Breed Profile: American Cocker Spaniel

Breed Profile: American Cocker Spaniel
American cockers fell out of favor after their meteoric rise in popularity, which led to careless breeding. There are still hardcore hunters who favor the diminutive breed, and a dog that comes from the right pedigree can be a dream to hunt with.

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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.


American cockers fell out of favor after their meteoric rise in popularity, which led to careless breeding. There are still hardcore hunters who favor the diminutive breed, and a dog that comes from the right pedigree can be a dream to hunt with.


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."

Centuries ago, spaniels were bred and used for woodcock hunting. To this day, well-bred hunting American cockers excel in the tight cover that woodcock, grouse and other game birds call home.

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.

Field-bred American cockers can be trained to hunt just about anything from upland birds to waterfowl. They have a well-deserved repuation for hunting for their owners and being able to go hard all day long.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Airedale

In the beginning, Airedales were hunting dogs. The working class people in the West Riding of Yorkshire, who developed the breed, needed a dog that could scent game, had the size to be able to tackle larger animals and could be taught to retrieve. The answer to this need turned out to be the Airedale.

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Braque Francais

In the days before France became known as the cradle of artists and the center of the fashion world, it was a superb upland hunting destination. The hills of the French countryside were planted with a variety of agricultural crops and the forests and mountains were teeming with wildlife. Grouse, pheasants and partridge were common in the farmlands and wild birds were a staple food for many rural families.

At the same time, pointing dogs were becoming more popular in Europe and a select group of French breeders set out to develop a breed that had the athleticism necessary to hunt hard all day and the instinct to point and retrieve birds. Using Spanish pointers and various European hounds as their root stock, these breeders began to develop dogs that embodied all of the qualities they desired.

The result of their efforts was the Braque Francais. The Braque became known for its keen determination and overwhelming desire to please its master. Careful breeding resulted in a dog that could be relied upon to obey commands in the field and hunt hard all day long, a dog that had intense prey drive and could also serve as a family companion, playing with the children, yet acting as a watchdog in the dark of night.

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Curly-Coated Retriever

With textured curls and a sleek frame, the curly-coated retriever often triggers double-takes from onlookers. At a distance, the curly-coated retriever is often mistakenly identified as a Labrador because the curly shares the Lab's conformation and passion for finding, flushing and fetching gamebirds. But surprisingly, the curly was not descended from the Lab. Rather, the curly is thought to have been bred from the English water spaniel, the St. John's Newfoundland, the retrieving setter and the poodle, according to the American Kennel Club.

Up close, the curly is much different from a Labrador: Its coat is made up of short, stiff hairs tightly wound into ringlets covering the main body, the top of the head and the ears.

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Flat-Coated Retriever

Once upon a time, when English gamekeepers reigned supreme on the estates of the nobility, they needed a dog that could find and retrieve birds that might have been missed after a driven shoot. But their mortal enemies, poachers, also needed a dog to find and retrieve birds'¦only in their case, in the middle of the night. In both instances, for the law-abiding and lawbreaker alike, the flat-coated retriever was often the dog of choice.

For whichever task they were assigned, the dog needed to have an outstanding nose, be exceedingly biddable, and when they were working for the poachers, be fast and agile enough to escape the bull mastiffs the gamekeepers employed to patrol the estate during the hours of darkness. These traits, still present in the breed today, are a not-so-well-kept secret for this relatively rare retriever breed, which has achieved the highest levels of success in all of the AKC's dog sports except for retriever field trials. Flat-coats were in 90th place in 2011 on the American Kennel Club's 'œpopularity list' of the 173 breeds recognized by the AKC.

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French Brittany

'œSome French Brittanys can be drama queens when training pressure is applied,' notes Jim Keller from Keller Gun Dog Kennels near Lincoln, Neb. 'œBy '˜drama queen' I mean this breed sometimes tends to overreact with a lot of emotional outbursts when specific behavior is required of them.

'œFor example, when being taught to force fetch, some French Brittanys will squeal and squirm in an effort to get the trainer to leave them alone. And some trainers will back way off and let the dog have its way,' Keller says.

