To begin our exploration of whether the Rymans could be re-created from today’s field trial and show dogs, first let’s discuss the field trial dogs.
Evolution of the Field Trial Setters
Before looking at the changes in field trial dogs since Ryman was breeding it’s important to remember that all modern English setter lines originated with crosses to Edward Laverack’s strain of hunting dogs. The show dogs went one way, the Llewellins and field trial dogs that followed them went another. Today, both types are drastically different from the original Laveracks, but they weren’t so far away when Ryman began breeding, and although there was considerable variety among Llewellins imported to America, the influence of the Laveracks in their background was still clearly evident in the lines Ryman chose to use.
The British invented Field trials in the mid 1800s, ostensibly as a way to quantify and compare hunting dogs’ abilities. Laverack was an early advocate of trials, but he recognized right away that they were an imperfect test. In 1872, writing from the perspective of his decades of experience breeding and developing hunting dogs, he said of them:
“Nevertheless, as far as it goes, it is a trial of speed, nose, and method of finding, but in reality not a satisfactory test of those more important qualifications, vis., powers of endurance, and general goodness on all kinds of ground and on every species of game…”
“Dogs must be expressly prepared and coached for this now fashionable amusement. That is, they must be under the greatest subjection and discipline, and even, after all, a superior dog may be beaten by an inferior one, owing to the shortness of trials, and luck being against him…”
“I consider it impossible at trials to judge many of the qualifications wanted in a shooting dog…”1
Laverack was pointing out that some of the critical qualities of a hunting dog can’t be demonstrated in a trial setting, and nothing about that observation has changed. Trials can only compare dogs based on what can be seen at the trial, and it’s in these qualities where the significant advancements in performance have been made since Laverack’s observations—race, range, class, and style.
Modern Field Trials
Advancements in the dogs’ physical abilities and “method of finding” that were necessary in order to stay competitive in American Field sanctioned trials, along with changes in the trials themselves, have shaped field trial dogs into what they are today.2
As field trials evolved, the dogs were progressively able to run faster and wider, becoming further removed from their hunting dog origins. Not everyone was happy with that trend, and Shooting Dog trials were created in the 1950s by people who wanted events that hunters would be more interested in. The original trials became known as “All-Age”3, and the advent of Shooting Dog standards opened up the possibility of breeding for more than one type of performance. Since then field trial dogs have evolved to compete in three basic types of American Field trials: All-Age, Shooting Dog, and Cover Dog.
Cover Dog trials are a subset of Shooting Dog trials that are held on grouse and woodcock. The dogs are expected to work at the maximum of bell range. Their range will vary based on the cover and terrain, but the dog should be as far forward as possible without getting so far that the bell can’t be heard most of the time. The handler should be able to find the dog on point.
Shooting Dog courses are more open. Trial grounds with wild birds are preferred, but in many areas of the country that’s no longer possible so released birds are used. The dogs run big and fast but should quarter and come back in contact with the handler for direction from time to time. Shooting Dogs adjust to the course—they range significantly farther in these trials when the course allows it while staying keyed in on where the handler is going.
All-Age trials require the widest ranging and most independent dogs of all trials. Again, wild birds are preferred when possible. All-Age dogs run edges and hunt straight to objectives rather than quartering, and especially in open country they range much farther than Shooting Dogs. As trialer Fred Rayl described it: “The one that has that desire to hang on the edge of the earth hunting for game. When he is finished surveying the land. He will stop listen or look for his master than go on forward to do more surveying. It is a pretty sight to see a big running dog stop a half mile or further away to see where you are than goes on to the front hunting. He is a true All-Age.”4
Modern Performance Requirements
There are differences between the trials, but the dogs all share basic aspects of performance.
- They have the instinct to range at the edge of where they are capable of keeping track of the handler. This will be dictated to a certain extent by the terrain the trials are held in, but regardless of the cover modern dogs have the physical ability, along with the drive, to accomplish this at longer ranges than the old dogs were capable of.
- They should search at a fast speed that they can maintain for the entire heat.
- They must hunt to the front, search intelligently, show class, and point with intensity and style.
- They need the temperament to handle the extensive training necessary.
- They must find and, relevant only to wild bird trials, handle birds.
- Race is usually rated above all else. In field trial parlance, a good race refers to a dog that shows a strong desire to find birds, applies itself well by searching the cover intelligently, and does it with speed and flare. A mediocre bird find with a great race will beat a good find from a dog that doesn’t have a great race. A dog shouldn’t win without that race, along with style on point, no matter how many finds it has.
