Posts Tagged ‘Irish setter’

In addition to my post on the move to breed out the setter features in the show golden retriever in the 1930’s,  I’m going to show how easy it was to confuse goldens and setters.

Here are some old-fashion Irish red setters. The fact that the dog on the right has white marking does not make it an Irish red and white setter. The dog in the center has shorter ears and a slightly more substantial frame, but many of these dogs could pass for golden retrievers.

Of course, Irish setter were much more common that retrievers of that color, but these setters were often crossed with black flat-coats. The red to yellow color is recessive to the  black coloration, and it is very likely that black flat-coats that carried this recessive setter coloration were bred with retrievers derived from the Tweedmouth strain.

Breeding setters to flat-coats made the flat-coats faster and more agile. It also bred out the extremely wavy coats that existed within that breed (which is why they were called “wavy-coated retrievers.”) The goldens that would result as a byproduct of that improvement would look a lot like these Noranby dogs:

From my understanding, the Culham, Noranby, and Ingestre lines of golden were made up of a lot of lightly-built dogs that were of the dark color. I have seen a black and white photo of the first dual champion golden, Dual Ch. Balcombe Boy. This dog was a Culham dog, bred by Lewis Harcourt (1st Viscount Harcourt, the man who first coined the term “golden retriever.)  Balcombe Boy was of this type and very, very dark in color, what we would now call a mahogany (like this dog).

As noted in the earlier post, the field line dogs have tended to retain some of the setter’s features and coloration, as this dog clearly has.

Now, Irish setters have obviously moved in another direction, but in the working red setter registry, one can run across dogs that look like this dog.

The original Irish setter was red and white in color, and it has since been preserved (by a Presbyterian minister in Northern Ireland) in the breed called the Irish red and and white setter. This dog tends to have a broader skull than one sees in the red dog, and one also sees smaller ears and a somewhat heavier, more retriever-like frame.

If you look really carefully, one can see that Irish setters and golden retrievers do have a lot of features in common. Originally, they were very hard to tell apart.

Now, this is not to say that one can’t find photos and depictions of Tweedmouth strain goldens that are heavier in build. However, I can also find depictions of black wavy-coats that have that type of conformation. As the wavy-coat became the flat-coat, the really heavily build dogs were bred out of the bloodline, simply because they violated the “Power without lumber; raciness without weediness” axiom that made the flat-coat a superior working retriever. If one believes that we should breed for a heavier form in golden retrievers because one can find historical depictions of them, should we not also do the same with flat-coats?

I don’t think any flat-coat person would buy into it.

But in golden retrievers, this is a well-accepted virtue. In goldens this seems to be the main thought process:

Breed away from the setter and the flat-coat at all costs. Make the darker colors a fault within the breed, even though most of the early working gun dog talent in the breed were of these darker colors. The more the dogs resemble polar bears or Kodiak bears, the better.

But the lighter built dogs are more athletic and more efficient movers, so the working retriever people bred for this type.


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I think a good name for this video is “Big Red and White”– after Kjelgaard’s Big Red!

The red and white breed has more similar characteristics to retrievers than the modern red setter. However, the old-line Irish red setters were like this in conformation. The two “setter retriever” breeds got a  lot of their conformation from these dogs.

Yes, this dog is retrieving a raccoon dog, and she is also retrieving a common or Eurasian teal.

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working Irish setter

My favorite author when I was in my pre-teen years was Jim Kjelgaard.

Now you might not know who I am talking about. However, you may have heard of his most famous work, which was made into a Disney film. This book was Big Red, the story of a bench-bred Irish setter that belongs to a wealthy Canadian landowner. When he escapes his master’s kennels and joins the tenant farmers on that work the backcountry. He falls for a boy named Danny, and Danny turns the bench dog into a great “partridge dog” (ruffed grouse dog), trap-line dog, and even uses him to track down the outlaw black bear “Old Majesty.”

The book is fiction for boys. It’s not entirely realistic, but when I was growing up I had my own version of “Big Red.” Her name should have been “Big Gold,” for she was a performance bred golden retriever. Some people mistook her for an Irish setter or setter cross.

