Working Cocker Spaniel (WCS)

Working Cocker Spaniel (WCS)


Group: Gundog

Size: Small


The Gundog group is made up of dogs that were originally trained to retrieve game. This group is divided into 4 categories - 1. Retrievers; 2. Spaniels; 3. Hunt / Point / Retrieve (HPR); 4. Pointers + Setters - although many of the breeds are capable of doing the same work as the other sub-groups.

The Working Cocker Spaniel (WCS) is a small breed and belongs to the Gundog group. This is defined by the Kennel Club as "dogs that were originally trained to find live game and / or to retrieve game that had been shot and wounded".


Clinical Tip: From a clinical perspective we need to consider the nature and temperament of this breed as they are highly intelligent, very energetic but also incredibly sensitive which can be missed due to their busy nature. This fact will influence your choices of assessment and treatment techniques.

WCS Conformation + Morphology

  • Head shape; mesaticephalic
  • Body shape; mesomorphic
  • Coat type; moderately long single coat with no undercoat
  • Coat colour; black, black and tan, blue roan, blue roan and tan, liver, liver and tan, liver roan, liver roan and tan. In solid coloured dogs, white or roan on the chest
  • Paw shape; oval
  • Tail shape; Historically they were docked for working, now we are seeing long tails that are a tapered X plumed shape
  • Ear shape; pendulous

Tail Docking

Historically, tail docking was thought to prevent rabies, strengthen the back, increase the animal's speed, and prevent injuries when ratting, fighting, and baiting.

Tail docking is done in modern times either for prophylactic, therapeutic, cosmetic purposes and / or to prevent injury. For dogs that work in the field, such as some hunting dogs, herding dogs, or terrier dogs, tails can collect burrs and foxtail plants with their barbed seed heads. This can cause pain and infection.

Also, due to the tail's movement of wagging, injury or abrasions can occur as the dog moves through dense brush or thickets. Bones in the tail can be fractured due to impact forces in the field, causing spinal injury to the tail.

We know that terriers can become stuck underground, leading to them being pulled out by their tails, with suggestion that the dock tail protected the dog form spinal or tail trauma. The American Veterinary Medical Association disputes this argument and states, "Justifications for docking working dogs' tails lack substantial scientific support".

Poodle tails are docked in some countries for cosmetic reasons. Breed standards are set by humans demanding a certain length of tail as desirable.

Historically Poodles were mainly used as water dogs and it was considered a docked tail would increase swimming speeds, a fact we now know is untrue, supported by developed understanding of the dog's biomechanical design.

Tail docking is considered to be a mutilation under UK law and it's illegal in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are some exemptions, such as removal of the tail by a vet for medical reasons or for certain breeds of working dogs.

Modern practice

Docking of puppies younger than 10 to 14 days old is still routinely carried out in some countries, by both breeders and vets without anaesthesia.

While the tails of some working dogs are docked to prevent injury or infection, the tails of larger dogs commonly used for guard work or protection work may be docked to prevent their tails from being grabbed in a fight. Breed examples of this are the Doberman Pinscher and Rottweiler.

A study conducted at the University of Queensland Companion Animal Veterinary Hospital found that puppies display signs of pain when tails are docked. The study sample size was 50 puppies and all vocalised (shrieked) when their tails were amputated, averaging 24 shrieks per puppy.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has expressed concerns about pain during puppies early development period could result in lasting damage. They stated; "there is evidence in many species that noxious stimuli in the perinatal period may permanently alter the normal development of the central nervous system and have negative long-term consequences."


Clinical Tip: The canine tail is incredibly important for effective communication and expression. Biomechanically the tail is essential for balance, turning, coordination, braking and steering so needs a mindful and clinically reasoned approach therapeutically.

Common Conditions + Problems

  • Cataracts; this is an opacity in the lens of the dog's eye, causing blurred vision. The thicker and denser they become, the more likely it will lead to a complete loss of vision
  • Retinal Dysplasia (RD); is the abnormal development of the retina
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA); is an inherited disease that causes slowly progressive blindness over a period of months or years
  • Hip Dysplasia (HD) ; is the abnormal development of the canine hip joint and is one of the most common joint conditions seen in dogs
  • Luxating Patella; this occurs when the patella (knee cap) moves out of its natural functional position
  • Hypothyroidism; is a decrease in secretion of thyroid hormones and is the most common endocrinopathy in dogs
  • Epilepsy; seizures are the physical manifestation of uncontrolled and hyper-synchronous electrical activity in the brain which cause a loss of consciousness, involuntary repetitive movements, salivation, urination and defecation
  • Allergies; may be related to food, the environment and / or stress
  • Immune Mediated Haemolytic Anaemia (IMHA); is a condition in which the dog's immune system attacks its own red blood cells


This breed is generally healthy, but like all breeds they are prone to certain conditions. In a health survey conducted by the Kennel Club (UK), the primary cause of death in WCS was cancer, with the second most frequent cause being old age.

