The English Cocker In Perspective 


Arthur Ferguson 
Durham, North Carolina 

The following is the text of a talk given by Dr. Ferguson at the Dog Judges Association of America's Symposium in New York City on February 8-9, 1980 and is reprinted here with his permission.

    I am speaking to you today out of relatively long experience as a breeder and very brief experience as a judge; but I can assure you that there is nothing more conducive to long thoughts about judging than the frustrations a breeder experiences who has had to cope with judges not able or willing to understand what he has been trying to do.
    So I should like to approach the problem of judging English Cockers from the breeder's point of view and also from a historical point of view, i.e. in the perspective of the evolution of the breed. Seen from this standpoint, some of the problems that may face judges, not native, as it were, to the breed, may become better understood. I have in mind especially the problem posed by the considerable variation in type still apparent in our shows, but there are several other type problems which also profit by examining in relation to the evolution of the breed. The evolution of the breed, is, after all, the story of the constant efforts of breeders to overcome things that, as a group, they have considered undesirable and to achieve what they have come to value. Whether they have always been right in these objectives is, of course, a matter of debate. Since this process involves setting values, these values, in turn, become, or should become, essential criteria for judging the results. I think it is important to recognize that breeding for show is a creative process, an art as much as a science ,indeed more so, and it matters little that the activity is the work of groups cooperating to produce a beautiful animal rather than the work of individuals. Judges also play a part in this process of creative evolution, but as reviewers or critics rather than as creators.
    Judges would, I believe, fulfill this role more effectively if they understood how the breed they are judging got where it is and what were the problems breeders had to contend with along the way. They would then be less likely to reward characteristics that have plagued breeders for generations even when those characteristics may help to create an arresting picture in the ring. Let me take an extreme example, but one that has more immediate relevance than one might think at first glance. I have here a picture of one of the early pillars of the breed. It represents what, judging from pictures, had been accepted, literally for centuries as characteristically "spaniel" type. But it was a type that did not suit the taste of 20th cen-tury breeders. Partly because they wanted a more active dog, a dog that at least looked more like a hunting dog in miniature, but more likely simply because they found such a dog aesthetically more pleasing, both English and American breeders began to look for a more up-on-leg, short-bodied, free-moving dog. I think most of us today would agree that the newer spaniel was an improvement. The fact remains, however, that our friend here in the picture represents the original, general purpose spaniel type; and it appears to still lurk somewhere in the genetic system; for unless breeders exercise care they are likely to find long bodies and short legs cropping out, not suddenly, of course, but as an insidious tendency. Now here is where the judge may pay some attention. A long-bodied dog, if not too low-set, and if its length of body is compensated by corresponding length of neck, can be a very arresting creature and may move with a lot of authority. But should a judge reward what the more responsible breeders have been trying to get away from, what is, in fact, a retrogressive characteristic? It is here, then, that some appreciation of the breeder's problem, as reflected in the development of the breed, becomes very pertinent to the problem of judging. I could cite other similar examples, and some will be implicit in what I have yet to say, but this is an especially important one and should suffice for the time being.
    Some knowledge of the history of the breed also helps explain what must surely be the most baffling thing about it for the judge who was not raised, as it were, with the breed, namely the broad spectrum of type still very much in evidence in the American show ring. Fortunately, this is no longer as true as it used to be, but it is still a problem. I am not speaking of the certifiably bad specimens either (they are not the problem) at least not for the judge. I am speaking of the relatively broad spectrum of more or less legitimate types, types, that is, which represent, according to taste, not more than a tolerable warping of the standard's still fairly permissive wording. I am referring to a spectrum ranging from the up-on-leg, cobby, dog, with no more angulation than is absolutely necessary, to the relatively long-bodied, long-necked, low-set dog with a much angulation as is consistent with soundness. Variation also becomes apparent in size, and, unavoidable, in color where solids and partis compete together and where a variety of colors and markings can confuse the unwary with all sorts of optical illusions.
