If you are thinking of bringing a Cocker Spaniel puppy into your family, this information will help you to decide whether this breed is the right type of dog for you and your family.
What is an English Cocker Spaniel?
Referred to in the UK simply as the Cocker Spaniel or ‘Cocker’, in the USA this charming little dog is known as English Cocker Spaniel. To differentiate between him and his cousin the American Cocker Spaniel, who is a very different dog that we will look at in a different article.
The English Cocker Spaniel is a small but personality-packed pup, that has gained and retained wide popularity around the world.
In fact, in the United Kingdom the Cocker Spaniel is second only to the Labrador Retriever in terms of Kennel Club registrations.
Cockers as Gundogs
Cockers are one of the smallest members of the Gundog group of dogs. They were originally classed as the same dog as the English Springer Spaniel, but were separately catagorised in the 1870’s as their own breed.
‘Cocker’ comes from ‘Woodcock’, one of the game birds that the English Cocker Spaniels were bred to hunt for in the undergrowth.
After the second world war, the popularity of cockers as working gundogs waned considerably, and they were all but replaced by the all purpose Springer Spaniel.
But in the 1990s these extraordinary working dogs underwent a huge surge in popularity and the working cocker is now seen on shoots up and down the country and competes regularly and successfully at field trials throughout the UK.
Although the cocker is still used frequently as a fabulous hunting companion, he is now also welcomed into family homes as pets, shown in the ring and used for other activities like agility training and flyball.
What does an English Cocker Spaniel look like?
The cocker spaniel is a small to medium sized dog, weighing on average around 30lb (14kg) and being 15 to 16 inches tall (40cm).
He has a square, balanced body, with even proportions to his legs and torso. He also has distinctly floppy ears and a silky coat.
Cockers come in a wide range of colours, including various solid shades, roans, and patches.
However, although these factors are in common with all cockers, they seperate at this point into two distinctive stains. Those bred for working (or field) lines, and those bred for show (or bench) lines.
And they are as different as chalk and cheese.
What does a working cocker spaniel look like?
The working strain of the cocker spaniel resembles their spaniel ancestors. They are strong, compact little working dogs with huge hunting drive and good retrieving instincts.
The working cocker has tight, bright eyes, and a medium coat with moderate feathering on the legs, chest, and ears. His coat may be slightly wavy or curly, but not excessively long.
Likewise, although the working cocker has long ears, they are of medium length ears which he can lift up high when alert and listening.
There is arguably more variation in appearance between working bred cockers than there is between their show bred cousins, as this is not the main consideration that breeders will look to when choosing parents for a litter.
What does a show cocker spaniel look like?
The show cocker is often larger and less nimble than his working cousins.
Many show cockers have very profuse long coats, with soft and silky fur. Their forelegs, hindlegs and body will all be well feathered.
Some show cockers suffer from loose eye lids, due to excess skin on the face.
They may also be subject to ectropion, an outward drooping of the lower eyelid which can be painful and makes the eye prone to injury or infection.
With their long ears and droop to the eyes, they can often be mistaken for being sad, which is rarely the case.
What is a typical English Cocker Spaniel temperament?
All cocker spaniels are lively little dogs. However, the working bred cocker is normally more enthusiastic than his show bred cousin. He has an enormous stamina for staying up and at ‘em all day long.
Some (but not all) show cockers have lost much of their hunting ‘drive’, which can make them easier to train with the basic commands, as they are not being constantly distracted by the potential for adventure in the undergrowth.
In general for this reason show cocker spaneils do tend to be more placid and less energetic little dogs.
A show bred cocker spaniel will probably be happier to lie down next to you after a good long walk an relax.
Whereas working bred cockers do tend to stay alert even after a fairly busy morning.
They require more stimulation, and are better suited to a more active home.
These differences in temperaments will mean different things to each family. If you are active and busy, always on the go, then you will probably find the working cocker spaniel temperament more appealing. If you have less time to dedicate to training and stimulation at the moment, then a show cocker spaniel will probably hold greater attraction.
Which type of cocker spaniel is right for me?
If you like the idea of owning one of these fantastic little spaniels, you need to decide which type or strain of cocker is right for you. Because they are very different dogs.
The long ears and profuse coat of the show strain requires more grooming and care than that of their working cousins.
