The Cocker Spaniel: A Total Package in the Field
Many articles, and judges’ education, might start with the Cocker Spaniel being a “total package.” Standing, a Cocker should give a total picture of type, size, proportions, and balance. This picture should be apparent when the dog moves. Topline, balance, and the ability to cover ground should be taken into consideration. The same picture, moving and standing, should be seen.
All of this is true. However, many judges forget that the standard is based on the Cocker’s ability to function in the field. Finding, flushing, and retrieving birds is all in a day’s work for the breed. “Form follows function” is a key to good judging, and judges should never forget this as they go over these dogs. The Cocker’s coat is impressive and beautiful. So, seeing this, a judge might think that the breed could not succeed in the field. But this is why they were bred originally and it is what many Cockers continue to do today. What is under the coat—and the make-up of the headpiece—are all important to producing a Cocker Spaniel that can function in the field.
One of these important functional features is the breed’s height. A Cocker is disqualified if it is over 15-1/2 inches for males, and 14-1/2 inches for bitches. The reason for this goes back to their function. They are the smallest member of the Sporting Group for good reason. They hunt where there is underbrush and dense vegetation, areas where bigger dogs cannot maneuver. They are bred to hunt in tough, tight terrain. Their size fits with the job of this remarkable breed.
The Cocker Spaniel judging standard does not end there when it comes to those features needed for field work. They need a nose with capacity to sufficiently find game. Thus, a large, open nostril becomes very important for finding game. Interestingly enough, this large, dark nose is also an important factor in giving the Cocker head its beautiful, soft, appealing look. Eyes that are almond-shaped and deep-set (not bulging) are definitely needed when working in dense areas. The eyelids should fit tightly around the eye for protection when working in the field.
Again, function comes into play with the muzzle, which should have a clean appearance and be long enough to be able to pick up and carry a bird. The ears should be fine and reach at least to the end of the nose. They should fold forward to frame the face. Their placement allows the ears to direct the scent of the bird more readily toward the dog’s large nose. The mouth is large with good-sized, well-formed teeth that enable the Cocker to carry a game bird.
Another functional feature is the neck, which should be sufficiently long enough to allow the nose to reach the ground. Just as important is a neck that fits well into the sloping shoulders, to enable the Cocker to cover ground efficiently. A Cocker with a short neck and a straight front assembly is unable to reach with full extension, and the gait will be constricted, hindering good field work.
A hackney or side wheeling motion shows an improper shoulder. This shoulder is often too straight for a strong rear. The movement in front should be long, low, and smooth. The rear pads should be seen clearly as the Cocker drives forward. This is effortless movement, making it easy for Cockers to sustain working in the field all day. Remember, fast does not mean efficient.
I would like to pause here to include issues about the docked tail, because whenever I give a seminar, there are always questions about the tail being docked or undocked. The Board of Directors of the American Spaniel Club (ASC), on February 28, 2018, made this directive on the tail: The Cocker Spaniel is a docked, hunting breed. The characteristic incessant merry action of the tail while working in thick, dense cover that is sometimes deeper than the dog is tall, necessitates docking to prevent injury.
The membership voted not to change the standard in regards to docked tails. Thus, the ASC continues to support an important characteristic required by the breed’s function as a hunting dog. But, according to AKC rules, a judge may either choose to judge a Cocker Spaniel with an undocked tail, considering the tail to be a fault, or excuse the dog after examination. The ASC will support your decision to judge or excuse an undocked tail. In judging the undocked tail, it is expected that you would prioritize your judging by virtues, and factor in faults lastly. This is not a disqualification.
Lastly, I would like to talk about coat. In spite of the function of the Cocker Spaniel, the breed has become increasingly heavy-coated. Therefore, texture and proper length of coat has become exceedingly important for his dual role. Excessive and/or cottony coats must be discouraged. A coat that knots quickly or drags on the ground makes the dog very undesirable for fieldwork.
In December of 2015, Gun Dog magazine published an article on the Cocker Spaniel to show how wonderful this breed is in the field. The article began, “Long stereotyped as frilly dogs, the diminutive American Cocker Spaniel is reclaiming its heritage as a capable performer afield.” Despite the precious show ring appearance, a number of Cockers, including champions, are doing just fine in the field; finding, flushing, and fetching the birds.”
So, in conclusion, I would like to say, please judge this breed with the idea that form follows function. If you would like to see a video of a Cocker in action in the field, go to the Great Lakes American Cocker Spaniel hunting enthusiast website. Then click on Hunting Cocker Spaniels/Wisconsin. When you get onto the website, click on Club Info and the video will appear.
Cocker Spaniel Judging Guide – Nancy Gallant