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Crossing a Field Trial Dog With a Show Dog Won’t Produce a Ryman—Part 3: Show Dogs

Continuing our exploration of whether the Rymans could be re-created from today’s field trial and show dogs, in this article we will cover changes in the show dogs.

Changes in American Show Setters

In 1913, the year Ryman’s first litter was registered, the English setter was closer to it’s origins. The show setters he used early on were a mixed bag of types and bloodlines, and although specialization for competition was well underway all of the types still retained field abilities that gave them a following among hunters, including the Laverack-type, the precursor to the modern show dog.

Specialization in the show dogs accelerated after the English Setter Association gained control of the standard in 1931 and the Laverack-type became the only competitive show setter. We will focus here on the changes since then.


Let’s start by illustrating the conformation changes we discussed previously so it’s clear why they are problematic in a hunting dog. We’ll begin with photos of two show dogs from lines Ryman used extensively. They are representative of show conformation during the English Setter Association’s first decade.

Now here are two competitors from the 2020 Westminster show for comparison. The female on the left won Best of Breed.

The coat is probably the most eye-catching change in these dogs, but they are also heavier boned, have longer bodies, and have much narrower chests when viewed from the front, none of which is good for a hunting dog. A more important issue though, is the change in angulation.

Straighter Fronts

The front quarters of the old dogs had more acute angles and the legs were placed further under the body. This is a little hard to visualize unless dogs are positioned exactly the same. The plumb lines in this side by side of Lakeland’s Yuba and the above Best of Breed make this change easier to see. Less forechest ahead of the front legs can be a tip-off to a straighter front, but note where the legs line up in comparison to the base of the neck.

Front comparison

Over-Angulated Hindquarters

In contrast to the straighter fronts, the hindquarters are more angulated, to the point of having extreme angulation. To illustrate, we’ll start with good rear angulation for a hunting dog. On the left below is Champion Pilot of Crombie of Happy Valley, winner of the English Setter Association’s National Specialty in 1934 and 1936. Ryman’s Birdy Anne is on the right.

Balanced Angulation

The sketch in the middle is from An Examination of Movement in Dogs. It is an illustration of “balanced” rear angulation. Rear angulation is evaluated when the leg is positioned (stacked) so the pastern (lower leg between the ankle and paw) is perpendicular to the ground. Angulation is balanced between power and stability when the toe meets a plumb line from the buttocks as illustrated. With more angulation the toe will be further back compared to the line, with less it will be more forward. Balanced is not the only “correct” rear angulation, but it is a strong structure that’s roughly where field dogs bred for athleticism and performance tend to be.

Now let’s look at angulation in the current show setters. The dog in the middle below is one of the setters at the 2020 Westminster. On the left is a sketch from renowned expert Rachael Page Elliot’s book Dog Steps that illustrates “Sickle Hocks ‘Trotting Behind Himself’ (fault)”. Elliot describes it as “…disproportionate length of bones in the hind quarters. For better support he stands with the rear pasterns tucked under him”.

Sickle Hocks Illustration

The sketch on the right, from the article mentioned above, illustrates “extreme angulation with sickle hocks”. The article states: “Unless a breed standard calls for it [The English setter standard does not], conformation such as sickle-hocked1 (where the dog moves his foot from beneath the hock to beneath the center of gravity for the hind leg) should be considered too much angulation”.

Here are examples of hindquarter angulation in stacked dogs.

Sickle Hock Illustration Stacked

On the left is Ch Daro of Maridor, born in 1937, a famous show dog closely related to a number of setters in Ryman’s kennel. The sketch is another from Dog Steps of the same dog illustrated above “artificially posed with the hind legs extended way back, dropping the topline and weakening the angles of support”. On the right is the 2020 Westminster Best of Breed. She is not stacked with the pasterns perfectly perpendicular, but you get the picture.

All of the setters in the video below of the 2020 Westminster show have this type of angulation. Keep an eye on the rears when the dogs are stacked and when they are relaxed or moving and you will see varying degrees of extreme rear angulation. You can also see the straight fronts with limited forechest.

There are videos of the English setter judging from other recent years on YouTube as well, and nearly all of the setters entered are the same.

So What’s Wrong With These Changes In Angulation?

The problem for a hunting dog is the effects on athleticism, agility, and endurance.

Extreme hindquarter angulation is caused by longer hind legs with proportionately longer leg bones above the hock. Rear angulation is necessary for power to move and to drive forward. The dog has to have enough, but too much is detrimental. The further back the toes are from under the body, the less stable the leg is, and the less the dog is able to apply power directly to the ground without expending energy laterally. It’s weaker, less agile, and less efficient.

Fronts also need balanced angulation to function optimally. Enough gives reach, increases muscle development, lessens concussion on the bones, and reduces stress on the extensor muscles. Too much reach would reduce stability. A mismatch of straight fronts with over-angulated rears also makes movement less efficient. Working Dog Structure: Evaluation and Relationship to Function by Chris Zink and Marcia R. Schlehr is an excellent reference for more information on how all of this works.