Show cockers are intelligent little dogs and can be trained, but they may be vulnerable to injury when romping through the undergrowth, due to the full tail and loose skin around the eye. (It is illegal to dock the tail of a spaniel not bred to be a working gundog.)
The working cocker is a tiny powerhouse of activity. He is always busy, both outdoors and in. These are intensely happy, affectionate little dogs but they are rarely still. Show cockers will slow down more than working cockers, but they will still be lively little dogs.
Working cockers in particular are keen to join you in any activity.
You get up to make a cup of tea – he’ll come with you. Answering the phone? No problem, he’ll help with that too.
A working cocker in the family does not always make for a restful atmosphere in the home. A show cocker will tend to be a little bit more of a relaxing companion, although he certainly isn’t suited to a home not keen on getting out and about.
How much exercise do cocker spaniels need?
Both working and show cocker spaniels require daily exercise. Whether it is in the form of exuberant fetching games in the garden or a good long walk in the countryside, they have plenty of energy to burn.
Outdoors, the working cocker is transformed into a hunting machine. He craves scent, and follows it wherever it takes him, nose glued to the ground.
It can also make them stressful walking companions if you are looking for a dog to accompany you along with an elderly relative or small child, who find it hard to keep up or require a fair amount of your attention.
Do Cocker Spaniels make good pets?
In the right homes, both working bred and show bred English Cocker Spaniels make great pets.
To be the right home for any Cocker Spaniel you will need to be fairly active and committed to training them when they are young.
Prey drive exists in both types, but especially owners of the working strain will need to concentrate their efforts on getting an excellent recall command established.
Almost all Cocker Spaniels are affectionate dogs, without guarding instincts or suspicion.
When you visit your potential puppy, make sure you meet his mother. The breeder’s bitch should be clearly happy to see you, with a wagging tail and no sings of seeming shy or suspicious towards you.
They might well be bouncy and racy around, and will possibly bark a little. Barking is not a desired trait in Cocker Spaniels, but some working strains will be more likely to yap when excited than others.
Whilst barking is a learned behaviour to some extent, it does seem to have a genetic component. If your pup’s mother is very vocal, then there is a likelihood that your puppy will be the same.
If you are concerned about noise, then choosing a quiet pup from a quiet parent will increase your chances of having a less noisy home!
Your pup’s parents temperament will affect his, and if you are at all unsure about them upon visiting then politely decline that puppy and move on.
Do English Cocker Spaniels need a lot of supervision?
English Cocker Spaniels are lively dogs, and as a result can get themselves into accidental mischief if left unsupervised at home.
They are strongly bonded to their family, and can display behaviours associated with separation anxiety if left alone for long periods of time. Chewing, barking and destruction of your property could be a result of inadequate company at home.
But it is outdoors that you need to be vigillent, especially with working bred cocker spaniels.
From day one of walking with your working bred Cocker Spaniel, he will need supervision and management outdoors. This will help you to ensure that he does not develop a habit of hunting further and further away from their owners, and getting himself into trouble.
Show cockers tend to be less inclined to this behaviour, so if you are looking for a calmer friend, one happy to trot along at your heels on a walk, rather than find every rabbit in the county and chase him from his bramble bush, then a show bred cocker may be more to your taste.
How do you groom an English Cocker Spaniel?
Whether you decide to bring home a working bred or show bred English Cocker Spaniel, you will need to commit to staying on top of their grooming needs.
Don’t be tempted to try and use a tight brush like the Furminator on soft cocker spaniel fur. Do use your fingers where possible to tease out knots and burs that get caught in their coat.
When you bring your new Cocker Spaniel puppy home, get him used to being brushed regularly from that first week. Even though he won’t need grooming straight away before his coat has grown in properly, grooming will help him to become familiar with the process.
Are English Cocker Spaniels healthy?
In general English Cocker Spaniels are a healthy breed of dog. However they do have some tendencies towards health problems, which you will need to be aware of before you choose your new puppy.
Cocker Spaniels are more susceptible to mammary cancer and pyometra than most other breeds. Pyometra is a scary condition whereby the uterus or womb of the bitch becomes infected, inflamed and filled with pus! It is not easy to detect, potentially hazardous to treat and can result in death.
For this reason you may need to spay your female cocker to protect her long term health. Whereas we don’t usually advocate routine spaying of bitches without cause, we do feel that the risks are so high in this breed as to probably swing the decision more firmly in this direction.