To understand what judges are looking for in field trial performance, a good starting point is this description of Northern Dancer’s win in the 1991 Lake States Grouse Championship, written by Tom DeRosa. This is considered one of the great grouse trial performances.
“From the first minute he was turned loose in the 12th brace you knew you were watching the champion. He made huge sweeping casts that carried him far to the sides and always ending at the front. With little guidance from his handler, Dancer continued this rapid pace for the better part of a half hour. Near the half, with Dancer far to the left, two grouse flew away directly in front of the gallery. Hope diminished for those watching because we were not getting a high flush rate per hour. Nonetheless, you knew there was still time. This pointer continued his race with pace and style. At 40 another flew away to our left, leaving the clear-cut like a helicopter. Dancer continued through the pole timber into the last clear-cut. Could this race be wasted for the lack of a bird? With hopes diminishing, Dancer did what all champions do under stress—he seized the moment and took control. He stopped dead in his tracks 100 yards to our left. Jim Tande, Rodger and myself went in search and found him standing high and tight. No word was spoken as the grouse exploded sixty feet to our right. Jim fired and the pointer never tinkled the bell.”5
This was no doubt an impressive performance from an awesome dog. Anyone involved with bird dogs would appreciate watching what Dancer could do, and depending on a hunter’s preferences it could be considered the ultimate in dog work.
At the same time, this account also illustrates some of the limitations of trials that Laverack recognized. Beyond simply making a point, no bird handling abilities were observed. Did Dancer randomly run into a grouse, or did he see some likely cover, swing around to the downwind side and then work in to pin the bird? He was a really good dog so maybe he did something spectacular handling that grouse, but there was no way to know so it didn’t matter. The fact that he missed the other three birds in the cover, flushed by the gallery because he was racing somewhere else, didn’t matter either. He won because the way he searched—his speed, style, and “method of finding”—was what the judge could see.
Compared to the Old Dogs
So how does this performance compare to the dogs Ryman used? We can’t run modern dogs side by side with the old ones to see, but we can get a little insight from Ryman’s words. In 1954 he wrote:
“I wonder where all these small, poor, runty types came from. Speed demons, hard to handle, hard to keep in condition, kennel fence runners. Some prantz like a lion in a cage. Have to hunt them 2 or 3 seasons to get them to handle game.”
Given that Ryman stressed early development and natural bird handling abilities as a primary focus of his breeding, along with a “foundation of bird sense, nose, brains and endurance”, his comments suggest that field trial dogs had already changed significantly by then.
Ryman’s “speed demon” comment might mean something different from one person to the next, but by all accounts today’s trial dogs range much faster, and wider, than they originally could. We don’t have to rely entirely on people’s accounts to know this is true because conformation makes it clear they would not have been physically capable of running like modern trial setters.
First, let’s consider the lines Ryman used. Below are photos of a few famous field trial dogs that appear in his pedigrees.
Of the above dogs, Sport’s Peerless had by far the most influence on the Rymans. Ryman used sons of his (and to a far lesser extent a son of Sport’s Peerless Pride) to correct deficiencies in the kennel after extensive use of 1930s show dogs. He wrote that “IT WAS WHAT I WISHED FOR AND HOPED TO GET BACK IN THE GOOD ENGLISH SETTER FOR MANY YEARS”. These crosses brought the Rymans to their ultimate peak and definitive type in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Now lets compare the body type of the above dogs to the conformation Ryman selected for—conformation that matched the performance he wanted, and the conformation you would select for in order to breed dogs like his. These photos were used in Ryman’s 1949 to 1954 sales literature.
You can see influence from show dogs—the somewhat heavier bones, more coat, and blockier heads—but the basic body structure of most was closer to the field trial lines Ryman used.
One last example of older field trial body conformation is three-time National Champion Feagin’s Mohawk Pal (his maternal grand dam was an early Ryman). Ignore his head and compare the basic similarities in body structure to the Rymans.
All of the above dogs inherited a generally similar body type from their hunting dog ancestors. A conformation that came from breeding for optimal pace, athleticism, and endurance for hunting long hours.