    You may say all breeds have variation in type. Of course they do. I would add, moreover, so much the worse for the breed if there were none. In the unlikely event that breeders were to fill the show rings with clones, identical in type, they would no longer be able to exercise the creativity essential to the whole operation of breeding. They would simply have nowhere to go. Even the standards must be considered a consensus as to principle rather than edicts that leave no room for interpretation and, accordingly, for hopefully creative variation. Had it been otherwise, breeds would have never evolved; and nowhere will one find a more revealing example than in the two breeds of cockers. All one has to do is to compare pictures of present-day dogs with those of say, fifty years ago, to see what was actually accomplished with, until recent years in the American breed, no substantial change in standard. The challenge so essential to creative breeding presupposes a justifiable divergence of opinion, a continuous and, it is to be hoped, a mutually beneficial dialogue. I am not justifying capricious trendiness. I am happy to say that our English Cockers have avoided that to a considerable extent, and largely, I believe, because of the vigorous dialogue represented by the existing variety of type. That is not to say that a bit more uniformity would not be desirable, nor is it to minimize the confusion such variation as exists is likely to cause in judging. A long look at the show results will, I fear, too often reveal something like chaos in that respect.
    Such as it is, how can we explain this degree of variation? Undoubtedly it stems in part from divergences in taste among the breeders themselves, and, of course, of the judges who pass upon their work. But that is to say no more than is true of any breed. More significant, I believe, is the peculiar history of English Cockers, especially those factors, other than taste, which conditioned their development in this country and in England.
    Most of you, I am sure, know something of the history of the English Cocker in America, so I shan't go into details. I might, however, refresh your mind on a few essential facts. Prior to 1935, all cockers were shown as of the same breed. By that time the fallacy in this designation had become increasingly apparent. Only the fact that there were relatively few English cockers in the Country had kept it from becoming officially recognized earlier. Then, owing to the initiative of Mrs. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge and the fledgling English Cocker Spaniel Club of America, the AKC granted the English Cocker separate status, but only as a variety. Separate breed status did not come until 1946. Meanwhile there were a few chaotic years while pedigrees were sorted out and judges got used to the situation. It was not too unusual for size alone to be considered the principal difference between the two varieties. I remember one person who had a handsome black of straight American breeding, but a bit too big, so he just entered him as an English Cocker and finished him without a defeat; and I am sure this was not an isolated instance.
    This matter of size, by the way, is one example of how circumstances tended to shape the attitudes of both breeders and judges to the English Cocker in this country. With the American Cocker already present as the majority variety and later the majority breed, and in the days before the American Cocker had achieved quite the distinctive type and furnishings it now has, English Cocker breeders naturally tended to cultivate, or, if you will, tolerate, a slightly larger, slightly taller, dog than was being bred in England. English dogs, of course, also varied in size and some imports came to this country because they were oversize for English taste. But this matter of size is nevertheless a legacy with which we have had to live ever since. Continued contact with breeders in the United Kingdom has moderated this tendency; and I don't think the variation in size is quite so marked as it used to be; but it is still there.
    The existence of the American Cocker as the vastly more numerous breed in this country no doubt influenced the course of English Cocker breeding in other and subtler ways, for example, a willingness to tolerate a horsier head type. But the circumstances that in my opinion did most to shape English Cocker type in this country were much the same as those that also conditioned the evolution of the American breed. I refer to the circumstances in which dogs, especially cockers, have customarily been put down and shown here, circumstances very different from those pertaining in the English show ring.
    At first glance this might not seem like a matter of much concern to American judges. After all, it is the American show scene they are primarily concerned with. The trouble is that breeders of English cockers in this country have not been able to ignore the English dogs, nor have they, for the most part, wanted to. In fact, they have found themselves going back to imported stock whether they liked it or not, whether these dogs suited their taste (as they often have) or whether they won (which they often have not). The relation between stock produced under English show conditions and American, respectively, constitutes a fact that has had to be reckoned with, and one that both helps explain divergence in type in this country, and, in a measure, justifies it.
