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The Return of the Hunting Cocker Spaniel

By Charles Frisk Green Bay, Wisconsin
( published in Spaniels In The Field – winter 1998 )

I have an old book in my library on hunting spaniels with a lot of pictures of field bred English cockers and American cockers. They were merry looking little dogs with much shorter coats, shorter ears, and without the buggy eyes characteristic of show bred American cockers.
Both breeds looked like the ideal hunting dog for the sportsman looking for a small, easily manageable dog. Those dogs were shown retrieving big rooster pheasants and leaping enthusiastically into the water after ducks. There was even one picture of a little cocker bringing in a Canada goose. I’d always thought it was a shame that the field-bred cocker had pretty much died out and had been replaced by the long coated show strains.

By the 1980s conventional wisdom had it that the hunting cocker was as extinct as the dodo bird. Therefore you can imagine my surprise one evening while taking a walk with my wife when I saw an English cocker which could have walked right out of the pages of my old book. The cocker was retrieving a fetching dummy with as much enthusiasm as I’d imagine the cockers in my book would have shown.

The man training the cocker was Vance Van Laanen, a Green Bay industrialist, arguably the most important figure in the return of the English cocker as a viable hunting dog in the United States. I stopped and talked awhile and found that he had imported his dogs from Scotland where the English cocker has always maintained its popularity as a hunting dog.

Recently I asked Vance how a man from Green Bay came to end up with hunting dogs from Scotland and he responded with a very fascinating story. “I was kind of casting around for an alternative place to go with dogs. My dad had raised labs all of his life and I had followed suit. But then the waterfowl hunting got so lousy. There were no ducks and few geese. We had to go to Canada and it was always a big safari. Those trips became expensive and time consuming and it seemed like every year we had to go further north in Canada to find good hunting. There just wasn’t enough good waterfowl hunting to make the lab a good choice.”

Vance was looking for a good all around Wisconsin hunting dog, for the one dog man who hunts grouse, woodcock, pheasant, and a few ducks. A pro dog trainer recommended that Vance look into springer spaniels.

Vance researched and followed springer field trials for a year until he found the breeding he wanted. The dogs he liked were primarily out of British breeding so Vance was surprised to see a litter of pups from Wild Rose, Wisconsin that had precisely that breeding.

The man selling the springer pups was Alan Hurst, a Scottish gamekeeper and dog trainer who had been brought to this country to run a game farm for a Milwaukee businessman. Hurst had brought over some spaniels and had a litter for sale. While checking out the springer puppies Vance noticed some smaller dogs in a nearby pen. Vance asked what kind of dogs they were and what the Scotsman did with them. When Hurst replied that the dogs were English cockers and that they were bird dogs Vance accused him of pulling his leg. Vance recalls, “upon hearing the little cockers slighted Hurst got upset, I mean really upset.”

The Scotsman was so worked up he decided it was time to quit talking and start showing. He went into the tack room of the kennel, got out two SKB side by sides and threw one to Vance, went over to the pheasant pen, got out two pheasants, planted them out in the field and got the two little cockers.

Vance recalls, “We walked down to the field and he tooted on the whistle and they sat down and looked at him with their tails going a thousand miles an hour, just like an egg beater, until he cast them off and they started down that field just like windshield wipers. One of them bumped a bird, Alan gave a toot on the whistle and both dogs sat down as the bird came by me and I shot it. Those two little dogs were sitting there with their tails beating until he gave one the retrieve command. That little dog took off like a frozen rope, grabbed the bird, and brought it back to us. I’d never seen anything like it. It was beautiful.” Suddenly Vance was more interested in cockers than springers, but unfortunately the Scotsman had none for sale. The male belonged to his boss and the female which Hurst owned was the daughter of the male so they couldn’t be bred. Vance bought two of the springers but he knew right then that someday he would have some of those cockers.

Vance recalls, “About six months later Alan quit his job and went home. We’d gotten to be pretty good friends and he invited my wife and I to come and visit with the tacit understanding that I was coming over to look for cockers. I told my wife that we were going on a nice trip and she got all the books on castles and such and about a year later we took off for Scotland.”
Vance timed his trip to Scot-land to coincide with the game fair. The game fair is an institution unlike anything we have in the U.S. with gunmakers, gun dogs, and all manners of sporting goods on display. There Vance met Jack Windle of Dumfries-shire, Scotland who had developed the Jordieland line of English cockers. The Jordieland cockers are one of the top two or three lines of cockers in Scotland and just happened to be the dogs which Vance had selected to purchase.
Vance selected two females to have shipped back to the U.S.. At the time he had no intention of breeding the dogs. Vance remarked, “I had two nice little dogs and that was going to be it.

