Posts Tagged ‘red 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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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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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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