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The On Going Development of the Working Cocker Spaniel.

I guess we all remember our first dog with a mixture of nostalgia and a realisation that our own level of experience as dog owners and trainers played a big part in what and who the dog was? In my case the dog was a golden Cocker and I was too young to know what training a dog was about. Sandy was show or pet bred and not the ideal family dog he was sold to my parents as. He was highly strung, possessive and with a tendency to nip anyone who tried to correct his vices.

Poor Sandy, was the result of an incautious breeding programme and he left me with a lifelong suspicion of anyone who breeds for show success or profit above functionality. Sadly we parted company after a few long forgotten difficult months; luckily for Sandy he went to friends of my parents who without children and with few visitors were able to tolerate his unstable behaviour.

Despite Sandy, my desire to own a proper dog was undiminished and many years later as a young teenager with a strong hunting instinct, my Folks found my Brother and I a much more suitable dog. Our Head teacher had a litter of pups, the Mother, a first cross between Lab and Springer Spaniel, the father a proper working Springer. The Sire belonged to the local head gamekeeper and was a strong headed, old fashioned type Springer, a well-bred, hard going, going gun dog. I have a faded black and white photograph of him carrying a Mallard Drake, at the time one of my proudest possessions.

Our pup was black with a white blaze and four white feet and was what you might expect of a dog of his breeding. He was gentle and enthusiastic, a good mixture of Lab, steadiness and Springer dash. He was a natural retriever and I never once threw a “dummy” for “Gillie” as we named him. He followed us from the age he had his jabs, fishing and poking about. Gillie set about learning his trade without pressure and at his own pace. We didn’t know what we should expect and so didn’t expect much other that he should hunt and retrieve.

Luckily for us he hunted any cover like a Stoat, and amazed us with his natural ability to find game by its scent. Yes he ran in at the sound of my .410 without bidding, but at the time I thought this was what he should do. So we never chastised him , we just gave him his head and let him go. How many times he made an otherwise blank day fruitful by finding a Pheasant, Hare or rabbit in unlikely spots I can’t say, but he introduced my brother and I shooting over dogs and taught us something about scent. He gave us the anticipation and joy, that comes from a questing dogs ability to find and shift quarry and I still to this day savour the eruption of a big cackling Cock Pheasant from thick cover with a dog on his tail. Though these days I hope for, but don’t always get a steadier dog.

Amongst the growing collection of sporting books and magazines, I had amassed, was an old blue and white coloured Shooting Times which contained a report on the Cocker Spaniel Championship of the early 1960. The text interspersed with pictures of mainly partly coloured Cockers, carrying game and frozen on camera mid quarter, was a warning from one of the Doyens of the breed. Commander Collard of the Elan Kennel Affix, who I remember may have won that year? I quote from memory, but the message he was voicing was clear. “Our Cockers are not what they were, to many are slow, indifferent hunters and many are poor retrievers with bad mouths. Please note that he said many, it is true that some shooting people had kept good lines. It was from these lines that the current improvement came. For anyone wishing to know more, I suggest Keith Erlansons “The Working Springer Spaniel” which has a chapter on how the Cocker was rescued.

What matters is that the breed was put back on the road to soundness and hunting drive by breeding for ability and not appearance. Many shooting people felt even in the late seventies that the Cocker was a poor second against a Springer. So we must recognise how much progress has been made between then and now and I suggest that the improvement was instigated by and maintained by the “trialling fraternity” Many times I have heard the accusation that horror of horrors, springer blood was introduced. Who can say for sure? But the improvement is there to be seen by anyone and the poor retrievers with hard mouths and pottering hunters with little drive are a thing of the past in the main. Cockers can hold their own with best of any hunting breed, yes they are quirky and you either except that or don’t but improved they most certainly are and proof of that is the number of normal shooting people that now keep and hunt them.

My first dog showed me the thrill of building and developing teamwork with a hunting dog, springer’s I had and were with one exception the spaniels of my formative years, but I knew I wanted another Cocker. A proper cocker, one that would hunt, find and flush and wait on my bidding to either retrieve or not. My search took me many years, was frustrating and at times sideways, with an enjoyable spell with Springer’s. These were the favoured hunting dogs of local shooters and were readily and easily obtained. In fact my Brother a lifelong long Springer Man, found my obsession, odd, why would you want something that isn’t as good as a Springer? Maybe the pragmatist in my nature encouraged the Springer thing for a while? It wasn’t that I didn’t follow up each and every opportunity of a “working” Cocker, they were just hard to find and even harder to get unless you were in the circle. The very few I saw out shooting, were as my Brother loved to point out, “a joke measured against a good springer”.

