by Virginia Lyne, All Breeds International Judge
Ranzfel English Cocker Spaniels
Saanichton, BC, Canada

By the time our litter of prospects is 10 to 12 weeks old, we expect to have narrowed it down to 2 or 3 of the most promising. Obvious pets have been settled on non-breeding agreements into carefully selected families which have the essentials: a secure fence, a member of the family at home during the day, and a genuine desire for an English Cocker. 

Now comes the more difficult evaluation of the remaining stock. Do we have a top flier? Is there a selection of finishable dogs which we must run on or are there dogs with Group potential among the brood? In making these decisions, we focus on the following criteria: overall balance and eye appeal, structure and soundness, and attitude. These three, coupled with the correct finishing touches of coat care and presentation can help us ensure our swans develop as planned. 

In this article, I will focus on balance and structure as we try to apply it at Ranzfel and offer a few practical suggestions as to what we look for in choosing puppies. Much of this is common sense and regularly practiced by experienced breeders. 

Balance and Eye Appeal: There is no question that some puppies fill the eye with an indefinable quality that is a result of the pleasing combination of all their parts. These are the pups that are NOT evaluated by comments such as, "I adore that powerful head," "What tremendous rear angulation," "Just look at that length of neck!" Remarks of this sort always suggest a puppy that is out of balance because one element of structure is overpowering all else. I want to be able to put my pup on the table and say, "My, that's an even, balanced puppy." The selection of a pup which shows balance is often difficult after 8 weeks and much before 8 months. The upper limit varies for different lines, but we have found our own dogs are best evaluated around 8-9 weeks. We then stop worrying during the rapid growth periods, or during teething. At this point, a good selection of photographs and profiles, fronts and rears is most helpful. We have found that the most balanced pups usually look on the small side especially at 5-7 months. They are "compact packages" and as puppies strike one as diminutive but as adults prove to be correct size. 

Structure and Soundness: In assessing the way the pup is made, it is important to differentiate those parts of the structure which might change and those which will remain fairly constant. We feel that the following are some of the things which will remain fairly constant. What you see is likely what you get. 

  1. Low on leg. We have found that rarely does the short-legged, low-to-the-ground pup become square and correct. In most cases, these pups are too long in the loin and should not be retained in a breeding program. 

  2. Loose shoulder assemblies, pin toes, loaded or heavily muscled shoulders. I've combined rather a number of problems in the shoulder assembly, but frankly, this is a serious problem in the breed and one I find rarely improves or corrects. Shoulder layback is hard to predict but my rule is that if it is poor it is unlikely to improve. If it is good it may not stay good in the adult. Minor looseness in the front will tighten with good exercise. 

  3. Low tailset and falling away croup. These are fairly set at 8-9 weeks and should be avoided. Because these are difficult to breed out, we are fairly ruthless in eliminating them. 

  4. Serious rear end weaknesses, narrow quarters, long or cowhocks. Don't be tempted here - this is a serious fault and they never move right as adults. 

  5. Lack of forechest or depth of brisket. Keep reminding yourself that you can't create something that wasn't there to begin with. 

  6. Eye colour and size. The small, round or light eye will be there only worse in the adult. 

  7. Roach - any tendency to a roach or excessive arch over the loin is not going to go away. 

  8. Fine bone/Excess bone. The shelly, slab-sided pup that is lacking in bone quality usually matures into a fine-boned adult. Equally I avoid the extremely heavy-boned pup that shows excessive coarseness. Usually accompanying this is the heavy throat and dewlap of the very loose-skinned pup. Sometimes they'll "grow into" the skin a certain amount but avoid those pups with Basset characteristics! 

On the other hand, there are many characteristics of our pups which MAY modify to a degree as the pup grows. Do realize, however, that the limits to the modification move to the norm for the breed. The pup is never going to improve to the point of excelling in the characteristic in question. The extent of the change does vary within breeding lines. Here a familiarity with your pedigree is invaluable. Know your sire and dam's strengths and weaknesses. Know equally well the grandparents. If you are consciously striving for a certain quality in the pup you select then place greater emphasis on that quality when you evaluate pups. Be objective about your choice. While hard to admit, it may be necessary to say that the litter is not up to the standard of the parents. Unless you feel you have made progress in the result of a breeding, there is absolutely no merit in keeping a pup from that mating. You are merely marking time or worse regressing. It is time to be fairly ruthless in your assessment of your prospects. 

Facets of structure which change include the following: 

  1. Head planes. Some pups, especially when teething, lose the distinct stop they had at 7 weeks and go through a very "plain" period with considerable under-eye fill in. Be patient. If the head was right as a baby, it should come back. In addition, prominence of skull and occipital bones may blend and smooth. 

  2. High in the hindquarters. Rumpy puppies often level out. Do not despair about this problem when pups are teething but be very wary if it remains after that time. 

