Posts Tagged ‘Irish setter’

Russian gun dogs 1907

These hunters must have been borrowing heavily from the British traditions. Two setters or a setter and pointer in the cart and black retriever in the front. These men may have even been British who brought their dogs in the Russian wild for a some “primitive” rough shooting in the Irkutsk region of Siberia.

I cannot make out the birds they were hunting. Maybe snipe?


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John Hutcheson of Ottawa, Ontario, sent me this photo of his golden Irish family. He raised four litters out of his Irish setter, featured on the right, and the golden retriever on the left. Golden was from UK lines.  In the middle is a golden Irish, which shows stronger Irish setter features than those of the golden retriever.

The golden retriever has light colored eyes, which isn’t that uncommon.  She reminds me of these dogs from an unknown painting:

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From The Complete English Shot (1907):

There has been a great deal of controversy upon how the dark-red colour arose. Mr. John King, who knew more of Irish setters than any other man known to the author, affirmed that red-and-white was the original colour, and the general opinion was that those of the last-named markings were the most easy to break. All the most setter-like Irish that have come before the author have had more or less white upon them, and as colour certainly denotes blood or origin, and the manner of hunting of the whole-red dogs is spaniel-like, it does not seem to be unlikely that the springer spaniel, the colour of a blood bay horse without a white hair spoken of by a Suffolk parson in the middle of the eighteenth century, may have had a good deal to do with the origin of the red Irish setter. At any rate, no other setters or spaniels of the colour can be traced in the early history of what was then the English spaniel, or the setter (pg. 164-165).

Red springer spaniels were once common. The red coloration no longer exists in the English springer, but the Welsh springer is red and white as a rule.

From my understanding, the original land spaniel of the British Isles was red and white.  The setters are believed to have arisen from this spaniel, but it just as likely that French index dogs, which are now known as the various breeds of epagneul, are at the base of these dogs.

I am not one of those who buys the commonly held assertion that spaniels are from Spain. It always said, but not one single piece of evidence is provided to back up the claim. Spaniel and epagneul look similar to the word for Spanish, which is  Espagnol and Español, but even if someone were to provide a true linguistic connection, it still would not prove that spaniels are Spanish. It could simply be that everyone believed spaniels were Spanish for so many generations that they got this name.

Whatever their origin, setters from the British Isles are related to land spaniels, but whether they are more closely related to the flushing land spaniels or the epagneul breeds of France is still not been fully explored. I lean more toward them being more closely related to the epagneul gun dogs, but no one has been able to sort this one out.

There were differences between solid red and red and white Irish setters for many years, but whether these differences result from the addition of red springer spaniel blood is also an assertion that hasn’t been proven. The spaniel in the cross wouldn’t have to be a solid red. Solid colors are dominant to particolors, even if the actual red color is a recessive. So it could have been a solid black or liver spaniel that introduced the solid color into the Irish red setter, and then through backcrossing, there was a selection for the recessive red color.

Teasdale-Buckell posits an interesting theory on the origins of the solid red setter, but it is not clear if the differences in the red and white and red breeds of setter is the result of introducing new blood or if it is the result of show breeding with the solid red dogs.

There are many theories about the origins of spaniels and setters. Some of them, like their supposed Spanish origin are quite dubious, while others are certainly possible– but not proof provided for such assertions is almost always wanting.

All that we know is that the original setter of Ireland was red and white, and the original British spaniel was also red and white. But how we came to have setters as distinct from flushing spaniels and why those setters in Ireland were red and white and then red are both questions that have not been fully answered.

But it is fun to speculate.

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I came across a very interesting piece of dialogue in Jim Kjelgaard’s Big Red, which was later made into a Disney film (that was quite different from the book!). The dog in the book is more like a solid red large Münsterländer, who hunts birds, fights a wolverine, scares off a lynx, and bays up a cow- and hog-killing black bear. The dog is a purebred Irish setter that is from conformation bloodlines, so perhaps it’s a bit fanciful. The truth is Kjelgaard based the character of Big Red on a black Irish setter cross he had while growing up in North Central Pennsylvania. I confess readily that this book was one of my favorites when I was growing up.

