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Crossing With Show Setters | A Video Study

The Problem For Ryman-types

One of the biggest threats to the Ryman-type today is the continued insistence from non-hunting or inexperienced breeders that crossing with show dogs imitates Ryman’s approach and will somehow improve the Ryman-type. Nothing could be further from the truth. Popularizing this idea risks condemning the Ryman-type to the fate of the hunting Irish setters lost during the mid 1900s. Show and pet-bred Irish proliferated, hunters lost interest, and the old hunting type disappeared in the US. That’s why we spend so much time on this subject.

We’ve posted several articles detailing changes in the show dogs since Ryman quit using them 75 years ago, and the differences between modern show setters and Ryman-types. We’re not going to reiterate much of what we’ve previously discussed so you might want to (re)read these before continuing:

Conformation – Show Dogs Versus Ryman-types
Crossing a Field Trial Dog With a Show Dog Won’t Produce a Ryman—Part 3: Show Dogs
Crossing a Field Trial Dog With a Show Dog Won’t Produce a Ryman—Part 4: Breeding Ryman-Types Now and Into the Future

In this post we’ll use video to compare Ryman-types to show dogs, and to illustrate how genetic influence from show dogs impacts hunting performance. You won’t be able to see the things we’re talking about on a phone and it’s best if you watch the movement videos in full screen. This is not a quick study so do it when you have time and can sit down in front of a computer. If any videos fail to load try reloading the page.

The Written Word Only Goes So Far

That show breeders and hunters often have very different definitions of the same words is the biggest obstacle to accurately communicating the concepts we’ve been writing about. For instance, everyone calls up their own mental image of words like hunting, drive, efficiency, find, intensity, etc. While those words can be interpreted many ways, video is unambiguous so that’s what we’ll use here to illustrate what we mean, and what show breeders mean, by those terms.

Breeders Of “Hunting Dogs” Who Don’t Understand Hunting Dogs

Show breeders say their dogs are good “hunting” dogs. The problem is they don’t understand what a hunting dog does—but they believe they do, so it sounds good when they say it. How do we know they don’t understand? You need look no further than this video they put out to showcase field performance. A close look at the dual champion English setter will help illustrate what their words really mean. (starts at 31:30)

This English setter is one of only twenty that have earned both AKC show and field trial championships. She’s the cream of the crop. Despite that, she demonstrates low drive, inefficient movement, and incompetent bird handling. This is a setup with planted quail, as easy as it gets, yet this dog fails to even find them much less establish a point—and they literally call it a “divided find”. That’s what show breeders are referring to when they talk about “hunting” or “field work”, and watching that performance we can’t help but hear Ryman’s words when he wrote that show dogs were “birdless as they come.”

Comparison With Ryman-type Performance


For our first comparison, here’s a typical 15 week old Ryman-type puppy on her second (and last) planted quail. It’s important to point out that planted birds are a tool, not a test. We use 2 or 3 to kick start puppies’ development, which helps them progress quicker on wild birds. That’s what we’re doing in this video.

She’s already more competent at locating and pointing the bird than the dual champion in the AKC video. She trusts her nose, she’s confident in her ability to locate the bird, and she finds and points it with no messing around. When the wind shifted she instinctively moved in the correct direction to relocate the bird. This is nothing special, it’s what you expect from hunting dogs at this age.

How about this six month old puppy handling late season Huns on his second hunt? He smelled the birds from down off the top of a ridge, went straight toward them, established a point, then relocated further ahead—still 50+ yards from the covey.

These are real birds—notice how far ahead of the hunter they flush. Despite this pup’s lack of experience you can see his confidence. He knows he’s got the birds and he’s watching the hunter advance to flush them. With only a handful of bird contacts his level of competence is light years ahead of the dual champion’s.

Lastly here are two experienced Ryman-types, Autumn (orange) and Heather (blue), finding and handling a covey of Huns.

They had been searching cautiously because they knew there were birds around, and when they get a whiff of the birds they go straight to them and point. Heather locates the covey first. You can see her coming in from the left at :09, she knows where the birds are and she’s moving in to point. When the birds run to the side on the hunter’s approach Autumn circles and relocates, causing the hunter to change direction and move in for a shot.