    Anyone who has watched cockers being judged at shows in the Old Country will know part, at least, of what I mean. The English ring, especially the cocker ring, has been traditionally the preserve of the breeder/exhibitor, not a professional handler in sight, nor crates or elaborate grooming devices. English exhibitors, it is true, have of recent years been picking up some of our tricks of showmanship, but they have traditionally shown their dogs with a minimum of trimming and handling. Although they have not always practiced what they preached, they have scorned any trimming that could not be done with the thumb and forefinger, none of the clipping and sculpting that we have developed to a high art. And in the ring they have, until recently, paid very little attention to posing their dogs. Indeed, breeders of the old school resented even getting down with their dogs at all, preferring to show them entirely on lead. The late H.L. Lloyd of "Of Ware" fame, used to say that, with everybody down on their knees with their dogs, it looked like a prayer meeting. When they did set their dogs up, the result would usually not have passed muster in an American ring, especially in an American group ring. And there is another difference, and one of far-reaching significance. Emphasis among English exhibitors has been primarily on breed competition and relatively less (relative, that is, to our habits) on group competition. Though a group or best in show win confers unquestionably coveted laurels, there, as here, a top English dog's show record tends to be measured not so much in the number of group wins to his credit as in the number of challenge certificates won in the breed.
    Circumstances such as these have tended to foster a special kind of cocker, one of moderate proportions, as benefits the relative intimacy of the ring, moderate size, moderate angulation, moderate coat, moderate length of body, and reach of neck, even moderate stride, a dog bred with more attention to the general balance and quality than to the showier effects to be had from more pronounced angulation, greater reach of neck, a relatively high tail carriage, a fast-moving gait, and of course, more profuse coat, the rear end furnishings that have set off so many American winners are thought so little of that they are removed entirely from the hock down. The English taste has been for a compact, merry little dog that can, in theory at any rate, hunt the hedgerows without getting all tangled up.
    It should not come as a surprise that dogs of this type have not always done correspondingly well in American shows. Top winners imported from England have often had an uneven and unpredictable show record. I remember, many years ago, beating an imported winner which went on to at least one best in show with a second-rate animal I never even bothered to finish. One still hears the comment, "Oh, he is too English for most judges" meaning, usually, that he is not quite spectacular enough.
    But it is precisely here that the difference, and the danger, lies. The fact is that our show ring has fostered a different set of qualities, not necessarily better ones or worse, simply different. The American show ring has tended to emphasize style and showmanship. We can hardly quarrel with that. It is what makes our shows exciting to watch. The artistry of the professional handlers and the disciplined competition with them forces on all of us style and showmanship. And that, too, is good. Group competition puts a special premium on style and showmanship. And that, up to a point, is also good. After all, what are we showing dogs for if it is not, in part at least, for the aesthetic enjoyment to be had from breeding a beautiful animal and seeing it beautifully put down. Moreover, American breeders, handlers, and, insofar as their decisions affect the results, judges, too, have together succeeded in producing the most beautiful show dogs in the world.
    Nor have I anything, in principle, against group competition, though I think more should perhaps be made of breed wins. (I get very tired of being asked, especially by people just starting out in the breed, for a "group dog", age three months!) Group competition has provided a discipline and inter-breed rivalry that has raised dog showing to the level of a minor art. And, it were not for group competition, breeders might relapse even more readily into the parochialism to which they are always prone. But the big ring unquestionably puts a premium on the more dramatic qualities of type, and it is there that the danger of exaggeration continually lurks. The customs of the American show ring, especially the group ring, may also work in a negative direction, in a tendency, for example, to overlook the subtler qualities of head and expression in favor of the more obvious qualities of body type and movement. But the most serious danger, in my estimation, lies in the temptation the American ring provided for exaggeration. We have all seen how this temptation has shaped the evolution of many breeds, the assumption being that if some is good, more is better. In fact, considerations of this sort help to explain how and why cockers in this country began to diverge in type from their English cousins in the first place; but this is not the place to go into that one. More immediately pertinent, they help explain what has tended to happen to the English Cocker in America; tended, I say, because the constant infiltration of English dogs and the constant, if somewhat one-sided, dialogue being carried on between English and American breeders have served as moderating influences.
