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Fanciers of English Cockers cherish the unique combination of qualities essential to this sturdy, merry, small sporting dog. A relatively new breed in the specific sense — records of the “modern” Cocker Spaniel date from about 1850, and the breed was first registered with the Kennel Club (England) in 1873— the flushing spaniel as a type goes back at least six centuries, as represented in both art and print.
The Beginning of Spaniels
“The Book of the Chase,” written by Count Gaston de Foix in 1387, devotes a chapter to the spaniel family, and notes the dogs’ affectionate and willing nature: “They love well their masters follow them without losing them through the crowds, and in the fields go before them wagging their tails, and raise or start fowl for the falcons, and hares for the Greyhounds. When taught to crouch they are good to take partridge and quail with the net, and when taught to swim are also good for the river and for fowl that dive. ”
With the refinement of firearms in the early nineteenth century, diversification of hunting methods led to more specialization in gundogs, most notably in the British Isles.
In 1803, an article on spaniels appeared in The Sportsmen’s Cabinet. Attributed to different authorities, it describes two basic types that predominated: “The race of dogs passing under the denomination of Spaniels are of two kinds— one of which is considerably larger than the other, and are known by the appellation of the Springing Spaniel — as applicable to every kind of game in every country; the smaller is called the Cocker to Cocking Spaniel as being more adapted to covert and woodcock shooting to which they are more particularly appropriated and by nature seem designed.
“The Cocker differs, having a shorter, more compact form, a rounder head, shorter nose, ears long (and the longer the more admired), the limbs short and strong. … The smaller Spaniel has … the advantage of getting through the low bushy covert with much less difficulty than the larger Spaniel, and in that particular department may probably not tire so soon, whatever may be the length and labor of the day. ”
It is significant to note that even at this early date are described the willing attitude, strength-for-size, and compactness of form that are hallmarks of all Cockers — both the American and English breeds — to this day.
Toy-sized-spaniels also existed in Britain at this time, and crossbreeding between spaniels of various sizes was common, so that dogs widely ranging in type, size, and color appeared in the same litter. In 1874 the Kennel Club began requiring all purebreds competing in shows to be registered, and spaniel breeds were registered in the following years according to weight, with the larger dogs registered as Field Spaniels and the smaller as Cockers. Breeders in the United States at the time similarly had yet to achieve breedwide stability of type.
But an English champion and popular sire named Obo, whelped in 1879, soon helped to bring more consistency to the breed. Through his get, his influence was also felt in the U.S., and by the debut of the AKC’s Stud Book in the late 1880s, Field Spaniels and Cocker Spaniels were provided separate breed status.
Two Continents, Two Cockers
A smallish, long and low dog with a handsome head, Eng. Ch. Obo is credited as the founder of the Cocker family. “Before his time,” a historian of the breed later said, “nothing but uncertainly surrounded the mating of the Cockers and Field Spaniels which breeders were trying to mold into definite size and form. The scales alone determined the dividing line.”
An Obo son whelped in the United States, Ch. Obo II, is credited with establishing the American breed of Cocker Spaniel. Eng. Ch. Obo was quite short legged, but soon a more up-on-leg dog, seen as superior in the field, came into favor. In spite of this shift toward more leg, the “long and low ” trait persists as a tendency in the breed today.
“Unless breeders exercise care,” noted the late breeder-judge Dr. Arthur Ferguson, “they are likely to find long bodies and short legs cropping up — not suddenly, but as an insidious tendency.” The number of less-desirable traits associated with the breed’s somewhat varied heritage is one element contributing to the challenge of this breed.
Two decades passed, and English-bred Cockers appeared in the United States in increasing numbers. Two camps had developed in the American breed fancy; those who favored a smaller dog, and those who favored a larger type more characteristic of the English dogs. A friendship between Mr. E. Shippen Willing, a prominent fancier of the English type, and Russell H. Johnson Jr., then-president of the AKC, helped to facilitate the AKC’s recognition of the type as a separate variety in 1936—the year of the founding of the English Cocker Spaniel Club of America. This did much to further the development of the breed.
In 1941, heiress, avid fancier, and charter ECSCA member Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge was elected president of the club and was authorized to write a book that would define the breed and prove through pedigree documentation that the variety was actually a separate breed at that point. Dodge’s “The English Cocker Spaniel in America” was published in 1942; the club created a breed standard approved by the AKC in 1945, and breed recognition was attained in 1946.
An Honorable Legacy
Despite a few current concerns regarding the breed, much has been accomplished in the years of its recognition in this countiy. Fanciers are optimistic that the core of dedicated breeders whose goal is to produce correct English Cockers will continue to guard this wonderful, people-loving breed. Aside from being a willing, happy worker in the field (and in agility, tracking, and obedience), the English Cocker’s overwhelming goal is simply to be with its person, to sit adoringly nearby and look up with that soft, soulful expression.
This endearing nature has brought the breed an especially devoted following, and the fancy has historically benefited by extraordinary supporters and mentors. Devotion, apparently, breeds devotion, and it is to be hoped that this is a trend that will, indeed, continue.