In contrast to the extensive training the dual champion has had, none of these Ryman-types are trained. What you’re seeing is 100% natural bird handling ability. As a breeder of hunting dogs this is what you need to evaluate and select for, not training. When we showed these videos to show breeders they couldn’t see the difference between handling Huns and failing to point planted quail. That’s what we meant in a previous post when we wrote “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.” The failure to understand and select for these abilities, essentially ignoring them, is what leads to incompetence.

Drive/Innate Desire to Seek and Find Birds

The champion in the AKC video does not display the kind of drive we are looking for. Notice her overall dull approach to searching for birds, especially after she smells them. Her lack of intensity and “cute” expression reflect the low level of drive, a hallmark of show setters. And this dog is on the upper end of the spectrum for drive in a show dog—some of them aren’t even interested in finding birds.

Case in point, this show breeder recommends getting young puppies “as birdy as possible” because “you lose intensity in time, and you lose drive often Pure Dog Talk #87 (Link will open in a new tab)

Whatever she is interpreting as drive (puppy excitement/enthusiasm?) is not what hunters think of as drive. Dogs don’t lose drive. Pups that have it get more and more driven to find birds as they gain experience.

You can see the drive increasing in clips of a young female we filmed to show people what to expect during a pup’s first hunting season. It starts with her first time out in the field and ends with her first point on Huns. If you don’t want to take the time to watch the whole video, just skip through and watch a little from various chapters. Her focus on the task at hand and her desire to search for birds increase steadily over the course of the 10 hunts, and the most significant increases happened during three consecutive hunts with no bird contacts.

This is instinctive drive to find birds that’s bred into hunting dogs. She didn’t, and shouldn’t, need encouragement to hunt. In fact, if drive isn’t there genetically no amount of encouragement will instill it in a dog—hence the (mis)perception of “losing” it.

The darker tricolor in this next video is 11 years old. Although she has lost a step in physical abilities her drive to find birds has not diminished at all. The other dog in the video is 10. He has a chronic injury and can’t keep up, but he’s still working hard to find birds because he’ll never lose the drive he was born with.

Now let’s look at how crossing to show dogs affects drive. These clips are of show crosses and Ryman-types at the start of hunts, when hunting dogs are the most excited and animated. Compare the behavior of the show crosses to how Ryman-types act heading away from the truck.


Let’s return to the AKC video to consider the dual champion’s conformation and movement. We’ll focus on two easily seen aspects of her movement that stand out when she’s running—her short stride, and her rocking horse-like motion. She’s pretty smooth overall but notice how much her head, and especially her withers (where the neck meets the top of the back) bob up and down.

Movement is efficient when a dog’s stride propels its body weight directly forward along the line of travel with as little wasted energy as possible. Intuitively that’s not what we are seeing in this video. The excessive rise and fall of the front that’s responsible for her rocking horse motion looks like it’s wasting energy because it is.

The Withers

In his excellent book The Dog In Action, McDowell Lyon devoted several pages to rocking horse motion and why it is a kiss of death for endurance. It’s technical, but here are some of the main points:

  • Most of a running dog’s weight is supported by the front, and its center of gravity—think of the center point of a see-saw—is below the withers in the shoulder area.
  • The withers move in tandem with the center of gravity, so they are a key landmark to watch when evaluating efficiency of movement.
  • The most efficient stride requires some upward motion in the withers to counteract the pull of gravity, but too much rise wastes energy by lifting the dog’s center of gravity up instead of moving it forward along the line of travel.
  • Ideally, the power from the rear moves the dog’s center of gravity forward in a trajectory that forms a long and shallow arc.
  • If the dog is lobbing its front upward in a high arc its stride is shorter, resulting in less forward travel per stride.
  •  A higher rise of the front leads to a steeper trajectory of the downward fall, a harder landing, and added stress to the part of the body that already absorbs the most force, increasing the risk of injury.

The non-technical way of looking at it is: The smoother and more effortless the dog’s stride looks, the better its endurance.