In the book, a backwoods boy named Danny becomes the apprentice at a wealthy landowner’s kennel, which contains a very special–and very valuable– Irish setter. In this scene,  the landowner–Mr. Haggin– explains the importance of dog shows. He asks Danny what he thinks about dog shows. Danny doesn’t think much of them. He is, after all, a working class kid whose family lives off the land. Trapping and hunting are very important to his family’s livelihood, and they value really good hunting dogs.  His perspective has not yet accepted the validity of dog shows, but Mr. Haggin sets him straight. This text is very indicative of the main perspective in dog shows and, if we are to be honest, also runs right through the various trial cultures.

The sentiments of this lecture were best described at this post by Christopher Landauer at the Border Wars blog.

He contends that much of showing and trialing and breeding from elite sires nothing more than a desire for “Virtual Immortality.”

No one owns “the breed” and altruism doesn’t exist, so individual ego, self aggrandizement, and desire for immortality through fame trumps the greater good. People whose greatest accomplishment in life is in their dogs do exist and asking them to take their last bow before they have to be dragged kicking and screaming, or in most cases whimpering, from the spotlight, is unseemly. We don’t criticize these people, we put their dogs on our logos and name awards after them. We give them glowing obituaries and make sure that any mention of the breed includes at least one or two homages to their dog. Everyone seems to know that Wiston Cap carried the gene for a red coat color, but no one seems to know that he also carried CEA.

Those sentiments run deep within Mr. Haggin’s commentary, but unlike Christopher’s analysis,  Big Red’s owner romanticizes much of it.

The notion that breeding a top show Irish setter is somehow a tribute to those Irish hunters who bred strains of red and white “setting spaniels” is a bit baffling. After all, most North American Irish setters that are from show lines are not widely used as gun dogs.  They are more or less novelties, which is not to say that there are no working Irish setters. There are. They just have significantly diverged from the show lines.

The game, whether it is showing or trialing, is to put your mark somewhere so that someone might see that you make a contribution to your chosen breed. The problem with that being accepted as a virtue is that the best and perhaps only way is to do that is to have a particularly prepotent sire and have him produce a lot of puppies.

In a closed registry system, nothing narrows the gene pools as quickly as breeding from elite sires, but that is the way one gets to become immortal.

The ego subsumes good sense.

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I have been trying to find a way to answer an unresolved “Identify the Breed” query for over a week now, but I have found the only to do it justice is to answer it is through historical analysis.

So this post will identify the breed in question and then explain how this fits into retrievers.

Ch. Kerry Palmerston was prominent Irish setter in the very early part of the twentieth century.

He is different from a modern Irish setter of the AKC show type, but reminds me very much of this Russian Irish setter:

Source for image. (History of Irish setters in Russia).

It is not accidental that some Irish setters do look like retrievers.

This Irish setter in W.E. Mason’s Dogs of All Nations (1915) has the same head and ears that Miley has:

Irish setters were used to refine modern flat-coated retriever in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is Irish setters of this type that were crossed in, not the very feathered Irish setters we see in the show ring.

However, the setter influence on retrievers began long before these Irish setters were crossbred with flat-coats.

The original wavy-coated retriever began as a synthesis between the St. John’s water dog and some kind of retrieving setter.

Writing in the 1870’s, Stonehenge described the origin of the wavy-coated retriever:

The Large Black Retriever is known by his resemblance to the small Newfoundland, and the Irish water spaniel, or setter, between which two he is bred, and the forms of which he partakes of in nearly equal proportions, according to the cross. Hence the modern retriever is distinguished as either the curly-coated or wavy-coated, separate classes being made for them at most of our shows, and sometimes a third depending on color alone.

The Wavy-coated Retriever has a head like that of a heavy setter, but with shorter ears, less clothed with hair. The body is altogether larger and heavier, the limbs stronger, the feet less compact than those of the setter, while the gait more or less resembles in its peculiarities that of the Newfoundland. The color is almost always black, with very little white; indeed, most people would reject a retriever of this kind, if accidentally of any other color. The coat is slightly wavy, but not very long or curly; and the legs are but little feathered. The night is usually about 23 or 24 inches, sometimes slightly more or less. This dog can readily be made to set and back; and he will also hunt as well as a setter, but slowly, and lasting for a short time only.

–Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh), The Dogs of Great Britain.

The wavy-coats that evolved from breeding setters to “small Newfoundlands” (St. John’s water dogs) varied in appearance from very setterish to very looking something like a long-haired English Labrador:

Paris and Melody were early wavy-coated retrievers, and they show the variance that existed between a strain that had both St. John's water dog and retrieving setter at its base.

In the early days of the wavy-coated retriever as a show dog, the “St. John’s” type was preferred. They were often called “Labradors” in the early literature, although it is likely that at least some of these dogs were long-haired, unlike the modern Labrador retriever or the last surviving St. John’s water dog that were still living in Newfoundland in the 1980’s. Zelstone very strongly resembles a dog of this type:

Ch. Zelstone, b. 1880.

Nous, the foundational sire of the Guisachan line on which the golden retrievers were based, was also of this St. John’s water dog type, although of a gold coloration:

However, as time progressed, it was decided that the heavier built type was less efficient than the more lightly built dog.

Rawdon Lee wrote in his A History and Description of the Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland (Sporting Division)(1894) that in the early days of the wavy-coatedflat-coated breed that everyone wanted the “little Newfoundland type,” just in case someone shot a big hare:

Some of the early specimens were pure and simple little Newfoundlands, and it has taken a few years’ careful work to bring the wavy retriever to what it is at the present time. Not too big but just big enough. Our grandfathers said, “Oh! we want a big retriever, a strong ‘un; one that can jump a gate with an 8lb. hare in its mouth, and gallop with one at full speed.” This is not so now. A comparatively small dog is well able to carry a hare, and shooting is so precise that puss does not run as far as she did, when properly hit. Dogs are not made to assist bad shooters to fill a bag; and a man who cannot, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, stop a hare before she has run seventy yards, ought not to fire at another. And you do not require to have a special dog for that one chance in a hundred.

Lee also claimed that Paris, who is depicted above, was almost a “pure Labrador,” meaning that he had definite St. John’s water dog ancestry. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the tendency was to select for a more setter-like build (and some more setter blood was likely crossed in as an extension of this desire. Lee thinks this tendency is just as bad as breeding for the heavy and coarse dogs:

At the present time there is a tendency to produce the wavy-coated retrievers with an inclination to the type and shape of head possessed by the setters. This is, no doubt, due to the fallacy carried out in breeding for straight coats, which are all very well in their way, attractive enough in the show ring, but thoroughly bad from a workman’s point of view. During my somewhat lengthened connection with dog shows I have noticed that, as a rule, the straightest and flattest coated dogs have the greatest tendency to the longer setter-like heads. If breeding for this coat in preference to that of type of head and character is continued, mischief will be done which may not be so easy to remedy as the variety was to be produced in the first instance. I would especially recommend the judges, in dealing with this retriever, to give more credit for the correct type of head than than for an actually and perfectly flat coat, not forgetting that the dog was originally “wavy-coated” quite as much as his jacket was straight.

But even then, the more lightly built type was seen as more functional in the field. George Teasdale-Buckell wrote in The Complete English Shot (1907) about Zelstone:

He was a flat-coated retriever Champion, and may have been himself a good worker; but he ruined the working qualities of the descendants of Jenny above mentioned, and brought the author’s strain of them to an end. Consequently, it is suggested that the Newfoundland is the type to breed out of the flat coats.

Teasdale-Buckell believed the functional conformation for flat-coats should always be away from the heavier-boned type. The flat-coat would always have a future when “he is bred more wiry and less lumbering.”

Don of Gerwn was a liver flat-coat, whose sire was a dog of Tweedmouth's strain (which is the basis of the golden retriever). He was of the type that George Teasdale-Buckell liked.

And that is how the flat-coated retriever evolved from the wavy-coat, which had both setter and St. John’s water dog types in it.

The golden retriever, although definitely influenced by the same forces that changed the flat-coat, held onto the heavier wavy-coated type a bit longer. I find the tendency in the golden retriever is to look at some of the early Guisachan dogs, which definitely had this type, and say that this is the only type. In reality, they were nothing more than reflection of the fact that they were early wavy-coated types.

