Friday, December 9, 2011

Mismark Case Study: American Cocker Spaniel

American cocker spaniels are shown in three color classes: Black like the dog above (which may also have tan points), ASCOB ("any solid color other than black," meaning the shades of red, liver, and liver with tan points), and Parti-Color (which is any of the previously mentioned colors with piebale markings, with or without roaning). Image is from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
American cocker spaniels are a very common pet today in the United States, where they are simply referred to as the "cocker spaniel." It is in other countries where the "American" is added in to differentiate from the English cocker spaniel, which in England is simply called the "cocker spaniel". They are also popular in mixed breed form, with "cockapoos" and other "designer breeds" becoming more common all the time. Here are the mismarks seen in the cocker spaniel:

  • Incorrect white
    • Too little white (a parti is less than 10% white)
    • Too much white (a parti is less than 10% color, or a solid has more than a chest spot)
  • Ticking
    • Particolors are supposed to have either clear white or be roan (uniform distribution of dark hairs)
  • Incorrect tan points
    • Tan is not clearly defined, is too minimal, or has black shot through (such as penciling, tar heel, or masking)
  • Sable
    • May be piebald
    • May be liver pigmented instead of black
  • Incorrect eye color
    • Eyes are supposed to be dark brown, so blue is a no-no
    • Blue eyes can be caused by both piebald and merle
  • Merle (a controversial and unacceptable color)
    • May be in combination with any previously mentioned color or pattern

This cocker has incorrect white and ticking
A blue eyed cocker with too much white
Cockers are usually bred using color classes due to the restrictions in the standard. If a parti is bred to a black or ASCOB, it is basically guaranteed that the puppies will end up having too little white to be shown as a parti and too much white to be shown as a solid. The exception would be if the parti had the extreme white piebald gene, but since too little color is also unacceptable, extreme white piebald is not as commonly seen as moderate piebald. As such, matings between the partis and the solid dogs are basically never done. Parti matings in and of themselves may be an issue, since it is possible that extreme white piebald may be hiding in a moderately marked dog. As such, it is quite possible for an extreme white piebald dog to be born from a parti to parti mating. Also, by it's nature, piebald can produce blue eyed dogs quite easily, which is not allowed according to the standard.

Interesting as well is the fact that ticking is not an acceptable marking pattern due to the current theorized inheritance of the ticking and roan genes. It is listed using the designation "A" meaning "alternate color," and as such is not acceptable according to the standard. According to current theory based on breeding information, a dog has to have at least one copy of the ticking gene to be roan. In addition, since a dog only needs one copy of the roan gene to be roan, it is very possible for ticked dogs to come from roan to roan breedings. This is possibly why roan American cockers are so unusual when compared to roan English cockers, as ticking is allowed in the breed according to the English cocker standard.

This cocker is a sable mismark
Also a fairly commonly seen mismark is sable, which is not allowed according to the standard as it is not a "solid" color. Sable may potentially come from several different matings. Part of this is because dominant black and recessive black are both seen in the breed. As such, breeding a black to a black has a rather high potential for producing sable dogs. This will happen when the dominant black dog only has one copy of the black gene and has at least one copy of the sable gene on the Agouti locus. As recessive black is recessive to sable, sables have a high chance of being produced in these situations. The same is true of breeding dominant black to black and tan, since tan point is also recessive to sable. So too with dominant black to dominant black if the dogs carry non-black (which allows the agouti locus to show through). Breeding buff, red, or silver (all of which are recessive red) to black also has a similar possibility of producing sables, both when dominant or recessive black is being bred to the buff. If the buff is sable under the recessive red, sables are quite possible, even to the point where an entire sable litter may be produced (if the black is not carrying buff). If dominant black is carrying non-black and either the buff of black is hiding sable, this is yet another situation that can produce sable dogs. The same is true if any of the black dogs mentioned above were liver.

This cocker is a merle mismark
I do completely understand why merle is not an acceptable color in the breed. Since buff (recessive red) and parti (piebald) are such common colors in the breed, mating merles to certain colors gives a very high chance of producing cryptic merles. Cryptic merles are often not identified as merle, and as such may be bred to another merle dog. A merle to merle breeding leads to a twenty-five percent chance of producing a double merle, and double merles have a very high chance of being blind and/or deaf. Merle was also not present in the early years of the breed, and as such must have been introduced through an out-cross fairly recently. Why anyone would purposefully introduce merle into a breed where it didn't already exist is beyond me, due to the potential health issues it can cause.