To quote Lyons: “The major cause of the excess rise and fall of the withers is improper conformation and angulation, especially the conforming of the front and rear assemblies to one another” (note his use of “improper”, indicating there’s actually something wrong). This describes the imbalance between the straight fronts and over-angulated rears you see in today’s show setters.

Although she is more balanced than many show dogs, this dual champion still suffers from the effects of breeding to an arbitrary interpretation of a standard, invented by non-hunters, that wins in the show ring but has nothing to do with hunting. A dog with this type of stride cannot last as long in the field as one with more efficient movement. Unless it lacks the drive to move out and cover enough ground.

What Efficient Movement Looks Like

This Ryman-type’s conformation gives her smooth motion and excellent endurance during long hunts. Notice how little up and down there is in her withers. Consider the fact that she is not running on a flat, mowed field like the dogs in the AKC video.

Dusty hunts fast for a Ryman-type but you can see she’s not working hard. Proper conformation and the resulting efficient movement make it possible for her to run like this for hours without slowing down or tiring.

At a fast gallop this next Ryman-type’s front moves in a nearly direct line. The power from her rear legs propels her center of gravity forward along the line of travel with minimal upward motion.

Notice how far ahead her front legs reach and how much ground she covers with each stride (to see this better click the YouTube settings button and set the playback speed to 0.25). Her front legs support her weight while also contributing to her forward travel.

Now watch the coordination and smooth motion in these Ryman-types chasing each other around the yard.

In this final video we’ll compare the movement of a dog sired by a show champion to that of some Ryman-types. Notice the very short stride of the show cross, the up and down of the withers, and how hard the front feet plant on each stride. Instead of helping to continue forward progress, the landing of the front feet slows momentum. You can see that effect in the dual champion above but it’s more pronounced in this dog.

The Ryman-types in these videos move with efficiency because breeders who do understand hunting dogs have, for many generations, selected for stamina, athleticism, and agility under actual hunting conditions. The contrast with the other setters is clearly visible in the videos. If you don’t see the difference yet, watch them again. Compare the types to each other and keep watching until you do because, it’s there. It may take some repetition before you see it, but once you do you’ll never be able to un-see it.

It may seem like we’re advocating for speed or wide ranging dogs, or suggesting that all Ryman-types have good conformation. That isn’t the case—efficient movement is not tied to speed or range, and poor conformation can and does occur in all types of setters. We’ve seen it in our own dogs. The difference is the conformation that is the goal for show breeders is improper for endurance and athleticism in a hunting dog.

None of these conclusions are based on personal opinion or preference, they are based on the facts. All of the experts on movement and conformation agree the over-angulated rear/straight front of today’s show English setters is inefficient and unstable yet show breeders insist on claiming exactly the opposite. If you want to learn more about conformation and movement there’s a list of references at the end of this article.

Crossing With Show Dogs—What You See Is What You Get

Some field breeders are persuaded by show breeders’ assertions about conformation and field performance so they cross with show dogs, naively anticipating some mysterious benefit. Unfortunately they get exactly what’s expected—inferior bird handling, low drive, inefficient movement and the resulting loss of endurance.

The definition of a Ryman-type setter is one that’s like the setters George Ryman bred. It has the bird handling instincts and the drive to range out far enough to find and pin them, while also having the instinct to hunt with it’s owner. And it has proper conformation to give it the endurance Ryman emphasized.

If you are a breeder whose goal is to produce Ryman-type setters don’t be fooled into thinking modern show dogs will help you achieve your goal. They won’t. Or using them is copying Ryman. It’s not. We aren’t saying you shouldn’t prefer that type of dog, or you shouldn’t breed for that performance, but it’s wrong to call those dogs Ryman-types because they’re nothing like the setters Ryman produced.


An Examination of Movement in Dogs by Deborah Andoetoe
Working Dog Structure: Evaluation and Relationship to Function by Chris Zink and Marcia R. Schlehr

Dog Steps, Rachael Page Elliot
The Dog In Action, McDowell Lyon (“The Rocking Horse” image above is adapted from an illustration on pg. 71)
Structure in Action, The Makings of a Durable Dog, Pat Hastings with Wendy E. Wallace, DVM, cVA and Erin Rouse

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