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Portugese Pointer

Ralph Fedele told me his first choice was a whippet, not a Portuguese pointer. He'd been a bird hunter in a previous life, before children. He now wanted a small dog with short hair — less mess in the house — that was good with kids. Then his wife got into the act.

'œMy wife said, '˜Look at this dog I just happened to come across on the internet,'' Fedele recalls. 'œI looked at the pictures and said, '˜That's the dog. Let's call this guy and get that dog.' My wife, just completely coincidentally, is Portuguese, although she had no prior experience with the dogs.'

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Standard Poodle

From the Middle Ages, Europeans have always considered the standard poodle a hunting dog. According to Canadian breed historian Emily Cain, Europeans categorized it as a spaniel. However, the French breed name, caniche, comes from chien canard, or 'œduck dog,' so they have also classified it a retriever.

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Irish Red and White Setter

If you ask the owner of an Irish Red and White Setter what makes these dogs special, almost uniformly the answer is, 'œThey are natural pointers.' Many say their dogs have earned a junior hunter title with absolutely no training at all and never having had any exposure to birds prior to the time they started running in the tests.

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German Shorthaired Pointer

German shorthaired pointers have been particularly popular in the U.S. with gamebird hunters looking for a do-it-all versatile gun dog. There are approximately 10,000 German shorthairs annually registered with the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club. Likewise, shorthairs are the dominant breed in NAVHDA and have produced top scores in Natural Ability, Utility, and Versatile Champion testing for the past several decades.

German shorthaired pointers are also one of the main dog breeds in many kinds of field trials and a variety of hunting contests. And all across North America, shorthairs are the common pointing breed for the average gamebird hunter just about anywhere there are gamebirds to be hunted.

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Irish Water Spaniel

'œBeannaithe' (Blessed) is how the old Gaelic hunters in Ireland viewed the Shannon spaniel that later became known as the Irish water spaniel. Developed to retrieve waterfowl and upland game, the breed proved to be so versatile it could do just about anything except dance Irish jigs and reels. But there are those who contend that given proper instruction and the appropriate music, an IWS could probably master these intricate step dances, also.

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Llewellin Setter

There's no sight more classic than a pair of gun dogs working a gamebird with one dog pointing and the other backing.

The canines in this case were two Llewellin setters on a South Dakota pheasant hunt last fall. The two dogs stood frozen with heads and tails high in a picture-perfect pose. As one of the hunters walked in to flush the pointed bird, two hens and one rooster rocketed out of the prairie grass. One well-placed shot brought down the long-tailed ringneck and one dog ran out, picked up and brought it in.

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English Springer Spaniel

Leave the open country birds and serious waterfowling for the dogs that are bred for that kind of stuff, the pointing and retrieving breeds. Spaniels really shine for small-water ducking and thick-cover upland birds — bobwhite quail, woodcock, ruffed grouse'¦and, oh yes, pheasants.

If ever a dog was created to hunt pheasants, it is the springer spaniel. I simply can't understand why the breed isn't more popular, given the vast number of rooster hunters in the U.S., but there you go. The really good ones — and I had one like that — can be almost wizard-like in the way they approach the game.

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American Water Spaniel

Developed by 19th-century market hunters in the Upper Midwest, the American water spaniel has always been a dual-purpose dog, equally talented for waterfowl and upland gamebird hunting. From the beginning and continuing to this day, AWS owners have been determined to maintain the breed's dual résumé. Ironically, that determination has prevented them from displaying the AWS' versatility in the field events of the American Kennel Club (AKC).

These events come in three distinct formats: one for pointing breeds, one for retrievers and one for spaniels. Thus, for a breed to participate, it must not only be AKC-recognized as a Sporting Group breed, but must also be grouped in one and only one of AKC's three classifications: pointing breed, retriever or spaniel. AKC doesn't allow dual classifications.

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Weimaraner

The Weimaraner, from the beginning of its breed history more than 100 years ago, has been known as the 'œGray Ghost' — a good nickname for a gun dog with a silvery coat and somewhat spooky-looking yellow-amber eyes. Originally developed in Germany at the court of Weimar (hence its name), the Weimaraner was successfully bred to be a versatile hunter of upland gamebirds, waterfowl, predators, and big game.

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