English Cocker Spaniel

Gemma Gaitskell
Dr Gemma Gaitskell (BVetMed MSc MRCVS, Royal Veterinary College, London)
Photo of adult English Cocker Spaniel

The English Cocker Spaniel is a small dog belonging to the sporting and gundog group of breeds. It is energetic, gentle and affectionate with an extreme desire to please its owner. Originally bred as a land spaniel to flush Woodcock out during shoots the Cocker Spaniel enjoys work and mental stimulation, making an excellent pet for active families, also excelling as sniffer dogs. Cocker Spaniels are fast learners and this combined with their willingness and desire to please makes them highly trainable.

The English Cocker Spaniel has a very sociable character and enjoys company which means they can be prone to separation anxiety and do not make good guard dogs. The breed requires plenty of walking and has high energy levels. Exercise is important to maintain a healthy weight in older dogs. Cocker Spaniels can shed reasonably heavily and may require the occasional visit to the groomers, although regular brushing at home is sufficient most of the time. The breed suffers from some health problems so it is important to choose a good breeder and healthy family line.

About & History

The first spaniels are thought to originate from Spain, which is where the name comes from. These early Spaniels are thought to have been developed as a breed around the 1400s for hunting. References to Spaniels can be found in literature from around the 1300s. They were then divided into land and water varieties before different breeds were further refined. The Cocker Spaniel belongs to the gundog group and was originally a working dog used to flush Woodcock out during shoots. They are a type of land spaniel, which were first recognised as a breed of their own, separate from the Springer Spaniel in the 1870s.

People began to show the Cocker Spaniel towards the end of the 1800s and today there are distinct differences between working and show dogs. Cocker Spaniels used for showing tend to be more thickset and sturdier looking than working Cockers. The popularity of the showing strain increased greatly after World War II. The Cocker Spaniel is also good at following scent and has strong retrieving instincts and a very soft mouth, so as not to damage the birds that it retrieves. The breed should not be confused with the American Cocker Spaniel, which has the same origins but is now recognised as a separate breed and has several differentiating characteristics.

Today the Cocker Spaniel continues to be used as a working dog, but is also a popular companion. In addition, the breed can excel in disciplines, such as agility, and is also sometimes used as sniffer dogs, putting their scent following skills to use.


English Cocker Spaniel Large Photo

The English Cocker Spaniel has numerous colours and colour combinations, which are accepted for registration by the UK Kennel Club. These include:

  • Black
  • Black & Tan
  • Black & White
  • Black & White Ticked
  • Black, White & Tan
  • Blue Roan
  • Blue Roan & Tan
  • Chocolate
  • Chocolate & Tan
  • Chocolate & White
  • Chocolate Roan
  • Chocolate Roan & Tan
  • Chocolate, White & Tan
  • Golden
  • Lemon & White
  • Lemon Roan
  • Liver
  • Liver & White
  • Liver & White Ticked
  • Liver Roan
  • Liver Roan & Tan
  • Liver White & Tan
  • Orange & White
  • Orange & White Ticked
  • Orange Roan
  • Red

Sable colouring is not recognised by the UK Kennel Club. The Cocker Spaniel has a flat, silky, smooth coat with feathers on their legs and some undercoat for extra protection. Their height to the withers is between 38 to 41 cm and they should weigh approximately 13 to 14.5 kg. Female dogs are normally slightly smaller than males. The height to the withers should be slightly bigger than the distance from the withers to the base of the tail.

The Cockers neck is of a medium length, but is muscular and leads to sloping shoulders which have flat, fitted shoulder blades. The elbows are held close to the body and the front legs should have a straight and constant appearance. The body should be compact and strong with a deep, but not wide chest and should not give an impression of heaviness. The Cocker Spaniel’s back should be short and strong with a slight slope from the shoulders to the backend. Hips should be reasonably wide and rounded with a muscular hind leg, which creates propulsion. The size of the feet should be proportionate to that of the legs and pads should be thick and strong.

The Cocker Spaniel has a square shaped muzzle with a wide nose to help follow scents. The jaw should be strong and have a scissor bite. Eyes should not be too prominent and should always be dark in colour but can vary depending on coat colour. They should have an alert and happy expression whilst conveying the breeds gentle nature. Ears are covered in silky hair and are fairly long and low set.

Cocker Spaniels should have a light and effortless movement, which is ground covering and demonstrates drive and power as opposed to speed, whilst carrying their head high. Any traits, which prevent the Cocker Spaniel from performing its original work as a gundog, are considered a fault, as function is an important characteristic for the breed.

Character & Temperament

The English Cocker is a lively but gentle and affectionate dog which is a good worker and eager to please. The Cocker is also intelligent and athletic and very loyal. They are generally excellent with children although some dogs, especially from showing strains can suffer from a so called ‘Rage Syndrome’ where they become aggressive for no obvious reason.

The number of dogs affected by this is very small and it is thought to be linked to coat colour. Episodes are completely unpredictable. Cockers are extremely loyal and sociable and like to have constant company, which can mean that they suffer from separation anxiety. Their good nature and relatively small size means that they do not make good guard dogs.


Photo of English Cocker Spaniel puppy

The English Cocker is extremely trainable. They are intelligent and always eager to please, so this combined with their attentive nature means they learn quickly and are generally very obedient. When used as working dogs, Cocker Spaniels are trained to follow hand signals, which their owner uses to indicate where they should look or areas of interest.

Although lively and active their nature means that Cockers generally have very good recall. Their trainable nature means that house-training is not typically a problem.


