American and English Cocker Spaniels, close cousins, used as hunting dogs? No way. Cockers are family pets. Long ears, lots of hair and grooming. That is the popular cocker often found in the show ring, not rooting around in fields flushing upland birds and then retrieving the master’s harvest.
Cockers, originating in the 1800s in England and America, were bred to go afield after woodcocks, grouse, pheasant and chukkas. Today, the field dogs are hard to find, but if you are patient you can find them hunting, running field trials and hunt tests. Cockers made it into the Field Trial Hall of Fame for the first time in 2013. Field cockers are most often seen in the Northeast and Midwest.
The American and English cockers have many physical similarities. The American cocker, the smallest dog of the AKC sporting group, has a more rounded head and more prominent forehead than the English cocker. Colors of both include black, tan and reds and often solids on a white background. ACs can be a cream color.
Kim Parkman, a professional trainer and handler in Sumter, S.C., runs an English cocker in tests and trials and for dove hunting.
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“It’s the best dove dog I’ve ever had,” she says.
Parkman, who specializes in Boykins and retrievers, is one of the ramrods in promoting spaniels in the south. She is one of 48 members of the Wateree Spaniel Club, a five-state group, emphasizing spaniel field trials and hunt tests.
She says that no matter what your sporting dog allegiance, watching a field cocker work will bring a smile to your face.
“You can’t help but love them. They are the happiest dog you’ve ever seen, always merry, their tails wagging 100 mph.”
Parkman points to Trish Jackson of Maine as an expert on the American field cocker. At 63, Jackson has been training, breeding and competing gun dogs for 30 years. She has the distinction of breeding and handling the first American Cocker Spaniel field trial champion since 1962. She also has owned two cockers who were both field and show champions.
Following is a Q& A with Jackson:
What interested you about the AC?
I was drawn to the AC early in my childhood. I read a book titled “Ch Dog Prince Tom.” It was a true story and nicely illustrated and I was charmed by the pictures and inspired by the story. An all-round dog that does it all. They may be small but are all heart. They don’t quit.
Describe the difference between an AC and EC.
ACs tend to be shorter in body length, shorter squarer muzzle and generally carry a lot more coat. ECs vary greatly in size, from 18” to 35” plus. Both tend to have wonderful temperaments, make great family and all around companions. The field bred EC is sometimes a little higher gear. ECs tend to burrow under and through cover with a low head using ground scent. ACs have a different style, a combination of running with a low head, then popping up, going over cover using air scent.
Why is there such a wide split between field and show cockers?
Probably because we have very different purposes. Most AC people have no interest in hunting. They are interested in having a flashy dog. Hunting cockers have lots of desire. Ones that are too short and too square do not have the structure to work all day. We hunt rough cover, rarely a grassy field. I have bred the coat out of my cockers. Very easy maintenance. My dogs have a longer muzzle which makes it easier to hold onto a wounded pheasant.
What do you hunt with your cockers?
Grouse are my favorite. They are smart birds, rarely flying in the open. You hear them more than you see them. They are also running birds so lots of good dog work. And they are mighty tasty. I also hunt woodcocks.
Do you prefer hunting over field trials and hunt tests?
Hunting over my cockers is the high point of the year. I love the woods and out there with my cocker it just doesn’t get much better than that. They know how to work wind, trail and stay in range. Rarely need to use my whistle and my cockers are steady to flush and shot. Love hunt tests and field trials for different reasons. Love running master level hunt tests. Love the communication and training it takes. ...Field trials are a different game. Competitive. I need to be on my game. It pushes me to keep improving my lines. Wonderful group of people.
How do you train an AC for field work?
With a lot of patience. Use mostly British methods. Whistle work, recall, stopping, steady to anything thrown. I find ACs are slower to come along than field bred ECs.
Good and not so good cocker characteristics?
Good: loyal, very affectionate. Big hearted, hard working, with a no quit attitude. Not so good: Tendency to be noisy if not corrected. They shed, need some grooming.
Any guess on what percent of ACs are field dogs?
How did you learn to train field dogs?
Lot of reading, videos, most important learning from people tops in the field. Also, seminars.
Your top three tips for amateur trainers?
Patience, take your time. Train you dog piece by piece. Then you can connect the dots. Find a good trainer to help. Train with a group.
Do field ACs hunt waterfowl?
Ducks mostly, sometimes geese. They are adequate but other breeds excel.
Describe AC’s actions on a typical hunt
A busy hunter. Shine in the woods. Over, under and through cover. Tail always busy. Flatten out and in they go when on birds.