The Cocker Spaniel

A popular pet with a merry disposition


In the most famous social occasion in dogdom, the scalawag Tramp took his Lady to an Italian restaurant for a spaghetti dinner in the back alley. The two larger-than-life canines slurped pasta and fell in love to the music of the concertina, and Walt Disney had another animated hit on his hands.

Tramp, of course, was a nondescript terrier-type mongrel, a dog of the streets, if you will. Lady, on the other hand, was a sensitive, demure Cocker Spaniel, a dog that has won the hearts of tens of millions of families over the past several decades.

This year, for the first time in recent memory, the AKC announced a new top dog in the US--the Labrador Retriever--but registered nearly 100 thousand individual Cockers in 1991 (down from 105 thousand in 1990) and more than 43 thousand litters (down from 47 thousand the previous year). The Cocker is now number two, but this does not mean that Cocker breeders should try harder!

A dog with definite appeal as a family pet and child's companion, the Cocker Spaniel has an interesting history. Developed along with its cousins the Clumber, Sussex, Springer, Field, and toy spaniels, the breed had its beginnings in Spain but developed in England. Originally spaniels were hunting dogs, and were classified by size. Thus several different types of spaniels could come from the same litter. Cockers and toys were the smaller types, and, as the toy spaniels were bred as ladies' companions and Cockers were kept for hunting, were further divided into two groups. Later, spaniels were divided according to their method of hunting: Crouching or setting spaniels, and springing or finding spaniels. The Cockers were crouchers, and they were used particularly to hunt woodcock.

Today the AKC considers the Cocker and its closest British cousin, the English Cocker, to be sporting dogs, even though they are almost exclusively bred as companions and show dogs.

The Standard

The Cocker Spaniel is small dog, 15 inches at the withers (top of the shoulder blades), with a medium-length, double coat; long, pendulous ears; and a merrily wagging stumpy tail. Females are slightly smaller than males.

Cocker color is divided into black, parti-color, and any solid color other than black (ASCOB in show catalogs). Black includes black-and-tan and should be jet black without liver or brown shadings. The tan markings are to be over the eyes, on the muzzle and cheeks, undersides of ears, on all legs and feet, and under the tail. Tan on the chest is optional.

Parti-color includes any color, including the mixed color known as roan, patterned with white. A third color is permissible. ASCOB includes blonde and red, with or without tan markings. Small white markings are permitted on the throat and chest of solid color Cockers, but nowhere else.


The Cocker could not have become the top dog in the US unless it had a good temperament. A well-bred Cocker is sweet, loyal, cheerful, playful, trustworthy, easily trained, adaptable -- all those things most sought after in a family pet. It needs a moderate amount of exercise and will get pudgy if allowed to be a complete couch potato. Its sensitivity may be its only drawback, for discipline must be gentle or the Cocker may wilt. However, the popularity of the breed has almost been its downfall: Puppy mills and backyard breeders have flooded the market with poorly-bred specimens that are yappy, snappy, nervous, high-strung dogs that are difficult to train and handle.

Puppy mill Cockers can be found in pet stores. These puppies are produced solely because they sell. There's no concern for genetic diseases prevalent in the breed, no concern for socialization so necessary for development of that sweet demeanor, no concern for careful selection of pedigrees and parents to produce a litter. They frequently cost the same as a well-bred puppy from a responsible breeder.

Backyard breeders of Cockers frequently know little or nothing about the breed and are ill-equipped to even know whether Cookie or Buffy is a good specimen of the breed, let alone properly select a mate for her. They produce puppies to put a few extra dollars in their pockets, to give the kids the thrill of seeing puppies born, or to produce another dog "just like Mandy." Better that they should find another way of making money, show the kids some pictures of birth, and buy a puppy from a responsible breeder.


Like all other breeds and mixed breeds, Cockers should have some obedience training to teach them manners. As sweet as the breed generally is, an untrained Cocker can be a handful. Formal classes are not necessary as long as the puppy is gently taught to sit, lie down, stay, and come on command and can walk on a leash without pulling. Lots of Cockers like to do tricks and enjoy playing ball as well.

An owner who has trouble being firm with this adorable dog should seek a class from a club or a private trainer if he wants his Cocker to fulfill its potential as a top-notch family pet. Although they are seldom used for hunting in the US, Cockers make fine obedience and tracking dogs. Several local owners work their dogs in AKC and UKC obedience trials and have earned many titles. The dogs should also do well in the sport of agility, and, although they are not as agile as the famous Ashley Whippet, many enjoy playing Frisbee.


Well-bred Cockers are subject to few diseases or genetic abnormalities, but look for a puppy whose parents have been cleared of progressive retinal atrophy, a genetic eye disease that causes blindness, and whose lines are free of heart problems and epilepsy. Cataracts, glaucoma, and hemophilia can also be problems, as can chronic ear and skin infections. Some breeders have their dogs x-rayed for hip dysplasia, but this has not yet proven to be a big problem in the breed.

Pendulous Cocker ears lend themselves well to infections, for the long ear leathers prevent air circulation that would dry the ear and prevent moisture-loving bacteria from gaining a foothold. Cocker puppies must be taught from an early age to have their ears handled, for they will need to be groomed to remove seeds and other vegetative matter, tied back to encourage air circulation, and cleaned if infection does develop.

Sore ears, whether from trapped vegetative matter, mites, or infection, cause a dog to shake his head frequently and often violently. Shaking can cause small blood vessels to burst and form a hematoma, which may need to be lanced. To prevent ear problems, check the ears every day. If the ears appear dirty, use a medicated solution such as Oti-Clean to clean them, not water or alcohol. To avoid injury, use a cotton ball or a bit of cotton on the finger to swab the ear, not a Q-tip. If the ears are dirty and smell, and if the dog seems to be uncomfortable, call the veterinarian. Early treatment is necessary.

Some owners pluck the hair out of the Cocker's ears, but plucking may lead to further problems if serum leaks from the hair follicles into the ear. Hairs can be clipped to allow air circulation, however.

Cockers should be fed in deep, narrow bowls that allow them to eat and drink without getting their ears into the food or water.

Along with a willingness to clean and protect ears, Cocker owners must be willing to groom the soft, silky coat. Cockers love to run in thickets, and fields and frequently pick up a variety of seed heads and bits of shrubs and weeds that can cause the coat to tangle and mat. Unless they are brushed out frequently, these tangles can pull the skin and cause sores that make the dog uncomfortable and may contribute to major skin problems if left untended.

Other than paying close attention to ears and coat and training the dog to be a good canine citizen, the proud owner of a pet Cocker Spaniel should feed his dog a premium food for good nutrition, visit the veterinarian for yearly checkups and for any problems that arise in between, spay or neuter his pet, and be prepared to enjoy the company of this little dog for 15 years or more.

English Cocker Spaniel: The British Cousin

This breed developed in England after the Cocker Spaniel came to America and followed a different course here. The English cocker is a bit larger and a bit more houndlike in the head than his American cousin, and is considerably less popular in the US. his breed was ranked 67th of 133 AKC breeds, with only 1499 individuals and 471 litters registered in 1991.

The English Cocker is as sweet, loyal, and happy as his American cousin, and, because he is less sought after, he has not been subjected to unscrupulous puppy mill and backyard breeding. His major differences are his size--he can be up to two inches taller and six pounds heavier than the American Cocker--and the shape of his head. He may also carry less coat than the American cockers bred for show. Colors are the same, as are temperament and level of activity of well-bred American Cockers.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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