WCS Temperament + Personality

WCS are intelligent, loyal, affectionate, kind dogs and make great family pets. They have excellent working / obedience intelligence and are high energy / high drive dogs, requiring lots of mental stimulation. Known for their optimism, cheerful nature and continually wagging tail they have gained the nickname "merry cocker".

WCS are renowned for their determination and require an owner who understands this breed. Alongside their determination they can also be extremely sensitive, often being noise sensitive.


Clinical Tip: Inappropriate handling or techniques can lead to a negative experience for the dog and diminish the efficacy of the assessment and treatment process.

Positive reward based training will enhance this lovely breeds nature, resulting in a happy, loving and obedient dog.

Introducing Millie

Millie is our much loved working cocker spaniel and she will be 10 years old in July 2020. She came into our lives at 10 weeks old, a bundle of pure unbridled energy and an intelligence that still astounds us to this day.

At about 9 months old it was discovered that she had hip dysplasia and hydrotherapy was advised. Not living in Suffolk at the time, we found a local lady who gave Millie hydrotherapy by lowering her in the pool and simply letting her swim, building up muscles by using varying resistance jets.


When we moved to Suffolk we quickly found K9HS and haven’t looked back with Millie since.


Millie is extremely intelligent and her understanding of a wide range of words and facial expressions is very prevalent when we visit K9HS. 

We first brought her to Barbara in 2011 and Millie was very shy, she likes routine and Barbara was very quick to gauge Millie’s behaviour and adapt to it. 

Slowly over time, with patience and accepting her need for routine, Millie has grown to love Barbara and Sarah and is very happy in the pool as long as things stay ‚Äėnormal‚Äô.¬†

Millie can be overwhelmed with too many people present or any change of routine. Over our first few visits Millie constantly checked in with me and my husband but will now happily turn her back on us in the pool to concentrate on working with Barbara and Sarah.

Millie has boundless energy and no "off switch". She does everything at 100 mph so over time we have had to learn to manage this. 

She loves being part of our lives and is never happier than when I am pottering in the garden and will, especially during the summer months, lead me to the shed where I keep my tools so I can garden and she can bring me something that we can play with ‚Äď usually my old leather gardening glove that she shrunk by dipping it into water when playing!

We keep a large container of water for her in the summer to keep her cool, but her favourite pastime is scrabbling water, out of her drinking bowl, under her belly, to keep cool and if anyone is in the vicinity they will get wet too.


If you let her, Millie will carry on playing until it is time to go to bed. If she is being ignored she will find a pair of glasses, a remote, a pen or even a £20 note that she can tease you with and it's true what they say about cockers, they would rather be told off for being naughty than ignored.

Over time Millie has had one or two injuries chasing pheasants and rabbits or even just jumping too high for a ball. When playing she does tend to run incredibly fast from the start and turning and braking too quickly is not what she should be doing, but we have had to learn to balance her exuberance and still give Millie a good quality of life. 

K9HS manage these incidents very well. When Millie is at her best, without injuries, we usually have a maintenance session at K9HS every four to six weeks. 

Should we discover any issues, we have learnt through Barbara and Sarah what to look for, then we increase the visits and modify our home programme they direct. Luckily we also have access to our own FFU unit to use at home.

Along with her mad, crazy life style Millie loves nothing more than a cuddle and as I type this, she is sprawled on my lap, sound asleep.


Linking Breed Role + Temperament to Treatment Selection

Newton's second law and how this relates to canine motion and biomechanics.
Newton's second law and how this relates to canine motion and biomechanics.

Canine therapists assess the musculoskeletal (MSK) system, movement and functional activities to devise an individual treatment programme for each dog in their care. This will include understanding the forces and loading of the dog's limbs relevant to its canine role.

It's essential to consider this breeds incredible acceleration speeds linked to their temperament and desire to move. WCS have an innate genetic makeup for their busy movement and problem solving activities.

Check out "Millie's" story above and understand that this breed has no "off button". Link this to their initial high acceleration speeds, high repetition, and busy nature with lots of twists and turns. These complex movement sequences combine Ground Reaction Forces (GRF) to Centrifugal Forces (CF) lead to overall high forces through their limbs linked to a high drive and focussed determination.


Clinical Tip: It's incredibly important to an have in-depth breed knowledge linked to canine functional anatomy, biomechanics and canine behaviour to deliver an effective treatment programme. This working breed benefits from a proactive approach to optimise their movement and prevent injuries.

WCS Role Historically + Now

The word "cocker" comes from their original function which was to hunt woodcock. WCS were not recognised as a separate variety until 1893, as up to then all the spaniels were collectively known as "Land Spaniels". They were bred together and later classified depending on their size and colour.

