Outdoor Library Homepage: Articles, Tips, Outdoor Gear Reviews
Library Home   |   Hunting   |   Fishing   |   Camping   |   Boating   |   Videos

Second Coming of the American Cocker
written by James Card

Pound for pound, the American cocker spaniel is the toughest gun dog out there -- and it's making a comeback.
Click here to return to the last page you viewed.  Previous Page

Click here to print the content on this page.  Print This Page

American Cocker Spaniel

A mouthful of bird. American cockers are expected to handle all gamebirds: from the woodcock that gives them the name "cocker" to wrangling a Canada goose with confidence. Photo by Vickie Dahlk.

Lady was her name and, with big eyes and honey brown tresses, she was the cocker spaniel that entered American consciousness in 1955. Her owner: Walt Disney. She was the co-star in animation film Lady and the Tramp, and whether the Disney crew knew it or not, they were glamorizing a breed that had already reached a height of popularity no other breed has matched since. 

The American cocker spaniel held the number one spot for A.K.C. registrations from 1936 to 1952. Later they were at the top of the list from 1983 to 1990 for a total of 23 years as America's most popular purebred.

The popularity of the breed translated into many things over the years: because of their undeniable cute looks they excelled in the show ring and were bred likewise. The popularity meant market demand, and the American cocker breed became associated with unscrupulous puppy mills that bred cockers with little regard for conformation, health concerns or hunting abilities.

Among bird hunters, the prevailing sentiment was that American cockers were diminished as sporting breed because of the emphasis of being a home companion and a show ring star. In his book, A Rough Shooting Dog, Charles Fergus wrote, "The American cocker was once a superior grouse and woodcock dog. Today it is a pop-eyed lap pet with a penchant for pissing on the carpet." This sorry sentence is a biased cheap shot on American cockers in an otherwise brilliant memoir of upland hunting.

The American cocker spaniel has a long history as a hunting dog, and while they have been looked upon as an over popularized house pet, handfuls of bird hunters across the United States continue to train and bred the American cocker for their field abilities.

James B. Spencer revised his opinion of the American cocker in the second edition of his well-regarded book, HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way, mentioning that he was influenced by the work of the Great Lakes American Cocker Spaniel Hunting Enthusiasts (G.L.A.C.S.E.), a group "dedicated to bringing back the American Cocker Spaniel as a hunting companion."

American Cocker Spaniel

An American cocker charges back with a ringneck. Many owners of American cocker spaniels mention that the breed excels on pheasants. Photo by Bob and Marsha Linehan

The current president of GLACSE, Vickie Dahlk, said, "Our club has over fifty members across the country. I get calls all the time from people looking for a cocker to hunt with. When I am out training or hunting and other people see me with my dogs, I get comments like, 'my uncle had a cocker that he hunted with,' or 'my grandfather always hunted with cockers.'"

Spencer acceded in his book that the American cocker spaniel makes a fine hunting companion but cautiously repeated the old saw about field bred cockers: "Since working American cockers are so few and non-working cockers so plentiful, if you hanker for one of these hardy little hustlers as a hunting buddy, you should select a breeder with consummate care."

In his book Pheasants of the Mind, Datus Proper makes a boorish remark of flushing spaniels: "Spaniels are often built right if you get the little ones, under forty pounds. Avoid show strains like the plague. They were designed for gathering dust under sofas."

However, Dahlk points out that isn't entirely the case, "The only thing that too much show breeding has done is cockers now have much more coat and are smaller than they were forty years ago. They still have natural instinct and hunting abilities." 

She noted that at the American Spaniel Club Nationals cockers are put through an instinct evaluation where dogs that have never seen a bird before are tested to see how they react. Cockers trained for show, obedience and agility end up flushing and chasing birds with some even retrieving them. 

"All of my cockers have been from show lines. Most have show champions as parents. The first cockers I owned in 1986, we only hunted with them," said Dahlk. "Since I began training for AKC hunt tests about six years ago, all of my dogs have reached Senior Hunter titles and I have two right now working in Masters. In our club, all the cockers are from show lines and are working in the field, and running in AKC hunt tests and ASC Working Dog tests. I don't think that there is a hereditary disadvantage."

American Cocker Spaniel

American cockers have little qualms about getting wet during hunting season.

