Breed Profile: American Cocker Spaniel
June 25, 2015
It is generally accepted that spaniels originated in Spain, with the earliest literary mentions of the breed dating back to the 1300s. Their specialty became rousting up European woodcock in thick brush, which led to their unique 'cocker' moniker.
Throughout history, spaniels split into several different varieties with the English springer and cocker spaniel all finding their place in hunters' hearts.
The American cocker spaniel also found its way into the hearts of countless non-hunting Americans, which was largely a result of the breed's first win at Westminster in 1921. That blue ribbon catapulted the breed into popularity in a way that predictably led to unchecked breeding. Demand for the American cocker hit an all-time high and the breed dominated American households for decades.
The result of the excessive and careless breeding due to overall demand seriously diluted the gene pool and led to a litany of health issues ranging from eye problems to hip dysplasia. It also led to temperament problems, and soon the American cocker became known for its aggressive nature. As with all breeds that hit a high-water mark, the American cocker started to fall out of favor with Americans and especially upland bird hunters.
While most hunting bloodlines disappeared amongst the scramble to create show dogs and house pets, not all of them escaped preservation. One line — arguably the only true hunting line left in America — is the Dungarvan line, which dates back to the 1930s and a woman named Mabel Brady Garvan.
Garvan's son Peter, along with his wife Billie, kept the bloodline going and it is still alive thanks to their daughter, Noel Cacchio. I spoke with Cacchio about her family's role in the American cocker spaniel.
"My dad bred them for years, and he eventually noticed that the breed was going somewhere he didn't want it to go," Noel said. "Their muzzles were getting smaller and they were changing, so he stopped breeding for shows and kept breeding for hunting."
Peter Garvin's decision to alter the breeding goals was serendipitous and has led to the true hunting cockers that exist today, although his wife deserves plenty of credit as well. "After my dad passed away in 1976, my mother continued on with the cockers," Noel recalled. "She learned to shoot and eventually became a great shot. She got calls all of the time from hunters wanting a dog, and the cockers became her life.
"I ended up continuing the line of field-bred red-and-white cockers and the most important thing to me today is their health. After health, though, is bidability. If you positively train them they are so good at hunting, and people just can't believe it when they see our dogs work."
Can A Cocker Hunt?
When I asked Noel Cacchio if her ACs can hunt, she replied, "We live in New York so we hunt the Adirondacks a lot for grouse. They are perfect for thick cover, and thrive in the grouse and woodcock thickets. I've got a brother who is a huge duck hunter, so we started hunting waterfowl with him. Our ACs hunt and retrieve them without any problems too. They hunt everything."
I posed the same question to Nebraska resident Jim "Doc" Nelson, who owns and operates Plumthicket Kennels with his son Jared. Nelson has decades of dog training experience and owns Tiger, a Dungarvan American cocker.
"They sure can [hunt], and there are several reasons why I love hunting with cockers," he said. "The first is they are a comfortable dog to hunt with, meaning they work at a nice pace and they stay close. There is no sprinting to catch up with them. The second reason is that they rely so heavily on ground scent and sorting out bird trails. This makes them perfect for heavy cover and means that they are really good at tracking down cripples.
"Those aren't the only reasons I like hunting with cockers, though. Since they tend to top out at around 30 pounds, they get through cover easily. I think this is the reason they hunt so well in hot weather when other breeds can't hack it. The cockers just don't have to work as hard to get through the brush."
As with any breed, while it's easy to find positive traits there are also a few downsides to cockers. Their size makes it more difficult for them to handle large birds like pheasants, mallards and geese. It's simply a matter of a small dog and a big bird, but that doesn't mean they can't be trained to handle large gamebirds, because they can.
Their coats can also be an issue when hunting areas with cockleburs and sticktights, which is one of the many reasons why it's so important to find a field-bred dog versus a bench-bred dog. Aside from those two potential issues, the American cocker is built for hunting and tends to posses an extremely keen nose and inherent drive to not only hunt, but hunt for its owner.
Schooling A Cocker
Many of the people who devote their lives to uncommon or less popular breeds come off as somewhat contrary and seem to revel in being different. To be honest, that's what I expected when I started interviewing breeders and trainers for this article. That is not what I found.
In fact, something that I heard time and time again from folks in-the-know on American cockers is that they not only are intelligent and take to training quickly, but that they are also fun to train.
This may not seem like a huge deal, but it is. It's a lot of work molding a puppy into a solid two- or three-year-old dog, and since it's work, it's oftentimes not that enjoyable. That doesn't mean it isn't rewarding, but there's no denying the day-to-day drills can be monotonous and not what many of us would call fun.
When I spoke with Pat Perry, owner of Massachusetts-based Hedgerow Kennel & Hunt Club, he stressed the joy-of-training aspect several times. "Here in New England a lot of my business comes from the pointing dog crowd, because we have such thick cover. I do get a fair number of American cockers each year, though, and they are so fun to work with.
"They are playful, even as adults, but they are always paying attention to you. And they are very intelligent, but quite simply the thing I like most about them is their heart. They don't have any quit in them."
If those words came from a cockers-or-nothing trainer they wouldn't carry as much weight, but Perry has 30 years of dog training experience with a litany of different breeds that cover the gamut from flushers to pointers to all types of retrievers.
Perry's words on the heart of American cockers were echoed by nearly everyone I spoke with while researching this piece, although nearly all of them immediately mentioned that it's unwise to be too heavy-handed in training. All sporting dogs should be trained through encouragement, praise and ultimately, confidence building but while some dogs can handle a little more repetition and the occasional raised voice, American cockers will shut down to some extent.
Training with the idea to build confidence, develop trust and keep things interesting will lead to a cocker that not only views you as his hunting partner, but also wants to work for you from sunrise to sunset.
The American cocker is a once-popular hunting breed that fell victim to overwhelming demand at one point, and it has suffered ever since. This is a shame considering how good they can be for an upland or waterfowl hunter, but not all hope is lost.
Sprinkled throughout the country is a cadre of devoted American cocker spaniel owners and breeders who are devoted to keeping the hunting tradition alive through selective breeding and, just as importantly, hunting with their cockers.