Ear problems in English Cocker Spaniels
Cockers are prone to ear problems, in common with all floppy eared dogs. This will be more likely in show bred cockers who have very long ears, but is still a risk in the working strains. You will need to keep an eye on your puppy’s ear health by regularly checking them and cleaning his ears if necessary.
Fortunately, there are usually clear signs if your dog is troubled by an ear condition. He will shake his head, paw at it or rub it along the ground. If your pup displays any of these symptoms, then you can pop him down the vet who will be able to give you appropriate ear cleaner or medication to help.
Eye problems in English Cocker Spaniels
Show bred Cockers may suffer from ectropion. A condition where the eye lid droops and exposes the eye. This can be treated medicinally or in extreme cases with surgery. When you pick your show cocker puppy, take a look at the mother and father’s eyes and ask the breeder whether they have had to treat them for the condition.
If either of the parents has required correctional surgery then the chances of your puppy having the same are increased. It would be sensible to find a breeder whose dogs have the best eye health, to give your pup the greatest chance of good eye health of his own.
All types of Cocker Spaniel may suffer from Progressive Retinal Atrophy, a genetic disease that affects numerous breeds of dog. PRA leads to blindness, so it is important to only pick a puppy from a litter with parents that have been tested as clear from the disease. This will hugely reduce the chances of your puppy developing this condition.
There are several other genetic diseases you will need to be aware of when choosing your new English Cocker Spaniel puppy.
Genetic Diseases in English Cocker Spaniels
There are a number of inherited diseases that can affect cocker spaniels and there are tests available for some of them.
These include hip dysplasia, where a malformation of the hip joint can cause pain and problems walking. Depending upon the severity of this condition your puppy will either need pain medication, surgery or in extreme cases euthanasia.
Buying your pup from hip scored parents with good hip scores will reduce the chances of your puppy suffering – however, at present not many breeders are scoring their parents so you will need to choose careful and decide whether you are happy to run the risks.
Other tests your puppy’s parents should have been shown to be clear for include Familial Nephropathy, a kidney disease, and Gonioscopy, a test for a type of glaucoma
Do working cockers need health testing?
Health testing is only just becoming popular in breeders of working strain cockers and you will still find it hard to buy a working cocker puppy whose parents have been put through all the relevant tests.
There is a lot of misinformation within the working gundog community as to the prevalence of some cocker health conditions and a misconception that working cockers are somehow unaffected.
This is not true, but old beliefs die hard, and you will still find very well bred cocker pups out of champion stock, that have not been tested at all.
If a puppy has not been health tested, the sensible thing to do is to walk away and find one which has. Cockers are a popular breed and many litters are responsibly bred each year.
Only you can make the decision on which puppy to choose, but in my opinion it is better to wait for a healthy puppy, than run the risk of bringing home one who will suffer, and cause your bank balance to suffer along with it, for years to come.
How long do English Cocker Spaniels live?
Despite the potential issues with health testing, it has to be said that English Cocker Spaniels are generally healthy little dogs.
They have a good average lifespan of twelve to fourteen years, and have been known to live a few years longer than this if unaffected by genetic diseases.
Picking a puppy from a breeder who has carried out all of the relevant health tests, and has lines of dogs who are known for their longevity will all help your puppy have the best chance of living a long and happy life with you.
Should I buy an English Cocker Spaniel puppy?
The uniquely popular cocker spaniel, with his sunny, affectionate nature and lively intelligence, makes an outstanding family pet for a lot of families.
Your puppy will cost you around £400 – £600 to buy, but the actual costs of having a dog are in raising and caring for him.
Factoring in insurance, feeding, routine medicines like wormers and a whole lot of your own time.
If you are happy that you have the money and time for a dog, and that your family are also keen for a new furry member of the family, then a Cocker Spaniel could be an excellent choice.
For an active family that has the time and energy to devote to training and who are committed to supervising and engaging with their dog outdoors, the wonderful Cocker Spaniel is a great choice.
If you want to try out activities like flyable, gundog training or agility then a working cocker might be your preference. If you want a slightly calmer companion, or to try your hand at ring craft, then a show bred cocker will probably be your preference.
This very divided breed has however produced two very lovely dogs, so it’s up to you and your family to decide which one would make the perfect pet for your situation.