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Is a Cocker Spaniel a Working Dog? Facts & FAQ

Written by: Nicole Cosgrove

Last Updated on April 8, 2024 by Dogster Team

English Cocker Spaniel

Is a Cocker Spaniel a Working Dog? Facts & FAQ

Today, we know Cocker Spaniels as cute pups with dreamy eyes, adorable ears, and a lovely personality. However, originally, they were brought up to assist hunters in stalking and retrieving prey, not guard livestock. Therefore, Cocker Spaniels are not working dogs; instead, they are sporting dogs. On top of that, Cockers are the smallest sporting spaniels.

These dogs are strong and witty, with a playful, eager-to-please personality. That makes them the perfect companions for a hunter. Cocker Spaniels aren’t the only dogs that belong to the sporting group, though. So, in this guide, we’ll cover Cockers in detail, talk about the other Sporting types and breeds, and learn how to keep your dog safe. Let’s get to it!


What’s a Sporting Dog? The Definition

According to the AKC, there are seven different dog groups out there, each with their own purpose. The list includes herding, toy, hound, and working groups, to name a few. Now, working dogs were specifically bred to pull heavy carts and protect livestock. Sporting dogs, in contrast, were brought up with the sole purpose of helping hunters locate, flush, and retrieve feathered game.

Raised by hunters that made a living killing and selling game, sporting dogs can retrieve shut-down birdies both from land and water.

A quick note: the Royal Kennel Club uses the term “gundog” to describe canines that specialize in pointing and retrieving game.1 That’s exactly how they classify Cocker Spaniels. But, for all intentions and purposes, it’s the same thing as a sporting dog.

Puppy orange and white cocker spaniel
Image Credit: Artush, Shutterstock

What Were Cocker Spaniels Bred For?

For centuries, Cocker Spaniels have been helping humans catch birds, with the first mentions dating back to the 14th century. First, they mastered the art of locating and scaring birds into traps (nests). When rifles came around, Cockers learned how to “flush them out” and expose the prey to a perfect shot. Thanks to their heightened senses, obedience, and curious nature, these dogs are incredible hunters.

Unlike most canines, Cocker Spaniels don’t get spooked by a rifle shot and can both mark game and deliver the dead bird to their master. Originally, these amazing dogs were brought up by breeders in the UK for hunting woodcocks (yes, hence the name). But when Cockers made it to the States, they were trained to hunt the American woodcocks instead (slightly smaller birdies).

What Are Other Kinds of Sporting Dogs?

If we break down the sporting group, we’ll see that there are four different types, including setters, pointers, retrievers, and, of course, spaniels. For example, the Boykin Spaniel is a flushing and retrieving canine, while Bracco Italiano is a pointing breed. The one thing that all these dogs have in common is their background. They were all bred to help hunters locate, mark, flush out, and retrieve game.

Naturally, sporting dogs love to be “in the field” and enjoy the thrill of hunting. Retrievers are the best swimmers in the group, though, and they have water-resistant coats. So, if you’re hunting waterfowl, go with a retriever. Spaniels, settlers, and pointers, in turn, are trained to hunt pheasant, quail, woodcock, grouse, and other birdies:

  • Pointers. If you need a doggo to help you track down an elusive bird, go for a pointer. It will be able to find it by scent. Once the dog locates the target, it will point its noise in the direction of the game.
  • Spaniels. These chaps are trained to not only find but also flush the bird out by rattling the bush where it’s hiding. Cocker Spaniels are among the best dogs for this task.
  • Setters. In contrast to other sporting dogs, setters don’t make much noise. Instead of attacking the game’s hiding spot, they follow its scent. And, when the dog hunts down the prey, it crouches (or, in other words, sets), letting the hunter know that the bird is nearby.
  • Retrievers. Just like the name suggests, retrievers are trained to find the fallen bird and bring it back to the hunter. They are not afraid to get into the water to grab the game with its mouth. Retrievers are praised for their weather-resistant, thick coats.
Golden retriever wagging his tail
Image Credit: Hollysdogs, Shutterstock

How Many Sporting Dogs Are Out There?