There are a lot of issues I see with the mismarks in the American cocker spaniel. As with every purebred, cockers are part of a closed registration and genetic diversity is of great concern. By restricting the breedings that are "acceptable" based on a color standard the breed is now bred in color classes. Color class breeding causes an already isolated gene pool to become isolated from itself, and as such it is at greater risk of serious inbreeding side affects than breeds where the color standard is less restrictive. Making it so that a dog is considered worthless based on its color is absurd. This is true of the American cocker spaniel and every other purebred out there.


  1. I think that they are all beautiful and to disregard a dog/bitch just because of its colour is wrong. I have an English Cocker Spaniel who is a very rare solid chocolate colour but he has green eyes and is therefore seen as ugly is the "Doggie World". All types of wrong

    1. I have been breeding solid to parti american cocker spaniels for well over 30 years and have fond true mismarks to be rare. I assume all the dogs you have pictured as mismarks are mismarks because they are colors that are not allowed under the standard for the breed???

    2. Cara ~ I really appreciate your comment above. I have a lovely little black/white and tan cocker spaniel with very "open"markings which her breeder let me co own but with shared breedings to studs she approves. So now I'm looking towards next spring to breed her and her breeder has suggested 2 dogs from her friend's kennel, one is black/white and tan and the other is chocolate. But her friend's kennel is several hours away and so I found a breeder nearby in my state with a lovely chocolate with tan points who is very similarly bred to my co owner's first choice. But my co owner is now telling me that even though the dog I like is very nice and solidly bred, she doesnt like him because a breeding to him will "be a poor selection as far as markings and mismarkings" but the pedigrees are so close and I think she is just trying to promote her friend's dogs. Besides I found out the lady in my state started with dogs from the other breeder's line. So I'm researching mismarking in cockers to find out the truth for myself. I do like what you said, although this blogger's article makes sense to me also. I should tell you I am not a novice totally, I have bred, shown and trained a successful line of dual quality working show Chesapeakes for 30+ years. I would love to hear more from you on this mismarking of a parti to a chocolate. Thanks much ~ Eileen in NJ

    3. Hate to break it to you, but solid livers are not rare. They might be uncommon among show types, but they're certainly not rare, and the great majority of working cockers are solid liver or black.

      Liver cockers usually have green eyes when they are young. The green usually changes to a hazel as they get older.

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  3. As a show cocker breeder in the US for 20 years I should point out that ticking on a parti color is not considered "mismark" nor is it penalized providing the dog has does not exceed 90% color. Ticking on parti's is commonly seen on the face (with or without color markings around the eyes) but can commonly be seen on the back, legs and elsewhere. Often a cocker has clear white when young and then ticking shows and then increases as a parti cocker ages. Nowhere in the standard is ticking not allowed or penalized for show.

    In addition, although a primarily white cocker is not as desirable (in some exhibitors opinions), nowhere in our standard are they disqualified from show or called mismarks. For a Parti, only a maximum amount of color is noted. No minimum amount of color is noted in the standard as long as it has at least two well broken colors.

    Sables and sable & whites are eligible for registration with the American Kennel Club under color numbers 164 for solid sables, 165 for "parti" sables, 290 for Sable & Tan. Although they can not be shown in the US they are shown in other countries in including Canada.

    Merles are also registered with the AKC under several color codes depending on Merle color and markings. They can not be shown in the US and I am not aware of any countries that do allow them to show at this time. Sables & Merles although recognized by the AKC for registration, are not recognized by the American Spaniel Club and can not be shown for championship points.

    We do sometimes cross breed varieties to improve certain traits and/or for genetic diversity. Some have found that breeding together two cockers that both have tan points can greatly reduce the incidence of true mismarks. Example- a Black & White Tri bred to a Black & Tan.

  4. Neither of the sables featured is a mismark but just ordinary parti. Both have 10% non white so how could it be a mismark parti?

  5. The dog you have called '' a blue eyed spaniel with too much white'' is a MERLE.