The average lifespan of the English Cocker Spaniel is around 11 to 12 years. When choosing a breeder, it is important to try and identify healthy family lines and check that dogs have been tested appropriately for any conditions which could affect the breed. The health problems of the American Cocker Spaniel should not be confused with those of the English Cocker Spaniel.

Despite being an active breed, originally bred as a working dog the Cocker Spaniel can suffer from some health problems. Requirements for Kennel Club Assured Breeders include tests for:

Required Tests for KC Assured Breeders

Familial Nephropathy (FN)

A disease where there is a defect in the part of the kidney which filters the blood due to the lack of a specific type of collagen. This causes proteins to filter through with urine and eventually causes further kidney damage.

The disease usually occurs from 6 months to 2 years old and is fatal but progression is faster in some dogs than others. A DNA test is available to ensure parents do not carry the disease.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (prod-pra)

A term which encompasses various inherited disease which affect the retina. They can be either developmental or degenerative. Developmental types often occur when dogs are young and progress rapidly, whereas degenerative types develop when dogs are older and have a slower progression.

Cocker Spaniels most often suffer from General Progressive Retinal Atrophy, which starts off with a difficulty seeing at night and eventually causes complete blindness. A DNA test is available to identify dogs affected by the condition.

Eye Scheme

The eye scheme includes genetic testing for 12 genetically transmitted eye diseases. Others apart from Progressive Retinal Atrophy, which are of importance in the Cocker are:

  • Goniodysgenesis/Primary Glaucoma: A disease where fluid fails to drain correctly from the eye causing a build up and as a consequence an increase in intra-ocular pressure. This is painful and can eventually lead to blindness. Breeders are advised to test their dogs annually.
  • Multi-Ocular Defects: A term used to describe when there are multiple problems affecting the eye. There are numerous problems that can fall into this category.
  • Persistent Pupillary Membrane: A condition where remnants of blood vessels involved in the development of the lens before birth remain in the eye. These normally disappear but if they do not they can affect vision and cause corneal opacities, cataracts or form sheets of tissue. The extent and location of these abnormalities can affect vision to varying degrees. Treatment is based around addressing associated problems as there is no treatment for the membranes themselves.

Other Health Issues

Although not obligatory it is strongly recommended that Cocker Spaniels are tested for:

Hip Dysplasia (HD)

An abnormal development of the hips, which can include several developmental problems and abnormalities commonly leading to joint problems in older dogs. Dogs older than a year are x-rayed and the x-rays are scored using specific criteria by experts.

The maximum score is 106 and a low score correlates with the presence of fewer signs of dysplasia. HD is genetically transmitted but its development can also be influenced by environment.


An additional eye examination which is used to identify a predisposition to glaucoma. It should be performed every 3 years.

Acral Mutilation Syndrome (AMS)

A syndrome where dogs cause damage and mutilation of their own paws, feet, legs and tail which is thought to be linked to a lack of pain sensation. It is usually seen between 3 and 12 months of age. A DNA test is available.

Haemolytic Anaemia

An autoimmune condition where the body destroys red blood cells abnormally. This causes symptoms common to other types of anaemia, such as tiredness and weakness, faster breathing and a lack of oxygenation of tissues, which can cause signs, such as disorientation. Dogs eventually become jaundiced and if not treated the condition is fatal. The exact cause is unknown, but at the time of writing it is not thought to be a genetic problem.

Chronic Pancreatitis

A condition which is caused when digestive enzymes from the pancreas itself start attacking the organ. This becomes chronic when episodes are recurrent and continuous and irreversible changes are caused. Signs include abdominal pain, in appetence, vomiting and diarrhoea and treatment revolves around pain relief and implementation of a low fat diet. The exact cause is currently unknown although in Cocker Spaniels it is thought to be autoimmune.

Mammary Tumours

A type of cancer where tumours develop around the mammary glands. These are most common in un-neutered female dogs and the exact cause is unknown although research is being undertaken to try and identify genes that relate to an increased risk.

Adult Onset Neuropathy

A disease which usually affects older dogs from 7 to 9 years of age. Dogs become weak and suffer a loss of coordination, beginning in the back legs, but eventually affecting the front legs, as well. Eventually it also causes problems in swallowing. A DNA test is available to identify if a dog is affected. This condition may be more prevalent in America.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Cocker Spaniel, in particular the working Cocker, is a high energy breed which requires plenty of exercise. They need around an hour and a half of exercise a day and some of this time should be spent off the lead to allow them to run, although many will never appear obviously tired.

They love to work and are happiest in a stimulating environment, which provides them with mental challenges and plenty of space either on walks or in a large garden. Although they are not a water spaniel, most Cockers love water and leap at the chance to swim.


The Cocker Spaniel has a coat which is fairly easy to care for, although requires regular brushing to keep it at its best and prevent matting and excessive shedding around the house. A trip to a groomer may be necessary a few times a year to keep them looking smart and in the case of showing lines, to achieve the traditional Cocker look if desired.

Cocker Spaniels have reasonably long ears so can be prone to ear infections. This is more likely in showing than working lines, as ears tend to be longer. Checking the ears regularly and keeping them clean can help to reduce the chances of infections progressing as catching them early makes treatment easier.

Famous English Cocker Spaniels

Despite being a popular breed there are few examples of Cocker Spaniels in popular culture, although several well-known figures have had them as pets.

  • Lady from the animated film, Lady and the Tramp
  • Lupo, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s dog


There are numerous different Cocker Spaniel crosses, perhaps due to its kind, affectionate and trainable nature. The following are some examples:

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