Get to Know the Cocker Spaniel: America’s Sweetheart

With soulful eyes and a nonstop tail, the Cocker was bred to hunt, but this dog lives to love.


This English breed wasn’t just welcomed by America — it was adopted, transformed and maybe even kidnapped! America loves Cockers!

But America’s love affair with this little bird dog has led to a worldwide identity crisis. Talk about a “Cocker Spaniel” anywhere but North America, and you’re talking about what Americans call an “English Cocker Spaniel.” What Americans call the “Cocker Spaniel” is what everyone else calls the “American Cocker Spaniel.” Confused?

  • The breed known in America as simply the Cocker Spaniel is known as the American Cocker Spaniel in the rest of the world. The English Cocker Spaniel has a less domed, longer, narrower head; less profuse coat, and often comes in roan colors.
  • Spaniels were developed by the 1300s to flush birds into nets or to waiting falcons.
  • Later, they were also used to find and point birds. Spaniels became specialized by their size, the terrain they hunted over, and the type of birds they hunted. The small upland hunter of woodcock became known as the Cocker Spaniel.

As the Cocker became known as a show dog in the United States, winning Cockers tended to be smaller, longer legged, and rounder headed than the original stock from England.

In 1946, the AKC split the breed into English Cocker Spaniels and (American) Cocker Spaniels.

The Cocker Spaniel was the most popular breed in America from 1936 to 1952, and from 1983 to 1990.

The Cocker is divided into three varieties according to color: Black (solid black or black and tan); ASCOB (which stands for Any Solid Color Other than Black, and includes cream, red, brown, and brown and tan); and Particolor (spotted or roan). They can be interbred but are shown separately.

Cocker celebrities include Spot (of Dick and Jane “See Spot Run” fame), Cover Boy Butch (25 times a Saturday Evening Post cover model), Lady (“Lady and the Tramp”), and the Coppertone Cocker.

A black Cocker named Champion My Own Brucie was one of the most famous and beloved show dogs of any breed of all time. He lived in the 1940s, and when he died his obituary ran on the front page of the New York Times. he was called the most photographed dog in the world. Brucie was twice Best in Show at the Westminster dog show.

The Westminster dog show has been won two other times by Cockers, once each by a particolor and ASCOB.

Owners include Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, George Bush, Lauren Bacall, Ernest Hemingway, Katharine Hepburn, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tom Selleck, Frank Sinatra, Aaron Spelling, Steven Spielberg, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Selleck, and Oprah Winfrey.

White House Cockers include Dot (Rutherford B. Hayes), Feller (Harry Truman, but only for a short time); Checkers (Richard Nixon); and Shannon (John F. Kennedy). Bill Clinton had a Cocker named Zeke when governor. Nixon’s Cocker, Checkers, played a role in his election; when Nixon was accused of accepting gifts, he returned them all but the dog, who he admitted was also a gift. Holding up the dog to the camera, he said, “The kids love the dog, and we’re going to keep it!” The action won him sympathy from the public.

The tail is traditionally docked in the United States.

Cockers occasionally get a heart condition called cardiomyopathy that may be cured in Cockers (but seldom in other breeds) by giving taurine supplements.

The Cocker Spaniel is currently the 27th most popular AKC breed, down from being the 15th most popular a decade ago.

Do you own a Cocker Spaniel? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.

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