    The fact remains that there has also been a marked tendency among English Cocker breeders in this country to overvalue eye-catching qualities and to carry a good thing to an extreme. Angulation is good and looks good, so the more the better, until, of course, it begins to affect gait and soundness. Reach of neck is good and looks aristocratic; so the longer the better, until we have swan necks that are out of proportion and frequently go along with long backs. Stop is good, not so much as in the American breed, but still desirable, so some handlers still persist in leaving a ridiculous whoosh of hair on a frontal bone that may already be too prominent. (Please re-member that prominence of frontal bone has nothing to do with a properly chiseled stop and can play hop with the properly parallel planes of the head, but more of that later.) Then there is the coat problem. Coat is good, and provides the handler with something to work on, to sculpture; so the tendency to excessive furnishings, seemingly always hanging around in the genetic make-up of the spaniel, is encouraged, even while deplored in theory.
    Now I do not wish to make too much of all this; speakers are also prone to exaggerate. If English breeders do not always practice what they preach, American breeders are not always willing to preach what they practice. But, no matter how nearly English and American breeders may converge in an aesthetic of moderation, as they in fact tend to, there remains inherent in the American show scene a temptation to carry good things to extremes. How often have we not, all of us, had our eye caught by a dog that sets up to resemble a lovely dream, only to be disappointed when, on moving, the animal disintegrates into its component parts, each of which ?angulation, length of back, length of neck, has been developed to an extreme. To the extent that English breeders have avoided this sort of thing, it is, I believe, owing in large part to the customs prevailing in their show ring.
    I am not, please understand, holding a special brief for the English type (if, indeed, it can be said that there is one English Type). I do admire the English dogs at their best and have imported several; and I like to use the English type as a sort of base line for evaluating our own deviations from it. But I recognize also that breeders over the water have had their problems, too, not the least of which has been a tendency to turn out a dog without what we should consider a really commanding gait and presence, though at their best they can still teach us a thing or two. What I do want to appeal for is a recognition that a certain polarity does, in fact, exist in English Cocker type, that it is explainable to a considerable extent by the divergent customs prevailing in the show rings of England and this country, and, most important, that this polarity has been beneficial and is likely to continue to be so in the future. The general improvement in type observable among English Cockers in this country during the last few years, even the slightly greater uniformity, speaks well for the continuing dialogue between diverging ideals of what an English Cocker should look like which has marked the history of the breed.
    Here, I believe, lies the moral of this tale. Somewhere between justifiable differences there is a "golden mean", an ideal of elegance without exaggeration which breeders should strive for and judges encourage. Judges can help by refusing to reward meretricious extremes and by concentrating on balance. Now balance, I realize, is not something that one can define with precision. It is simply that quality of symmetry which would be lost if any one part were increased or diminished, yet which is somehow greater than the mere sum of its parts. It is, I repeat, a matter of elegance without exaggeration. I do not anticipate that this "golden mean" will, nor do I think it should, result in a rigidly standardized taste. It can, and should, leave room for legitimate difference in taste, just enough to preserve the necessary element of creativity in the breeding process.
    What I have been concerned to do, then, is to call the attention of those who are responsible for passing judgment on our breed to those tendencies in the breed's history which, it is to be hoped, will provide some degree of perspective for a task otherwise likely to be confusing at best, and at worst only too likely to result in capricious decisions. I hope I have not ser-monized unduly, if I have, I plead innocent on grounds of insanity?I am crazy about the most complex and fascinating show dog of them all.

Reprinted from the ECSCA Review, Spring 1980