American Cocker Spaniel

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult American Cocker Spaniel

The American and English Cocker Spaniels were considered the same breed until relatively recently, but in fact, the two had clearly diverged by around 100 years ago. The American Cocker Spaniel is a far smaller and lighter dog, and has been bred with the show ring and its role as a pet in mind. It has therefore lost much of its ancestors’ hunting abilities, although it is still considered a “sporting” breed in the United States. Well-bred American Cockers should be happy, gentle dogs – and the majority are – but the unfortunate fact is that this is a breed that suffered through its own popularity in the twentieth century, and a range of behavioural and health problems were introduced and perpetuated through irresponsible breeding.

It is a sensitive, and sometimes nervous dog that can be easily stressed by noise or rough handling, and so it is often happier in homes without children. Its spectacular show-quality coat requires a lot of commitment, and owners unable or unwilling to devote several hours to clipping every few weeks will find they become regular visitors to the local grooming parlour. The breed suffers from numerous inherited illnesses, and it is vital that all adults are carefully and comprehensively screened for as many of these conditions as possible before being selected for breeding. Largely because of the prevalence of these problems, the American Cocker Spaniel has a rather modest life expectancy of only 10 to 11 years.

About & History

While many pedigree dog breeds were slow to cross the Atlantic, the spaniel family has been well represented in the United States for centuries. The first Pilgrims to leave Plymouth for the New World in 1620 carried with them a small spaniel on the Mayflower, making this the first European dog known to have set foot on American soil. Owned by a John Goodman, this pioneering canine has unfortunately remained anonymous, but within six months of his arrival, he became one of the first Europeans to be the victim of a wolf attack, emerging from the woods with several lupine pursuers hot on his heels. He managed to make his way back to his owner, who successfully deterred the predators with a large stick.

However, it was much later, in 1878, that the first Cocker Spaniel was registered with the American Kennel Club, and there was no distinction drawn between the American and English variants until the 1920s, when it became clear a very different dog was emerging to suit American tastes. The AKC registered the English Cocker Spaniel in 1946, but the UK Kennel Club was slower to recognise the newer offshoot of the traditional breed, only creating space for the American Cocker in 1970. While the American Cocker has been hugely popular in its native land for decades, winning many Westminster Kennel Club Best in Show titles, it has long played second fiddle to the English version in the United Kingdom. The English Cocker has won more Best in Show titles at Crufts than any other breed – but the American Cocker had its first victor in 2017, with Afterglow Miami Ink being the reigning champion at the time of writing.

Appearance

American Cocker Spaniel Large Photo

The American Cocker is first distinguished by the shape of its head, with the skull being far more domed, its eyes more prominent, and its muzzle much shorter than the English Cocker. Such changes, more reminiscent of a toy breed, emphasise the fact that this is no longer a true hunting dog. Its profusely fringed ears are striking, while the long, dense feathers of the legs are most often trimmed into a square skirt when being shown. It has a light, compact body, and a merry tail set high on the croup.

The moderately long, silky coat is made up of straight or slightly wavy hair, and can be one of several colour varieties:

  • Black
  • Any solid colour other than black
  • Red and white
  • Cream and white
  • Black and white
  • Brown and white
  • Roan

Males are generally around 37 to 39 cm in height, and weigh 10 to 13 kg. Females range from 34 to 37 cm in height, and weigh 9 to 12 kg.

Character & Temperament

Every vet or groomer writing about the American Cocker’s personality should offer a disclaimer: they are often difficult patients/customers, which can colour our view of the breed. When placed in unfamiliar surroundings, or undergoing unpleasant experiences, they are easily stressed, and their sensitive nature means they are among the dogs most likely to resort to biting as their first response. However, in their own surroundings, they are gentle and happy dogs, if somewhat easily upset or distressed. Separation anxiety is common in the breed, and an American Cocker should not be expected to regularly spend time alone.

Trainability

Photo of American Cocker Spaniel puppy

The breed ranks highly in tests of intelligence, and most dogs should be easy to train in a patient, kind manner that takes account of their sensitivity to criticism. Socialisation is vital for young Cockers to help them develop a more confident, tolerant view of the world, and friends and family should be encouraged to offer treats to the pup whenever they meet.

Health

Unfortunately, the American Cocker is not blessed with good health. Its popularity, during the 1980s in particular, when it was America’s favourite dog for quite some time, attracted a great many unscrupulous breeders, motivated by financial gain rather than improving the dog’s health. As a result, the most recent survey puts the Cocker’s life expectancy at only 10 to 11 years – considerably shorter than that of its healthier English cousin.

