“Cocker Spaniel” as used when referring to a breed of dog is a generic term that may apply to either the American Cocker Spaniel or the English Cocker Spaniel. Please select the specific type you are interested learning more about from the above.
The Modern Cocker Spaniel descends from the Spaniel breed; with the word spaniel basically meaning “Spaniard” or “dog of Spain”. The name Spaniel gives homage to the country of origin of this popular breed of dog. The antiquity and ancestry of the Spaniel may be quite vast. There is some evidence of Spaniels, or similar type dogs, dating back to ancient times, in the relics of the Cypriot civilization of ancient Cyprus, and in relics found in the tombs of ancient Egypt. Spaniels are, however, thought to have originated in Spain and may have traveled to England with the invasion by Caesar in 54-55 B.C. In England, the Spaniel would flourish.
In Welsh laws dating to around 914 A.D., a man called King Hywel Dda (or Howell the Good) wrote about the Spaniel in a set of laws he codified. He would write, “there are three kinds of animals: A beast; a dog; and a bird (and) There are three higher species of dogs: A tracker; a greyhound; and a Spaniel.” It was stated in Hywel’s law, that were a Spaniel to be stolen, the thief should repay its value, which was equated to that of three oxen (or the equivalent). Later centuries would see the continued popularity of Spaniels. “The French Count Gaston de Foix wrote in 1387 that his Spaniels were devoted to their masters, had wagging tails, and had a great ability to find partridge and quail. On the other hand, he wrote, they were fighters, great barkers, and led the greyhounds astray.” Other writers like Chaucer (1300’s), Shakespeare (1500 – 1600’s), and Virginia Woolf (1900’s) would also write about the Spaniel, his origins, and his virtues. Art and mosaics throughout history have depicted the majestic Spaniel.
“The first actual listing of various breeds, although in simple form…was The Boke of St Albans, 1486…written by Dame Juliana Berners, Prioress of Sopwell Nunnery. She names the breed ‘Spanyel’ , but it is sufficient to establish the breed in England about five hundred years ago…”
Spaniels have long been popular with royalty for their hunting skill and companionship. They were included for sport and as pets, in the court of King Henry VIII and others. Spaniels are even documented in the writings of those employed by the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. There is a mention of the “Keeper of the King’s Spaniels” for the court of Henry VIII, and the scholar and physician to Queen Elizabeth I, Dr. Johannes Caius, produced a book called De Canibus Britannics in 1570. In this work, he writes of the Spaniel stating that he believes its origins to be in the country of Spain.
To spite their long and rich history, the ancestry of the Cocker Spaniel is slightly complicated. The breed branches off many times throughout its history. There were many types of dogs being referred to as one breed, that being Spaniel. Spaniels would eventually all be recognized as their own unique breeds over time. “Records from the 1300’s show that selective breeding was already in place; with the breed being separated into two distinct types, called water Spaniels and land Spaniels.” The Spaniel being a father to them all, this breed branches into the categories of water and land Spaniels. The Land Spaniel will further branch into Setting and Springer Spaniels. The Springer Spaniel would break into size specifications. A single Springer Spaniel litter would produce several types of dogs depending on size. The largest being Springers, medium sized becoming Sussex, and the smallest pups would become known as Cocker Spaniels. The only deciding factor as to what breed a Springer pup would become was size, and size alone. Prior to the 1870’s, the only requirement for a Spaniel to be considered a “Cocker” was that it weighed less than 25 lbs, with Spaniels weighing more than 25 lbs classified as “Springers”.
In the book, “The Sporting Spaniel, 1906 (Phillips and Cane) report from Taplin’s Sporting Dictionary and Rural Repository, 1803 an interesting comment on the breed: "Spaniel is the name of a dog which there are different kinds; and even these have been so repeatedly crossed that unless it is the possession of sportsmen who have been careful in preserving the purity of the breed perfectly free from casual contamination, the well-bred genuine Cocking Spaniel is hard to find."
