Show Cocker Spaniels vs Working Cocker Spaniels

Need some more information on the differences in the types of Cocker Spaniel? You’re in the right place! We outline the key differences between the show and working dogs.

Three Cocker Spaniels race across a meadow in spring. Close up.

Cocker Spaniels are widely known to be gentle, energetic pets and excellent companions both at home and outdoors. If you’re considering getting a Cocker Spaniel, you’re going to face the choice between a show dog and a working dog.

What’s the difference, and which will be better for you? Although both types of Cockers are technically the same breed, they’re different in appearance, personality, and needs.

In this article, we’ll explore the history of the breed to understand the distinction between show and working Cocker Spaniels, review the differences between the two strains, and help you figure out what kind of dog will be best suited for you.

A brief history of the Cocker Spaniel

If we consult the breed standard of the Kennel Club, we won’t find a distinction between the working vs show Cocker Spaniel: both varieties are officially recognized as the same breed. So, how come breeders sell two different types?

As is usually the case, Cocker Spaniels started out as a working breed. As breed standards became more strictly regulated and observed and show dog championships gained in popularity, breeders focused on the aesthetic qualities of Cocker Spaniels.

However, show-bred Cockers didn’t entirely replace those bred for working purposes. Instead, the breed was split into two strains: working (or ‘field’) and show (‘conformation’) dogs.

Working origins

Although the history of Spaniels reaches back to at least the fourteenth century, Cocker Spaniels as we know them became a recognised breed in the 1800s – with the Kennel Club setting up a dedicated Cocker stud book in 1893.

Originally, Cocker Spaniels were bred solely as working dogs, specifically to be helpful companions for hunters. They were the ideal upland flushing dogs – used for finding birds perched in the underbrush. The dog would scare the birds into flight (‘flush’ them out) at the right moment, to give the hunter a clear shot.

With time, Cocker Spaniels’ responsibilities as hunting dogs came to include finding and retrieving the bird. They were therefore bred to have strong, muscular necks, to enable them to easily lift even larger prey and deliver it to the hunter.

Interestingly, Cocker Spaniels were often used for flushing woodcocks (popular game birds). This is where the ‘Cocker’ part of the breed name originates.

The appearance of Cockers as show dogs

As a breed, the English Cocker Spaniel began its show dog career in the 1900s. Following the identification of breed standards for Cockers, breeders began to focus more on creating strains that conformed to the ‘ideal’ appearance as closely as possible.

Cocker Spaniel breeders that have been producing strong working dogs, meanwhile, continued to put emphasis on the aspects of the dog that matter most in the field, such as stamina, intelligence, and physical strength.

This is how the breed came to be composed of two distinct strains, and it explains why the two strains are so different from each other.

What’s the difference between a show vs working Cocker Spaniel? Put simply, a working Cocker was bred for its working ability, with little regard to conforming to visual breed standards. With show Cockers, meanwhile, breeders focus on the looks and general temperament, with less interest in stamina.

Cocker Spaniels, dog breed, puppies

Working and show Cocker Spaniels today

The two strains of Cocker Spaniel that we identify today descend from either of those origins: a working heritage or a show heritage. Although there are no official regulations on the matter, professional breeders nowadays avoid mixing the two strains.

Both working and show Cocker Spaniels excel at their intended purposes. Show Cockers are one of the most successful Crufts breeds: English Cocker Spaniel dogs were named ‘Best in Show’ at Crufts seven times, which constitutes three wins more than any other breed.

Although the glory days of bird hunting are pretty much over, Cocker Spaniels are still hard at work. Working Cockers are used by the police and military as sniffer dogs, trained to detect everything from drugs to cash, firearms, and bombs. They’re also common search-and-rescue and pest control dogs.

Thanks to their intelligence and eagerness for training, they make excellent assistant dogs for disabled people. And of course, they excel at agility training.

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Differences between working and show Cocker Spaniels

Now that we have a general understanding of how the breed came to split into two distinct strains, let’s spend some time exploring the differences. These are all things you might want to take into account when deciding what kind of Cocker to get!

Appearance

Working and show Cocker Spaniels differ in appearance for one simple reason: working dogs are bred for practicality, and show dogs are bred for looks.

The focus on working ability with field Cockers means that they are typically stronger dogs, at the cost of breed standards. Furthermore, some of the defining features of show Cockers would simply be impractical in a working dog – such as the long ears.

