts. Thirty years ago, the runners in a typical cocker trial would show a considerable variety of breeding, with many different sires, not all of them field trial champions.

Diversity decline

Today, as many as two-thirds of the dogs in a novice trial could be sired by the same two field trial champions, with the remainder sharing similar breeding. Many of the puppies now being bred will have been sired by championship winners or popular field trial champions, so we risk losing the diversity the breed was renowned for. (Read more about what FTCh means.)

The average coefficient of inbreeding (COI) in cockers is rather high at 10.7%, but I did a quick check on a number of leading FTCh sires and found that most had a considerably higher COI, with several above 20%.

This does not bode well for the future of the breed. Cocker spaniels may seem in better shape than they have been for decades, but unless we are careful, there’s a strong chance that the breed will slide into a slow but terminal decline.