The Cocker Spaniel is one of the world’s most beloved breeds. In fact, it ranks 29th in popularity out of the 193 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. But not far behind, in position 52, is the English Cocker Spaniel (ECS). These two members of the Sporting Group share the same early roots, which might explain why these merry and biddable, compact sporting dogs are often confused for one another.
“Many people do not realize that there are two kinds of Cocker Spaniels,” says Diane Kepley, breeder, judge, and president of the American Spaniel Club. She explains that the name adds to the confusion. “In the United States, the breed that is shown in three varieties is known simply as the ‘Cocker Spaniel,’ but everywhere else in the world it is known as the ‘American Cocker Spaniel.’” Of course, the reverse is true for the English Cocker Spaniel. America’s ECS is known simply as the “Cocker Spaniel” in the rest of the world.
Chereen Nawrocki, breeder and past president of the English Cocker Spaniel Club of America, says that people who aren’t familiar with the ECS know they are a spaniel, but simply aren’t sure which kind. “Their guesses have to do with color, I think. If it’s a solid color, they may think it is an American Cocker, but if it’s an open-parti (white with red, black, or liver patches), they often guess Springer Spaniel or American Cocker.” And there is further confusion with the even more unfamiliar roan-parti ECSs (white and colored hairs mixed together on the body with solid patches).
A Shared Heritage
According to Nawrocki, spaniels are mentioned as far back as the 1300s as a dog used to hunt game. “Weight was the defining characteristic at that time in land spaniels. In one litter you could have dogs considered any of the various land spaniel types — Springers (English Springer Spaniels), Fields (Field Spaniels), Cockers, or Toys (English Toy Spaniels) — depending on their adult weight,” she says.
Kepley says, “The larger puppies developed into Field Spaniels and Springer Spaniels, while the smaller dogs were the Cockers.” Their name came from the small, stocky bird they were used to hunt — the woodcock. Cockers were used to flush or startle the birds out of their hiding places. “Cockers have traditionally been used to hunt in deep cover (shrubs and other heavy vegetation) because of their small size,” she says.
From the mid-1800s onward, Cocker Spaniels were imported into North America. Eventually, some breeding stock went back to the British Isles. But the breeders on either side of the ocean had different priorities. “Most American breeders concentrated on the smaller, elegant solid-colored Cockers blended with the smaller Field Spaniels. While the British breeders were breeding roan and parti-colored springer types with their Cocker Spaniels to produce a larger, leggier Cocker who would hunt and retrieve,” explains Nawrocki.
Although they were still considered the same breed, in 1936 the AKC recognized the English type as a separate variety of Cocker Spaniel. But fanciers wanted to keep the English variety pure and vowed not to breed the two types together. Ten years later, in 1946, their efforts were rewarded when the AKC granted the ECS status as a separate breed from the Cocker Spaniel.
There are definite structural similarities between the two breeds. Kepley says, “Both should have muzzles/jaws along with the length of neck that allows them to carry a bird as large as a duck or pheasant through rough terrain. Both should be solid, well-proportioned, and balanced in their front and rear construction to allow them to push through heavy brush. And both have coats that are easy to care for with proper grooming.”
But breed differences are clear when you know what to look for. The Cocker Spaniel is slightly longer than tall, whereas the ECS is a taller dog that has more height than length, giving him a squarer shape.
The ECS is also groomed a little differently and doesn’t carry the amount of coat that the Cocker Spaniel can have. “While both breeds have the same coat texture, Cocker Spaniel fanciers have selectively bred for more coat. In Cocker Spaniels, the length of hair is pronounced on the legs and sides,” Kepley says.
According to Nawrocki, “I think that the head is the definitive characteristic of the ECS. The correct expression is soft and melting, with tight eyes that are full and slightly oval. The muzzle is equal in length to the skull and plushy, but not overdone.” The Cocker Spaniel head is equally distinctive with its shorter muzzle, deep stop (versus the moderate stop on the ECS), rounded skull, and deep chiseling under the almond-shaped eyes.
Kepley describes Cocker Spaniels as the ultimate family companion. “They fit into almost every household situation, which is one of the reasons they were once the most popular breed in the U.S. They can thrive in city, suburban, or rural settings, as long as they get regular exercise.” Their sensitivity to people and desire to please also helps them excel as therapy dogs. Cocker Spaniels need weekly brushing, but their happy personality and wish to be involved in all kinds of activities make that a small price to pay. “That merry temperament is housed in an attractive, stylish package. But among the most endearing aspects of the breed is its soft, beautiful expression that has melted many hearts.” Kepley explains.
Nawrocki says it’s hard to imagine living without an ECS. “Most are very people-oriented; they like to be with their person(s) and will follow you around all day if allowed. Always merry, they make delightful companions.” In general, they enjoy exercise and play, intermingled with the occasional nap. Because they are easily trained, they make good partners for dog sports or therapy work. Just like the Cocker Spaniel, they do require regular grooming, which is best started at an early age. Their size makes them an easy dog to live and travel with. According to Nawrocki, “ECS here in America have enjoyed being a best-kept secret.”
Even though the Cocker Spaniel and ECS are beautiful and heavily coated, both breeds are every inch a sporting dog. They excel in agility, obedience, rally, tracking, and more. They share a history and a merry temperament, but they are two distinct breeds, all their own.