Lady and the Tramp. Checkers the White House pet. That mischievous Coppertone sunscreen dog. English cocker spaniels have been some of the most beloved, most recognizable faces in media and advertising for decades. And it’s easy to see why: Their expressive, doe-like eyes and floppy ears make them very hard to resist.
But English cockers are more than just a pretty face. This breed has its roots in the hunting fields of North England. The English cocker spaniel is a loyal, athletic, intelligent dog that will love heading to the park, joining you on a pheasant hunt, or simply hanging out in the family room.
English cocker spaniels are a tad smaller than their springer spaniel cousins; males grow to be 16–17 inches tall and 28–34 pounds, while females stay around 15–16 inches and 26–32 pounds.
English cockers have a long, squarish nose, dark-colored eyes, and pendant ears. Their silky coats are long and soft, traditionally with some feathering at the ends. Working dogs will often have their hair trimmed much shorter than show dogs or family pets. English cocker spaniels are most commonly found in color combinations of black, red, liver, tan, orange, lemon, and/or white.
An English cocker’s tail will grow to a length of 8–9 inches when left to its own devices. However, as a hunting dog who spends time in thick underbrush, it’s been common practice for centuries to dock their tails down to about 4 inches to avoid injury while working. Today, docking is completely optional and often skipped, especially for family dogs.
There’s a reason this breed bears the nickname “merry cocker.” English cocker spaniels are cheerful, playful dogs with a delightful personality. They’re also extremely loyal to their people. They make good pets for families with children thanks to their friendly disposition and compact size. However, smaller children should still be supervised, as English cockers can get suddenly cranky if touched on their extremities.
“In English cockers I see a higher percentage of that ‘flinchy’ attitude,” Dennis Riordan, DVM, of the Riordan Pet Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, says. “They don’t like having their ears and feet messed with and will tend to nip.”
They are natural explorers and excellent retrievers who love to play fetch. But with all that energy and intelligence, English cocker spaniels can get bored easily.
“When you’ve got an athlete dog like that, you’ve got to make sure you’re getting them out to burn off that energy,” Riordan says. “If you’re not doing that, you’ll get a frustrated dog.”
Riordan adds that he's “not crazy about Frisbees for them, because they can pull hamstrings jumping too high. But a tennis ball or stick is perfect.”
You’ll need to make sure your English cocker is well-trained to follow your commands from an early age. Spaniels are sensitive dogs who don’t respond well to punishment or harsh scolding—this only makes them insecure and less social. Be consistent but gentle when training, and reward him with plenty of treats and positive reinforcement. You can start training them as early as pups, and with the proper motivation and reinforcement, these smart dogs will learn fast.
English cocker spaniels develop strong bonds with their human companions and aren’t big fans of alone time. Anything more than a couple of hours by himself and your English cocker might get separation anxiety which could result in stress barking and destructive chewing.
When it comes to their home territory, the best way to describe an English cocker is “watchdog, not guard dog.” When people approach the house, your English cocker will bark and make sure everyone inside the house knows there’s a visitor, and let everyone outside the house know there’s a dog. But beyond that, English cockers have no real protection instincts.
English cocker spaniels are extremely adaptable pets. They’re right at home in a spacious backyard, but they’re also cool with apartment living. They have the energy and intelligence to play well with children and younger adults, but also can be trained to serve as calm, reliable companions for seniors. They become fast friends with other dogs, and even cats if exposed to them at an early age.
Their medium-long fur enables them to do well in colder climates, but the lighter texture of their hair, combined with lack of an undercoat, make them well-suited to warmer areas.
Add all this up, and it means that an English cocker spaniel can thrive wherever you live, as long as you are able to tend to his exercise and companionship needs. Daily activity will be a welcome addition to any English cocker’s life. A game of fetch, a trip to the dog park, or some supervised backyard time will keep this breed happy. They are also natural runners with a high level of stamina and, once they are over a year old, English cockers would be happy to go for a jog with you.
English cocker spaniels tend to be low-maintenance dogs, except when it comes to brushing. English cockers have a double coat, which means under that long, silky hair is a thicker, dense undercoat that needs a lot of TLC. Give your English cocker a good but gentle brushing at least two to three times a week to keep their hair free of mats and tangles, and to keep the majority of the hair they shed off your floor. This breed is prone to ear infections, so be sure to clean their ears at least once a week.
Here’s one of the most important things you need to know about English cocker spaniels: They can get chunky. They’re not afraid of the dinner bowl, they WILL sneak (or straight up steal) any food they can get close to, and if they aren’t exercised properly, those extra calories will add up. So as the responsible one in this relationship, it’s up to you to monitor their diet, and to keep them moving and active throughout their life. As your pup ages and activity levels may drop, it’ll be important to adjust his food intake. Talk to your vet to ensure your dog is reducing calories without sacrificing nutrients.
Aside from obesity, the most common health issues for English cocker spaniels include progressive retinal atrophy, renal failure, and hip dysplasia. But that doesn’t mean your pup will develop these conditions. With an eye towards a good diet, regular exercise, and regular checkups, you can help keep your dog happy and healthy.
Much like their springer relatives, English cocker spaniels can be susceptible to rage syndrome, a disorder that results in sudden, unprovoked explosions of aggressive behavior that disappear just as quickly as they began. Nobody knows what causes the outbursts, and the disorder is considered idiopathic—meaning experts aren't quite sure that causes the outburst. Thankfully, however, rage syndrome is very rare.
“I just don’t see that as a common trait,” Riordan says. “I know it exists, but I wouldn’t chase someone off buying [a spaniel] because of that issue.”
There have been spaniels recorded through art and literature for at least 500 years. For most of that time, springers and cockers came from the same litter stock, the names being more of a size and job distinction. (Springers were the larger litter mates, chosen to “spring” fowl from the brush. Smaller cockers specialized in hunting a bird called the woodcock.) But by the turn of the 20th century, selective breeding had created distinct breeds, with springers and cockers becoming cousins on the family tree, rather than direct littermates.
With the creation of the American Spaniel Club in 1881, both springers and cockers began to be bred for shows and competitions, rather than just as purely sporting animals. Springers and cockers were shown as the same breed of dog, until the Kennel Club created separate breed standards in 1903.
Since then, English cocker spaniels have become show and competition favorites, and they are the winningest breed in the history of the Crufts dog show, winning Best in Show seven times.