The Cocker Spaniel

The Cocker Spaniel
The Cocker Spaniel
America's Sweetheart


The Cocker Spaniel is, in short, one of the dog world’s most versatile members. The athleticism, combined with a pleasant disposition and high intelligence, all add up to a truly “up for anything” kind of dog.

Canine passenger on the Mayflower, frequent winner at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and the doe-eyed star of the Disney classic Lady and the Tramp… it’s no small wonder that the Cocker Spaniel has become a household name in North America. But just where did this little dog come from?

The Cocker Spaniel is the smallest of the flushing spaniels, a group of dogs bred to flush birds for hunters by finding the game, driving it from its hiding place, then retrieving it oh-so-gently.

Mention of the word “Spanyell” can be found in writings as far back as the 14th century. The breed’s earliest origins are speculative, but most accept that these 

dogs originated in Spain and were brought to England where they were developed over the centuries.

The Cocker Spaniel was recognized in the United States by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1878 and first registered a year later. Still, fanciers sought refinement and clarification as two varieties of the Cocker emerged. What has become the English Cocker Spaniel is the larger of the two. The American Cocker is smaller in stature, has a shorter back, and a more delicately-shaped head. The two breeds were recognized as distinct in 1946 by the AKC, and today the American Cocker Spaniel is simply referred to as the Cocker Spaniel.

Despite his small stature, the Cocker is an extremely sturdy breed. His heritage as a capable gun dog for hunters of small shore birds (such as the woodcock, after which he’s named,) shines through in his ability to move with great speed, agility, and endurance. He is, in short, one of the dog world’s most versatile members. The athleticism, combined with a pleasant disposition and high intelligence, all add up to a truly “up for anything” kind of dog. Time to get in the car and go to the park? He’s up for that. Out for a walk on the city streets? Sounds good to your Cocker. Or, if the couch is calling you for an afternoon nap, chances are he’ll be up for that, too.

While content to serve as a family companion, there is no question that the Cocker will truly thrive if given the opportunity to flex some of his athletic muscle. Exercise for this breed is important. The Cocker needs regular walks at an absolute minimum, and better yet some focused daily play-time with a ball or other toys. If you’re looking to try something new, almost any dog sport will be of interest to your Cocker. He’s well-suited for activities such as tracking, agility, rally, or any other obedience offshoot. And if you’re lucky enough to live near water, let your Cocker tag along with you the next time you venture out. Your Cocker will take to the water like a pro. Finally, with such a sweet disposition and those soulful brown eyes, it’s no wonder that the breed is so often used as a therapy dog.

Speaking of that gentle nature, those who love Cockers know and accept that these are sensitive souls. Intelligent and eager to please, the Cocker needs to be a part of the family and given plenty of love and attention.

Health-wise, this is a sturdy little dog, but he can be prone to some genetic disorders, including glaucoma and several other eye conditions. Sadly, due to its popularity, the Cocker is a favourite of puppy-millers and backyard breeders, so be very careful if you’re selecting a breeder. Find someone who is dedicated to the breed and whose dogs are active in either (or both) conformation or field trials. Ask for health clearances, and ensure that the puppies are living in the home and are well cared for by the breeder. And of course, there are many wonderful Cockers in rescue just waiting for their shot at a forever home; check with your local rescue or online at

When it comes to health, one thing can’t be overlooked: those ears. Yes, those soft, silky ears are a hallmark of the breed and certainly one of its most endearing traits, but they also serve as an ideal, moist breeding ground for bacteria and yeast. You’ll need to pay regular attention to your Cocker’s ears or you could end up with a very unhappy, uncomfortable dog. Prevention is key. Talk to your veterinarian about strategies, which may include trimming the hair under the ear flaps regularly and using a recommended product to keep the ears clean.

Listed as a passenger on the Mayflower’s historic voyage to the new world in 1620, it’s almost as though the Cocker Spaniel was destined to become America’s sweetheart. One thing’s for sure: the charms of the Cocker Spaniel are hard to resist!

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