Jeff Thomas of south-central Pennsylvania has seen a "slow but sure" increase in American cockers in the field and at AKC hunt tests. He uses his American cockers on guided hunting trips for pheasants. As a guide he holds high standards for his spaniels and has owned cockers from show and field lines. 

"I know there's a lot of debate between field and show lines in which would be the best hunter. I guess my answer to this is look for the proven hunting line. Period. I believe the breeding counts a lot if you want a gun dog. I just think the desire and instincts from a proven hunting line are hard to beat in any breed. Could you overcome this? Probably. With proper training you could achieve your goal to some extent. I guess it's how much you hunt and would that dog be enjoyable to hunt over. And there will be your difference."

Bob and Marsha Linehan of San Diego hunt with their family of American cockers called Pudg'gee Ann's Field Bred American Cocker Spaniels. They've heard reoccurring comments about the classic American cockers: "When we hunt our cockers, there are lots of hunters in their seventies who say, 'Now there's a hunting dog,' referring to our cockers.  Most of them hunted over cockers in the forties and fifties. They tell us stories about their cockers and seem to miss hunting over these pint-size but dynamic and smart hunting dogs."

Bob Linehan got his first cocker from a breeder uninterested in hunting. After lots of training, his dog Pudg'gee earned a Senior Hunting title and a Working Dog Excellent title. He said, "We absolutely believe that a 'generic' cocker pup can be trained to be a proper gun dog," but added, "Getting a cocker pup from field lines would make it easier to predict that the cocker has good hunting abilities. Breeding makes it easier for the person who wants a hunting cocker." 

As the smallest dog of the sporting breeds, pound for pound they are the toughest gun dogs out there; canine pocket rockets that weasel under swales of matted swamp grass after a rooster pheasant; leap over deadfall thrice their size and able to haul a Canada goose out of black water slough. They do all of this with an immense eagerness to hunt with its master. Cockers especially excel in close quartering in brushy cover, often checking back to the hunter. They will hunt for you, but would rather hunt with you.  "You can't beat a cocker's loyalty. And they have the heart of a lion," said Thomas.

The breed does have two main drawbacks. One is the coat which will vacuum up burrs if left uncut. But with regular maintenance they can be shorn as short as a pointer's coat. The second is cold weather water retrieves. Thomas said," They can't sit in a duck blind when it gets really cold. Their body mass can't take it." Also, they will struggle against strong river currents. His solution is to use them for waterfowl in early season and hunt potholes and small lakes. 

One myth is that American cockers are unable to cover as much terrain as larger breeds.  "But they don't have to because they are more thorough on the ground they cover," said Thomas. "The end result is mostly same numbers of birds."  He cited timed bird dog competitions open to all flushing and pointing breeds where his cockers have taken first place five times.

American Cocker Spaniel

Destined for work in the wetlands? A cocker pup comes home after exploring a nearby swamp.

In their book, Urban Gun Dogs, authors Anthony Z. Roettger and Benjamin H. Schleider III, make a strong case for small-sized spaniels as the hunting breeds of choice for the modern-day hunter that is cramped for training grounds and living space. They write, "As a rule of thumb for the urban resident, the smaller the dog is, the better. Small dogs require less space in the home and especially in the car. Spaniels and retrievers are well sized for urban hunters."

Their book is groundbreaking in the sense that they are the first outdoor writers to acknowledge that most gun dog owner-trainers do not live on a sprawling fantasy ranch with a stocked aviary of quail and pheasants to conduct daily field training regimens that require open space, gunfire and live birds. 

Overpopulation, suburban sprawl, and stricter pet laws make it tough on today's gun dog trainers. American cockers can be trained in the home and a small backyard, and later on the way to the field, they will fit into your subcompact econo-car without any trouble. At the city park with their friendly comportment, they are less intimidating to strangers than a slobbering 82-pound Chesapeake Bay retriever, and that means less headaches for a dog owner living in an urban area with dog-phobic freaks.

"Their small body size makes them great an inside house dog. Having a cocker is the best of all worlds. When the cocker is out in the field, they are all business and are interested in hunting only," said Marsha Linehan.  "Then after a long (or short) day of hunting, take your cocker home and you will have a loving companion who is happy to be on your lap, getting love."

Outdoor Library Homepage: Articles, Tips, Outdoor Gear Reviews
Library Home   |   Hunting   |   Fishing   |   Camping   |   Boating