Feisty flushers and natural retrievers, the field bred English Cocker Spaniel is a great choice for upland hunters.
This series of Project Upland hunting dog breed profiles focuses on the hunting traits that set one breed apart from another, understanding that within a breed, each dog may vary in temperament, conformation, instincts and abilities. This particular article focuses on the English Cocker Spaniel.
Original Purpose of the Breed
The earliest mention of spaniels dates back to the 14th century in early France in the work “Livre de Chasse,” then in Spain in the 15th century in the work “The Master of Game.” By definition they are a type of hunting dog used to flush game from dense brush and eventually to retrieve game, as well.
Unique among other breeds, the English cocker spaniel is actually named for the bird it was developed to hunt — the woodcock. Early 19th century British hunters, distinguishing only between land spaniels and water spaniels, referred to all spaniels less than 25 pounds as “cocker spaniels.” When the first spaniel breed club was formed in 1885, it established breed standards for the different types of spaniels, thus distinguishing them from other spaniels. After they were introduced in the United States, breeders started developing lines with heavier coats, shorter muzzles and smaller size. Then followed the split between the English cockers, the ones typically used as field dogs, and the American cockers — longer haired, show ring dogs.
Bird Dog Clubs and Tests
The English Cocker Spaniel Club of America was founded in 1936. In 1946 the AKC recognized them as a breed separate from American cocker spaniels.
In 1925 the American Kennel Club developed a cocker field trial for the breed, stating that “The purpose of field trials for the English cocker spaniel is to provide a competitive environment for the continuing enhancement of the hunting capabilities of the breed. The trial should demonstrate the performance of a properly trained spaniel in the field, and should determine the dog with the finest qualities among the group entered in each stake. The judging will affect the values of the dogs put up and affect the breeding schedules of the future.”
As of 1977 only a working dog test existed for the breed exploring, the basic abilities like flushing, finding and retrieving game. In 1985 a spaniel hunt test was developed by the AKC. The hunt test is a non-competitive set of standards to help dog owners to develop their dog and their own skills past that of the working dog test, expanding into such topics as steady to wing and shot and blind retrieves.
Hunting Style and Temperament
English cockers are compact, solid, and well built for efficiently navigating low thick cover. They are energetic and willing to work. Trained to heel, they work in tandem with pointers who remain steady on a bird while the cockers flush and retrieve. In addition to this, they excel at working in gun range on their own to locate and flush game.
As retrievers, they are tenacious. They push through any kind of thick cover be it grouse woods, woodcock river edges, or dense quail fields. They are less likely to quarter than some of the other flushing breeds, more likely to penetrate seeking objectives.
The breed is generally referred to as having a medium energy level, but most field cockers show an excitement that pushes the energy meter a little higher. Above all, they work with what can be described as no less than pure happiness — tails and legs a blur, constantly exuberant. Oh, and they are wonderful family dogs.
Traits Important to Hunters
14-17 inches tall at the shoulder; weight 28 to 34 pounds, females 26 to 32 pounds
English cockers’ coats come in various solid colors – black, liver, red, as well as a partly colored roan. It should be medium length, flat or wavy, silky. Hunters may find that trimming the longer feathering on the coat and ears will cut down on some of the field debris it picks up, reducing the amount of après-hunt combing.
Our research didn’t turn up any consensus on whether English cocker spaniels are early, medium, or late bloomers. Yet in training, most cocker owners find them to be biddable but soft. Harsh correction with or without an e-collar should be avoided. Low force, positive training methods are recommended.
The breed is prone to eye problems such as retinal atrophy, glaucoma, and cataracts. Hip dysplasia is another issue that prospective buyers should question breeders about.
Finding a Good Breeder
Field bred English cockers are bred specifically for hunting. As a result, it’s best to seek breeders with purposefully developed field lines. Field bred cockers are usually a bit taller and more heavily boned, more readily showing muscle tone. Their tails are docked and should have less hair than the long locks common to show lines.
Where you can Find them on Project Upland
On Episode 26 of the Project Upland Podcast with guest Jon Hubble we explore the world of East Texas. Here Jon uses both an English setter and an English cocker spaniel to wild birds across the Texas landscape.
We will continue to add more articles, films, and podcasts as content builds around this bird dog breed.
Nancy Anisfield is an outdoor writer and hunting dog photographer, creative director for the Ugly Dog Hunting Company, member of the Pheasants Forever / Quail Forever Board of Directors, and co-owner of the Track2Wing Project which grants Action trackchairs to individuals with mobility challenges who want to train and hunt with bird dogs. She and her husband live in Hinesburg, Vermont, where their lives are governed by her two German shorthaired pointers and his two German wirehaired pointers.