  3. Toplines. As shoulders alter and musculature acquires strength and tone, the slightly soft topline may come right. Again, it is a matter of degree whether the improvement takes place. 

  4. Feet. While strong, thick, well-cushioned pads (not too large, though) are extremely important, as long as pups have sufficient depth and thickness to their pads, the strength and tightness of an adult pad is something that will appear later. Pay attention to down-in-pastern pups. Some time on gravel run will help. 

  5. Minor hockiness. Some pups with a fair amount of angulation are not altogether in charge of their hocks. With controlled exercise and development of the second thigh, this may improve. 

  6. Size. One of the more difficult things to evaluate is the final size of a pup. We have found little correlation with birth weight. Products of outcrosses, as one would expect, are hardest to predict. Since we do not want anything crowding the 17' limit, we tend to avoid what looks as though it might go too large. Be careful to evaluate size over a fairly long period. Plateaus and growth spurts can be very misleading. Especially significant is the 5 month pup which may seem small because he stopped growing while teething. By 10 months, we expect the pup to have reached his height. 

  7. Coat. Generally flat, straight, firm coats tend to be sparser as adults. These are lovely, easy-care, correct coats. Texture must be considered in your evaluation. The linty, cotton wool coat is terrible to look after and never gets a correct finish to the back jacket. If you succumb to the stone or razor on these coats you will be doing it for the rest of the dog's life. 

  8. Eyes. Select for tight eyes without visible haw. Obviously during teething, eyes are not as they will remain! 

  9. Short backs. This is totally bound up with my earlier comments on balance. However, it is important to remember that if your puppy is long in the loin, he will always be long. If he is short-coupled, he may remain so, but it is not guaranteed! Frustrating, isn't it! Be sure to look for that pup with a long ribcage that extends well back and that has a short coupling. He's the one to keep. 

  10. Testicles. We like to find these coming down by 6 weeks, and in place by 9-10 weeks. 3 months is about our outside limit on a pup that is VERY special. There is too much problem with retained testicles in this breed and I don't like to give pups much time to "see if they'll come down." Show stock is breeding stock. Let's not promote problems. 

  11. Teeth. Keep checking bites. Watch for narrow underjaws especially where lower canines come inside the upper canines and puncture the roof of the mouth. Now you have to put all these elements together. You've chosen your puppy on the basis of your reasons for doing the breeding, the structure of the pup and the overall balance. Now you must nurture carefully your choice, and ensure that he develops the right attitude, slowly but surely. 

At this point I would like to pickup on three problem areas which I have not discussed in the earlier articles. 


    One of the checks that must be made on young pups is that they all hear properly. We routinely start checking a litter at 3 to 4 weeks by conditioning the pups to a food signal. This consists of a slight tapping of the fingers on the wooden sides of the whelping box, accompanied by a tongue "click" or "puppy, puppy." Puppies are thereby conditioned to a food reward. By 5 to 6 weeks you should have an immediate, positive, conditioned response from EACH puppy. Watch for the pup which seems to be taking his cues from the other pups in the litter. If you are suspicious of a pup, you must separate him from the rest of the litter for more precise testing in a strange location. Confirmation of a deaf puppy should be possible by 7 to 8 weeks. This puppy should be euthanized and under no circumstances placed in a home. 


    Occasionally a blue eye or eyes will appear in a litter of parti-colour English Cockers. Affected individuals may have two blue eyes, one blue and one brown, or may have just a chip of blue in a regular hazel or brown eye. The blue can vary from a quite pale and reflective color to a fairly deep blue. The closest color match I've seen in other breeds has been in the Siberian Husky. Generally by 4 to 5 weeks you can identify a "suspicious" blue eye which is noticeably more pale than a regular colored eye. Such puppies should, I feel, be neutered or spayed and placed in caring pet homes. I have never heard of a vision impairment in a blue-eyed puppy. 


    Occasionally a puppy of 10 to 14 weeks will develop a deformed toe on one or both front feet. You will not be able to identify a "toe" before 10 weeks. These toes eventually curl up and elevate the nail off the ground. The pad of such a toe will be narrow, atrophied and twisted to the side. Usually the outside toe is the one which is affected. I have judged dogs which have been so affected and, although I have not observed any consequences to the deformity, I do fault it when judging because the foot is not as described in the standard. I personally would not include such an individual in my breeding program. 

In the preceding comments I have made no attempt to discuss the extent or nature of these three problems in terms of inheritability. My desire in writing about them was to alert the novice breeder to something that might be missed in assessing a litter of puppies. 

© 2001 Virginia Lyne - Ranzfel English Cocker Spaniels, Saanichton, BC, Canada
Reprinted from the ECQuarterly Fall 1983

Click here to read Virginia's article "Thoughts On Sorting A Litter"

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