In the late 1980s, when I began running dogs in and judging AKC's non-competitive hunting tests for spaniels, I experienced an awakening about cockers. Like many, I had accepted the conventional wisdom that "show and pet breeders had bred the hunt out of this once-great little flushing dog."
What a pleasant surprise to see real, actual cockers running in all levels of these challenging tests, performing commendably and successfully! What a pleasant surprise to learn a few breeders were still breeding the old field-bred lines, like Dungarvin. What a shockingly pleasant surprise to find some show-bred owners were trimming most of the luxurious coats off their handsome cockers and proving all the hunt had definitely not been bred out of these dogs!
Perhaps the most memorable of these surprises happened when I was judging a spaniel hunting test in south-central Kansas. In the Senior (middle) level, a gentleman named Walt Cline came to the line with a parti-colored field-bred cocker. He had traveled over 300 miles from his home in Nebraska for this test. Trouble was, he didn't have a whistle dangling from his neck like a "real spaniel guy" would.
"Oh, my," I thought, "he's come all that distance and he doesn't even have a whistle to control his dog. Too bad. Nice looking little dog. What a shame!"
Mmm, boy, was I wrong! And happy to be! Walt and his cocker communicated with one another silently, almost motionlessly, and with perfect mutual understanding. The dog would glance back at Walt; Walt might nod his head or flick his fingers this way or that, and the dog would do exactly the right thing. Amazing. Needless to say, this team earned a qualifying score. Had this been a competition, they would have won the "blue."
Through those early hunting test years, I watched several other cockers perform beautifully. (Nota bene: Their handlers humored my sense of propriety by using whistles!) The hunt had never been bred out of these dogs. However, since 1964, when the last cocker field trial was held, they had no public venue in which to show their field talents and earn respected field titles. Happily, since 1988, AKC hunting tests have provided them such a venue, which they have used effectively to prove the breed's critics wrong.
Do you have a good story about your American cocker? Tell us in the comments section below. For more on this great breed, pick up the August issue of Gun Dog, available on newsstands July 3!