The AKC recognizes 33 breeds as sporting dogs. Here are some of the most famous canines:

  • Labrador Retriever
  • Golden Retriever
  • Curly-Coated Retriever
  • Vizsla/Wirehaired Vizsla
  • German Shorthaired Pointer
  • German Wirehaired Pointer
  • Cocker Spaniel (American)
  • Irish Setter

Are Cocker Spaniels Good First-Time Dogs?

Sporting dogs are widely recognized as amazing companions. Thanks to their trainable, sociable, and energetic nature, they are outstanding family dogs. For that same reason, sporting dogs are often used as service and sniffing K9s. But does that mean you should pick a Cocker Spaniel as your first doggo? The answer is yes: Cockers are affectionate, friendly, and quick to adapt to new circumstances and environments.

They love to play games like fetch (to retrieve a ball or toy) and are always happy to join their human parents in a walk, run, or hike. This way, you can keep their bodies in shape. And Cockers don’t need that much exercise: 60–90 minutes should be enough. This breed is quick to learn new tricks, but it also has a sensitive heart. So, don’t be too harsh with it; instead, be patient and reward the furry bud with treats!

Joyful,Cocker,Spaniel,Sits,In,A,Backpack.,Concept,Of,Hiking_Aleksey Boyko_ Shutterstock
Image Credit: Aleksey Boyko, Shutterstock

Keeping a Cocker Spaniel Safe: A Quick Guide

Cocker Spaniels are strong, healthy dogs. Thanks to their upbringing, these canines can live for up to 14 years and stay active for a very long time. But, just like any other breed, the Spaniel is prone to various diseases. This includes both the American and English Cocker Spaniels. Here are the most common health conditions:

  • Ear infections. Cockers often suffer from otitis, an inflammation caused by various bacteria/yeast. These dogs love to swim, and that’s great news. Unfortunately, it also means that when moisture gets trapped in the ears, that often results in an infection. Regular cleaning—that’s the best remedy here.
  • Skin infections. The long coats look amazing, but they also require frequent grooming. If you leave the fur untreated for a week or so, that might lead to pyoderma. Again, these infections are caused by bacteria that grow in moisture. Thankfully, they can be avoided by sticking to a regular brushing routine (2–3 times a week).
  • Eye diseases. Cataracts, glaucoma, and progressive retinal atrophy are common in Cocker Spaniels. Cataracts often develop in the first 2–3 months of the pup’s life. Sadly, there are no working treatments for PRA. It doesn’t hurt the dog, though, and most Cockers can live fulfilling lives with bad eyesight.
  • Hip dysplasia. If your dog is limping, slow walking, and refuses to go for a walk/run, these are all common side effects of dislocated hips. Cocker Spaniels are not as susceptible to dysplasia as some of the larger dogs, but they do suffer from it. Talk to a vet to come up with the right diet and therapy.
  • Luxating patella. Dislocated kneecaps can make a canine citizen’s life even more uncomfortable and painful than dysplasia. Level 3–4 patella is treated with therapy and a veterinarian-approved set of exercises. While the dog might not get cured fully, it’s still very much possible to manage this condition.

And what about the diet, though? Well, since Cockers need a bit more exercise and like to stay busy, their daily calorie intake should be higher compared to the average doggo. But, instead of giving the chap extra carbs or fats, add extra protein into the mix. Talk to a vet to come up with the right diet for your dog based on its activity level and nutritional needs.

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Historically, Cocker Spaniels have always been exceptional hunters, helping us track and capture game since the Medieval Times. These days, Cockers are often seen as pets/companion dogs rather than hunters. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their touch. Categorized by the AKC as sporting dogs, not workers, Cocker Spaniels are compactly built and gentle, yet strong and skilled.

So, if you’re looking for a smart, obedient sporting dog with an instinct for hunting and a willingness to follow your command, this breed will be the right choice. Just make sure to keep it safe with regular veterinary checks, maintenance, and physical/mental stimulation. Treat the doggo right, and you’ll get yourself a trustworthy, capable hunting partner!

Featured Image Credit: otsphoto, Shutterstock

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