Posts Tagged ‘gordon setter’

A tricolored retrieving setter, perhaps very similar to the type Benjamin Franklin imported.

A tricolored retrieving setter, perhaps very similar to the type Benjamin Franklin imported.

On Facebook, a friend of mine posted this bizarre rant from a purebred dog breeder:

“I DON”T call freedom a choice to do whatever!!!!!!… Don’t get confused….. Ben Franklin worked for freedom— but he worked at having a purebred Gordon setter brought from England and bred them.. to preserve something special. the Freedom was to have a choice to own a dog so let’s get this Freedom of Choice thing straight… where did you all go to school???? what happened to parents teaching their children the real meaning of this slogan??? .. not to breed mutts/designer dogs on a whim and to see how much money you might get …Dogs were bred for a purpose for a certain breed to have that characteristic…. Ben and all the rest of us spent millions of dollars to insure something true and honest…. how dare you or anyone else decide to take our Freedom of choice away from US..it is not ok to breed this way.. it shows lack of purpose, lack of loyalty.. lake of knowledge and lack of you wanting to spend money to support a breed to insure it’s Freedom to exist…. you might as well say we have the freedom to poop on the street…or anything else we choose to have the freedom we feel like doing…..”

Well, freedom to choose means the freedom to do whatever. I don’t know how you can twist the meaning of the words to mean to change the meaning to fit whatever totalitarian delusions that one might have. It’s like the people who tell you they are for freedom, but at the same time, they tell you that this country is based upon Christian values.

Those two things do not compute!

As I’ve noted before, the dogs are one of the many ersatz religions that no exists in this post-Christian culture in which we now live. I am fine with the decline of organized religion, but what has replaced it is not a culture of reason.

What has replaced it is many irrational, tribal cults which allow people with totalitarian impulses to act out their pathologies on others. It’s one reason I’m not a joiner. I love dogs, but I’m very dismayed and continually disappointed by dog people.

So in that crazy rant we have several claims. We have the hilariously irony-deficient claim to be a champion of freedom while telling others what to do, and we have a claim from history that could at best be called a delusion. And at its very worst, we would have to call it an utter misrepresentation of the history.

The claim is that founding father Benjamin Franklin imported a Gordon setter from England, and the implication is that he imported a closed registry setter that comes in only black and tan.

Of course, that type of dog didn’t exist when Ben Franklin was alive!

The Gordon setter, which should be called the Scottish setter, is actually derived from the old crouching setter of Britain, a dog that was the quintessential British fowling dog that  would crouch before game birds hidden the brush or corn. A hawk would be flown over the birds to keep them from flying and a net would be thrown over the crouching dog and the hunkered birds.

This type of dog became very popular in British Isles during the early modern period, and it was also sent to the colonies in North America in droves. In America, we developed this setter dog into a sort of HPR, which we would use to point grouse, retrieve ducks from cold water, and track wounded deer.

In Britain, there were many, many different strains of setter, of which only a handful remain. The Dukes of Gordon did breed a type of setter in Scotland, but it is laughable to assume that this was a closed registry breed.  All records of the setters of Gordon kennels I’ve read from that time period talk about the dogs being tricolored, black, white, and tanned like a Dobermann.

And it was well-known that the in the eighteenth century, the 4th Duke of Gordon was always breeding his stock to those of other nobles.

In his excellent Gundogs: Their Past, Their Performance and Their Prospects (2013), Col. David Hancock mentions that this fourth Duke of Gordon coveted the blood of Thomas Coke’s setters, and it was Coke’s setters that were the foundational stock for his particular strain. I have seen no evidence that Coke’s setters were anything other than the more typical predominantly white setters that were always common in England. (Coke’s estate was in Norfolk, nowhere near Scotland).

It is also well-known that Gordon setters have a bit of collie blood, which is always mentioned in all the historical texts of the breed, but no one seems to acknowledge what this means. It means that the Gordon setter as a working gun dog didn’t become a gun dog through being a closed registry breed.

It became a great gun dog through the continuous desire to innovate. This desire to experiment and innovate is what made British Empire the world’s leader in agricultural improvement.

As soon as closed registries were established, this ability to innovate and experiment was taken away.