Modern Field Trial Conformation
Modern conformation is a result of breeding for the style and speed necessary to be competitive in modern trails. Certain lines have at times dominated in each type of trial, but there is a lot of crossover between the lines and variety among the competitive dogs, so they can’t be pigeonholed into distinct types based on the trials. However, the dogs pictured below are examples of standout dogs in each of the trial types that we’ll use to illustrate variation in conformation.
Overall Changes From the Old Dogs
- Built for speed.
- In general they are smaller.
- The body structure is lighter.
- The backs are shorter.
- Structural changes in the pelvis result in a flatter croup and a higher placement of the tail.
- The chests are often wider.
Cover Dogs aren’t necessarily different than other Shooting Dogs, but these trials are where you are most likely to see the smallest trial setters competing, e.g. males in the 40lb range. It’s not unusual to see relatively straight fronts and rears, especially short backs, and short tendons/muscles in the back combined with a flat croup to support a very high tail-set. Some favor this type of structure because it gives the dogs a short, animated, up and down running stride that “pops” and shows off in the woods. This conformation is not ideal for endurance, but Cover Dogs only need to maintain their pace for the one hour trial heats.
Shooting Dogs like these two might be thought of as quintessential modern field trial setters. The more open courses in Shooting Dog trials allow the dogs to range out, so an overall balanced conformation with good angulation in the fronts and rears and a longer, smoother running stride is desirable. Shooting Dogs with this type of conformation can hold up, but these trials are not a test of endurance.
All-Age setters can be identical in basic structure to Shooting Dogs, but some of the more successful dogs, like the two pictured above, have been bigger than average with some males 50-60 lbs. These types tend to have longer backs, somewhat heavier bones, a very muscular build, and their stride is longer and more powerful. All-Age dogs are expected to have endurance. The heats are usually still only one hour, but some are longer, and some are held in very open country where the dogs cover a lot of ground. The longest are three hours, for example the National Championship.
Today’s field trial dogs are different animals than the trial dogs Ryman used. The majority are significantly smaller, they have more speed, range, and independence, and their conformation is strikingly different. At the same time, traits that defined the Rymans have necessarily been ignored, or in some cases, like retrieving or a cautious approach to pinning birds, actively selected against—traits that can’t be seen in a trial or would be antithetical to what a trial dog should be.
Let’s revisit Dancer’s win above. As phenomenal as his performance was, from the viewpoint of breeding Ryman-type setters it was a fail. We don’t want extreme range and speed to interfere with bird finding and handling. The instinct to range as far as possible caused Dancer to skip the cover that held three of the four birds found during the heat, leaving them to be flushed by the gallery. His brace mate apparently missed all four. From the perspective of field trial performance this was not a failure at all—they want the dog to not search the close cover and find birds that will be walked up because hunters can shoot at those anyway. The dog is supposed to search at a distance and find birds that are farther out.
This is not what we’re looking for in Ryman-types. We expect them to search the cover thoroughly so they can find and then handle a high percentage of the birds, giving the hunter the opportunity to shoot over points. A good one may or may not have found the grouse Dancer pointed, but you don’t walk up three out of four grouse the dog never knew were there with a Ryman-type, and you really don’t walk up three out of four if you’ve got two Ryman-types in front of you.
To illustrate our expectations for performance in Ryman-types, here are a few experiences that stand out for us:
- A pair of experienced dogs pin all seven grouse moved in a cover, plus a number of woodcock.
- A female follows a running grouse through the woods and down a hillside, re-establishing over and over until she sees that the bird is headed for an open swamp so she circles around downwind and then up the edge of the cover to pin it.
- An eight month old takes a beeline 100+ yards to the first covey of Huns she finds and flushes them. Then, with the exception of two coveys that flushed wild, proceeds to point every covey for the next three seasons, many of which are spooky late season birds including 5 coveys during an hour and a half hunt.
This is what we consider to be top performance in Ryman-types, and this is the kind of performance you must select for to produce a Ryman-type setter. None of these dogs would be looked at seriously in a field trial, nor should they, because they are not trial dogs. The two types are completely different from each other.
In conclusion, modern field trial dogs are awesome performers, but they would be a very challenging starting point if your plan is to re-create the same type of dog that Ryman produced.
Cliff and Lisa
Next: Part 3, Changes in the show dogs since Ryman’s time.
1The Setter, by Edward Laverack, 1872
2Trials sponsored by the AKC, NSTRA, etc. have not had a significant influence on the evolution of field trial English setters, so our discussion here refers to American Field sanctioned trials only.
3“All-age” also refers to an age class for entry in all types of trials.