Now, she didn’t live in the backcountry of Eastern Canada. Instead, she lived in the back country of West Virginia, where she flushed grouse, caught rabbit and groundhogs, and swam in various ponds and streams as she ran loose through the wild hills.  She was a natural retriever that never refused a retrieve, and she was most trainable dog I’ve ever had. She could learn something in just one or two repetitions, something I’ve not seen in any other dog.

Despite her skill at varmint hunting, she retained her soft mouth. She could retrieve an egg without scratching it. Once she came across a wild turkey’s nest deep in the undergrowth, and thinking I could use another egg, she picked one up and brought it to me.

The only things she really hated were coyotes, the castrated Dalmatian that wanted to hump her, and deer season, when she had to stay in all the time. A dog of that size and color looks something like a deer in its summer coat, but many flatlanders who would be nimrods didn’t know that white-tailed deer are gray in November and tawny in summer. They’d as soon shoot a tawny retriever as they would any trophy deer.

Her ghost casts a long shadow into my conscience. I’m always looking for a dog like her. I’m sure that it affects some of my biases on this blog, but I’m more and more sure that my biases are grounded in reality. It’s now very hard to find a good golden like her anywhere.

She really was my “Big Gold.”

Kjelgaard grew up in Potter County, Pennsylvania, which is at the northern reaches of the Alleghenies. Those are the same mountains in which I grew up, although I grew up in the unglaciated plateau region of those mountains. His family had moved there from New York. His father was a physician of Danish decent and had moved to the country to be a gentelman farmer and a country doctor.

Jim Kjelgaard was always a writer. He wrote all sorts of stories about the wild animals and the people who lived close to the land. Many of his characters were dogs– often just ordinary hunting dogs or dogs that had been abandoned to live on their own in the wild. I read all of his books that were in my school library, although some of the lewd children had written rather nasty things in the books. In my school’s copy of Big Red, the picture of Red standing next to his mate suckling their puppies has the word “SEX” written above it. I always thought that was a profane vandalism of an excellent book.

I also liked Stormy, which is about a retriever cross that becomes an outlaw after attacking his master. The dog is eventually rehabilitated by a young boy, Allan Marley, who turns the dog into an excellent working retriever and wilderness companion. I also liked Desert Dog, which is about a greyhound that must live wild in the deserts of Arizona. I doubt that many dogs could handle that enviroment, but when I later visited that part of the country, I realized how well Kjelgaard captured the natural world of southern Arizona in his writing.

Kjelgaard had often experienced health problems. He had a bout of epilepsy as boy. He was discovered to have a brain tumor, which as treated with the rather drastic procedure of drilling a hole through his skull to relieve the pressure. While living with his family in Thiensville, Wisconsin, he began to develop severe arthritis. His doctor told him that he should move to a warm climate, which is why he moved to Arizona.

His brain tumor later reappeared, and he mood began to change. He was having severe bouts of depression, and these got worse and worse as time progressed. Then, one day, he committed suicide at his home in Phoenix.

I know I’m not the only person who grew up reading the Jim Kjelgaard books. I am also sure I’m not the only one who could read the books and then experience some of the adventures on his own with his own dogs running the wild ridgetops. I wish more children of this day and age got to experience at least part of this lifestyle, not only through the works of writers like Jim Kjelgaard but through their own experiences as well.

I know that having these experiences has greatly enriched my own life. I wish others could also have a taste of it.

An excellent resource for Jim Kjelgaard information can be found here.

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Black Irish setters could be the setter in this setter-retriever cross.

A black Irish setter could be the setter in this setter-retriever cross (early wavy-coat).

In Colonel J.K. Milner’s The Irish Setter: Its History & Training (1924), the author describes black and sable Irish setters, as well as the more well-known solid red and red and white dogs.

What I find interesting is a statement that appears at page 46:

The late Mr. Cecil Moore told me he had some excellent black Irish setters. The black setters are the result crossing with black dogs…Some black retrievers in Ireland are said to be descended from red setters.