And we all know that Benjamin Franklin was among the leading intellectuals of the world at the time. He was clearly a man of science and reason, and if he could read and understand the modern concepts of population genetics, he would be among the foremost opponents of this closed registry system.

He imported a British setter because they were great gun dogs. They became great gun dogs because the British were willing to innovate and experiment with bloodlines.

It is that freedom that should be celebrated and encouraged in the world of dogs, but unfortunately, it goes against all the totalitarian impulses that exist in the dog world that has since developed.

For the sake of the dogs, dog breeders should be reading up on the science and understanding the real history of their dogs.

They shouldn’t be wasting their time with pointless myths that are ultimately harmful to the animals they claim to love.

But that means that some grand poobah of yore was wrong somewhere and that modern breed mandarins might have to be humble and accept that they cannot control everything that goes on with their breed.

The first idea that must be trashed is that closed registries and blood purity for blood purity’s sake are ultimately good values. Unfortunately, that is the basic religious tenet of the modern dog fancy, and  it is almost impossible to have a rational discussion with people who adhere to such poppycock.

It is this religious belief that is causing so much misery in the world of dogs– higher incidence of inherited diseases and winnowed away gene pools are not good things.

And it is also stymieing innovation.

We could be producing better working dogs for a variety of tasks if only it were acceptable to cross strains. Imagine West Siberian laikas that natural retrieve because of a golden retriever that was crossed in a few generations before. Imagine a cocker spaniel-sized Labrador that easily fits in a canoe that got its small size from a simple outcross to a small working spaniel.

It is this kind of freedom in the world of dogs that we should all be fighting for.

But unfortunately, too many “freedom lovers” in the world of dogs really don’t want it.

It crosses their fundamentalist beliefs, and they will having nothing of it.

But like all bullies, they ought to be put in their place. Totalitarians have no use fighting for freedom.

Freedom means freedom to do as one would like, and don’t be fooled by the demagogues who apparently can’t understand that simple fact.


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Painting by George Horlor (1851).

The dog at his feet is a bloodhound, a dog that any Highland ghillie would need to track wounded deer.

The identities of the other two are less clear.

I think they are setters. Solid white and gold-colored setters were not unknown in the nineteenth century.

But then again, cream-colored and gold-colored retrievers were not unknown in the nineteenth century either.

Gordon setters were very similar to wavy-coated retrievers in conformation, and they were also known to come in the reddish gold color.

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These dogs belonged to a Mr. Chapman of Glenboig, Scotland. They were featured in Country Life Illustrated on 8 May 1897.

These dogs, especially the one on the left, are very retriever-like.  The one on them left may actually be a retriever, but it is not outside of reason for a Gordon setter to have those features at that time.


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Warning: If you like snakes, please don’t read.

From Carl Lumholtz’s Among Cannibals (1889):

During my sojourn in Mackay [Queensland] my dog, a fine Gordon setter, was exposed to great danger at a station near the town. She suddenly stopped in the high grass, and as I cautiously drew near I discovered in front of her a splendid specimen of the [red-bellied] black snake (Pseudechis), whose head had assumed the flat form which is peculiar to venomous snakes when they become excited. The hot weather had made it still more angry. With the head slightly raised from the ground, it lay just ready to give my dog a fatal bite if the latter made the slightest motion. I hastily called the dog back, broke off a branch from a tree, and killed the treacherous enemy, the most venomous snake of Australia. It was glistening black with a reddish belly, and longer than myself when I held it up (64-65).

Yeah. He killed the red-bellied black snake.

Because the dog was a pointer, I bet it could have been called off before the snake struck it.  I wouldn’t be so sure that the snake would strike. Venom is expensive for the snake to produce, and this particular species, although quite venomous, is known for being shy and retiring.

He could have called the dog off before it was bitten.


This is what a red-bellied black snake looks like:

 They will flatten out the ribbing around their heads like cobras do, but they don’t have extensive hoods like their better known cousins:

The artist who drew the depiction in the Lumholtz book really didn’t get it right.

Of course, because it’s very unlikely that anyone in Europe would have seen one alive!

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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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 Photo of a collie from 1915.

Photo of a collie from 1915.

