Those big, dark eyes; that sweet expression; those long, lush ears that practically demand to be touched—no wonder the Cocker spent years as America’s most popular breed. The Cocker is the AKC’s smallest sporting spaniel, standing about 14 to 15 inches. The coat comes in enough colors and patterns to please any taste. The well-balanced body is sturdy and solid, and these quick, durable gundogs move with a smooth, easy gait. Cockers are eager playmates for kids and are easily trained as companions and athletes. They are big enough to be sporty, but compact enough to be portable. A Cocker in full coat rewards extra grooming time by being the prettiest dog on the block. These energetic sporting dogs love playtime and brisk walks.
The spaniel is a breed type of great antiquity, believed to have originated in Spain (the words “Spain” and “spaniel” being closely related). Spaniels have been bird hunters’ helpers since before the development of the rifle, when hunting dogs were used in tandem with nets. For centuries, European and British spaniels were informally grouped as simply land spaniels and water spaniels. By the 19th century, however, when written breed standards, dog shows and field trials, and the very notion of purebred dogs began to gain traction in England, the various spaniels were classified as specific breeds. Among them was the Cocker, so called because they specialized on woodcock. These dogs, smaller than English Springer Spaniels but larger than English Toy Spaniels, were the ancestors of the modern Cocker Spaniel. In America the Cocker Spaniel diverged into two varieties, American and English. The English was characterized as being taller and with a longer head than its American cousin, with a coat that was not as profuse. The English and Canadian kennel clubs registered the varieties as separate breeds beginning in 1940, and the AKC followed suit in 1946. The AKC breed names are the Cocker Spaniel (for the U.S. type) and the English Cocker Spaniel (for the British type). A black Cocker named Brucie helped popularize the breed by twice winning Westminster’s Best in Show, in 1940 and ’41, but the Cocker’s American heyday came in the 1950s. The Cocker was the AKC’s most popular breed of the decade. It was the era of Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” and Vice President Richard Nixon’s Cocker, named Checkers, who helped change the course of U.S. political history. (See the Cocker Spaniel’s AKC breed standard for detailed descriptions of the breed’s coat colors and patterns.)
The Cocker Spaniel is the smallest member of the Sporting Group. He has a sturdy, compact body and a cleanly chiseled and refined head, with the overall dog in complete balance and of ideal size. He stands well up at the shoulder on straight forelegs with a topline sloping slightly toward strong, moderately bent, muscular quarters. He is a dog capable of considerable speed, combined with great endurance. Above all, he must be free and merry, sound, well balanced throughout and in action show a keen inclination to work. A dog well balanced in all parts is more desirable than a dog with strongly contrasting good points and faults.
Selecting the best diet can be a matter of trial and for the individual dog. The key is to pay attention to food labels for quality ingredients. The owner can seek advice from their dog’s veterinarian regarding any particular sensitivities or needs the Cocker has. Choose a high-quality food and give it a fair tryout. A chicken and rice–based food has long been a good starting point for Cocker food trials, but consider individual sensitivities, likes, and needs. Maintain proper weight, but be careful not to overfeed. Groomers and veterinarians often see overweight Cockers.
Cocker Spaniels require regular, thorough grooming. Sessions missed are not easily made up and may result in tangles or mats in the Cocker’s coat. A metal, professional-quality dog comb with fine and medium spacing for the teeth is a necessity. You can follow combing with a gentle slicker brush, but the comb is key. Loose hair should be carefully removed with the comb, making sure you are clear and can see through to the skin everywhere. If you encounter snarls, do not pull through; rather, pick snarls apart, starting at the tips of the coat and then comb through. Be cautious when combing ears; the skin at the edges is thin and can be pierced by too-vigorous combing. The Cocker requires thorough bathing with quality dog shampoo. Thorough rinsing and re-rinsing are crucial, as soap residue can cause skin irritation. Dry carefully with a blow-dryer on not too hot a setting. Learn the procedure for cleaning and drying the ear canals. During bathing, check the Cocker’s skin for any inflamed spots and get treatment. It is key to learn grooming procedures yourself and/or enlist the services of a professional groomer who likes and is experienced in grooming the breed.
The Cocker Spaniel is a sporting breed and should maintain good muscle tone, although the breed is not one that needs a lot of exercise for the purpose of discharging an abundance of energy. Cockers often enjoy getting their exercise by means of retrieving a ball or other toy, or accompanying their people on a walk. They very much enjoy spending time with their people, so walking is a good exercise option. If the Cocker has a canine companion, they can play to exercise each other. The Cocker Spaniel wants to please people and enjoys play, so these are tools you can use to encourage exercise.
Regarding training the Cocker Spaniel, the good news is that in general this is a people-pleasing breed. They want to be “good” in order to please their people, and they are generally sensitive and responsive to correction and a disapproving tone in their owner’s voice. Harsh means of correction are not usually warranted, nor are they productive in the Cocker. The breed enjoys the challenge of performance activities, and it is a good idea to try out the available activities and events to see what interests your individual Cocker and follow through with training. Early socialization and puppy training classes are recommended. Cockers are rather easily motivated with food rewards and with play and praise.
The Cocker Spaniel’s national parent club, the American Spaniel Club, has a health committee that looks at breed health issues and makes recommendations to breeders for required health testing.The Cocker Spaniel has good longevity. A conscientious breeder can furnish records of the sire’s and dam’s health testing, for example for hips, patellas, and eyes. Breeders often have years of data regarding testing done in these health areas. Learn from the veterinarian proper procedures to clean the Cocker’s ear canals on a regular basis, especially following a bath, in order to avoid infections. Thorough grooming of the Cocker coat will aid in preventing mats, which can precipitate skin problems underneath.