The Cocker Spaniel was originally bred to flush small game out of the thick brush. Because of their success as hunting/gun dogs, 19th century England saw a continued rise in popularity of the Cocker Spaniel. The term “cocker” came from the breeds use in hunting Woodcocks, a species of wading birds that are common to wooded areas. The Cocker Spaniel’s desire to flush game, retrieve from land and water, and its ability to cover territory quickly made the Cocker Spaniel a common sight with hunting parties. The Cocker Spaniel, in flushing his prey as opposed to pointing to it, gives the prey an advantage as the hunter may never know the exact moment to strike, making hunting of this type a bit more challenging.
The first Cocker Spaniel came over on The Mayflower in 1620, but it was not until about the 1870’s that the breed began to be imported into North America. In 1878 the first Cocker Spaniel was registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC). The Cocker Spaniel was originally brought to America as a hunting dog, specifically bred to hunt American Woodcock. Over a short time, physical and slight behavioral changes were recognized in the Cockers being bred in America and those being bred in England. A further split in the Spaniel family would occur around the 1930’s. The modern breed known as “Cocker Spaniel” now, in fact, refers to two distinct breeds of the Spaniel type; the English Cocker Spaniel and the American Cocker Spaniel.
It is believed that both lines of Cocker Spaniels were sired by a father and son. The English Cocker Spaniel being sired by Obo I and the American Cocker Spaniel being sired by his son Obo II. While Obo I was an English dog, Obo II was considered an American dog because he was born on American soil, when his mother traveled to American while pregnant with him. Despite this split in breed, both the American and English Cocker Spaniels would continue to experience widespread success as gun dogs due to their mutual skills in flushing small game from low lying areas, their sense of smell, use of their eyes and nose to locate the bird when downed, and their behavioral tendencies to pick, hold, and carry the carcass gently. Although having a wonderfully long and ancient history together, historically, the English Cocker Spaniel and the American Cocker Spaniel would go their separate ways, creating slightly separate stories, however, often still having historical ties to one another. They would become distinctive breeds whose lineage hailed from a common source.
The Cocker Spaniels coat is one of its best and worst qualities. The care and grooming of the Cocker Spaniel primarily involves care of their coat, ears and eyes. Some owners prefer to leave the coat long, brushing daily and bathing and shampooing frequently. Other owners prefer to clip the coat to medium length to be more functional. Regardless, the Cocker Spaniel will require regular trimming. The Cocker Spaniel is considered an average shedder. If the brush is picking lots of fur it may require more frequent brushing, perhaps daily, to keep the shedding under control. If the shedding is light, reduce the brushing to twice a week.
It is important to keep the Cocker Spaniel’s hair free of tangles. The area’s most prone to tangles on the Cocker Spaniel are the dog’s armpit, behind the ears, the rear end, the leg feathers and chest. Most Cocker Spaniels need to be brushed at least every 2 to 3 days, depending on the length of hair and how active the dog is. Field dogs that spend time in the woods and brush may need to be brushed more often to keep matting under control. It is important to remove matting as soon as possible because, if left untreated, they create a warm, moist environment for bacteria close to the dog’s skin, possibly leading to infections and sores.
One area of the Cocker Spaniel that is of great importance is the grooming in and around the ears. The Cocker’s long lopping ears cover the ear canal, preventing it from getting the amount of ventilation it needs to stay healthy. In fact, the Cocker’s ears themselves are covered with a lot of hair, inside and out. Trimming the hair short and removing excess hair in and around the ear can help air circulation keeping the ear canal cool and dry, lessoning the chance of bacteria and infection. If your Cocker Spaniel is not of the “show” type, some breeders and groomers recommend trimming the area short underneath and around the opening of the ear canal.
Regardless of the grooming choice around the ear area, keeping the ear canal dry is of great importance after bathing or allowing the Cocker Spaniel to play in water. Wiping the ears and eyes keep many of the common ailments Cocker Spaniels suffer from at bay. Wipe under the eyes often as Cocker Spaniels eyes tend to tear. Keeping his eyes clear and clean will help in avoiding the eye problems listed in the Health section.