Back to Basics: A Comparison of the Cocker Spaniel and the English Cocker Spaniel

The common characteristics of these two Cocker breeds may be interesting, but the differences, which are covered in this article, are the most important.

Spaniels of all types have been recognized in literature as early as the 14th century. It wasn’t until around 1800 that the British made spaniels popular for hunting various types of game. Spaniels were separated into water spaniels and land spaniels, and it is the latter from which came a further classification that produced Springing Spaniels, Field or Cocker Spaniels, and Toy or Marlborough Spaniels. The Field or Cocker Spaniels were further divided by size and weight, with the larger members becoming Field Spaniels, the medium-sized members becoming Sussex Spaniels, and the smaller (less than 25 pounds) eventually becoming the Cocker Spaniels. Cross-breeding between all groups was common, and each littermate was sorted out and classified in its appropriate “breed pool.”

It is there we begin the comparison between the two cocker breeds we have today. The Cocker Spaniel pedigrees would become traceable beginning around 1850, and between 1850 and about 1880, the small spaniels started to arrive in America and Canada. Many of these dogs were descendants of a dominant black Field Spaniel that was deemed to be high on leg and somewhat “settery” in head. He fell out of favor, because he was not long or low enough, but many of his descendants were bred to Ch. OBO II, whose father was long and low, less than 10 inches high and weighed 22 pounds. This was the beginning of the American Type Cocker Spaniel now classified in this country as the Cocker Spaniel.

Meanwhile, back in England, breeders were recognizing that the long and low cocker was not efficient in the field, so they began developing a more useful cocker, making him taller, more compact, hardier and with a longer neck to retrieve shot game. Over the ensuing years in America the two types of cockers evolved, and in the early 1900s, both types were being shown in the same class. In 1936, the AKC officially recognized the “English Type,” and classes were split accordingly, and breeding between the two types was over. Finally in 1946, after extensive research to establish “pure” English lines, the AKC granted the English Cocker Spaniel breed status.

So what’s the point of this history? Suffice it to say, not long ago these two breeds were the same breed. Consequently, they have many common characteristics, and their standards read the same in many places. When developing a comparative study, the common characteristics may be interesting, but the differences are the most important. I have attempted to cover the differences in this article, leaving the similarities to your reading of the standards.

First, my apologies to the Cocker Spaniel breeders and owners in this country because I found in writing the article it was difficult going back and forth without being clear which breed I was covering. Therefore I took the liberty to use “American Cocker” and “English Cocker” throughout because my goal was to clearly distinguish between the two.

Both breed standards call for a dog that is sturdy, compact, well-muscled, standing well up at the withers, having a deep chest with brisket to the elbow, and ribs well sprung for plenty of room for heart and lung development. This body structure defines the breed characteristics that are a must for hunters who need dogs that find, flush and retrieve game in rough terrain and heavy cover. When these little dogs work, they dive under and through the brush with purpose and drive. With that as a starting point, the English Cocker standard expressly states the dog should be “capable of covering ground effortlessly and penetrating dense cover to flush and retrieve game.” While the American Cocker standard makes no specific mention of hunting style, one should remember that both breeds were bred for the same purpose, and the standards describe the characteristics that support that goal, yet define the nuances of breed type.


Size, Proportion and Substance


The English Cocker is the larger breed, and in fact, the American Cocker standard explicitly says it is the “smallest member of the Sporting Group.” English Cocker males stand 16 to 17 inches and females 15 to 16 inches at the withers, and deviations are to be penalized. American Cockers, on the other hand, have an ideal height for males of 15 inches and 14 inches for females; with a disqualification for males that exceed 15 1/2 inches and for females that exceed 14 1/2 inches. Proportions are also distinctly different. The American Cocker is slightly longer than tall, and the English Cocker is basically square to off-square. The English Cocker standard makes a very specific and important statement regarding substance: “The English Cocker is a solidly built dog with as much bone and substance as is possible without becoming cloddy or coarse.” This can be easily misinterpreted because “cloddy or coarse” can mean something totally different to each individual. The point of this statement is the English Cocker should have big rib, a big butt and big, muscled thighs with a compact body. Remembering that their task is to penetrate dense cover helps to visualize the meaning of this statement.



The head of both of these breeds is dramatically different and is one of the most important features that defines breed type. We’ll start with the skull, which, along with the muzzle, defines the overall shape of the “cocker” head. For the American Cocker, the skull is rounded with no tendency toward flatness. The eyebrows are clearly defined, and the stop is pronounced. The muzzle is broad and deep. The correct proportions should be: The muzzle from stop to tip of the nose is half the distance from stop up over the top of the head to the base of the skull. The English Cocker skull and muzzle are quite different. The skull is arched or rounded when viewed from the side or the front, and slightly flattened on top; the stop is definite but moderate with a slight groove; and the eyebrows are not pronounced. The muzzle is equal in length to the skull. Many times we hear people say the head is more like a setter’s head. This is only true in the sense that the muzzle and skull are of equal length. One should never use the term “brick on brick” to describe an English Cocker head. That could only apply if you could round off the surface and edges of the brick.

