Show vs Working Cocker Spaniels: A Guide for Dog Owners

July 13, 2022

Considering welcoming a four-legged friend into your home? Cocker Spaniels are a popular choice. In the United States, Cockers rank in the top 30 breeds recognised by the American Kennel Club (AKC). In the United Kingdom, Cocker Spaniels consistently place in the top 10, alongside enduring favourites like the French Bulldog, Dachshund, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

If you're considering a Cocker, it's worth remembering that there's a considerable variety with this breed. This dog breed is broadly split into two categories: working Cocker Spaniels and show Cockers. Technically, both varieties are classed as the same breed, but you'll encounter significant differences between the two.

Need some pointers on making the right choice when selecting a pooch? Read on for everything you need to know about the differences between working and show Cockers.

History of the Cocker Spaniel

All varieties of Cocker Spaniel can trace their lineage back to Britain. Several centuries ago, the forebears of this easy-going breed were used as hunting dogs. A major benefit of this earlier breed was the variety breeders could expect from a single litter. In addition to smaller dogs that could be used for active hunting, a typical litter might also include Springer Spaniels that could be used to flush animals out from hiding.

By the late 1800s, this precursor to the classic Cocker was split into two distinct breeds: Springer Spaniels and Cocker Spaniels. From that point on, the focus was on developing the characteristics of each breed. However, this also meant that further deviations occurred within the larger Cocker Spaniel population.

English Cocker Spaniels and American Cocker Spaniels

Nowadays, there's a marked difference between American Cocker Spaniels and English Cockers. In the US, the breed is noticeably smaller and stockier. Furthermore, American Cockers tend to be furrier than their English counterparts.

As well as having less fur, the overall physiology of English Cocker Spaniels is slightly different. English Cockers tend to have a shorter back, while their long legs make them noticeably larger than their American cousins. The American Cocker Spaniel was finally awarded Kennel Club recognition in 1935, setting the breed firmly apart from the English Cocker Spaniel.

The Emergence of Show Cockers

As with many dogs, Cocker Spaniels began life as a working breed. However, as more focus was placed on breeding standards, the first show Cockers began to arrive. Formal dog shows exploded in popularity during the late 1800s, leading to a renewed focus on breed standards and aesthetics.

While many Cocker Spaniel breeders focused on appearance for winning prizes at shows, others remained committed to maintaining working strains. A typical working Cocker Spaniel is defined by its high energy levels and physical strength, as well as aptitude and intelligence. The result is that we've ended up with two strains with distinct characteristics.

Although working Cockers and Show Cockers are classed as the same breed by the Kennel Club, there's a lot of variation between the two. A working type Cocker Spaniel is hardier with plenty of stamina, with breeders showing little regard for overall appearance. By contrast, a show Cocker Spaniel is bred for aesthetics and easy-going temperament.

Working Cocker Spaniels: Key Characteristics

We've touched briefly on the differences between these two types of Cocker Spaniels, but it's worth delving into what truly sets these two strains apart. Working Cocker Spaniels are considered a hunting or gun dog, with their main application in the field being to retrieve.

They're a popular companion dog for hunters. Their soft mouths make them ideal for picking up and carrying fresh kills, without the worry of the animal damaging the carcass. What's more, despite being much smaller than something like a Labrador, working Cockers are surprisingly strong.

Working Cockers are also at home in the water. This breed has little qualms when it comes to swimming to flush out fowl. The smaller stature of the working Cocker also means there are few places they can't access. This makes them far more desirable than larger working dog varieties.

Another reason why Cocker Spaniels make an exceptional working dog is that they're easy to train. This instinct is present from the puppy stage, meaning owners don't need to commit to endless training to ensure this popular breed is doing its job.

While Cocker Spaniels are still regularly used as gun dogs, they're also commonly put to work elsewhere. You'll find Cocker Spaniels regularly working alongside military units and police squads as sniffer dogs.

Although classed as working dogs, this strain of Cocker Spaniel can make an excellent family pet. They can be an energetic breed, but their smaller size makes them a manageable option. What's more, they're an affectionate breed that behaves well around small children.

There are a few physical differences between working Cocker Spaniels and those bred for show. For starters, the average working Cocker lacks the round skull of its show counterpart. Instead, a working Cocker has a flatter skull, while its muzzle is noticeably longer. Although largely illegal in the UK, American working types may have their tail docked to improve performance in the field.

Show Cocker Spaniels: Key Characteristics

With show Cocker Spaniels, it's all about appearance. While high intelligence is important for breeders chasing a show title, it's genetics and aesthetics that a typical judge will be looking for.

A show judge will be looking for things like posture, as well as coat texture and lustre. Coat condition is particularly important for show dogs. American Cocker Spaniels tend to boast solid-coloured coats, while English Cocker Spaniels are more likely to sport particoloured coats like Blue Roan. Regardless of coat colour, show breeders place a premium on symmetry.

The anatomy of a show Cocker also deviates from working strains. Show Cocker Spaniels have a rounded skull, while a square muzzle is also standard. A Cocker Spaniel bred for show also boasts longer ears than a working Spaniel. Another major difference is that Show Cockers have longer, fuller coats.

Show vs Working Cocker Spaniel Dogs: A Detailed Comparison

Now we've explored the history of this popular dog and looked at the difference between the two strains, it's time to delve into more detail. If you're worried about puppy training, health specifics and overall temperament, you'll want to get a handle on how these two dog strains differ.