I discovered a rather interesting story about how the collie became a fancy breed. I had always heard that the collie was mixed with the borzoi to make its narrow muzzle, but I was later presented with evidence that this may not be the case. However, I did find that outside blood did indeed shape the collie into a fancy show breed. It was not what I was expecting. It is also a very interesting case study into what happens to a breed once they become “fancy” or, as their breeders call them– “improved.” I am going to directly quote what I found, for it is quite instructive:

The collie was the most popular pet dog of late Victorian England and a  prime example of a breed reconstructed to meet the figurative needs of fanciers. Collies were originally valued for the qualities they had developed as hardworking Scottish sheepdogs–intelligence, loyalty, and a warm shaggy coat. Once they were firmly established in the Stud Book, however, breeders began to introduce  modifications and improvements, which were tested not against the rigors of the Highland winter, but in the fashionable marketplace. [Emphasis mine] By 1895 there were seven independent clubs devoted to the breed’s welfare, many of which sponsored all-collie shows, as well as strong collie representation in the Kennel Club and regional canine associations. The large number of pedigreed collies seems to have been exacerbated the tendency of fanciers to fabricate subtle points of distinction between animals and artificial models to measure them against.  As a result, fashions changed swiftly and collie standards were among the most volatile; breeders redesigned their animals or restocked their kennels in accordance with the latest show results. Plasticity could even take precedence over pedigree; in order to instill some temporarily admired attribute, breeders were sometimes willing to contaminate the strain. In the early days of showing, collies were often crossed with Gordon setters to achieve then fashionable glossy, black-and-tan coats. For decades experts could detect “traces of the bar sinister”– telltale ears, head, and general heaviness– in many show animals.  Even without crossing (which became less common after the Stud Book gained sway), fashion could undermine the character of the breed. The 1890s saw a craze for exaggerated heads with long, pointy noses. In 1891 a Kennel Gazette reviewer complained that show judges had given away all the prizes “to dogs of the greyhound type whose eyes bore an inane, expressionless look.” Critics alleged that such dogs could hardly display the intelligence characteristic of their breed because there was no room in their heads for brains.

Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (1989) p. 113-114.

Now, these developments partially explain why the fancy went to the closed stud book system. That certainly could reduce volatility in type, but dogs have such plasticity in their phenotype (because of tandem repeats) that fad breeding can still lead to massive shifts in type.

I’ve seen it in my own breed in just a the past few years. To me, the most of the goldens that are being offered today are nothing like the dogs I remember. The type has shifted from a more moderate and less exaggerated dog into something more heavily built and excessively feathered. The color range has shifted almost entirely. One can no longer find the darkest mahogany color in goldens, unless one really looks hard and doesn’t automatically assume that light builds and dark colors are indicative of cross-breeding with Irish setters.

So in that piece we see that one breed of dog started out with functional behavioral and physical conformation, and after just a few decades of fad breeding, it becomes a very different dog. So much for the fancy preserving dog breeds. The fancy may have that intent, but as an institution, it is very much susceptible to fads and trends, as well as contrived characteristics that are actually detrimental to the health and function of the dogs. What shepherd would want a collie with such a narrow head and very little herding instinct?

Now, I found it interesting that Gordon setters were used to increase the number of black-and-tan dogs in the bloodline. However, black and tan  and solid black were the most common colors of the British herding landrace that became the collie-type dogs. The Gordon setter got its black and tan coloration from an outcross with a black -and-tan collie. One must remember that Queen Victoria’s collies were all black-and- tan, but that particular coloration may not have been universally evident in all show collie populations. So the best way to remedy that problem was to cross-breed with Gordon setters.

I’ve heard of other such outcrosses with show dogs. Many of these have been clandestine, for the modern institutionalized fancy is based upon a closed stud book.system.  For example, I’ve read that Labrador breeders crossed in golden retrievers to reduce houndish characteristics in yellow Labradors, as well as to increase biddability (which was always a perceived problem in yellow Labradors) and lengthen the coat. As well all know, the yellow Labradors were heavily outcrossed to lemon foxhounds to increase the likelihood of producing that color, which was not evident in the St. John’s water dog. It is also well-known that flat-coated retrievers were heavily interbred into Labradors to make them more competitive in early twentieth century field trials. The faulty black-and-tan color in Labradors has always existed within the breed and within the old wavy-coated retriever, which is the ancestor of the flat-coat and the golden, but I’ve come across more than one person who claims that the black and tan color in Labradors is the result of interbreeding with Rottweilers. However, I think it is much more likely that the color is the result of the founder effect from the St. John’s water dog and from the infusion of collie and Gorden setter blood in the old wavy-coated retriever.

