Seen from a distance, they appear nearly the same size—an English Cocker Spaniel and the rooster dangling from his mouth. An outline of feathers, wattle and hocks all but conceals the dog's silhouette as the ringneck bobs up and down in brush, followed by a tuft of fur trotting toward his owner. When he drops his retrieve, as he looks up at his owner, tongue lolling and eyes alight with pride and exultation, any hunter witnessing a cocker work for the first time is almost guaranteed to ask: “How does such a small dog carry such a large bird?"
Officially recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1945, English Cocker Spaniels typically weigh anywhere from 26 to 34 pounds. However, earlier references to the breed during the 1800s in England list the dog’s weight as low as between 14 and 20 pounds. During that time, spaniels were categorized as either “water” or “land” spaniels. An 1803 edition of the Sportsman’s Cabinet describes two kinds of land spaniels: “springing spaniel” and a smaller “cocking spaniel,” also referred to as “cocker,” since it was “more adapted to covert and woodcock shooting.”
Both types of spaniels were bred together, their size being the only differentiating factor until 1892, when the Kennel Club of England recognized the two as separate breeds. However, it wasn’t until 1901 that weight restrictions were removed as a breed trait. A year later, the Cocker Spaniel Club was formed and adopted a breed standard commiserate with guidelines established by the Spaniel Club in England in 1885.
The English Cocker Spaniel, being smaller than its cousin, the Springer Spaniel, worked faster, caught a scent cone quicker and was able to access low and dense cover with ease. The dog’s enthusiasm for both hares and birds was readily recognized by the motion of its tail, noted in the 1803 Sportsman Cabinet “as proof of the pleasure they feel in being employed.” Their amicable personality, ability to travel well and endless prey drive that belies their small stature were all contributing factors that led to the dog’s growing popularity in England, then later in Canada and the United States after World War II.
However, like most cases of popular hunting dogs, over-breeding led to diminution of the English Cocker’s innate hunting gene, and, according to some sources, nearly ruined the breed for hunting entirely.
“There was a lot of mixing going on over history,” said Tom Ness, owner of Oahe Kennels in North Dakota and breeder of both English Springers and Cockers. Ness acquired his first Springer in 1975 and has been professionally training spaniels and other retrievers for over 30 years. “I had several crummy Cockers in the late ’80s,” he said. “Then I got ‘Mave’—bird dog hall of fame, fabulous dog.”
In October 1992, Ness experienced a near-fatal hunting accident while serving as a guide. He attributes his quick, 1-year recovery to his dog, Mave. “She really had something to do with me getting over my accident,” he said. “I wanted the world to see how great this dog was.”
Ness trained Mave and in 1993, she received the title of Field Champion—the second English Cocker to do so following a nearly 30-year suspension of field trials for the breed. Mave became an integral part of Oahe Kennels and instilled within Ness a lifelong passion for Cockers.
“I’ve had all kinds of other spaniels—they’re almost not worth having,” Ness said. “Cockers and Springers—you can really talk about them in same breath. These are the two best by a mile. There is a difference in temperament and style but they do basically the same thing.”
Pheasant hunting is their strong suite, according to Ness, but they also enjoy swimming, though they can’t break ice or endure intense cold. “Cockers have a lot of horsepower,” Ness said. “They transport that nose better, cover ground better than other spaniels.
“When you got thick cover, that cover is punishing,” Ness said. “They got to want to go in there. Small Cockers blast into that stuff. You look at them at the end of the day—fur shredded and tail wagging—and they’re like, ‘That’s it?’”
That tenacity bred into Cockers also contributes to the quality of their retrieve, as they will fearlessly track a wounded bird through most types of cover. “Cockers are a bit stubborn,” Ness said. “Cockers like to do what they want to do. I like that personality—it’s what attracted me to them.”