This fact was not missed by the Reverend E.N. Needham-Davies, who wrote in Gundogs–Their Training, Working, and Management, that the golden strongly resembled the original small Newfoundland (St. John’s water dog) that was at the base of the retriever family. He believed that goldens had been one strain of flat-coat that generally been free of crosses with setters. I think one can make the case that the main Guisachan strain had little of Irish setter influence. The red setter that was crossed in was much more likely a variant of red Gordon setter, which Richard Ansdell portrayed in “The Gamekeeper”:

However, I highly suspect that many goldens that were registered in the foundational pedigrees were by-product of breeding Irish setters to flat-coats. Although the preferred color was always black in flat-coats, e/e reds could always be hidden as recessives. When these were born, they were faulty, but if one could register them as goldens and breed them into goldens, they would have been a definite source for both the dark color and setter ancestry. These darker colored more flat-coatish or setterish dogs were quite common in the 1920’s and 30’s and still make up the bulk of the working-line goldens in North America. I’ve noted that the early dogs in this country really resemble what we would call field-line dogs today.  The working-type golden is really based upon the  flat-coat that existed in the the very early part of the twentieth century.

The modern flat-coat has evolved along even more setter-like lines. Additions of Irish setter blood gave the flat-coat an even more gracile frame. It also reduced the density of its undercoat, which is very different from that of a typical golden, which is still bred to be quite dense.  A significant minority of flat-coats also point, a trait that is uncommon in goldens (but still pops up every once in a while).

The show-type golden retriever as it exists now is  actually an attempt to breed for the old-type wavy-coat.   It may be one feature that has driven for a split between show and working types in the breed. This Newfoundland-type is less agile than the more lithe and wiry type we typically seen in the working bred dogs.

One must remember that in British retriever trials, the dogs must retrieve where ever the bird falls. If the dog must jump a fence to get the bird, he must jump the fence. A big lumbering dog is going to have  hard time jumping the fence, so trial breeders were not going to select for his conformation.

Trialling mean that the flat-coated retriever would move away from the heavier-bodied type. Trialling changes the size and shape of dogs almost as easily as actual conformation showing does. The St. John’s water dog type would simply be bred out of the flat-coat over time.

However, as the golden retriever became a separate breed, the tendency was to breed for a conformation that truly distinguished it from the flat-coat. Because the original dogs at Guisachan were of the heavier old wavy-coat type, the decision was breed goldens with a bit heavier bone and better sprung ribs than the typical flat-coat. Winifred Charlesworth strongly encourages breeding for more bone in the golden in her contribution to Joselyn Lucas’s Pedigree Dog Breeding–For Profit or Pleasure. Of course, she was operating under the assumption that these dogs were derived from some kind of Russian dog, and their unique conformation did not come from the fact that the early Guisachan dogs were very typical of many of the wavy-coats that existed at that time. It was the Reverend Needham-Davies who figured out that many goldens were actually exhibiting the old Newfoundland-type wavy-coated retriever conformation.

So out of a founding strain that was primarily a cross between a setter and St. John’s water dog (“Labrador” or “Newfoundland” type of dog), the dogs evolved. Trials led to the selection away from the heavier-boned type, and it was only out of the foundation of the golden retriever as a distinct breed that anyone would try to breed for that type. It has helped distinguish the show-type golden from its flat-coat cousin very clearly. One can easily tell when one is looking at modern yellow flat-coat instead of a golden retriever.

However, if the two dogs had remained within the same gene pool, and the flat-coat had remained the dominant trial and show retriever in Britain, it is unlikely that the two would have diverged at all in conformation. Any goldens that retained the heavier conformation would have disappeared, just as any black flat-coats would have done the same.

But as different breeds, they had to have different conformation.

I am sure that similar stories exist with other breeds that have split apart in this fashion. I can show you many photos of goldens in the UK and North America that today would make nice moderate flat-coats, and I can show you others fo wavy and flat-coated retrievers– like Zelstone in this post– who had conformation very similar to the modern show-type golden.

