As I’ve alluded to in previous installments of this column, my relationship with dogs has always centered around Springer spaniels. My personal dogs, and my trial dogs, were English springers—my reputation has been inextricably connected to that breed. I have always loved the drive and athleticism of a good English springer, and the way in which they can strike the balance between independence, prey drive, and a desire to stay connected with a handler. I love their toughness and their focus, and the way that a good one charges into a retrieve. English springers are classic and elegant, and the best of their hunting bloodlines go back for centuries.
Needless to say, the English springer spaniel has always been the gold standard for me, where flushers are concerned.
My grandfather, who I credit with getting me interested in dogs, was of a different opinion. He made a field and show champion out of a fine little American cocker back when such a thing could still be done with that breed. Nonetheless, cockers never did much for me, and for years I discounted them as second-rate, both for practical hunting applications and for competition.
About 12 years ago, I spent some time in the South Georgia Plantation Belt, watching pointing dogs work bobwhite quail. I’d heard at that time that there was a growing trend for handlers to run an English cocker off the wagon, or at heel to flush and pick up birds. What I saw in South Georgia really made me think…those English cockers were incredibly busy, athletic, and dynamic little dogs. They got through the briars easily, they achieved high, hard flushes from the birds, and they were incredibly thorough in their ability to work out cripples or lay birds. I began to shift my thinking on cockers, and to see them as a viable, if not logical, option for many hunters and trialers.
The English Cocker
Comparing the English cocker to the English springer requires some generalization. As in all things, individual members of each breed will certainly look and behave outside the general standards and norms. Let’s compare and contrast the two breeds, and explore the environments where one breed might outperform the other. These assessments are, of course, based on my personal opinion and experiences.
Way back when, cockers and springers diverged as independent breeds, based solely on size. In essence, within a litter of “land spaniels,” the smaller dogs entered the cocker breeding pool, and the larger dogs entered the springer breeding pool. The size of the dogs was the primary differentiator, but that correlated to the effectiveness of the dog as a hunter within certain cover types, or in seeking certain game.
As years passed and breeding became a bit more purpose-driven, we’ve seen increasing differentiation, and in turn increasing excellence at certain skills, behaviors, and temperament by breed.
English cockers have seen some great refinement in bloodlines available in this country. The contemporary English cocker will weigh 20 to 30 pounds, with relatively short legs and ears, and a streamlined, low-slung body. These dogs have an action all their own, which I refer to as “busy.” In the field, they are best described as being like hummingbirds on crack; they work a small piece of cover with their head to the ground, stopping regularly to look up and check in with the handler. They are keen to dive into and through thick cover, and their size enables them to navigate low, tight, and prickly brush. They have an ability to “dig out” birds that would rather sit tight than flush. Owing to their stature, they cannot cover a big piece of ground quickly. Although they can and do quarter in broad sweeps, their strength is their ability to work closely and thoroughly, to stop and start, and to check in. They are remarkably athletic for their size—their ability to snap a fluttering quail out of the air is tremendous.
Owing to the behavioral and physical characteristics of the English cocker, they make a great flushing dog for pen-raised quail, and a phenomenal grouse and woodcock dog in small cover. In light of the predominance and popularity of pen-raised quail, cockers are amazing at enhancing the quality of the shooting experience. Cockers will achieve a high, dynamic flush in quail, allowing guides to hang back out of the range of shooters. Moreover, they are low enough to stay out of harm’s way while enhancing that high flush. Grouse and woodcock hunters will benefit from the cocker’s ability to navigate thick, tight cover. Woodcock will sit tight enough to warrant a thorough, head-down dog to get rooted out. Grouse, particularly skittish ones, will benefit from a dog that works close and checks in, as a bigger-running dog may push grouse to flush out of range.
The English Springer
English springers are much like cockers, but leggier and given to take a bigger range and a steadier quartering pace. As a standard, a 35 to 45-pound dog is the norm—predominately in liver, or black and white (with the occasional tri-color). These dogs generally have proportionally longer ears, which also makes their ability to navigate tight cover a bit stickier. I have worked primarily with field-trial springers, even in my hunting and guiding, and I find that they have a greater degree of independence than cockers, and certainly that allows them to cover more ground. As they are leggier, they have more speed and range, but are less able to navigate tight and low-slung brush. They are strong and driven, and incredibly task-oriented. Their retrieving style can be a bit more hard-charging, as they take more pace into a retrieve (generally in more open ground).
To my eye, springers excel when hunting pheasants, or perhaps any other running bird. They can’t hunt the prairies effectively as a big-going pointing dog can, but they can work cattail bottoms and sloughs tremendously. They do well in water, which makes them particularly valuable when hunting ditch parrots, and they quarter in such a way as to cut off running birds and flush them close to the gun. They are tireless and driven, which certainly helps, and their ability to track running cripples makes them a huge asset. In short, they are both physically, and in practice, the bigger cousin of the cocker, eating up the country in broader strokes at a slightly more rhythmic pace.
All told, with the increasing attention that cockers are getting, their aptitude and quality as functional dogs in the U.S. is growing, and there are some truly great ones available. By the same token, great springers have been around for some time, and although I fear that springer breeders may be trending toward faster, longer-legged dogs, there are still some exceptional classic springers working and competing in the U.S. It comes down to personal preference and practical application. Get the dog you like and that will suit your needs in the field, be that an English cocker or an English springer.
Oh, and if you want to hunt ducks, get a Lab.