Until about the past 10 years or so, the American cocker spaniel was largely “missing in action” in the field in many areas of the country and was typecast as a mere “foo-foo” dog. Even folks who should know better attached that derisive name to dogs that did little else besides trot around a show ring and smile at the judges; the same folks also accused the cocker fanciers of having lost sight of what the breed was meant to do.
But those naysayers are wrong. Some cocker people haven’t lost sight of what the breed was intended to do and they have retained their vision of the breed’s historical purpose…and their dogs have master and senior hunt test titles to prove it. Despite their “precious” show ring appearance, a number of cocker spaniels, including several very handsome dogs with conformation championships, are doing just fine in the field finding, flushing and fetching birds.
From 1936 to 1953 and then again from 1983 to 1990, the cocker spaniel was the most popular dog in America, according to the American Kennel Club. As almost always happens, when a breed becomes popular it attracts many people solely interested in making a profit from puppy sales with no regard for either the dogs’ abilities in the field or any health issues.
Also creating problems for the breed were fashions in the show ring. As a result, among show ring fads, fast-buck artists and puppy mill operations, there were a lot of cockers being produced that had little or no ability or interest in their traditional job as hunting dogs. Even worse, many were unsound both physically and mentally.
Cocker spaniel popularity hit the proverbial wall after 1990 and breed numbers have been in decline ever since; cocker spaniels are now 29th on the AKC’s list of breeds by popularity. This actually has been a godsend for the breed as its future, for the most part, is now back in the hands of many breeders concerned with producing physically and mentally sound dogs.
What’s more, there are now breeders working diligently to preserve and enhance the breed’s working abilities while also adhering to the conformation standards. All of this means that the cocker spaniel is slowly resuming its rightful place as a hunting dog and, although the smallest of the sporting breeds, it is capable of doing plenty in the field.
“They’re really a gentleman’s hunting dog,” says Gail Workman, who currently has five cockers that are training for the upcoming hunting seasons, one of which already has a senior hunter title and another that is a junior hunter. “I get many calls inquiring about cockers from hunters wanting to downsize as they can’t keep up with the bigger, faster working spaniels. Cockers are slow working and they are very thorough covering the ground.
“They have an outstanding ability to use the wind to find game and once they find it they are bold flushers. The distances at which they can accurately mark a fall are simply amazing, considering their size. What’s more, unlike a lot of the sporting breeds, cockers have a ‘switch’ in that they turn on when you need them to hunt and turn off when you want them to be a pet dog. While I admit I’m biased, there’s nothing to compare with being afield with a cocker.”
Venee Gardner has three conformation champion cockers, two with senior hunter titles and one with a JH needing only one more orange ribbon for his SH. “Cockers are the perfect sized dog,” she says. “They will do anything that is asked of them. They have an incredible temperament and most have a willing work ethic. They love to work and love having a job to do. It’s so much fun to watch them work. I really enjoy training them in the field and it is really enjoyable seeing the dog’s natural instincts come through.”
Vickie Dahlk is a hunt test judge who has put four master hunter titles and numerous senior titles on her cockers, many of which have also been champions in the show ring. “Cockers love to hunt in woods and thicker areas like fence rows and dense cover,” Dahlk notes. “They take their time and cover the ground better in smaller areas, which is probably better than using them to hunt big areas like many Conservation Reserve Program fields, where you might want a bigger running dog.
“They stay close and use their noses to find and produce game and they work really well with you as a team. While I don’t use my cockers to hunt waterfowl, they can swim and they’ll retrieve from the water just fine.”
Jeanne Grim owns a champion master hunter advanced, a Ch/MH and a Ch/SH, all three of which are also agility champions. She also owns two junior hunter cockers and says that cocker spaniels are very biddable and, in fact, are eager to please people.
“While they may not be as easily trained as, say, a field-bred springer or English cocker with generations of breeding specifically for the field, they are quite an easy breed to train,” Grim observes. “While they’re not what I’d classify as a ‘soft’ breed, generally they are more willing to please than they are to be a bit hard-headed.
“Now I have to qualify that last statement just a bit because there obviously are variations from dog to dog but I’ve found my cockers to be very willing workers. They can also take a correction when one is needed. While typically used for upland hunting, most are capable of retrieving ducks and they’re good swimmers but you have to keep in mind that they are not bred or built for water work and the water temperatures that are often encountered with hunting waterfowl.
“I should also add that cockers are very people-oriented dogs. They do best as house dogs where they can be part of the family.”
Cockers, according to Vickie Dahlk, are thinkers and problem-solvers. “They like to figure out different situations and make the solution ‘their idea.’ Then, of course, they want praise for doing such a good job. You need to be fair but firm with cockers. As long as you are not asking them to do something they don’t understand, training goes smoothly with them.
“I do use an e-collar on all of my dogs because I like to have something to help remind them of commands they have been taught but it’s really important to let a cocker figure things out on their own for the most part. They do not respond well to drill after drill. They are wonderful hunters with good noses so the best way to handle a cocker when you are hunting is to trust them and they’ll do just fine for you.”
Gail Workman adds, “One of the most important things you can do with a cocker is start them early and expose them to all the fundamental elements that are needed for a good hunting dog. Don’t wait until they are six months old to start doing the things that are needed for a good hunting dog. They need lots of exposure to birds, to swimming and certainly to basic obedience.
“Start them as puppies developing those small pieces and parts you need in a hunting dog and then slowly put those pieces and parts together. Actually, I’ve taken several cockers from show breeding and with the correct exposure as pups, they have become amazing hunters. I’ve had both field-bred and show-bred cockers and all became fine hunting dogs. It all comes down to exposure to birds and all the other things you need them to understand at a young age to be good hunting dogs.”
“Cockers are very versatile and they can excel in many of the other dog sports in addition to being hunt test or hunting dogs,” Venee Gardner says. “But whatever you choose to do with a cocker will require time and commitment.
“As is the case with every other sporting breed, there are no shortcuts. However, quite honestly, because of the number of years the breed was at the top of the AKC’s popularity list, the greatest challenge is not training a cocker; it’s breeding a healthy cocker that’s free of genetic issues.
“Health testing is very important and should never be overlooked, especially when you are buying a puppy. The parents of a litter should have hip and eye clearances as well as having been tested for Blood Factor X and von Willebrand’s Disease and they should also have had a thyroid profile done.”
Since the breed was troubled for so many years by the problems associated with popularity, puppy mills and irresponsible breeders, it can take a bit of homework to find a pup with a good nose and good bird instincts. “There are cocker spaniel breeders in several areas of the country breeding dogs that have hunt test titles and/or are actually hunting with their dogs,” Jeanne Grim advises. “Contacting the American Spaniel Club, the AKC parent club for cockers, for information on breeders of dogs that hunt would be one place to start looking for a good puppy.”
Vickie Dahlk adds, “Look for the people who have been breeding and working their dogs for hunting along with those who also run their dogs in hunt tests or working dog tests. For example, our club, Cocker Spaniel Hunting Enthusiasts of SE Wisconsin, caters to those who strive to keep the cocker as a hunting dog.
“We hold field training seminars, working dog tests, AKC hunt tests and field trials every year. But there are people all over the country who are involved with cockers and who will help others who are interested.”