So it took a me a long while but in the early eighties I obtained a small Black, bitch pup She was the stud fee given by a working, but non trialling, owner and was the smallest of her litter. Her breeder a farmer with a love of rough shooting had mated his Blue Roan Bitch to the renowned FTCH Jade of Livermere. I drove the four hours to Suffolk and collected her from Carl Colclough and I owe him a debt of thanks. Busy as I called her was all I could have asked for. Shy as a pup, but a natural hunter and as she developed she became a fast, hard hunting game finder and the kindest little dog that ever quartered the ground. BUT she was, as I quickly learned quirky and quite prepared to wave your training aside as and when the fancy took her. I learnt that Cockers are what they are, you love em and learn to except there ways. you go back to springer’s. My Brother bless him never wavered. I was determined to train her as best my inexperience would allow and I got her to the point where she was USUALY steady. She squeaked now and then, when hard behind a rabbit, but I didn’t mind and as a very successful trainer of champions said to me recently, that’s Cockers, at least sometimes.

She even won my Brother over, with her hunting and skill on difficult retrieves. He reminded me the last time we hunted together of a long ago retrieve that stayed with him, made by her when she eyewiped his springer, not a thing he would easily confess to having seen!

It was a filthy old early February evening, when she would have been about four, sometime in the early eighties. We were hunting along the banks of twisting sluggish river. It was cold and I mean cold, hard frost and a biting easterly wind. Our plan was to sit and ambush the duck we hoped would flight at dusk, but that wind decided for us and we set out to hunt for a bankside snipe or wayward cock pheasant. As on our little shoot, we only ever shot cock birds, which was a rule that we were often tempted to break, but we did get wild broods so hens were protected. His springer worked one bank, my Cocker the other, buzzing along the water’s edge, in and out of stick piles dumped by the winter floods and under and through thick bramble and blackthorn. Apart from a Moorhen, who flew off legs dangling and unshot, not much was seen. I began to wish I had shot the Moorhen as we did when younger. To be fair it was often all we could find to give a dog a find and flush, if flush it was , that slow fluttering from the dead reeds. We also had to eat them if they went in the bag, probably that which cured us from shooting them. All our efforts and that of our dogs failed, for if the ground is blank its blank, so to speak.

The river narrowed and on my side became impassable, solid Blackthorn thickets and at dusk I wasn’t about to send Bizzy in that lot, where I couldn’t follow so we agreed he would hunt the far open bank to our boundary and I would wait and see if a passing Duck or something his Springer flushed came my way, luck of the draw I thought. So off he went and we tucked up under the edge of the wood and waited, a wet little Cocker sitting as quietly as they can while polishing the mud with an egg beater tail.

How long, we peered into the gathering dark I cant say. As the sky darkened I took to watching her as she would usually spot an incoming duck long before me. Truth be told we were getting bored. When we I heard one … then a second shot. Anyone who has been in a similar situation knows the feeling, what was it, anything coming my way? Neck craning in the direction of his shots, the sky now much darker than when my Brother set he set out. Then high overhead , following the river a pair of ducks, wings whistling came over the wood. They were moving but within range and in more time than it takes to write, over they flew . . Up went my old Browning, bop , bop, one clean miss and a slightly more careful second shot, down tumbled a duck crashing into the blackthorn copse. I looked down at the quivering spaniel and raising my hand said “Get Out”. Away she went and for a few seconds I heard her passage into the cover as she hunted the downed duck then nothing, save the wind and the branches. Five minutes is a long time and I was just starting to think, has she missed it, Ducks especially a lively runner, are expert at evading capture and the terrain in that copse gave lots of dense cover, but as my Brother hailed me from the other bank, triumphantly holding a plump late season Mallard aloft, I heard her heading back and out the thicket she popped or pushed a second Mallard Drake, alive and almost her size as she was a small Cocker, we were happy, one for the Springer’s and one for the Cockers, that’s how we were, competitive but pleased we had both achieved ourgoal.

Just above us an old bridge spanned the water. A simple oak plank and hand rail, we met his side and he said. I dropped two, but she nodding at the springer couldn’t pick the other one. My reply was as anyone with faith in his dogs abilty should be. Ok let’s head that way back and see if she can find it.

Well it was quite a retrieve, the duck when we rounded the corner , was sitting like a decoy up against a large raft of flood deposited sticks, maybe ten yards by ten yards square. As we approached he dived under the mat and we waited but apart from the odd lift of sticks, tiny and hard to see he was as the fox hunters say “gone to ground”.

So I sent her in and she walked across the sticks, swam around the sticks, pushed the sticks about and eventually dived and pulled out the drake mallard. It was impressive and I was the proudest of spaniel owners for some time to come. To be fair, she knew ducks and had often hunted a winged duck along the water edge and in the water, but it looked impressive and an eye wipe is an eye wipe!