There is no functional advantage for the evolution of show dog conformation. It didn’t happen because show breeders were spending their falls hunting the mountains of West Virginia or other challenging terrain so they could identify the best conformation for athleticism and stamina. It happened because people like the way it looks so it wins in the show ring.

These changes may not seem significant, but consider the impact that an inefficient, heavy-boned conformation will have on a dog’s energy resources, agility, and endurance while running for several hours over steep hillsides, in dense cover, or navigating the many obstacles encountered while hunting. Because these effects on the dogs’ endurance have been observed during just 30 minute heats in AKC field trials, certain show breeders involved in them are currently breeding and advocating for more balanced angulation.


Considering the excessive coat and changes in conformation it’s obvious show breeders are not prioritizing hunting. We can’t objectively compare hunting instincts in these modern setters to the old dogs like we can with conformation, but we can look at what people thought of them at the time. There were plenty of writers from the early 1900s who spoke favorably of the Laverack-type’s hunting abilities. Advertisements for Laverack pups sold as hunting dogs were not uncommon, and some writers even argued they were better than Llewellins (the field trial dogs of the time). It’s safe to say that the show dogs Ryman used were not duds in the field.

It is clear however that the abilities of the show dogs declined after field influence was pushed out of the English setter show world in 1931, and by the mid 1940s Ryman quit using new crosses to them. In 1954 he wrote they were:

“Over-bred into a new type, birdless as they come, clumsy in their gate, as an ox in the field.”

This “new type” was a result of specialization that had moved the show setters away from their roots as hunting dogs. Whatever the specialty—shows, field trials, or hunting—a breeder must focus on the traits that will enable his dogs to be successful. Show breeders necessarily have to hyper-focus on conformation to the detriment of the many instinctive traits that allow a dog to be good at searching for, finding, pinning, and then retrieving wild birds.

Today’s show setters run the gamut from dogs with no interest in birds, to performance that certain owners prefer. Some can handle training for Master Hunter titles and some have enough drive to win AKC Field Championships when competing in English Setter Association of America (ESAA) sponsored trials for setters—significant accomplishments in events that require a basic set of instincts but are judged largely on trained/learned behaviors. Much of what a breeder must evaluate to maintain hunting abilities cannot be seen in these events, yet conformation breeders believe the titles prove the dogs still have all the traits necessary for the breed’s original purpose of hunting, without knowing what three quarters of those traits are.

This lack of knowledge is illustrated perfectly by the following sentiment expressed by Davis Tuck in his 1951 book The Complete English Setter. After stating that field trial setters are bred “for nose” (nothing else apparently) he wrote:

“Successful breeding of dairy cows, race horses, chickens, pigs, or field trial type English Setters is quite simple in comparison to the Herculean task that we have set ourselves in breeding good bench type English Setters. We want everything and are unwilling to sacrifice anything. We want…”

He then presents a long list of every minute aspect of conformation from head to toe—pretty much everything you could think of—mentions health, and ends with:

“…a good nose and willing to hunt.”

In other words, all a hunting dog needs is a good nose, but WE have so many important things to worry about…

As a historian of a hunting breed, Tuck’s ignorance of hunting is astounding. “Willing to hunt” is a particularly revealing statement. It showed that Tuck didn’t understand hunting or the inherent abilities of a good field trial or hunting dog. He had no idea he was unwittingly sacrificing hunting instincts he didn’t even know existed. When those abilities are ignored they are lost and this is exactly what led to Ryman’s criticism three years later:

“Breeders, breeders, you now have the proof, which is the dogs you bred for many generations without keeping the breeding stock both sires and dam trained, experienced or educated on game birds. It will take you years to put back what you took out — bird sense, nose pointing instinct, brains and endurance.”

His criticism, though harsh, is still valid today. The following AKC video about pointing breeds has demonstrations of top level performance from the show dogs, in a set-up similar to a hunt test or an AKC field trial. At 31:30 you can see a dual champion English setter.

For comparison, here is an example of typical performance we expect from Ryman-types. This is completely instinctive birdwork from a pair of untrained dogs. No set-up with pen-raised birds planted on the edge of a mowed field—this find took place two hours into a long hunt. The dogs are working scent where a covey of Huns has been feeding down a ridge, and then the birds run off to the side as we approach.

Here’s another untrained Ryman-type searching in wild habitat and, coordinating instinctively with the hunter, handling another covey of running Huns.

Because these dogs have not been trained beyond the “Come” command, what you see in the videos is their 100% natural performance. The AKC video points out that the dogs are well trained but training has nothing to do with the abilities that lead to the performance expected of Ryman-types. You can’t teach those innate, genetic traits. They have to be bred into the dogs.

Cliff and Lisa

Next: Part 4, How the Ryman-type will be maintained into the future.

1Sickle-hocked is used to describe more than one fault. In this case we are only talking about it’s common use referring to over-angulation.


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