The Irish Red Setter Breed Standard:
An Interview With One Of the Authors
In November 2005 the National Red Setter Field Trial Club Board of Directors unanimously approved a new breed standard for the Irish red setter. This interview was conducted by Deborah Fazenbaker, Editor of the national publication for the NRSFTC, The Flushing Whip. Her husband, Allen Fazenbaker, is a co-author of the new breed standard approved by the NRSFTC Board of Directors.
DF: Just for readers who are new to our organization, what is your affiliation with the National Red Setter Field Trial Club, and how did you become involved in this initiative?
AF: I was on the Board of Directors and actually serving as President of the Club in 2002 when we elected to adopt our first breed standard. Today I am serving on the Board of Directors as the club’s Futurity Secretary.
DF: Why did the club decide to create a new breed standard?
AF: Actually, the NRSFTC has had a breed standard for several years. As I stated before, in 2002 our club adopted the Irish red setter standard of the parent country of Ireland. We felt that Ireland’s emphasis on a breed standard highlighting the working qualities was essential in any description of a bird dog. Most dog standards today unfortunately de-emphasize the original working abilities of the breed. When our club adopted the Ireland standard in 2002, we concurred with the parent country that the working abilities of a breed should be paramount.
After several years of holding this standard, we came to recognize that while the Ireland standard certainly was a huge improvement in defining the breed the unique culture of American field trialing, as well as our culture of hunting, presented many obvious differences between the Ireland standard and the reality of the Irish red setter in America. We realized that if we were to hold our breed to a standard, it needed to be one that honored the spirit and intent of bird dog culture in the U.S.A. So, we elected to write a standard that reflected our American values.
DF: Who were the authors of this new breed standard?
AF: Four members of the Board, Christie Young, Don Beauchamp, Roger Boser, and myself did the majority of the work on the document. Much of the work was done during the spring and summer of 2005, with some fine tuning done prior to Board approval in November of that year.
DF: What is unique about this standard from previous breed standards?
AF: First, and most importantly, this breed standard is based expressly on performance. While canine breed standards in the past have relied heavily on conformation traits, this standard utilizes performance criteria to define the breed. Conformation traits are noted only as necessary to support the performance of the animal.
One must remember that breed standards were originally developed to identify breeds based upon looks. In the old days prior to the emergence of registries such as AKC and FDSB, breed identification was a loosely defined talent, often more art than science. Dogs were frequently crossbred to produce performance traits desired by the owners. Performance of the dog on game was most important to the owner, and conformation traits were utilized only to the extent that they assisted the owner in identifying other dogs who might likewise have similar performance traits. With the advent of registries to assist the owners with record keeping, conformation traits became even more important for the breeder. Certain traits such as color, head shape, skeletal framework, and other visual traits were used to identify certain animals who likewise had desirable performance traits in the field. Thus, Irish red setters, English setters, English pointers, and other breeds became segregated, as breeders and hunters focused on particular traits that pleased them. Breed clubs became established and developed standards that could be used by breeders to promote those qualities sought by the hunters.
Unfortunately, the advent of standards based upon conformational traits did not preserve the original intent of the breed standard. Conformation became a means to an end, and the performance traits that had been affiliated with those conformation traits became disjointed, and eventually lost. Breed clubs began to focus on conformation traits by hosting “bench shows,” and the “show ring” became the norm for judging canine breed standards. Performance traits became secondary, or in many cases, nonexistent. Today, most breed clubs name championships to dogs who have no performance ability for which the breed was originally intended! As a club whose reason for existence is to promote the Irish red setter as a class bird dog, such an emphasis on conformation without the more important focus on performance was unacceptable. The reason for our initial adoption of the Ireland standard was based upon that concern. Irish red setters are, first and foremost, bird dogs. Any standard that does not give credence to this PERFORMANCE trait is, in our eyes, not an acceptable standard. The authors of the Ireland standard are to be commended for recognizing this and acting upon it when updating their standard several years ago. We simply took it a step further… or should we say, a step further back… to the original intent of the breed standards of the old days.
DF: But isn’t’ there already a breed standard in the U.S.?
AF: Yes, the Irish Setter Club of America has a breed standard developed under the auspices of the American Kennel Club (AKC). However, the standard makes only a passing reference to the bird dog qualities of the breed, and in fact makes no requirement for the breed to perform in any sense as a bird dog. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of AKC Irish red setter champions in the USA that have never pointed a game bird. We could not accept such a standard.
DF: But if the Ireland standard is based upon performance, why not continue to use the Ireland standard?
AF: Well, the Ireland standard makes great strides in increasing the performance attributes of the dog. In fact, there is an entire section of their standard which is devoted to the “working qualities” of the breed. But nonetheless, conformation traits are still listed as primary criteria in judging the breed. Our position is that performance traits should be the primary criteria, and the conformation traits should be used only to support the performance traits. What we do in our standard is start off talking about performance… it’s in the first paragraph of the standard, and it’s there because we place it as the highest criteria for the Irish red setter. To quote the first paragraph of our standard… “As Irish red setters were originally bred as partridge and grouse dogs their style of hunting these birds may be taken as the norm. Primary focus of the breed standard shall be upon the performance of the animal while hunting wild or native game birds. And later, “conformational traits of the breed are described only with the intent that such traits shall be supportive of performance as a bird dog.” Thus, we have re-established the spirit and intent of breed standards… to assist the breeder in identifying those traits that will make a great Irish red setter as a BIRD DOG. Much of our standard is still based upon the language of the Ireland document. We simply modified the document to better suit our needs here in the U.S.A.
