Cocker spaniels enjoy a very long history and have always been exceptional hunting dogs. While this might not mesh with many people's idea of a Cocker spaniel, with their flowing long coat and soulful eyes, the truth is that they have been beloved for their hunting skills for centuries. In this article, we'll take a look at the Cocker spaniel's history as a hunting dog and whether it can still be found hunting today.
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The Cocker spaniel with its very long coat and perfect posture is only a recent phenomenon when compared to its very long history. References to a "Spanyell" can be found in documents as old as the 14th century. All spaniels are presumed to have come from Spain, as "spaniel" is probably derived from either the word Hispania, which was the common name for Spain, or the French "chien de l'espagnol," or "Spanish dog." Spaniels were used exclusively for hunting, whether it was for hunting in the forest, flushing birds out of bushes, or retrieving fowl in marshes.
By the 1600's, the Spaniels had been separated into two groups: water spaniels, who worked exclusively as retrievers and are now extinct, and land spaniels, who performed a variety of hunting tasks on land. Land spaniels were divided again into two groups: setting spaniels, who silently sought out their prey and pointed them to their handlers, who then would ensnare the prey in nets, and springing spaniels, which flushed birds from the bush for hunting with falcons and rabbits for hunting with greyhounds. As men began to use flintlocks in their hunting, the role of spaniels changed from untrained and unpolished dogs to capable gun dogs that took direction from their handlers.
From springing spaniels came the spaniels we know today: the English Springing spaniel, the Sussex spaniel, and the English Cocker spaniel. The curious thing is that for many years, the only difference between these dogs was their size, so that one single litter could contain larger dogs, which would then be called Springing spaniels, medium sized dogs, which would be called Sussex spaniels, and the smallest would become Cocker spaniels. Eventually, these three dogs would be recognized as separate breeds.
Cocker spaniels earned their name from their proficiency in hunting woodcock, which are small woodland birds. When it was introduced in the United States at the end of the 19th century, it became well known for its skills in hunting not only woodcock, but pheasant and grouse as well.
Despite the fact that the direction of Cocker spaniels in America changed in the 1930's and 1940's towards developing a smaller, more beautiful dog, the American Cocker spaniel nevertheless retained its strong hunting instincts. Today, they are used mostly in hunting through finding, flushing and retrieving game birds. If you are interested in training your Cocker spaniel for hunting, a great place to start is the American Spaniel Club, which offers books and DVDs on their website, or contact your local kennel club to learn if they offer training or advice on hunting.
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