The eyes of the American Cocker are more round than the English Cocker’s, but the eye rim shape gives a slight almond appearance, which softens the expression. English Cocker eyes are medium in size, oval and wide apart. Both breeds have chiseling under the eyes, which softens the expression, and both breeds’ eyes are set to look directly forward. A soft melting expression is a hallmark of both breeds. Both breeds have a distinctive expression. The shape of the eye, the shape of the skull, and the chiseling under the eyes and along the cheeks, create the wonderful cocker expression. Their look is different but equally enjoyed.


Neck, Topline and Body

Toplines in these two breeds are always an interesting discussion topic. Reading each standard leaves one wondering if there is a difference. The American Cocker standard describes the topline to be “sloping slightly toward muscular quarters” but goes on to say that the “back is strong and sloping evenly and slightly downward from the shoulders to the set-on of the tail.” The English Cocker standard says that the “backline slopes very slightly toward a gently rounded croup.” Therein lies the subtle difference. In reality what we normally see is a tendency toward a more level topline for English Cockers when compared to today’s slightly more exaggerated toplines of the American Cocker. What is more important in this discussion is the flow of the neck into the shoulders and of the backline into the croup, and the placement of the croup in relation to the set-on of the tail.

This look or outline is another important characteristic that defines both breeds. The American Cocker Spaniel’s tail is set-on and carried as an extension of the topline or slightly higher, which is unique among all the flushing spaniels. That implies a tendency toward a more level croup, which gives the American Cocker a distinctive outline. The English Cocker, on the other hand, has a tail set-on conforming to the croup, which is slightly rounded. The tail does not come straight off the back but instead off a gently rounded croup and is carried horizontally. This is often a misunderstood feature, but it gives the English Cocker its distinctive look. The English Cocker is often described as a series of soft curves with no sharp edges. Both breeds require a tail in constant motion. Both are described as “merry” cockers, and a happy tail is essential.



English Cocker breeders place tremendous emphasis on the hindquarters. These dogs must push through dense cover to find game, so a powerful rear assembly is a requirement. The hindquarters can be described as “big and hammy.” Both the upper thigh and second thigh are described as being well muscled. The femur and tibia are equal in length and moderately angulated. When an English Cocker is stacked, you should be able to drop a line from the rearmost point of the buttock, and it should fall just in front of the rear foot. This configuration is most efficient for powering through the underbrush. The American Cocker standard similarly describes the hindquarters to be muscled and powerful with moderate angulation, with no mention of bone length. When the dog is stacked, you typically see the hocks extend beyond the point of the buttocks, and it is this configuration of the hindquarters that gives the American Cocker the impressive extended kick when moving.

Feet on English Cockers are in proportion to the size of the legs, firm, round and catlike. Feet on American Cockers are covered in coat, large, round and firm with horny pads.


Coat and Color

The description of the coat is nearly the same for both breeds. Both breeds emphasize correct texture, and from there the abundance of coat is quite different as can be seen in any of the photos in this article. The coat on the American Cocker is much more abundant, but that is the preference of the breeders and exhibitors. Color is straightforward for English Cockers. As the standard states, “Color: Various.” The description in the standard is specific to preferences, but basically they come in all colors, and there are no disqualifications for color. American Cockers are divided into three varieties based on color: Black variety to include black with tan points, ASCOB variety (any solid color other than black) and the Parti-Color variety. Tan points can appear in any variety but are specifically required to be in six different locations. Colors not specifically listed in the color description are to be disqualified.



There is a difference in how these breeds move. With the emphasis on the English Cocker’s structure for hunting in dense cover, its gait is characterized by more strength with the appearance of power rather than great speed. There should be little effort with a ground-covering gait and moderate front and rear extension. The American Cocker moves with greater speed and extension, front and rear. The gait should be coordinated, smooth and effortless. The English Cocker should not be expected to show that kind of speed but instead will cover the ground in a collected, powerful, effortless stride.



The temperaments of both breeds make them wonderful companions, suitable for the couch, yard or field. They are intelligent and easily trained for whatever task you ask them to do. They do well in agility and obedience, or just hanging out in the backyard. When I am asked what breed I have and I respond English Cocker Spaniels, I often hear, “Oh, I grew up with a Cocker Spaniel.” These breeds have a long tradition of being the family dog regardless of which cocker you choose.

My appreciation to both parent clubs for allowing me to use photos and illustrations from their breeder’s and judge’s education material. Also thanks to Jack Pettee Photography for photo assistance.

From the July 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the July 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.

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