A Cocker’s stubborn nature is also part of what some hunters refer to as “an ego.” While Cockers behave in a cute and cuddly manner at home and generally just want their owner’s affection, afield they may require a bit more discipline. “The general rule: most of them, they’re softer dogs,” said Tom Henderson, Pheasants Forever member, hunter and owner of an English Cocker, “but in hunting situations, you got to be firm with them, because they do have an ego and want to push. I have to remind my dog ‘Mouton,’ ‘You hunt for me, not you.’ Even though they’re little, they need a firm hand, because they will try to run their own show.”
However, most hunters who run Cockers would agree: they’ve earned the right to an ego. Even at a very young age, Cockers will still retrieve fowl, even if they have to drag it. “Mouton’s first retrieve was when he was 7 months old,” Henderson said. “At the Lake of the Woods, he retrieved a full Canvasback. He was so small, he had to drag it by its wing.”
According to Anthony Hauck, Director of Public Relations for Pheasants Forever and owner of two English Cockers, it is the breed’s small size and how that plays out in the field which inevitably mesmerizes so many hunters. “But as good as they are in the field,” Hauck said, “they are even better pets. I don’t mind that mine are needy, because I need them just as much as they need me.
“They thrive on attention, and will shut down if they don’t receive it,” Hauck said. A need for attention facilitates bonding between a Cocker and its owner, and that bond helps in obedience in the field, according to Hauck. “I have found, like so many previous articles have stated, that they bore easily, so I don’t do drills as much as I do train throughout the day in every activity we do.”
In regard to their sense of smell, Hauck would put the breed’s nose up against any other bird dog breed. “Their noses are top notch,” he said. “They have a knack for rooting those tight-sitting roosters out. If there is a scent trail, they’ll follow it, and once you have a well-trained cocker, you shouldn’t expect to lose many birds.”
Cockers adapt to the terrain in which they’re hunting. While other spaniel breeds may execute quartering patterns, English Cocker Spaniels prefer to hunt objectives. “They’ll quarter in a large expanse of grassland, but if there are objectives—shrubs, fence lines, bottoms and draws—they work them over,” Hauck said. “They also seem to have good memories. For example, my young pup’s first pheasant flushes were out of bent-over grass clumps. Now she’ll methodically work over every clump that crosses her nose. They seem to mentally bookmark these ‘objectives.’”
English Cockers will hunt all day if allowed, though both Hauck and Henderson recognize it is often necessary to establish limits. “My females are not ‘all day’ dogs,’” Hauck said. “I could push them all day, but they’ll be beat up and bloody, and that can take a toll on multi-day hunting trips. Their drive won’t tell them to stop, so I have to.”
“I would say a Cocker is a good generalist” Henderson said, “but I wouldn’t recommend one for someone who hunts five days a week, because they work themselves to death.”
As is the case with several other spaniel breeds, there is a distinction between an English Cocker bred for show and one bred for hunting. Any hunter interested in picking up a Cocker puppy for the field is advised to conduct ample research before committing to a dog. In addition to distinguishing whether a breeder is producing puppies for show or field, it is also important to thoroughly check health records.
“If you are shopping for a puppy, do a lot of shopping,” Ness suggested. “There are genetic issues with purebred dogs, such as blood issues, or issues with eyes, hips. If you get one of those maladies, it is a showstopper. You really want to buy best puppy you can, that has the best genetic work done possible. I wouldn’t touch a puppy unless parents have good hips and good eyes. You should get a copy of both parents’ hip certificate and eye certificate.”
But once an owner finds his or her perfect puppy, an indelible connection is made, one that will continue to grow at home and in the field. “It’s easy to fall in love with their size and personalities,” Hauck said, “but I suspect most hunters who’ve never seen one underestimate how versatile they are in the field. And I can’t lie, I love showing them off. I come across so many hunters that have never seen an English Cocker in person, let alone one in the field. I love seeing people get immediately hooked on them.”
Photo by Logan Hinners / Pheasants Forever
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook.