GUNDOGS: COCKER OR SPROCKER? THE HOT TOPIC

Ryan up­dates us on his tri­alling sea­son and gives his view on the con­tro­versy cur­rently sur­round­ing the is­sue of sup­posed sprock­ers run­ning at cocker tri­als

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My tri­alling sea­son ended with an even­tual win in mid De­cem­ber. Skye man­aged to take the spoils in an A/V Novice, and with no Open class tri­als avail­able to en­ter her in there­after, that was as far as we could go un­til next sea­son. Char­lie had missed his best chance to qual­ify again for the Cham­pi­onship a cou­ple of weeks ear­lier dur­ing an Open at the same venue, when his luck ran out dur­ing a re­trieve to­wards the end of his sec­ond run. But I’m thrilled with Skye, and af­ter all she’s been through, she cer­tainly de­serves it. As reg­u­lar read­ers may re­mem­ber, I‘d writ­ten about her or­deal af­ter a road ac­ci­dent which oc­curred at the end of Jan­uary last year; at just six and a half months old she was hit by a car, break­ing five bones in her right hind leg. Yet here she was at the Beeswax Es­tate in Stubton, Lincolnshire, pick­ing up her sixth award of the sea­son, against some qual­ity springers – and still a very young lass in­deed.

Spaniel thefts

Spaniels have been in the news for all the wrong rea­sons re­cently. Poor Will Clulee of the fa­mous Pool­green Ken­nels had six spaniels stolen from his ken­nels in Shrop­shire, and it was all caught on CCTV. At 3pm in the af­ter­noon thieves broke into his prop­erty and took five young­sters – dogs that Will was keep­ing on to train for next sea­son. They re­turned five min­utes later for an­other dog; this time an award-win­ning bitch was taken. Just 10 min­utes af­ter that, his wife re­turned home to find the an­i­mals miss­ing. It was heart­break­ing for Will and his fam­ily as they’d ex­pe­ri­enced this aw­ful feel­ing be­fore, just a few years ear­lier, when they’d had two lit­ters of pup­pies stolen. Will is now hav­ing to gal­vanise his se­cu­rity and I ex­pect a num­ber of gun­dog own­ers will re­view and tighten up theirs. A lit­ter sired by our stud dog, Char­lie, was also stolen from a home in North York­shire, along with the bitch who had pro­duced them. The owner quickly posted the in­for­ma­tion on so­cial me­dia and ap­peared on lo­cal ra­dio in an at­tempt to make the pups too hot to han­dle, as they say. This seemed to have the de­sired ef­fect as all the pups, along with mum, were re­turned a cou­ple of days later, mer­ci­fully un­harmed.

Cocker or sprocker?

The other sub­ject that has had many folk talk­ing is the mat­ter of sup­posed sprock­ers com­pet­ing in cocker Field Tri­als. If you’ve been part of the rel­e­vant so­cial me­dia groups, this story has been easy to fol­low, at­tract­ing com­ments from the great and the good. The Royal-owned Mal­low­dale Di­a­mond, a cocker spaniel bred by the hugely suc­cess­ful Ian Open­shaw, has been ac­cused of

be­ing part springer. The Sun has sim­pli­fied and sen­sa­tion­alised the story, some may say un­sur­pris­ingly, with a pic­ture of Her Majesty the Queen hold­ing the pup which was pre­sented to her to com­mem­o­rate her di­a­mond ju­bilee. This dog (now a Field Trial Cham­pion) is one of sev­eral dogs be­ing de­scribed as an English springer/ English cocker cross.

Some own­ers with the sus­pected mixed blood­line have cho­sen to get their cock­ers DNA tested (us­ing the com­pany Wis­dom Panel) to de­ter­mine the un­der­ly­ing breed, and have sub­se­quently posted the DNA breed anal­y­sis re­sults of their tested cock­ers on­line for all to see – with the out­comes high­light­ing some as sprock­ers. Oth­ers have sim­ply said that it’s been ob­vi­ous for a while, as the shape and true cocker stamp have been some­what di­luted.

DNA test­ing

But the fact is this: cock­ers and springers are very close. In fact they share much of the same DNA. So close, in fact, that they are prob­a­bly ge­net­i­cally closer to each other than a show cocker is to a work­ing cocker. And this is where part of the prob­lem lies: in the DNA breed anal­y­sis tests.

