The Realities of Owning a Cocker Spaniel

Cocker spaniels are one of the most well-loved breeds in the UK thanks to their sweet nature and kind temperament. But did you know there are two types of cocker spaniel? Working and show.

The majority of cocker spaniel pets are show cockers, these are the cockers you will see at Crufts, they were historically bred to ‘show’ so it’s no wonder they are the most likely breed to win the ‘Best in Show’ title. Show and workers have many similarities, mainly that their key goal is to please their owners, but they have very different prey drives, energy levels and they look slightly different too.

Looks

A show cocker has lower set ears and a dome-shaped head, they have thicker, longer fur so require much more grooming than their working companions.

Working cockers are usually taller, leaner and have flatter coats with ‘feathers’.

Energy

Anyone who is looking to welcome a cocker spaniel into their home needs to know they are often high energy and are very excitable. However, the working strain often requires more exercise (I walk mine twice a day for an hour, longer on the weekend) and more brain stimulation. They have a higher prey drive so its really important you work on their recall from day one so you can keep them under control out in open fields, they often want to chase bunnies and pheasants so it is so important they learn to come back to you when needed, they will often come to the sound of a whistle when trained to.

Show cockers love to sniff more than they love to chase, it’s important to work this scent drive and play games with them so they can really use their noses! Whilst show cockers will walk with you as far as you go, they are also happy with shorter walks, whereas a working cocker absolutely needs that outside stimulation and exercise each day.

In the Home

A show cocker will happily settle down and snooze during the day, but also be up for a good play session! Working cockers are notoriously hard to ‘settle’ and this command needs teaching from day one, they would be on the go all day every day if they could.

Working cockers are well suited to very active homes, they enjoy walking, running, fetching, playing, they are great at agility and flyball. This is because they have been specifically bred to be out in the field, hunting with their owners. A huge amount of working cocker spaniel owners take their dogs on ‘shoots’, they train their animals to collect any game that is shot and bring it back to their owners. These shoots last all day which is why it can be difficult to tire your working spaniel, they have been bred to be on the go.

That doesn’t mean you HAVE to ‘work’ your dog. My working cocker is a pet, I don’t take him on shoots, but I work his senses in other ways. He is not a dog that will lay down and sleep all day, he is busy, he wants to hunt. So what can I do to satisfy natural instincts? I play games with him where he has to hunt, I hide his favourite items (mainly tennis balls) around the house, under blankets, behind curtains, really obscure places, he loves to go and search for them. I hide treats around the garden (chicken is his favourite), spaniels have AMAZING noses, which is why they are so often trained to be police dogs – they can sniff out drugs, money, explosives, you name it, and they LOVE the job. In fact, Poppy the working cocker spaniel was recently allowed to sit on the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons as she was awarded a PDSA Order of Merit (a dog version of an OBE) for her incredible work during the London Bridge terror attack.

You will often hear people describe working cockers as ‘crazy’ and ‘bonkers’ but I don’t think this is fair. Working cocker spaniels are not crazy, they are excitable, high energy and FUN and there are plenty of show cockers that are similar too. Yes, Baxter will do spins in the air and launch himself at you when he hasn’t seen you in a while, but he does this because he loves people and loves company, which brings me onto the next point…

Temperament

Show cockers will often have a calmer disposition than workers but are still high energy compared to other breeds, and there are exceptions to each dog. It’s important to remember show cockers and working cockers have the same ancestors, so there are also show cockers that work brilliantly in the field.

They are both extremely loving, loyal and cuddly dogs. They love nothing more than to be near their owners, and because of this can struggle with separation anxiety. Cockers are not dogs that should be left at home all day, they are your shadow, they will follow you from room to room, some people can find this annoying before realising their dog just wants to be in their presence… Baxter even comes to the toilet with me!

These are dogs that ultimately want to please you and thrive on positive reinforcement!

Training

As I mentioned above, positive reinforcement is the way to go with any type of cocker spaniel! They are sensitive little souls and shouldn’t be scolded. Training a puppy or even an older dog can be frustrating, if you find yourself getting stressed by the 5th wee of the day on your nice new rug, just remember, you wouldn’t expect a toddler to not have any accidents would you?

Reinforce everything they do correctly by praising them and offering them a treat, you will be surprised how much a ‘good boy!!’ can help bring out the more desirable behaviours.

Cocker spaniels are easy to train, even if they are mischievous, but remember they have high prey drives (especially working cockers) and if you give them an inch, they will run a mile. They love routine and knowing where they stand, they respond well depending on the pitch of your voice. Baxter knows as soon as my voice deepens he really does have to do what I say!

The biggest struggle with working cockers seems to be their ability to walk nicely on the lead… This is my biggest issue with Baxter too! I use every lead walk as a training session, he is 20 months and still doesn’t quite get that I don’t want him walking (running) 100mph whilst dragging me along behind. Working cockers need a good, off lead walk, they aren’t the kind of dog you can take a relaxing stroll around the streets with, I also often find Baxter’s walking is much better as soon as he is off the lead!

A Typical Day

My typical day with Baxter is waking him up at 9 am (yes, I am lucky, most spaniels are ready for the day much earlier!), I will have already done his breakfast so he knows it is waiting in his bowl for him. I wake him up, give him a morning cuddle, he always has to have something in his mouth to greet me with so sleeps with a pheasant toy.

I sit and have a cup of tea while Baxter eats breakfast then lays on his back ready for tummy tickles, then it’s walk time. I walk him usually 9:15-10:15, it is a 5-minute walk on the lead, followed by 50 minutes of off lead and then another 5 minutes on the lead to get home. On our walk he does his business and usually just trots alongside me, he doesn’t really run off unless he has spotted something in the distance to chase.

After his walk, we come home and he sleeps next to the AGA in the kitchen on and off for a couple of hours whilst I get my work done. When he wakes up he will let me know that it’s playtime, I spend 15 minutes playing with him, high activity, usually fetch or playing inside with one of his toys. Then lunchtime comes around, after lunch we spend 15 minutes in the garden where I gradually sprinkle bits of his kibble in the grass so he sniffs them out, he loves this game!

Once we come inside it’s time for me to get back to work (like right now!), he can struggle to calm down after an activity so I generally give him a bit of a fuss before ignoring him. I hate ignoring him but if he gets overstimulated he can’t settle, so I have to ignore him until he gives up and goes to sleep. He chills for an hour or two and then it’s time for a walk again! In winter I walk him 15:00-16:00, I don’t like walking him in the dark or even at dusk as the fields are full of bunnies and pheasants and he just loses it… In summer I usually walk him 17:00-18:00, if it is hot I will take him out later to avoid the heat.

Once in from his evening walk he chills but stays awake, watching me prepare my own dinner, he loves watching me when I’m busy! Then I will play with him for about 20 minutes, either a physical game or playing something like hide and seek with one of his toys. Then we both have dinner and by 18:30 he is mostly done for the evening. He will chill for a couple of hours before getting a second wind of energy which is when I give him a chew. By 20:30 he is zonked and sleeps on the end of my bed, I take him out for a wee at 21:30 and then back up for cuddles on my bed and then it’s his bedtime!

Conclusion

So, what does all of this mean? A working cocker spaniel, in particular, is a way of life, they don’t just slot into life, you have to change your life to suit their needs. This suits me, I live in the country, I love walking, I work from home and can play with him as much as he needs. But if you work all day and can’t focus much on your dog, then I wouldn’t recommend the breed, not even a show cocker. They are loving animals that need company! That doesn’t mean you can’t leave them for a few hours a day, but it’s not nice to leave them longer than that unless you can hire a dog walker or take them to daycare.

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