  • Allergies – In dogs, allergies to food or environmental elements generally manifest as skin disease, and a large proportion of the breed is affected. The earliest sign is often recurrent ear infections with irritation spreading to affect other areas, such as around the mouth and genitals. Most cases are managed, rather than cured, by combinations of medications and topical treatments.
  • Cruciate ligament rupture – A very common cause of hindlimb lameness, rupture of this important ligament creates instability in the knee joint, which progresses to cause severe arthritis unless surgically repaired.
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy – In American Cockers, this progressive weakening and dilation of the heart, leading to overt heart failure, is often associated with low levels of the amino acid taurine. Supplementation with this, along with L-carnitine, can reverse much of this change in some dogs.
  • Epilepsy – The breed is particularly prone to familial epilepsy, which can cause seizures from a young age.
  • Glaucoma – An increase in pressure within the eye, most often due to impaired drainage of fluid through the specialised apparatus located in the iris. Seen from as young as four years of age in the breed.
  • Haemolytic anaemia – Like other spaniels, the American Cocker is at high risk of developing this autoimmune condition, in which the oxygen-carrying red blood cells are targeted and destroyed by cells of the immune system. Young adult females are at most risk.
  • Keratoconjunctivitis sicca – Reduced tear production due to autoimmune damage to the tear glands. Causes severe ocular irritation and scarring. Very treatable in most cases with long-term topical medications.
  • Otitis externa – The heavy, pendulous ear flaps prevent aeration of the ear canals, creating a warm, humid environment in which bacteria and yeast are happy to proliferate. Such ear infections are exacerbated by underlying allergies (see above). Regular ear cleaning is essential to prevent and detect signs of otitis.
  • Phosphofructokinase deficiency – Genetic abnormality leading to an inability of red blood cells to efficiently use glucose. During strenuous exercise, this can precipitate rupture of these cells, causing an anaemic crisis.
  • Progressive retinal atrophy – Degeneration of nerve cells of the eye in adult dogs, causing mild to profound sight loss.
  • Rage syndrome – Closely linked to epilepsy (see above), this is a neurological problem that manifests as sudden, inexplicable, and uncontrollable aggression by the dog towards other animals, people, or even inanimate objects. Although these aggressive episodes are intermittent and transient, they are often so violent and unpredictable as to necessitate euthanasia of the animal for safety reasons.
  • Sick sinus syndrome – An abnormality of the complex nerve structures of the heart causing an irregular heartbeat and reduced cardiac function.
  • Tumours – The breed is prone to a vast range of tumours, both benign and cancerous, with this group of diseases being the leading cause of death for the American Cocker.
  • Urolithiasis – There is a high incidence of urinary crystals and stones in the breed. Signs most commonly include straining to pass discoloured, bloody, and/or foul-smelling urine.
  • Vitamin A-responsive dermatosis – A breed-specific cause of severe dandruff and skin irritation, which can affect the entire body. As the name suggests, it usually responds to supplementation with Vitamin A in combination with other treatments.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The American Cocker has less onerous exercise requirements than its English cousin, and most dogs are happy with around thirty-minutes of brisk lead walking daily. However, they can also cope with a lot more, and will happily join their owners on longer walks or jogs.

Grooming

Grooming can occupy quite a chunk of an American Cocker owner’s time. Daily brushing is needed to prevent matting, especially around the ears and rear end, and as mentioned above, the ears should be cleaned regularly – at least once a week in order to prevent infections. All bar the most skilled and enthusiastic of amateur groomers should also enlist the services of a professional, and most American Cockers need to have their hair clipped and washed at least every two months to aid in its management.

Famous American Cocker Spaniels

Besides all its success in the show ring, the American Cocker has also been quite a hit in the White House, with Richard Nixon and Harry Truman being two of the residents known to have been fans of the breed. Additionally, Hollywood A-listers, George Clooney and Oprah, both own/have owned the breed.

Cross-Breeds

There seems to be no end to the combinations that can be produced by cross-breeding the American Cocker, with the following being just a few examples:

  • Affen Spaniel – Cross between an American Cocker Spaniel and an Affenpinscher
  • Bocker – Cross between an American Cocker Spaniel and a Beagle
  • Boston Spaniel – Cross between an American Cocker Spaniel and a Boston Terrier
  • Cockashon – Cross between an American Cocker Spaniel and a Bichon Frise
  • Cockalier – Cross between an American Cocker Spaniel and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Cockeranian – Cross between an American Cocker Spaniel and a Pomeranian
  • Golden Cocker Retriever – Cross between an American Cocker Spaniel and a Golden Retriever
  • Schnocker – Cross between an American Cocker Spaniel and a Miniature Schnauzer

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