What’s the difference between Springer Spaniels and English Cocker Spaniels?
Firstly, what even is a Spaniel? Pointers point, Setters “set”, Retrievers retrieve… Do Spaniels… span? Well, Spaniels tend to cover less ground than pointers and setters, which makes them ideal for allowing handlers to follow on foot. And due to their smaller size compared to retrievers, and other HPR (Hunt, Point, Retrieve breeds) they are able to navigate in bramble patches and thick brush. Spaniels as a group tend to have long wavy fur on their ears to help protect their soft and sensitive inner ears from getting torn whilst scurrying around the thorns and briar patches. And the long flaps help to waft scent particles up into their nose which helps them find game in the brush! There are two main types of Spaniels – land and water. Water spaniels tend to have much curlier fur making it more waterproof and insulating.
There’s a bit of a debate as to where the name “Spaniel” even came from, some believe that the name derived from “espagnol” meaning Spanish, and the word is pronounced similarly in many languages across Europe. However, after Colonel David Hancock, a renowned British canine historian traced back the origins of the word, there are also some who believe, like him, that the name evolved from the French verb “espanir”, meaning to crouch or to flatten. There’s also an old Italian verb spianare, meaning to spring a trap. Both of these verbs describe the way that the dogs crouch low to the ground and spring suddenly into the air, flushing out birds from the undergrowth into either a ready and waiting net, the claws of a falcon or the watchful eyes of a sighthound.
As they are both Spaniels, both Springers and Cockers have a similar heritage. They worked with the above tools of the trade, before the wheel lock firearm was invented in the 17th century, which in turn made “flying shooting” possible. These breeds excelled at springing the game (both feathers and fur) into the air for their handlers to pick them off with a rifle. This inspired the term we use today – “gundog”.
Despite both breeds being bred to perform the same purpose, there are some differences. Springers are the bigger of the two, which just makes retrieving heavier game slightly easier. As capable as Cockers are at bringing back geese or hares, they struggle with both the weight and the length of some species of bird, almost dragging it along the ground. A Springer would not struggle in the same way.
Originally, spaniels as a whole were divided by their capabilities and therefore their designated quarry rather than individual breed. In fact, the two breeds were found in the same litters once upon a time. The larger puppies were separated and dubbed springing spaniels, and the smaller puppies were known as “cocking spaniels” specifically to flush and retrieve woodcock – a much smaller species of bird and therefore easier for them to carry. Their larger siblings, the Springers, would flush anything from partridge to pheasants, and even hares. Once these two were consistently split, they were bred selectively for their individual jobs creating the Springers and “Cockers” we know today. This aided the eventual distinction in appearance as they got further and further away from each other in genetics. Springers now are around 20kgs, and Cockers are a much smaller 13kg.
A further difference is that of course their colour. Cockers can be a myriad of coat colours including solid black, brown, red, gold, and lemon, and also “roans” or speckly versions of each of those colours. Meanwhile Springers tend to be liver and white, black and white, and even tri colour with some magical tan eyebrows! According to the general public, many say that of the two, Cockers are much prettier as a whole, and you’d rarely find an unattractive one! Poor Springers!
Furthermore, Cockers tend to be the more popular breed – possibly due to their beauty (again, poor poor Springers!), or their size, however it could also lean towards a preference in energy levels! Moreover, there could be a failure to collect accurate figures due to these breeds both having working type counterparts. A lot of pure-bred dogs are not registered with the Kennel Club as the working strains cannot be put on the same records, and therefore the numbers may be slightly skewed.
Working Spaniels are vastly different in appearance, energy levels and drive – they tend to have a more athletic and leaner build than show type, weigh less, have a more alert disposition, shorter and harsher coats, and a longer muzzle in order to take in more oxygen. Because of selecting individuals with a working drive as sires and dams for breeding, these working types also seem to have a LOT more energy to expend than their show cousins.
Springers and Cockers are both so popular that working types have become almost their own breed, making the choice in companion not between two, but between four breeds. And this is without considering that some have “Sprockers” which is a cross between the two, meaning that they could have the glorious, rich, solid chocolate brown coat of a Cocker, but the size of a Springer…. Or vice versa… The problems with crossing means you never really know what’s going to come out! You could have the best traits from both, or the worst. This does make distinguishing between the breeds a lot harder, however if it’s glossy black, fairly cobby and small… it’s probably a cocker.