Monday, February 11, 2008

Color blindness...

When I was a kid and looking for my first Irish setter, I was enamored with the deep red color of the bench dogs. Although I (along with my dad and his buddies) was an avid hunter, in those days we hunted over beagles, and truthfully, we shot as many pheasants on our special haunts as we did rabbits. Birds were plentiful in those times, and it was not uncommon to see pheasants along the road when we went on our weekly visits to my grandparents. So, my view of the Irish setter was more fantasy than fact. Now that I am older and hopefully wiser, I have come to realize that my childhood picture of the Irish setter was an illusion, for we well know that the average bench dog is unwilling and unable to hunt. These big, profusely feathered dogs with their deep dark red coats might be eye catching to the average Joe Public, but I have little place for them in my world. In fact, rather than considering them to be beautiful, I have come to consider them to be a bit pitiful... a "dog without a cause", so to speak. A dog whose breed standard says that they are a bird dog, yet they are incapable of being a bird dog because they have lost the core genetics necessary to do the job. Which brings me to back to the whole color thing again.

Several times a year, I receive phone calls from someone looking for a "hunting dog." As I talk to them, it becomes clear that they are an average hunter... they try to get out on the weekends during the season, maybe get a week out in Nebraska or Iowa, but for the most part, the dog is destined to be a family companion for much of the year. Inevitably in the course of the conversation, the question of color will come up. "Do your dogs have any white on them?" Or, "we're looking for a dog with a nice dark red color." In fact, I know that some of our red setter breeders (both AKC and FDSB) have tended to breed for less white, and for darker red in their breeding programs.

I think this is a mistake.
Here's why. Remember, this is all antedotal, but validated by historical notations. First, the issue of white on a red setter. Most of us are well aware that the original Irish red setters in Ireland were well endowed with white color. An all red dog was unusual, and in fact, was not favored by the hunters. Why? Because, it appears that the presence of white seemed to be linked with superior hunting ability. This was so notable in the breed club in Ireland that the presence of white was a part of the breed standard back in the 1800s when the standard was first written. The emphasis on an all red dog was brought on by the popularity of the bench shows. So I ask you, what breed improvement has the bench fraternity provided to the Irish red setter? The popularity of the red color is strictly a conformational issue, with NO BASIS IN PERFORMANCE.

Here's what Ray O'Dwyer, in his recently published book, The Irish Red Setter, Its History, Character and Training, has to say on this topic: "Within the parameters laid down in the breed standard, the occurrence of white is still widely visible in the working dog but less so in show dogs, and on this point I would like to make only one comment. I believe that an examination of the dogs that have become FTCHs in the history of the Irish Kennel Club would be very interesting, as, in my experience, many of the top-class workers have had some white to a lesser or greater extent."

The color red is another area in which we seem to be a bit confused. Again, the bench fraternity seems to be infatuated with a deep red color, and (at least here in the USA) has come to accept this color as the acceptable norm for the Irish red setter. In reality, these folks are way off base again. Here's what Colonel J.K. Millner, one of the founding members of the Irish Red Setter Club (formed in 1882) had to say: "Some of the Irish setters now seen at shows are not of the same type as those of forty years ago. Like other breeds the showman has left his mark. A good many years since there was a run on dark coloured ones, especially in England and the Continent, where the dark coat and absence of white are still considered marks of excellence." While the show fraternity continues to insist that this dark red color is the correct one, those who have working setters note that WORKING PERFORMANCE TENDS TO BE BETTER IN SETTERS OF LIGHTER COLOR. The standard of the 1882 Ireland Red Setter Club states that the colour should be a rich golden chestnut. As Ray O'Dwyer points out in his book, virtually every better-known writer on this topic concurs. Ingle Belper, of the famed Rheola Setters and the co-author of the book Setter, Irish, English and Gordan (1935), states "Leaving the question of cross-breeding and returning to colour, I hold that the ideal one for an Irish setter is an even chestnut red, neither too light nor too dark, but just the tint of a newlyh shelled horse-chestnut." And later in the text, "Could the history of those ultra dark-coloured Irish setters be traced sufficiently far back, it would be found that an outcross had been used with either a Gordon, a black retriever, or some other black breed. "

So what's a bird hunter to do??
Honor The Challenge...
breed for performance...
buy for performance...
hunt with a performer...

National Red Setter Field Trial Club Board member Allen Fazenbaker
with his working red setter Her Ruby Red Slipper
Chestnut and White and Proud to be a part of the Purest Challenge!!

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