My guess is the black dogs the author is writing about are solid black Welsh setters and maybe black collies and black and tan dogs that eventually became the Gordon setter breed.

We do know that the wavy-coated landrace of retriever had a lot of setter in it. It also had St. John’s water dog, collie, and a little water spaniel in it.

Black dogs, of course,  are the dominant color to the red or yellow dogs, so if a black Irish setter had been bred into the retriever lines, it could have passed on the recessive color into the retriever bloodlines. Dogs that probably descend from black Irish setters carrying the red color are “Breeze” and, of course, “Nous.”

Now, I do not discount that there could be other sources for this color, including cream colored Featherstone castle setters, true red collie dogs (not sables or livers), and, of course, various water spaniels and water dogs, including the Tweed water dog.

However, I think that looking at the setters tells a lot about how this red to yellow color was introduced into retrievers.

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This "golden Irish" (golden/Irish setter cross) does resemble Breeze. Breeze was either a red wavy-coat or an old-type Irish setter.

This "golden Irish" (golden/Irish setter cross) does resemble Breeze. Breeze was either a red wavy-coat or an old-type Irish setter.

This painting is here. The date of the painting is 1843, which is far too early to be a Tweedmouth line of wavy-coat. My instincts say it’s not a golden retriever. The term “golden retriever” is actually rather new, dating to 1908, when the yellow and red colors were separated from the liver coloration as “Retrievers (Flat-coat, yellow or golden).

My instincts tell me that this dog is an old-type Irish setter, which had shorter ears and broader skull than the modern dog. It is from this dog that the golden inherited much of its characteristiscs.

But the dog really does look like a field-type golden. It even has the white feet and a white spot on the chest. These markings are common in field goldens.

However, it could be a red wavy-coat. The presence of the hare in the painting leads me to the possibility that it could be a retriever. Retrievers retrieve shot hares in Europe, but I cannot think of a good reason for using a setter for hare shooting.  European hares are beasts of the open lands, in fact, much more open territory than pheasants and patridges prefer. I saw my first European hare at Stonehenge, standing out in that large hayfield that lies just beyond the tourist site. It was in short grass, and you could see it very clearly. It  was not trying to hide.

It is well-known that setters were a major part of the wavy-coated retriever, and Irish setters, which were thought of as the most intelligent and biddable of the “index” breeds, were a common choice of setter to cross with the St. John’s wate dog to create wavies. Of course, everyone wanted a black retriever in those days, and any red or golden colored pups were usually drowned soon after birth.

But it’s possible that Breeze was a red wavy.  It is impossible that Nous was the only red wavy-coat ever bred, so I am open to that possibility. If Breeze is a retriever, the painting of him is a great historical record of the early existence of red retrievrs. There is contemporary light gold retriever in “The Shooting Party-Ranton Abbey” by Sir Francis Grant. This dog has some setter features, although I think it resembles a Tweed water spaniel/Tweed water dog of the lighter color. It could also have some scent hound  in it, but I really don’t know. Jeffrey Pepper  has some interesting analysis and even more pictures of od Irish setters. (I, howeer, disagree with him on the possibility of the bloodhound cross in the Tweedmouth strain, because all evidence is hearsay. And a bloodhound is the last thing I’d cross into working retriever strain. I think the big heavy dogs that were said to be bloodhound crosses were actually Zelstone’s progeny at Guisachan. The hair on those dogs is too long and thick to be from a bloodhound, but it’s just right to be from a dog with close St. John’s water dog ancestry. I think the bloodhound cross story is a carry over from the Russian circus dog story,  which used the bloodhound as the only outcross.)

It’s possible that someone kept a red retriever before the Tweedmouth strain was founded. It’s also possible that some of the early goldens in the registry were not descended from the Tweedmouth line but were red flat-coats that appeared when more Irish setters were crossed into the flat-coat to mitigate the real problems caused with the overuse of Zelstone in the line. It’s possible, but I’ve seen no evidence to suggest this.