The original wavy-coated retriever existed within the Paris and Melody continuum. Breeding for trials meant that the Paris-types in the greater wavy-coat type were to become rarer.  When the golden retriever became a distinct breed, one of its distinct traits became the desire to breed for a more Paris-like dog.

Out of a diverse type came selection for trials and then selection for distinctiveness in both flat-coated and golden retrievers. This diversity still exists to a degree in golden retrievers, which have coalesced into working types (Melody/setterish/flat-coat-types) and show dogs (Paris/Zelstone/St. John’s water dog/Labrador/ Newfoundland types).



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This  1805 depiction appears in the Cynographia Britannica.

Black and tan setters are not necessarily Gordon setters, and red setters are not necessarily Irish. However, the red and white dog does fit with our understanding of the history of Irish setter in which red and whites were the original dog. But unlike the various Irish setter breeds, this dog is either a brown-skinned red or a rusty liver. I’m not willing to come down on either side because it’s hard to tell.

The white dog is most interesting.

It lacks the ticking or Belton markings one typically sees on modern English setters. It appears to almost solid white except for what appear to be some light lemon markings.

It is also a brown-skinned red and is quite similar to the red dog. Perhaps they are littermates.

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These are from a John Emms painting from 1876:

Note the large Amounts of white on one of these dogs. The one on the far right really looks like a certain golden retriever.

These are the Irish setters that would have been around when the Tweedmouth strain was developing. These dogs are an important source for the white markings we get with some lines of golden retrievers.

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This is a sketch by Sir Edwin Landseer of a “Setter Dog.” It dates to 1820.

Compare this dog with Breeze, a retriever that was around in the 1840’s.

The little secret about golden retrievers is that yellow and red retrievers have been around ever since St. John’s water dogs were bred to setters.  The fact that the 1st Baron Tweedmouth capitalized upon the color variant to found his line does not mean that the animals weren’t always around.

Of course, most of these dogs would have been “bucketed” before they ever reached maturity.

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This golden has a ton of white on her.

Except for the white markings, she could pass for my first dog.

This dog is a definite throwback to the ancestral setter of Ireland, which looked something like this.

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This dog is Ch. Kerry Palmerston, a top show dog in the early twentieth century.

He is heavier in bone than we normally see in Irish setters today, but it is well within the range that we see in retrievers. In fact, if I hadn’t identified this animal as an Irish setter, I bet that many of my readers would think I had posted another photo of an early flat-coat.

Setters, especially Irish setters, were originally much more retriever-like in their appearance. Golden and flat-coated retrievers have significant heritage from these dogs, even though many goldens have since been bred away from this type.

Irish setters were known for their intelligence and air-scenting abilities– traits that would have been useful for a working retriever.  Today’s Irish setters do not have that same reputation.

These setters may have been crossed into Labrador retrievers. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century retriever fancier Harding Cox thought that Labradors should be interbred with setters to make the dogs less coarsely built:

Of late years the Labrador has grown in favour, and though the writer has no personal experience of his merits, there are knowledgable sportsmen who swear by him, by reason of his alleged possession of all the virtues which a Retriever should possess. Many of these dogs have been carefully bred and the strains jealously guarded; but to the writer’s eyes they appear, for the most part, rather coarse and cloddy; so that the element of the Setter becomes a necessity, if the quality of the modern Retriever is to be maintained. But first get your black Setter – no easy matter forsooth; though the cross of the red Irish Setter with the Labrador would probably produce a fair percentage of blacks. These could be crossed in with a high-quality, show, Flat-coated Retriever, and thus a fresh current of blood would be introduced, which not only would check the tendency to excessive inbreeding, but would probably increase the powers of scent, and induce that steadiness which, it must be regretfully admitted, is often sadly wanting in our modern dogs; for they are high-couraged creatures, and somewhat impatient of restraint.

From British Dogs, Their Points, Selection, And Show Preparation (1903) W.D. Drury.

I don’t know if any Labradors had setter ancestors, but I do know that the common practice of breeding Labradors/St. John’s water dogs to flat-coats means that many Labradors have setter ancestry, although not as close in their pedigrees as golden and flat-coated retrievers.

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