Looking at photographs of American cocker spaniels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you might hardly recognize the breed. Many early dogs were longer in body and shorter in leg than today’s dogs. However, the cocker spaniel’s coat has undergone the greatest transformation.
American Cocker Spaniel History
Cocker spaniels are descended from English field spaniels that were bred specifically to hunt and to retrieve the Eurasian woodcock. When the cocker spaniel came to the United States, it was further refined into a dog more suited to hunt the American woodcock, a smaller bird than its European cousin. The American cocker spaniel was bred to be an upland spaniel, which typically did not retrieve birds shot down over water. It was a flushing spaniel, a dog that forced birds into the air from where they were hiding so hunters could fire on them. The smallest of the gun dogs, the American cocker spaniel has fallen out of favor as a hunting dog. Although some hunting lines of American cocker spaniels still exist, the American cocker spaniel remains popular as a pet and a show dog.
American Cocker Spaniel AKC Breed Standard
The American cocker spaniel breed standard endorsed by the American Kennel Club describes a coat that is short and fine on the head but becomes medium-length on the body. A proper representative of the American cocker spaniel breed will possess a silky coat that may have a slight wave to it. The American cocker spaniel’s ears, chest, abdomen and legs should be “well feathered, but not so excessively as to hide the Cocker Spaniel’s lines and movement."
Show-Bred vs. Field-Bred
As the American cocker spaniel grew in popularity as a pet and a show dog, selective breeding promoted characteristics that made its members less suited to hunting. Companion and show-quality American cockers were bred to be smaller than “field-bred” dogs, or those bred for hunting and retrieving abilities. The hunting spaniel's practical leg fringes became heavy "furnishings" of thick, soft hair that was more likely to catch in underbrush if they went out in the field.
A contingent of hunters argue that show breeders have bred the hunting instinct out of their lines, while show breeders argue that they can and often do hunt with their dogs after they have retired from the conformation ring. It is true that field dog breeders focus more on instinct while show breeders focus more on the appearance of the dog. As show breeders continue to compete in trials and more cocker spaniels in hunt tests and field trials in general, it is possible that the hunting instinct gap, if not the appearance gap, between the two varieties of American cocker spaniel will diminish over time.
Show Coat vs. Field Coat
The profuse coat of the show cocker spaniel comes from two sources: genetics and grooming. Their coats are pampered from the moment they are selected to be part of the rarefied conformation world. By contrast, the coat of the field-bred cocker spaniel may be occasionally brushed and rarely trimmed.
Both types of cocker spaniel have a “jacket,” a saddle of shorter and smoother hair extending over their backs from shoulders to hips, but that’s where the resemblance ends between the two varieties' coats. The field bred dog’s ears and legs display short, heavy feathering rather than the heavy furnishings of a show dog's coat. The hair on a field-bred dog's chest and ribs may hang somewhat and there may be a fringe of longer hair on the back of the field dog’s legs, in contrast to the heavy curtain of hair that drapes the same areas on the show dog's coat.
Although genetics play a role in the difference between the two different coat types, the show spaniel is not necessarily at an insurmountable disadvantage in the field. Once a retired show dog is shaved and trimmed, if he retains a hunting instinct, he should be able to hunt as well.