If anyone knows anything about the dog depicted in “Breeze” by Sir Edwin Landseer, please contact me.  It has piqued my curiosity.

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The BBC has a photo of several dog breeds. They have juxtaposed an Irish setter with a light gold golden retriever. Both dogs are recessive red to yellow coated dogs with a black dog genotype.

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Often, those of us with the field type goldens are told that our dogs are golden-Irish setter crosses. Actually, all goldens are part setter,  but whether it is Irish or red gordon is up to conjecture.  The Tweedmouth line has two “red setters”  in the kennel records as outcrosses. These dogs were named “Samson” and “Jack,” and they added birdiness and the setter’s very strong sense of smell, as well as the dark red color.  One can deduce that at least one of them was an Irish setter.

Why? Because Irish setters, the field lines of them in particular, still produce throwbacks of their red and white ancestors.  The original red Irish setter was also a bit heavier dog than we have today. They had shorter ears, and they often had white on them.

Governor Baxter of Maine (who served from 1921-1925) had a dog  named “Garry Owen.”

Maine Governor Baxter with "Garry Owen."

Maine Governor Baxter with "Garry Owen."

Garry Owen looks retrievery. In fact, I would probably have a hard time recognizing him as a setter.  If  he did not possess that big white spot on his chest, I would’ve thought him a dead ringer for Don of Gerwn. The white spots often appear on the chest, feet, tail tips, and as flashes and blazes on the muzzle and between the eyes. These white markings occur in Irish setters that are bred for work. It also appears in field type goldens in exactly the same places. It is because of these flashes of white and the location of those marks, that I think that at least one of the setters used in the Guisachan kennels was an Irish setter.

It is easy to see how the first goldens were mistaken for Irish setters. The Irish setters were more retrievery in those days, which broader skulls, shorter ears, and heavier builds.

Today, my type of golden is once again  mistaken for the setter mix.

However, there people who are breeding this cross, and we have an idea of what the crosses will look like (photos courtesy of Sweet Liberty Kennels)

Some are quite dark.

Some are quite dark.


Others are actually gold:


And some really look retrievery:


This dog reminds me of a golden pup that born in one of our litters. He was dark and lithe and retrieving at 6 weeks. He was pick of the litter and was given in lieu of a stud fee. I am always looking for a dog like him.

Here’s a pure field type golden:

The dogs look so similar that it is very hard to tell whether a dog is a dark field-type golden or an Irish setter-golden cross. Part of the problem is that the breeds were interbred and that Irish setters once looked more like retrievers than they do now.

My suggestion is that if you find one of these red retriever types, assume it is a field type golden. Irish setters are hard to find in the United States, when compared to golden retrievers. Finding a golden-Irish setter hybrid is even rarer.

Goldens have the St. John’s water dog coat, while setters do not. Setters do not shed as much as goldens do, and the crosses may not have the golden’s propensity to “blow coat.” But other than that, unless you want to pay for a DNA test, assume that a red long-haired retriever is a field type golden, especially if you live in North America or the UK.

Crossing setters and retrievers was a common practice in the past. Hutchinson’s Dog Breaking  (1869) has a depiction of some early retrievers. The dog in the lower left hand corner is a setter/water spaniel cross. It has the broad head of the old type Irish setter, something we see in field type Irish setters and virtually all golden retrievers. The dogs along the lower right are setter/”Newfoundland” (St. John’s water dog) crosses.


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The National Red Setter Field Trial Club maintains a registry and runs field trials for the working strain of Irish setter that was imported to the United States during the nineteenth century. The interesting history of these dogs and their registry can be found here.

But what I find interesting is what the dogs look like. Check out their hall of fame. Note the broader heads and shorter ears. They are more moderately built. They are not long-legged in the least. I could easily mistake these dogs for dark golden retrievers. Some these dogs have white marking, which appears in golden retrievers, too. Keep in mind that the original Irish setters were red and white, and that the red and white strains almost went extinct (They existed only in Northern Ireland and were saved by a Protestant minister named Noble Huston. More on the red and whites here.)