WCS were selectively bred to meet the specific needs of their work and for the terrain they were worked on. The main requirement for the breed was to be under 25lbs in weight.

In the early 20th century the breed was at its height of popularity and it remains hugely popular as a family pet. The WCS earns the nickname "the merry cocker" for their ever wagging tail and happy disposition.

WCS Bitesize History

WCS were recognised as a "spaniel type" separate from springers and cockers in the late 19th century, around the time the Kennel Club was formed.

WCS are a lean, heavier set breed with shorter coats and ears than the show cocker breed and have a greater resemblance to the springer spaniel. WCS are an agile, fast breed which are able to jump high fences and hedges easily.

WCS really come into their own in the "field" as this small but strong, robust breed has high hunting and retrieving instincts, enabling them to tackle the densest cover. They are brilliant retrievers and are able to carry birds much heavier than themselves with ease. Their adaptability means they'll stand by the peg patiently or retrieve game from the undergrowth when directed.

These attributes, together with their superior intelligence, has made them popular with police and border agencies, who use WCS as detection dogs.

Even More History

The modern Cocker Spaniel is descended from the Spaniel family, a large group that dates to antiquity. The word spaniel means "Spanish dog," and it's generally believed that they originated in Spain.

Records show that "Spaniel" type dogs have been found in art and literature for almost 500 years. Initially, spaniels in England were divided among land spaniels and water spaniels. In the mid 19th century there was a differentiation among the spaniels which led to the breeds we see today.

During this time, the land spaniels became more specialised and divisions among the types were made based upon weight. According to the 1840 Encyclopedia of Rural Sports, Cockers were 12‚Äď20¬†lb (5.5‚Äď9¬†kg). At this time it was not uncommon for Cockers and Springers to come from the same litter. Even a puppy from a ‚ÄúToy‚ÄĚ sized lineage could grow to be a springer.

Early sources determine that spaniels were not used to retrieve game originally and were in fact used to drive the game toward the guns. Records show that during the 1850 - 60s, other types of Cockers were recorded. These included Welsh Springer Spaniels and Devonshire Cockers, plus small dogs from Sussex Spaniel litters were called Cockers.

The first stud books were published in 1874 by the newly formed Kennel Club. Any spaniel under 25 lb (11 kg) was placed in the Cocker breeding pool, however the Welsh Cocker was reclassified as a Springer in 1903 due to its larger size and shorter ear.

Sussex Spaniel.
Sussex Spaniel.
Welsh Springer Spaniel.
Welsh Springer Spaniel.

English Cocker Spaniel.
English Cocker Spaniel.
 "...historically, only dogs up to a hard day’s work and sensible specimens were allowed to live, as absolute sporting purposes were their only enjoyment and dog shows were hardly heard of...".

In England, spaniels were a functional category, rather than an individual breed of dog, for several hundred years. The first kennel to gain recognition for the Cocker Spaniel as a distinct breed in England was the Obo Kennel of Mr. James Farrow.

In 1892, the Cocker Spaniel was recognised as a breed in England.

Historically, the WCS was primarily an upland flushing dog and to perform this task there are some key skills the dog must be trained for and include;

  • Hup;¬†This is the traditional command to sit and stay and to be an effective hunter, the dog must completely comply with this command. When "hupped" the dog can be given direction and the ability to hup a dog actively working a running bird, allows the handler and any gunners to keep up without having to run.
  • Retrieve to Hand;¬†The majority of hunters and hunt test or field trial judges require the dog to deliver a bird to hand, meaning that a dog will hold the bird until told to give it to the hunter directly.
  • Quarter;¬†Dogs must work in a pattern in front of the hunter seeking upland game birds. The dog must be taught to stay within gun range to avoid flushing a bird outside of shooting distance.
  • Follow Hand Signals;¬†Upland hunting involves pursuing wild game in its native habitat. Gun dogs must investigate likely covers for upland game birds and be responsive to hand signals in order for the hunter to be able to direct the dog to specific areas.
  • Steady;¬†When hunting upland birds, a flushing dog should be steady to wing and shot, meaning that he sits when a bird rises or a gun is fired. He does this in order to mark the fall and to avoid flushing other birds when pursuing a missed bird.


Today, the WCS breed is experiencing a resurgence in use as a working and hunting dog and this breed from working lines are noticeably distinct in appearance. Their coat is shorter and their ears are less pendulous than the show-bred type.

Although registered as the same breed, the two strains have diverged significantly enough that they are rarely crossed.

WCS have physical characteristics that would prevent them from winning in the show ring and is a direct result of human selection of different traits than those selected by show breeders.

A WCS, bred from working lines, physically resembles their ancestors quite closely.