Let’s bring show cock­ers into this… Show cock­ers and work­ing cock­ers are sim­ply ‘cock­ers’, reg­is­tered by the Ken­nel Club as one breed and un­der the same name. Yet they are in fact two pop­u­la­tions of what is classed the same breed. Both pop­u­la­tions have dif­fer­ences in lev­els of health prob­lems and the level of blood­lines in com­mon, dif­fer­ing quite markedly with a breed av­er­age of around 15% in the work­ing cocker; it is sig­nif­i­cantly lower amongst the show cock­ers.

We have in ac­tual fact proved work­ing and show cock­ers to be quite un­re­lated in a pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle, with ex­am­ples of vir­tual mat­ings cross­ing dogs from both sides, show­ing zero per­cent­age of in­breed­ing. If we also take into ac­count that springers and cock­ers were once upon a time di­vided into two cat­e­gories as pups – with the smaller pups be­ing classed as cock­ers and the larger go­ing on to be springers – then this mud­dies the wa­ter even fur­ther.

So with this knowl­edge in mind, we need to ask: which dogs have the DNA breed anal­y­sis tests been com­pared to? Where is the bench­mark DNA? Did we per­haps line up a dozen top work­ing English cock­ers and then take sam­ples that would set the base­line of work­ing cocker DNA for the fu­ture? No; in­stead the ‘mark­ers’, so to speak, may be taken from any cocker – the two cocker pop­u­la­tions in­cluded.

I have been ad­vised by a ca­nine ge­neti­cist that be­cause cock­ers and springers are so close ge­net­i­cally, if a DNA re­sult came back at 30% springer, it could still be classed as a cocker. So the ac­tual DNA breed anal­y­sis test is based on a high per­cent­age of prob­a­bil­ity (only 90% ac­cu­rate by Wis­dom Panel’s own ad­mis­sion), not con­clu­sive be­yond doubt. De­ter­min­ing parent­age through DNA pro­fil­ing, though, is a dif­fer­ent thing and more ac­cu­rate. A pro­file is a sin­gle ‘print’ of that an­i­mal and the ac­tual par­ents can be tested to ver­ify their parent­age of that par­tic­u­lar off­spring.

My thoughts are these: the breed and blood­line of work­ing cock­ers ap­pears strong, and in my opin­ion there’s no need for springer blood to be in­tro­duced to cock­ers. There are rel­a­tively few health prob­lems within the work­ing breed and, yes, by first cross­ing you can in­tro­duce hy­brid vigour, but there is also the dan­ger of bring­ing prob­lems from both breeds to­gether. If any­one is found to be in­tro­duc­ing springer blood to cock­ers and then sell­ing them on as cock­ers or com­pet­ing with them, then maybe they should be sim­ply banned as a breeder and as a com­peti­tor. How­ever, given the past close­ness of the two breeds, the DNA breed anal­y­sis test may be too flaky to be used as undis­puted ev­i­dence. Surely what we should be do­ing is try­ing to learn from the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and look­ing at ways in which we can make im­prove­ments to fu­ture breed­ing?

DNA pro­fil­ing could be a route to look at. Increasing the use of com­pul­sory mi­crochip checks could also help de­ter­mine dogs’ iden­ti­ties and would as­sist with both of the is­sues I’ve dis­cussed here. I use sev­eral rep­utable vets and not one of them scans my dog rou­tinely when I bring it into the con­sul­ta­tion room, check­ing the va­lid­ity of the dog. I could be bring­ing in stolen pups. Yes, there are flaws within this, but surely the in­tro­duc­tion of safe­guards has to start some­where?

On a lighter note, and not to be over­shad­owed by cur­rent spec­u­la­tion, I would like to con­grat­u­late Dai Or­mand on win­ning the Cocker Cham­pi­onship, with his bitch Byrb­wll Dotty. The win­ter sun shone for both days on fab­u­lous hunt­ing ground, bring­ing out the best in all the dogs com­pet­ing.

Cock­ers or sprock­ers? In the shoot­ing field, it is of less im­por­tance than in tri­als

Cock­ers and springers ac­tu­ally al­ready share much of the same DNA

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