In Europe there has been an attempt to keep a dual purpose Irish setter. Again, I’m not opposed to this attempt, but my guess is that once competition gets too high in both arenas, type variances are inevitable.

Here’s a video of a Russian Irish setter from West European bloodlines. I had read somewhere that the Soviets actually maintained lines of working Irish setters that were not dissimilar to the American red setter registry lines (broad head and moderately boned and feathered). However, this dog is not one of them. It’s a dual purpose dog.

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Irish Red and White Setters are a rare breed of setter that closely resembles the old Irish setter. Originally, Irish setters were red and white, but those in different regions in Ireland having different amounts of red and white. Those that were predominantly red became popular among British sportsmen in other parts of the Isles.

The working strain of Irish setter developed in the US as the Red Setter includes dogs that have broader heads and white markings. These dogs are also lighter red in color. Some resemble small golden retrievers from a distance. However, white markings were not preferred in the show form of Irish setter, and Western European and Soviet/Russian lines of hunting Irish setter became solid red and very dark in color. Because of this selection for solid red in all of these lines of Irish setter, the “parti-coloured” setter nearly disappeared.

In Northern Ireland, a presbyterian minister named Noble Huston found some red and white setters in County Down. These would provide the foundation stock for this breed of setter. Some people mistake them for Brittanys (especially those from European lines or “French” Brittanys as they are called in the US, which can have black skin pigment) or Welsh Springers.  The only thing those breeds have is a common ancestry with the European land spaniels, which were common in France and Britan during the Middle Ages. The French developed spaniels that would freeze for game, while the British developed spaniels as flushing dogs. The French “setting spaniels” (the Brittany is only one of the several breeds of French setting spaniel) would later appear in the British Isles (becoming the setter breeds) and in Germany (creating the German longhair, the Large and small Munsterlanders, and the long-haired variety of Weimaraner).

The exact origin of the setters and land spaniels is up to conjecture. There is an old theory that spaniels are derived from Spanish stock. The word spaniel is a corruption of the word for Spain (Espanol) which appears in French as “Epagneul.” I don’t know whether this is true or not, but several references in history appear calling spaniels “Spanish dogs.” However, I don’t know a single breed from Spain that is a spaniel. I know of a spanish water dog that can be used as retriever. There is also the Spanish pointer, which is a heavy pointer,  similar to the Bracco Italiano and Spinone Italiano, that was crossed with foxhounds and setting spaniels to create the English pointers and perhaps the other pointers of Northern, Western, and Central Europe. But there are no Spanish spaniels.

My guess is that spaniels, setting spaniels, and setters descend from crosses between herding dogs and scent hounds or pointers. Herding dogs are easily handled, and often exhibit a modified stalking behavior, which is what setting or pointing behavior actually is. Hounds and pointers have good noses, and this mix would work to create this type of dog.

The truth is these breeds are actually quite old. Some sources take them back to the later days of the Roman Empire. It is impossible to know what created these breeds of gun dog, but we do know that their original purpose was to aid in falconry and greyhound coursing, which were big sports among the nobles in the Middle Ages. A flushing spaniel could send game birds into the air or send rabbits into the open to be dispatched by the falcon or greyhound. The French called them Oysel dogs. Later, when stocking game birds became a necessity on hunting preserves, a pointer or a setter/setting spaniel could be used to point out birds that could then be captured by throwing a net over them.

My guess is that that spaniels, setting spaniels, and setters have their origins in France. The Spanish dog in their ancestry that gave them their name could only be the Spanish pointer. A cross between a flushing spaniel and this pointer could produce some stock that could be at the base of setting spaniels and setters. However, the original setters and setting spaniels crouched in their pointing position (hence the name “setter,” a corruption of the word sitter). The only other breeds that crouch in a stalking behavior are herding dogs. Pointers stand erect when indicating and always have. Modern setters assume this position when “setting.” Thus, it is likely that herding breeds had some role in the development of the setters from the British isles (and this is widely known in the Gordon setter breed).

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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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