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The American cocker spaniel is one of the smallest sporting dogs in the world and is markedly different from its English cousin - not least because of its distinctly shaped head. The ACS is a jolly little dog which is now seen regularly in the show ring and as such, is usually no longer used as a working animal. It is of average intelligence and makes an excellent pet. The word 'cocker' is reported to originate from the dog's use in hunting woodcock and 'spaniel' is said to derive from the animal's Spanish origins.
The cocker spaniel is reputed to have first appeared in the US in the 17th Century after it travelled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, but it was almost 260 years before the first cocker spaniel was registered with the American Kennel Club.
The popularity of the breed grew and by the end of the 19th Century the dog was one of the most widespread choices for families in the US and Canada due to its suitability as both a pet and a working animal. By the 20th Century a divergence between the American and English breeds began to occur as enthusiasts set different breed standards. In the US the two breeds had been shown together, with the English cocker spaniel shown as a variety of the American breed until 1946, when the American Kennel Club recognised the two as distinct breeds. Similarly, the two spaniel types were recognised by the UK Kennel Club in 1970.
Average height to withers: 13.5 - 15.5 inches
Average weight: 11-14 kg
The characteristic that sets the American cocker spaniel apart from the English is its head. The skull is well-rounded, with an obvious stop and an angular lip. The long ears are low-set, with beautiful, silky fur. The eyes are generally dark and large and the nose is brown or black depending on coat colour. These features set it apart from its British cousin as it has a more domed head, rounder eyes and a shorter muzzle.
The ACS is the smallest sporting dog registered by the American Kennel Club and a number of coat colours are accepted, including: black, black and tan, any solid colour other than black (ASCOB) and 'parti-colour'. The black varieties are either all black, or have tan areas on the feet, tail and head. ASCOB dogs can show any solid colour from cream to dark rust, with lighter coloured feathers accepted; while parti-colour dogs are mostly white, with areas of solid colour. ACSs can also have a coat colour called 'merle' but this colourway is not recognised within the breed standards.
Charmingly referred to as the 'merry cocker', the ACS breed standards state that examples of the breed should display an 'equable in temperament with no suggestion of timidity.' The breed is said to have a good level of intelligence and trainability.
The American cocker spaniel is definitely a 'people' dog and often prefers the company of humans to other dogs. It will not thrive as an outdoor dog and does not tolerate rough handling or loud noises as it is easily stressed. If correctly socialised the ACS gets on well with children, adults and other pets and has a continually wagging tail!
Following years of prolific and unregulated breeding by 'backyard' breeders and puppy farms, some US bloodlines do contain health problems related to this indiscriminate procreation. As a result, the ACS has a lifespan at the lower end of the scale for purebred dogs of its size - approximately 11 years.
Following surveys in both the UK and US causes of death include: cancer, heart problems, old age and problems with the immune system. The breed is also thought to be predisposed to certain conditions which are often caused by the characteristics deemed attractive by the breed standard. Long ears can make the dogs prone to infection, while prominent brows and larger eyes mean many cockers suffer with a variety of eye problems such as cataracts, glaucoma and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). Luxating patellas (regularly dislocating kneecaps) and hip dysplasia (dislocating hips) are also apparent in some examples of the breed.
There are a number of more serious illnesses that also appear within the breed's bloodlines. Disorders like dilated cardiomyopathy and sick sinus syndrome, which causes an irregular heartbeat, have been identified, as has Phosphofructokinase deficiency, an illness which interferes with the conversion of glucose into energy, which leads to a lethargic animal that is unable to exercise. The use of DNA testing can help identify carrier dogs and thus prevent breeding and the proliferation of the faulty gene that causes this terrible disease.
Unfortunately, American cockers can also suffer with the heartbreaking condition canine epilepsy, or Rage syndrome. This illness can cause a normally placid, happy dog to suddenly become violent. Research suggests that this is an inherited condition. IMHA (Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anaemia) is also a growing problem among cocker spaniels and can prove fatal within days.
As a smaller dog, the ACS does not need a huge home in which to, although regular exercise is a must. They are not designed to be outdoors dogs and will do better if kept indoors with their owners and other pets. They are of working stock and therefore have lots of stamina. Long walks are recommended, although care should be taken to avoid areas where plants could get tangled in their long coat.
Owners should also check and clean eyes and ears regularly to avoid infection and wiping the eyes every day will be required as they do tend to tear.
Management of the coat is really down the individual owner. Some prefer to keep the coat long, while others like to keep it to a medium length. Whatever your choice, the dog will still need to be clipped and brushed regularly to keep it looking its best. The American cocker spaniel is an average shedder.