I was going to take them home, train them up, and have fun. When I got home and found out how good they were and how quick they trained up, the responsiveness of the dogs just knocked me over. You could teach them anything, and quick. The guys I hunted with began to climb all over me to breed those dogs. So I had Jack Windle ship me a male and a bitch in whelp. That was in 1978 and I’ve been with these little dogs ever since.”

Vance has stuck primarily with dogs out of Jordieland breeding, although he has also imported a couple of dogs from Rosemary Hall’s Templebar kennel to provide outcrosses. Vance produces a litter or two a year out of his Braemar Kennel. The reason Vance has stuck with line breeding the Jordieland dogs is because it provides great consistency. People in Scotland who know good dogs say that Jack Windle’s pups are so consistently good that it seems like he makes them with a cookie cutter. They all come out the same way; friendly, happy, peppy, perky little dogs with great hunting desire.

That consistency has come through in this country as well. Jim Dhuey, the owner of a Braemar Kennel English cocker, remarks, “With most hunting breeds you hope for a certain percentage of the pups to work out as good bird dogs. With the Jordieland strain of English cockers it seems that every pup is a good one. Some are a little better than others but all of them are outstanding bird dogs.”

The other major players in the English cocker picture here in the Midwest are Stan and Lisa Wrobel, professional dog trainers from Morrison, Wisconsin. The Wrobels raise and train all sorts of gun dogs from standard poodles to English pointers. They received their English cocker breeding stock from Vance and work very closely with him in the development of the breed. Most of the hunting cockers in the Midwest pass through the Wrobel kennels whether it be for training, breeding, or whelping.

Stan refers to the English cocker as the “Cadillac” of grouse and woodcock dogs. Their limited range and willingness to dig into the densest, toughest cover makes them a hard dog to beat for that type of hunting. He has also trained English cockers for customers who use them primarily for pheasant hunting as well as many who use them for duck and goose hunting. One of his customers used his cocker to retrieve 12 Canada geese last season.

How does Stan describe the English cocker? “They’ve got a lot of heart, an awful lot of heart. They’ll do the job of a labrador, they’ll go out there and get the goose where some labradors will fall by the wayside. In the heavy cover they get right down in there, where a lab or a springer will walk over the top.”

The Wrobels also commented on the entertainment value of the cocker while hunting. No other breed shows quite the same enthusiasm and excitement while working that these little dogs show. Stan has coined the expression the “wog” to describe the animation these dogs show when they are on a bird. Lisa says that the dogs look like they’re going to wiggle right out of their skin when they get ready to flush.

Probably the greatest asset of the English cocker is that it can also double as the full time family pet. Vance says that his cockers flat out demand affection. In fact, he takes two of his dogs to work with him every day. After moving around a little to greet all of the secretaries they settle down nicely by his desk.

In my opinion the sporting breeds in general can’t be beat as family pets, but the English cocker may very well be the best of the lot as a family pet. Labs and springers have excellent reputations as house pets but in recent years there have been increasing complaints about hyper or high strung dogs particularly out of some of the hotter field lines. Not only does the cockers smaller size suit it more to the house, but most of them are very content to lay down in their favorite corner after they’ve received their dose of affection.

What does Vance feel needs to happen for the English cocker to fulfill its potential as a hunting dog in this country? “Hopefully more responsible breeders will take an interest in the English cocker. People who would be willing not to exploit the novelty of the dog and realize that quality is in the long term best interest of both the dog and the breeder. If that happens I would say the future for the dogs is pretty bright because it’s an ideal dog in size and temperament to live in the house. The average hunter may hunt 15 to 30 days a year. That leaves at least 335 days that he has a hunting dog that is not hunting. The dog is going to wind up spending the great majority of its time around the house with the family and kids and that is the cocker’s strong suit. I’m convinced the English cocker fits the bill of the average hunter better than any other breed.”

Is an English cocker an ideal dog for you? If you hunt grouse, woodcock, pheasant, and an occasional duck it should fill the bill. If you have kids that would like a friendly, affectionate pet you’ll get double mileage out of your gun dog. Who is the English cocker not the best breed for? If you are a hard core duck hunter, the guy who is out hunting Lake Michigan when ice is trying to form along the shores you’d be wiser to choose a lab or a chesapeake. But for the rest of us the English cocker could just be the ideal hunting dog.