The American Cocker Spaniel is a breed of sporting dog. It is a spaniel type dog that is closely related to the English Cocker Spaniel; the two breeds diverged during the 20th century due to differing breed standards in America and the UK. In the United States, the breed is usually called the Cocker Spaniel, while elsewhere in the world, it is called the American Cocker Spaniel in order to differentiate between it and its English cousin, which was already known as "Cocker Spaniel" before the American variety was created. The word cocker is commonly held to stem from their use to hunt woodcock in England, while spaniel is thought to be derived from the type's origins in Spain.
The first spaniel in America came across with the Mayflower in 1620, but it was not until 1878 that the first Cocker Spaniel was registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC). A national breed club was set up three years later and the dog considered to be the father of the modern breed, Ch. Obo II, was born around this time. By the 1920s the English and American varieties of Cocker had become noticeably different and in 1946 the AKC recognised the English type as a separate breed. It was not until 1970 that The Kennel Club in the UK recognised the American Cocker Spaniel as being separate from the English type. The American Cocker was the most popular breed in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s and again during the 1980s, reigning for a total of 18 years. They have also won the best in show title at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on four occasions, and have been linked to the President of the United States on several occasions, with owners including Richard Nixon and Harry S. Truman. In 2013, the cocker spaniel ranked 29th the American Kennel Club registration statistics of historical comparisons and notable trends.
The breed is the smallest of the sporting dogs recognised by the AKC, and its distinctly shaped head makes it immediately recognisable. In addition, there are some marked differences between it and its English relative. It is a happy breed with average working intelligence, although by being bred to a show standard it is no longer an ideal working dog. Members of the breed suffer from a wide variety of health ailments including problems with their hearts, eyes and ears.
Known as the "Merry Cocker", the American Cocker Spaniel breed standard defines the ideal dog of the breed as being "equable in temperament with no suggestion of timidity." The breed ranks 20th in Stanley Coren's The Intelligence of Dogs, a rating that indicates good "Working or Obedience Intelligence", or trainability. IQ tests run on a variety of breeds in the 1950s and 1960s showed that the American Cocker performed the best when tested on its ability to show restraint and delayed response to a trigger, a trait which was put down to the breed's bred-in ability when hunting to freeze upon finding a bird before flushing it out on command. However, they proved to be the worst breed tested when it came to manipulating objects with their paws, for instance uncovering a dish of food or pulling on a string.
With a good level of socialisation at an early age, an American Cocker can get along with people, children, other dogs and other pets. This breed seems to have a perpetually wagging tail and prefers to be around people; it is not best suited to the backyard alone. Cockers can be easily stressed by loud noises and by rough treatment or handling.
Members of the breed were originally used as hunting dogs, but increased in popularity as a show dog. It was bred more and more in conformation with the breed standard, resulting in certain attributes, such as a long coat, which no longer make it an ideal working dog.
American Cocker Spaniels in UK and USA/Canada surveys had a median lifespan of about 10 to 11 years, which is on the low end of the typical range for purebred dogs, and one to two years less than other breeds of their size. The larger English Cocker Spaniel typically lives about a year longer than the American Cocker Spaniel. In a 2004 UK Kennel Club survey, the most common causes of death were cancer (23%), old age (20%), cardiac (8%), and immune-mediated (8%). In a 2003 USA/Canada Health Survey with a smaller sample size, the leading causes of death were cancer, hepatic disease, and immune-mediated.
American Cockers previously high popularity resulted in the breed frequently being bred by backyard breeders or in puppy mills. This indiscriminate breeding has increased the proliferation of breed related health issues in certain bloodlines.
American Cocker Spaniels are susceptible to a variety of illnesses, particularly infections affecting their ears and, in some cases, their eyes. Although the number or percent of afflicted dogs is not known, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), glaucoma, and cataracts have been identified in some members of the breed. The American Spaniel Club recommends annual eye exams by a veterinary ophthalmologist for all dogs that are to be used for breeding. Autoimmune problems in Cockers have also been identified in an unknown number or percent of the breed, including autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA). Ear inflammations are common in drop-eared breeds of dog, including the American Cocker, and luxating patellas and hip dysplasia have been identified in some members of the breed.
Heart conditions such as dilated cardiomyopathy, where the heart becomes weakened and enlarged, and sick sinus syndrome, which is a type of abnormal heart beating which causes low blood pressure, have been identified in the breed. Phosphofructokinase deficiency is a condition caused by a recessive gene in the breed which prevents the metabolism of glucose into energy, causing the dog to have extremely low energy and be unable to exercise. The gene which causes this appears in around 10 percent of the population, but DNA testing can prevent two carrier dogs from breeding and thus creating puppies with this condition.
American Cockers are also prone to canine epilepsy and the related condition known as Rage Syndrome. The latter is a form of epilepsy which can cause a normally placid dog to engage in sudden and unprovoked violent attacks. Initial research shows that both conditions appear to be inheritable.