DF: You mentioned earlier that one of your goals was to write a standard that reflected American values. What exactly do you mean by this?
AF: American bird dog culture has some unique characteristics that set it apart from bird dog cultures in other parts of the world. Probably one of the most obvious points is the importance that we place on tail position. The Ireland standard, for example, calls for a tail that runs horizontally. Here in the USA, we place an emphasis on a high mast tail. Thus, our standard reflects this important difference. Of course, we recognize that the tail is not the only factor in judging the performance of a bird dog. Dr. Roger Boser, a well-regarded breeder of Irish red setters once noted, “it’s what’s up front in the brain department that is most important.” Our standard places great emphasis on intelligence… especially what we refer to as “bird intelligence.” The Irish red setter should display great intelligence in handling wild birds in their native habitat. THIS is the ultimate expression of what an Irish red setter is about… an intelligent bird dog with the savvy to handle native, wild birds. Everything else that follows is, as they say, “gravy.” That’s why our standard lists intelligence in handling wild birds so early in the document.
DF: Aren’t’ you concerned that adoption of a standard by the club will lead to the same sort of undue focus on particular traits, such as is often the case with current breed standards?
AF: That concern has been a topic of the authors as well as that of our Board of Directors. One of the reasons for our desire to discuss the standard in this interview was to express our “philosophy of use” of a breed standard. What we do not want to see is the establishment of “conformation shows” utilizing our standard to judge a dog. Irish red setters should be judged on the prairies of the Dakotas, the grouse woods of the north, the quail plantations of the south, and the cornfields of the Midwest. In other words, the criteria for determining the “best of breed” (to borrow a phrase from the bench show fraternity) is in the hunting environment. Under no circumstance would we ever envision a venue in which a bird dog could be judged as “acceptable” or “unacceptable” except in a performance situation. Because the National Red Setter Field Trial Club considers itself as the “guardian of the breed” here in the United States, we would never abuse our sacred commitment to the promotion of our breed by using our standard in a strictly conformational context.
Another point worth mentioning is that we certainly do not expect every owner of an Irish red setter to be in anguish because their “Red Rover” or “Big Red” fails to meet the criteria of our standard in all aspects. A standard is just that… a standard, something to strive for, a lofty goal that may or may not be reached in all facets. I seriously doubt that there is an Irish red setter in the United States that meets all the criteria of our breed standard at 100% compliance! The importance of the standard is that now we have a set of common goals, something that our breeders can use as a framework for future endeavors. Far from being restrictive, it provides a common foundation for our breed that can better help us achieve the lofty goals of the Purest Challenge. As always, our goal as an organization is unbending. Our purpose is to produce and promote the Irish red setter as a class horseback shooting dog and field trial competitor. All of our resources and talents must be focused and directed at that goal. To use a breed standard for anything less would be a disservice to all who worked so tirelessly to achieve the quality breed that we have today.
DF: How do you envision this standard being used by your membership?
AF: I think the standard can be used in several ways. First and foremost, breeders should use the standard as a guide for assistance in choosing the ideal dogs for breeding purposes. When breeding dogs, the breeder always wants to breed the best to the best, with the hopes that sire and dam will complement each other and ultimately enhance the overall quality by carrying the best of both sides of the pedigree. So, a breeder can look to the standard for advice on choosing the proper breeding combinations in his or her breeding program.
Another use might be the person looking for a prospective dog for hunting or trialing. By being familiar with the breed standard, the owner/handler has a better grasp on what one should expect from an Irish red setter, especially in terms of expected performance. The positive thing about using this standard is the focus on performance, which is what bird dog standards should be about.
DF: What do you see as the next step in the progress of the Purest Challenge for the NRSFTC?
AF: Well, I have several goals as a member of the Board and as the Futurity Secretary. I would really like to see more Irish red setters involved in All-Age stakes. I think we have some dogs out there that have the potential to perform in that venue, and I hope that they will take the challenge. Ultimately, it is my dream to see a red dog run in the National Championship. It would certainly be an honor to those who have worked so tirelessly over the past 50 years to restore the Irish red setter to its rightful place.
Another goal of mine is to increase the numbers of Futurity nominations, not only in our own Futurity, but also in other various National and/or regional futurities. Several of our members who are breeding young Irish red setters have taken the initiative and are nominating litters to Futurities; I would be very pleased to see that number increase. I am a firm believer in the philosophy that the way to become better is to compete with the best. If our Irish red setters are competing in National Futurities and running all-breed trials across the country, our program will continue to improve the breed.
Most of all, I want to see more Irish red setters in the hands of hunters. For years, the impression of the Irish red setter has been, unfortunately, determined by the bench dogs. That impression has been “unimpressive,” to say the least. But, our club’s dedication to the Purest Challenge over the past 50 years has made its mark. Red dogs are now found in hunting and trialing venues throughout the country. When I see our beloved red setters in those places, it makes my heart proud, because we honor the dedication of our past members to the Purest Challenge… and that’s what we’re here for, after all… to honor that Challenge.
DF: I think that seems like a perfect place to stop. Thanks for doing this with me.