Up until around 10 weeks of age, both strains appear more or less the same, with physical differences becoming gradually apparent by the 12th week. Here are some key differences in appearance to look out for in adults and older puppies.

Body

Show Cockers have a compact, balanced body with a relatively big rib cage and short loins. Despite being bred mostly for their appearance, they need to be strong and muscular – even though they’re show dogs, they’re still considered a working breed, which is reflected in the Kennel Club breed standards.

The working Cocker Spaniel size is much the same as that of a show type Cocker Spaniel, though field-bred dogs typically have a longer body, with less focus on angulation. Of course, they too need to be strong and relatively muscular, but there’s no specific standards to meet.

Group Cocker Spaniel dogs, sitting against white background

Head

Show-bred Cocker Spaniels have a very distinct shape of the head, characterised by a fairly short, square muzzle and a rounded skull. According to the Kennel Club, their ears must be long, set low on the skull (level with their eyes), with ‘fine leathers extending to nose tip’.

Working Cocker Spaniels usually have longer and narrower muzzles, and the tops of their skulls are flatter than those of show Cockers. They also have significantly smaller ears, set higher than their eyes – as we’ve already touched upon, the long, low ears of the show Spaniel would be impractical during hunting and other field work.

Coat

In terms of length and texture, a show Cocker Spaniel will have a longer, more abundant coat. The coats of working Cockers are usually fine, shorter, with less noticeable feathering.

Breed standards require show Cocker Spaniels to have specific coat colours, with no white allowed apart from ‘a small amount on the chest’. For working Spaniels, this is not a priority, and they come in all colour varieties, including mostly white.

Tail

Historically, tails of working Cockers were often docked (cut short). This was supposed to prevent their naturally long tails from getting in the way during hunting and from causing them injury while they explored the underbrush.

Tail docking is a controversial and less popular practice nowadays. If nothing else, there is a range of serious health risks that can arise as a result of docking and most experts discourage dog owners from shortening the dog’s tail – even in the case of working types.

Personality and needs

Both strains are technically working dogs, so regardless of whether you get a working or show Cocker, expect a lively, energetic pooch with a kind disposition.

Whereas a show Cocker Spaniel requires approximately an hour of exercise per day, the working strain often needs considerably more. As dogs bred for increased stamina, they are much more difficult to ‘tire out’ than show dogs.

Though working Cockers still make great family pets, it’s important to keep in mind that they will get frustrated and misbehave if they’re not given enough opportunities to expend their energy. Many owners of working Cocker Spaniels choose to take part in gundog, scent-work, and agility classes to keep their pet happy and stimulated both physically and mentally.

Trainability

Cocker Spaniels are highly intelligent dogs that are relatively easy to train – often, they even enjoy training as it keeps them busy.

However, Cockers are known for being strong-willed – or, to put it bluntly, stubborn. Therefore, it’s recommended to begin systematic training as early as possible. Puppy obedience classes are a great way to get started.

Though both show and working Cockers are highly trainable, the working strain is likely to put more effort into the training – and therefore learn faster. After all, they’ve been bred specifically to follow commands and please their human companions!

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Health

Both strains of Cocker Spaniels are generally easy to keep healthy, though they are also susceptible to the same issues. Like most dogs, Cockers are at risk of eye and ear conditions. Breed-specific health issues include slipped discs, heart disease, and pancreatitis.

Cocker Spaniel dogs

While the health concerns are the same for both show and working Cockers, the two strains may need different diets to keep healthy.

Show Cockers, when kept at home as pets, can easily become overweight. Working Cockers, meanwhile, may require a diet with additional protein, especially if they’re heavily exercised. A consultation with a vet will be necessary to find the right diet for your Cocker Spaniel.

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Working Cocker or show Cocker?

Which strain will be the best choice for you? The answer depends on your lifestyle and your expectations of the dog.

If you’re looking to enter your dog into competitions, the decision will be easy. The Cocker Spaniel show type is the obvious choice for those looking to enter Crufts-type breed standard championships, whereas a working type Cocker Spaniel is perfect for agility and obedience competitions.

Those looking for a relatively low-maintenance family pet that’s happy to cuddle up on the sofa will likely be happier with a show-bred Cocker. A working Cocker Spaniel is a great companion for people with an active lifestyle or those who work outdoors.

All Cocker Spaniels make for great companion dogs and pets, provided that they’re given the exercise and stimulation they need to thrive. Whichever strain you choose, you’re sure to find a merry, loyal, lifelong friend.

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