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The Perfect Ryman Setter

Crossing a Field Trial Dog With a Show Dog Won’t Produce a Ryman—Part 1: The Different English Setters are Distinct Types

The Rymans Were Not Pedigrees, They Were a Distinct Type of Actual Setters

Breeders who don’t understand George Ryman’s breeding practices often try to copy him by using pedigree-based schemes—i.e. 50/50 show/field trial crosses, breeding to a show dog to improve structure, or a field trial dog to improve “hunting” performance. The breeders who promote these ideas don’t understand what the Rymans really were or what a Ryman-type is. And, even if they could figure out what they are shooting for, anyone who thinks it’s feasible to get there by following a pedigree formula doesn’t know how to selectively breed toward that goal. These gimmicks should be dismissed out of hand but they just refuse to die.

Why does this matter? Because breeders misrepresent the results of these breeding strategies as “Rymans”, or “Ryman-types”, and this misrepresentation has led to a rash of complaints about purported Rymans that don’t hunt or aren’t any good—to the point where trainers are now complaining about having to teach these dogs the most basic things a pointing dog should do instinctively.

This naive and simplistic approach to breeding fails because it focuses on the pedigree to the exclusion of an understanding of the actual dog, not to mention the rigorous selection process and decades of effort Ryman put into developing the type. Ryman was successful for the same reason every successful breeder succeeds: He based his selection of breeding dogs on the dogs themselves and whether they had the traits he was looking for.

So, to thoroughly clarify why these pedigree schemes don’t work we are going to explore this question:

Could the Rymans be re-created from today’s field trial and show setters?

We’ll answer that by comparing today’s dogs to the field trial and show setters Ryman used in his breeding program. This series of articles will also help to clarify the potential implications of crossing Ryman-types with competition-bred setters.

Before we get started we should say up front that we are writing from the Ryman-type perspective and this is not intended to criticize other types of dogs, or to argue that one is “better” than the others. The fact is, there are different types of setters, and each has its own specific criteria for performance that are not compatible with the others.

English Setter Types Are Distinct From Each Other—It’s Not a Continuum

A widely encountered fallacy that needs to be dispensed with is the idea that there is a gradient from poorly performing but good looking show dogs on one end, through the exceptional performance but “poor” conformation of the field trial dogs on the other. This perception is largely responsible for the erroneous belief that crossing the two types will give you a happy medium—a good looking hunting dog or Ryman-type. This is ludicrous. The reality is that dogs in each type are specialized for their intended use and possess traits specific to the desired performance. And importantly, each type lacks traits the others are specialized for.

A Ryman-type setter is a hunting dog, in the original sense of the phrase prior to the invention of competition. Ryman-types are expected to excel at finding birds, consistently handle a high percentage of the birds they encounter, and retrieve shot birds to the hunter instinctively. They learn to handle wild birds quickly and at a young age, and they learn this intuitively without the need for extensive training. Endurance is important as well and they need to be able to cover difficult terrain with ease, at an effective pace and range that they are able to maintain for long hours. The inherent traits that lead to this type of performance are not interchangeable with those found in field trial or show type setters. The opposite is true as well.

It’s critical that we recognize these differences and accept the fact that there isn’t one “best” type of English setter. Which type you will be most satisfied with depends entirely on personal preference.

So with that said we will take an in-depth look at how competition bred setters have changed since Ryman was breeding, why it would be difficult to be successful starting from scratch again, and how the Ryman-type really will be maintained. Hopefully the information we present will benefit breeders in their selection process, and help hunters find a dog that’s suited to their tastes and expectations.

Cliff and Lisa

Next: Part 2, Changes in the field trial setters since Ryman’s time.


  1. JC Smith

    As a breeder and a Ryman type setter enthusiast I want to dial in on one of the items that Cliff and Lisa raise in this post. Breeding to accomplish something is not about averaging together the genetic contributions of a sire and a dam. In a simplistic view, the characteristics of offspring are a function of the most dominant genes that an individual acquired from its parents. Today’s field trial bred and show bred English Setters are extremely different in type. So extreme that someone not familiar with setters would not recognize them as of the same breed. Breeding two very dissimilar dogs, neither of which represents a dog that is fundamentally close to what I want, appears to me to be like outcrossing in two directions at the same time, and greatly magnifies the challenges that come with out crossing. We have seen outcrosses of good Ryman type setters, particularly to some Llewellyn type English Setters, to reinforce prey drive, pointing instinct or some other highly desirable characteristic. It comes at the risk of introducing new problems, for instance less desirable aesthetic or functional confirmation, or new genetic health issues to manage. To really work, outcrosses mean selection of the best individuals from the original crosses and diligent selection and careful management of breeding and future generations to enjoy the benefits of the outcross without diminishing desirable genetic characteristics in the bloodlines you’re already working with. So to me it appears that without many generations of selective line breeding it would be impractical to expect to produce a uniform type of dog by crossing today’s field trial and show bred lines of setters.

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