So the early fancy had license to crossbreed for phenotype, and the modern fancy has always had rumors about clandestine crossbreeding. My response is actually quite simple: Why can’t we have license to crossbreed for health reasons?

How could this be accomplished? Well, in the early days in which retrievers were separated into show dog breeds, there was a class called “Interbred.” Interbred dogs were a mixture of two different strains that the KC had declared separate breeds. These dogs would be run as “Interbred,” as would their offspring for three generations. After being bred to a specific breed for three generations, the phenotype of  the descendants of this interbred dog would be examined to allow it to be registered as a purebred.

I don’t see why such a system could not be implemented today, but I do worry that fad breeding would run amok in such a system, as it did with the early show collies. That is why breed standards must be evaluated and written with functional conformation in mind. Such a system is entirely absent in the dog fancy right now.

We also need controls on how often a stud dog is used to keep the gene pool more open. Today, virtually all dog breeds (especially mine) are suffering from a compromised gene pool– most of which can be blamed on using just a few stud dogs to produce a high percentage of the offspring.

I would be very happy if we got some of these reforms. It would mean that we’re finally thinking about dogs are organisms and as creatures that have feelings, emotions, and intelligence. I can’t imagine any conservation organization that would try to breed endangered species under such a weird system. Indeed, in the case of the subspecies of cougar called the Florida panther, the Texas cougar was introduced to Florida to increase genetic diversity.

But dog people don’t think like biologists. They think like proper Victorians.

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Coyotes don’t always attack dogs. It’s one of those myths that coyote haters like to spread. However, if this were a smaller dog, I’d really worry about it.

In my own experience with coyotes (which is quite extensive, they are a very common species where I grew up), they generally fear people and large dogs, proably because most people who keep foxhounds have now turned them into coyote hounds. The ones I know are of the larger Eastern subspecies, which is about 10 to 15 pounds heavier than Western subpecies. The larger size is thought to come through interbreeding with wolves. 40 percent of all wolf/coyote and dog/coyote hybrids are fertile, so these Eastern animals may have some wolf in them. They have very little dog  in them, because coyotes consider dogs mates and because female coyotes are in season only once a year. If any fertile female coydog existed, she would come into season at the wrong time to be bred by her male counterparts.  Unlike male dogs, male coyotes are not fertile year round. That’s why most coyotes have very little dog in them.

I’m not a coyote hater. I do think one can hunt them responsibly, however. But I think a lot of what we hear on the rumor mill about coyotes is really just projection. We get the same thing about wolves, and because coyotes are the only animals of this type in the Eastern US, the wolf hatred has been transferred onto coyotes.

I’m sure coyotes do attack dogs, including large ones. I’ve even heard of them killing large dogs and, in another case, castrating them. However, I don’t know whether this is a common occurrence. My experience with them is they are really no threat to people or dogs, unless it’s a dog smaller than 25 pounds. However, that is my experience, and I’m just one person. People don’t feed coyotes where I grew up. They shoot them, so the coyotes never learn any positive experiences with people. Further, they are hunted with hounds, and they learn to fear dogs. I’m sure they could be a bit more dangerous where they are fed by people or no natural prey exists.

The dog in the video is a Gordon setter. The video is from manray68.

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We have finally made it to the origin of the golden retriever. The golden retriever started as a line of wavy-coated retriever. (Check out part II of this series to learn about this breed).  During the nineteenth century it was commonly suggested that only black retrievers were capable of doing work. The vast majority of retrievers were black. Black early Labradors were being bred from the short-haired St. John’s Water Dog, while black wavy and curly-coats were much more common on shooting estates. The black color in retrievers is dominant, but whenever new blood from other breeds was introduced, recessive genes for other colors began to appear. Liver or chocoloate was in the original St. John’s Water dog, and most retriever breeds have this coloration– curlies, Labs, flat-coats, and chesapeakes all allow for this color and the Newfoundland comes in it, too. It was not a preferred color. Crosses with setters and yellow or reddish water spaniels introduced the recessive red color into retriever lines. This happened a lot in water spaniels because all water spaniels were deemed liver, even if they were actually genetically red dogs with brown skin pigment.  The Welsh black setter often carried a gene for red, and there are setters in the North of England and Scotland, such as the Featherstone Castle Setter, which came in pale gold. If two black retrievers were bred that carried the gene for recessive red (which is the color of all yellow or gold retievers and all red setters– Irish, gordon or otherwise), then yellow, red, or gold puppies could be born in the litters.