Working Cocker Spaniel and Show Cocker Appearance

If you're looking for a working Cocker, appearance isn't going to be a major concern. Working Cockers are smaller and more robust than a show Cocker. Ultimately, these dogs are bred to work, meaning breed standards on aesthetics are a secondary concern.

Working Cockers and show Cockers are pretty much indistinguishable as puppies. A pup from either strain looks almost identical for the first three months of life. It's only after about 12 weeks that owners will start to see evidence of show Cocker and working Cocker Spaniel characteristics.


Once your dogs advance beyond the pup stage, your Cocker will truly come into their own. A show Cocker will quickly grow into its body, showcasing a largely balanced profile. The rib cage of a show Cocker will be relatively large compared to other dogs.

Even though these dogs are bred for a show title, they're still relatively muscular. Ultimately, while this strain has been bred with a keen eye for aesthetics, it's hard to ignore their heritage as working dogs.

At first glance, the body of a working Cocker looks largely identical to a show Cocker Spaniel. However, the difference between the two strains quickly becomes apparent. Working dogs tend to have a longer profile than a show Cocker spaniel bred for appearance.

The head shape of a show Cocker varies considerably from dogs bred for work. It's relatively compact, with a round skull profile and square-shaped muzzle. In order to meet strict Kennel Club regulations, show Cocker dogs should also boast long, low-set ears.

Colour and Coat

We've touched a little on coat texture and colour already, but it's worth mentioning again. A show Cocker is required to have a longer, more feathered coat. Furthermore, breed standards for show dogs are pretty strict when it comes to colouring.

As a rule, dogs bred for show are only allowed to sport a hint of white fur on their chest, although breeders producing working strain dogs don't need to worry about this.

English Cocker Spaniels have more than 20 colour variations. The most widespread is Blue Roan, although tan, black and white are all common.

Cocker Spaniel Behaviour Traits

Both strains of Cocker Spaniel are classed as a working dog, so expect high energy levels as the standard here if you're thinking about getting one as a pet. These dogs make excellent family pets and are very compatible with kids. However, they require plenty of exercise, so you'll need to commit to an hour-long walk every day.

Owners considering welcoming a working Cocker into their home face even more demands when it comes to exercise. This is a strain with plenty of stamina, so even the fittest dog walker might tire out before their Cocker does.

What You Need to Know About Training

Both working and show Cockers are incredibly intelligent animals. In theory, this makes training relatively simple. Both varieties of Cocker have a high aptitude for training and tend to actively enjoy the process.

That being said, you'll need to start early for the best results. As with other dogs, both varieties of Cockers will benefit from obedience training at a young age. You'll also need to be regimented when it comes to general dog training.

Both strains have been bred for obedience, although you'll likely get faster results from working dogs. Expect more focus from a working Cocker and better overall command response.

Grooming Guide

Grooming isn't a major concern for working dogs, but working Cockers do require more clipping than other breeds. Although their fur is generally shorter than show dogs, working Cockers still have some degree of feathering that needs to be maintained. Regular brushing is therefore essential to keep top of tangles, while gentle clipping around the legs and underside may be required.

Unsurprisingly, the grooming needs of a show Cocker are more substantial. Show dogs have a thicker and longer coat, which is prone to tangling. You'll need to commit to daily brushing to keep your Cocker Spaniel's coat looking its best.

Ideally, a show Cocker should be booked in for professional grooming at least once every 2 months. However, certain areas will need to be groomed more regularly, particularly around the ears and face. As such, show Cocker owners are advised to brush up on some basic grooming techniques.

Cocker Spaniel Health Problems

Health problems are a key concern for any dog owner. Both varieties of Cocker Spaniel are relatively hardy, with an average lifespan of 12-14 years. Although there are some anatomical differences between the two strains, they tend to succumb to the same diseases and health complaints.

Cockers can suffer from eye and ear infections, although this is typical of just about any dog breed. More specific problems include hip dysplasia which, left untreated, can lead to arthritis in later life. Sourcing a Cocker from a Kennel Club Assured Breeder is the best way to ensure you're purchasing a dog with minimal chance of developing such issues.

Maintaining a healthy diet for your Cocker is a good way to combat other problems like obesity and diabetes. As both strains are classed as a working dog, it's easy for show Cockers to gain extra weight when not properly exercised.

By contrast, working Cockers may require additional calories to fuel their active lifestyles. In some cases, it may be useful to introduce additional protein into their diet.

Show vs Working Cocker Spaniels: Which is Best?

Both working and show Cocker Spaniels make excellent pets and companion animals. However, understanding the differences between these two strains is important.

Looking for a pedigree pooch to land show titles? A show Cocker is the obvious choice. However, show Cocker Spaniels need to be registered if you want to mitigate the chance of your pet developing inherited diseases and life-limiting health issues. With a Cocker from a working strain, there are no such restrictions.

Ultimately, the main difference between the two is largely aesthetic. Show dogs have longer fur and specific coat colours while working dogs tend to be slightly smaller with more colour variations. Both need regular grooming, with show dogs requiring a professional trim every month or so.

Both varieties are relatively active breeds, with both Cocker strains requiring plenty of exercise and stimulation. Provided you have the energy to keep up, both types will prove an affectionate and loyal addition to your family.

Allan  Noble
Hi, my name is Allan! I am the owner of Spaniel Advisor and I've got over seven years experience of owning Spaniels.  
I hope this article was helpful for you! 
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