One Man's Choice: The English Cocker
May 12, 2014
The little liver-colored English cocker was making game and moving fast toward the wounded U.S. Army veteran of three tours in the Middle East. The former combatant was happy because even in some fairly harsh cover he was getting around well on his new prosthetic leg.
No sooner did Cary Haupt whisper for the veteran to get ready than the ruffed grouse flushed, trying to escape the energetic little spaniel. The vet's 20-gauge Fox came up almost of its own volition, erupted once, and the grouse crashed to the woodland floor. The proud spaniel cleanly made the retrieve.
Haupt is a hardcore hunter drawn strongly to good gun dogs. He has been known on occasion to say, "Why would anyone hunt birds without a good dog?" In his mid-70s, he is firm in that belief and, with his wife Barbara, still actively hunts with three field-bred English cocker spaniels.
As a boy, Haupt's family escaped Pennsylvania's cruel coal mining region to live on a 100-acre farm in fertile Chester County where pheasants were abundant. Haupt soon had two English setters he turned into good pheasant dogs.
Haupt graduated from high school in 1954 and shipped out a year later with the U.S. Marines.
During Chester County's great pheasant years Haupt had three pretty decent English setters before getting an excellent German shorthaired pointer. With the local pheasant decline, Haupt started hunting wild birds successfully in Kansas and Iowa with a GSP and setter. He continued hunting Pennsylvania grouse. Haupt was an active Deputy Wildlife Conservation Officer, a Pennsylvania volunteer for 16 years.
By 1990, Haupt was living in a self-built home in Maine, near family. Around then, a high school friend informed him a former classmate had moved to his region.
What happened next was kismet, because three years later Haupt married that classmate, Barbara. It set the two of them off on one of the greatest partnerships of life. Frankly, I am a bit jealous.
Having an adult GSP and setter, Haupt bought Barbara her own black, field-bred English cocker spaniel. The couple became hooked on English cockers. They've had up to five cockers at once but ultimately decided three was the best number for them.
Occasionally during training sessions the mischievous black dog, Tatty, was called Satan, but not often. When Tatty was trained, Cary got another English cocker for himself. They have never looked back.
"Hunting was always our emphasis with all the dogs," said Haupt, "though until a few years ago we also participated regularly in AKC field trials and hunt tests." The Haupts were quite successful and their work ethic ensured they became active, to the point of becoming trial/test chairmen, judges and in Cary's case, an official "gun" who shot at tests or trials. "Hunting was always first," Cary reminded me.
I surprised Haupt with my bluntness when I asked, "Why did you choose cockers rather than springers?" Without hesitation he provided quite a lot of reasons, each legitimate.
Here's Haupt's partial list: "I like their compactness" — the Haupts have a small house and transport dogs regularly for myriad activities; "they are characters;" "we are getting older" — the Haupts do not move as fast or as well as before; "plus it's much easier gathering them up if necessary, they're easier to travel with than large dogs, they are easier to keep inside in our smallish house during long Maine winters, they're cute-ish, they're clownish, they're funny and they're nice dogs. Our three cockers are perfect for us," he said.
"At nine, Sunny has been our best dog and is an American Kennel Club Field Champion (FC) and AKC Master Hunter (MH). Sunny is also a great gun dog, and especially likes retrieving ducks. The other two are on their way to AKC Master Hunter Certification," Haupt added. The Haupts' age, physical condition (which is not bad) and determination to put their efforts into hunting led me to think the other two dogs will be trialed or tested very little in the future. Both are excellent gun dogs.
Haupt mentioned mischievousness, as have other cocker owners, so I asked him about it. "Cockers are always busy, always carrying something, either their toys or our shoes. They can get antsy as feeding time nears so they pick up their pan and walk around with it, hoping you will feed them sooner. They are always up to something." Before I could reply he continued, "You could probably nip all those problems in the bud, but you might take something from their personality."
Haupt and his wife have consciously chosen to leave their cockers' quirks alone. Haupt said their humorous behavior is one of the things they like best about cockers. "It helps a lot that they're excellent hunters," Haupt added, laughing.
Haupt and his wife do all their own dog training, but do join up with other cocker and springer owners via field trial and hunt test club.
Maine's spaniel club has a lot of members that hunt, likely because many of them live in hunting heaven. Some eastern states offer many difficulties for ardent hunters, especially over development. Fewer hunting opportunities are part of why some folks turn to field trialing and hunt tests. Fact is, both are a lot of fun for dog and man, and both provide extra opportunities to spend time afield with your dog(s).
Haupt lives off the beaten path so allows his cockers to run loose outside sometimes. "They are so nosy and want to be with us so much we do not have to worry about them running off," he said, "They travel well in crates, and they are always both funny and fun."
Puppies and long winters do not always go together, but the cockers' small size helps get them started sooner than some breeds. Haupt tosses a sock or small paint roller in the hallway and sends a pup after it.
"The puppies have been walking around carrying things since they were able, so they love it. Chasing it so they can carry it just adds to the fun." Haupt explains that naturally the hallway allows only one-way to return, so it starts getting pup straight back almost immediately.
Haupt said cockers have very soft mouths. "Don't pull something from a pup's mouth and risk having him get into a tug-of-war," said Haupt. "Also, only throw two or three retrieves at a time because cockers get bored easily. If pup gets bored he might run around with the sock, lie down and chew it or perform some behavior other than the correct one, returning directly with the sock or roller."
Haupt approves of giving pup the occasional treat during training, but said, "Don't overdo it."
"Early training is all about keeping pup close," said Haupt, "I take them walking in the woods and if pup gets a bit far away I hide. When pup notices I'm 'missing' he comes racing frantically to find me, and he starts using his nose. They want to stay near me."
Haupt allows his pups to carry a bird wing around, saying, "Retrieving is their strong point. After a while try a clip-wing pigeon, but don't overdo it. Well-bred pups are not going to lose their birdiness."
Haupt hunts ducks regularly so retrieving is a must, and his cockers get the job done. "I like to hunt mallards, black ducks and woodies," said Haupt.
For three years he's been guiding military veterans and Wounded Warriors. Haupt has been a registered Maine hunting guide for years, not an easy license to qualify for. And yes, he hunts his cockers with clients.
"I still do a little guiding for pay," said Haupt, "but mainly I volunteer by taking veterans hunting. They are grateful for the opportunity. What the veterans like as much as anything is to hunt with the cockers. I find our veterans outings very rewarding."