Such was the case of “Nous,” a wavy-coated retriever born in 1864. Here’s a picture of Nous as an old dog.

Nous is the founder of the Tweedmouth strain of wavy-coats. He resembles a modern golden retriever of the dark color almost exactly.

Nous is the founder of the Tweedmouth strain of wavy-coats. He resembles a modern golden retriever of the dark color almost exactly.

Nous was born to black wavy-coated parents belonging to Lord Chichester. The yellow or reddish pup would have probably been drowned, but the Lord gave him to a cobbler who lived at Brighton in lieu of a debt. The cobbler kept Nous at Brighton as a pet, but like many perfomance bred dogs, one can only assume that he was driving his owner crazy. When Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks saw the dog. He offered to buy him, but since it was a Sunday when he made the proposal, the actual purchase wasn’t until Monday. Nous was taken to a shooting estate called Guisachan in Inverness-shire.

Marjoribanks was a politician, a Liberal MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, and had been made a baron. His title was 1st Baron Tweedmouth, which is often incorrectly called “Lord Tweedmouth” in breed lore. He was an experienced victorian animal breeder, starting his own line of Aberdeen-Angus cattle, breeding quality setters and pointers for the grouse moors, and generally trying to improve the stock he produced of all species. He was somewhat unusual in his desire to start a line of yellow retrievers.  Yellows were deemed less trainable than blacks. However, in his plan, he had found a yellow breed to cross into his yellow retrievers that would increase their trainability.

This yellow breed was one of the “liver” water spaniels. It was actually a yellow breed with black pigment, which came from cream to tawny gold in color. It was called the Tweed Water Spaniel, and one had been procured  to breed with Nous. (Nous’s trainabilty was already evident because his name denoted his “wisdom” and “common sense.” That’s what his name means in vernacular nineteenth century English. It’s borrowed word from Greek that means “mind or intellect.”)

Here’s what Tweed Water Spaniels looked like:

This breed’s origins are unclear. Some have suggested that this breed is a mixture of every sort of dog that retrieves, including the St. John’s Water Dog, which might explain its retriever-like appearance. Collies may have been introduced to increase trainability. And golden colored setters, perhaps culls from the Featherstone Castle Line, may have been crossed in. This breed was common among fisherman living in the River Tweed valley. The River Tweed is part of the border between Scotland and England. The dog depicted above is a dark gold dog that appears “liver.” However, it has black pigmentation. This is the only depiction of this breed.

Nous was bred to one of these intelligent, working class water spaniels named “Belle.” Their offspring would start the line known as “Tweedmouth’s strain” of wavy-coated retrievers. This litter was born in 1868, meaning that the first litter of golden retrievers is older than the first registered yellow Labrador, Ben of Hyde, a dog born in 1899.

In the next installment, I will explain how the Tweedmouth strain developed, and how it affected the development of both the golden and the flat-coated retriever. I will also explain how those breeds interacted with the development of the Labrador. I will also show you some areas in the historical record in which I have some skepticism.

BTW, the records are clear that this was how the golden retriever started. There was a crazy myth that persisted until the 1950’s that the breed was descended from a Russian circus dog called a “Russian tracker” that Baron Tweedmouth bred to bloodhounds to make the retriever. This breed was said to be a sheep dog, used for guarding sheep. Russian sheepdogs are livestock guardian dogs, but they can’t be used for tracking or for retrieving game either. Crossing them with bloodhounds would be counterproductive. And none of them would be circus dog. Some early fanciers believed this so much that they registered golden retrievers as Russian retrievers, even showing them against yellow flat-coats, which were also golden retrievers.

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