|History of the Cocker Spaniel|
Unquestionably, the cocker spaniel is of very mixed origins, but I think it may be possible to trace what I believe is its oldest bloodline. When the Celtic tribes migrated westward across Europe from what is now southern Germany, approximately between the years 500-150 BC, they took their cattle, pigs and horses with them, and without any doubt their dogs. It is well documented that there existed at that time a large Celtic hound, possibly descended from the ancient molossus and probably the main ancestor of the Old English mastiff, later to find fame as a war dog that fought the invading Romans and, afterwards, infamy as an unbeatable fighting dog in the arenas of ancient Rome. The Celts Undoubtedly possessed herding dogs and my belief is that these people had smaller red-and-white hunting dogs. Falconry is an ancient sport and owing to artefacts discovered, it seems that the Celtic chieftains flew hawks and falcons, particularly the former as the Celts were a woodland people and doubtless flew the short-winged goshawks at rabbits, the natural quarry of this raptor. What more could a high-born Celt wish for to flush rabbits, hares and woodcock for his hawks than a spaniel-like animal?
Itf is further compounded by the Celtic settlement in Brittany, Wales and Ireland. To this day, all these areas produce red-and-white hunting dogs. Brittany has its epagneul Breton, known to ourselves and the Americans as the Brittany. The original sang pur Brittany was originally only red and white, but at the end of the Second World War, so few Brittanies of breeding age were available in France that crossing with other local pointing spaniels took place. This introduced black and liver colouration. Ireland has its ancient red-and-white Irish setter and later the more familiar Irish red setter emerged from the red-and-white taproot, frequently with accepted white markings on the nose, chest and legs, like some cocker spaniels today. As far back as the 10th century, written records tell us that there were red-and-white spaniels in Wales, which were the undisputed ancestors of the Welsh springer spaniels of today.
|The Welsh cocker
Then, for a time, there existed the enigmatic Welsh cocker, over which there is confusion to this day. This is because many cockers are bred in Wales and frequently the uninitiated believe these products of the principality to be Welsh cockers, which they are not. To the best of my knowledge, the welsh cocker was nevera Kennel Club registered breed, but it has been mentioned by earlier writers and cynologists like Hubbard as being red and white. This would suggest that it evolved as a smaller "subspecies" to the Welsh springer, just as we have miniature poodles, schnauzers and dachshunds.
It is said to have become extinct, like the Devonshire cocker, but I believe both varieties were simply absorbed into the breed of cocker spaniel prior to the Kennel Club's formation in 1873, as the red-and-white cockers we have today are distinct from the lemon-and-whites and orange roans. "Stonehenge" in his 1859 Book of the Dog mentions the Welsh cocker and there is also a lithograph of a Welsh and English cocker standing together.
A difficulty that arose in the latter half of the 19th century was that, although the cocker had become established as a breed in its own right, around the turn of the century the Kennel Club brought in a weight classification whereby any spaniel of 251b or under was a cocker and anything over this weight was a field spaniel or a springer. So though some breeders strove to establish the breed, others crossed their cockers with springers and registered the larger progeny as springers and the smaller ones as cockers.
Those who breed cockers today have inherited this genetical to-ing and fro-ing and genes do not just disappear. In the past, there have been some uninformed comments in the press regarding variation in type regarding cockers, with suggestions that many of undesirable springer size, action and colour are emerging. I can do no better than quote an ex-scientist friend, the late Dr John Brindle, who said, "Some of these people are naive beyond belief, and know nothing about the history of anything. In fact, they believe that the history of everything began on the day they themselves became interested in it".
The 1st cocker I ever saw work was a clear liver-and-white, but with a typical cocker action. Nevertheless, in 1965, 1969, 1970 and 1980, very large cockers won the event.
So for as far back as 1 can go, there has always been a vast difference in type within the ranks of the working cocker. It might be easy to blame the breeders for departing so far from the breed standard, but that would be unrealistic if we take a backward glance into the history of the show cocker. The disparity in type depicted in old photographs is both amazing and enlightening. Ch Obo, born in 1879 and probably regarded as The Father of the Breed was a long, low dog and 1 am certain he would not have gained his title under the show judges of today.
Moving into the 20th century, Mr C.A. Phillips' Ch Rivington Reine, born in 1904, was short legged and long bodied, yet the same owner's Ch Rivington Gunner, born in 1906, was tall, leggy and of workmanlike proportions. Bearing in mind that both show and working cockers of today both stem from the same root stock, is it so very strange that a disparity in type sometimes occurs even when the same thing happened with those cockers of a bygone age that were allegedly bred to their breed standard? The situation is further compounded by the various outcrosses that, quite legitimately, have been brought into the gene pool in the past. This was before the Kennel Club, short-sightedly 1 think, placed an embargo on this practice in around 1969.
A notable breed historian, Miss Peggy Brown has a vastly extended pedigree of Rivington Dazzle, which in its last generation shows outcrosses of field and Sussex spaniels. Miss Brown told me that springer outcrosses were not good, as springer blood is so dominant that it masks cocker type and persists over the generations. She considers Border collie and English setter outcrosses as beneficial, but as English springers and English setters both originated from common stock of the land spaniels of Europe about 400 years ago, a far back setter outcross can still produce characteristics that the uninitiated could mistake for recent springer ancestry. I discovered that the great show breeder, Mr H.S. Lloyd, had used an English setter by the now defunct Class 11 registration to bring blue roan colouration into his Ware cockers.
Having observed working and field-trial cockers , 1 can state that the proportion of untypical cockers seen today is smaller than was the case 30 or 40 years ago. Whereas there were several good cockers present at the 1957 Championship, like Commander Collard's double Championship winner FTCH Buoy of Elan, handled by John Forbes, Frank Fuller's FTCH Stockbury Elizabeth, handled by Reg Hill and Tom Ellis's FTCH Deewood Wendy, thereafter cockers went into rapid decline.
This dark period lasted from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, though a few good cockers still manifested themselves, like the FTChs Simon of Elan, Wilfred of Cromlix and Headland Hazel of Monnow. Commander Collards'1966 Championship winner was more pedestrian, but was a brilliant gamefinder and has left a wonderful line behind it through its granddaughter, FTCH Speckle of Ardoon.
During this period, cockers were knocked hard in the press as some commentators who lacked breeding experience did not appreciate that livestock production over the decades can fall into troughs, then rise to new heights. The great cocker lady Janet Wykeham-Musgrave said that more than 150 years ago, the English thoroughbred declined, but recovered "under its own steam without being crossed with Clydesdales". Her words were prophetic if we look at the breed today.