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    • #99

       There has been some recent discussion about various aspects of conformation. As someone who has been evaluating their own female for breeding, and recently seeking out potential sires, these discussions are very timely and relevant. Some very experienced individuals and breeders of Ryman-type setters have been generous with their time and helping me out, in which I am forever grateful.

      Disclaimer: My purpose of this post is to create a healthy discussion with hopes of learning more, not to imply that I have any great amount of expertise in the subject šŸ™‚

      Somewhere along the way I read something about observing other four-legged species and how conformation affects function, efficiency, durability, etc… For me, I’ve broken it down to two different groups, selective breeding (other dog breeds and horses) and natural selection (wolves, foxes, big cats).

      The main areas of conformation that has captured my focus is topline, cowhocking and shoulder angle. Regarding topline, I’ve observed many pictures of supposed champion horses as well as wolves where the topline is actually a little higher in the back vs. the gentle slope downward from the withers to the rear, which I understand to be the standard for our breed. Additionally, I recently came across this article which seems to dispute the GSD standard by comparing to wolves. I also found the comments on cowhock interesting:…/conform…/function_style.html. As with anything, it seems that some have taken things too far with certain breeds and I believe the GSD issues referenced in the article is exactly that.

      One of the things about my female that I admire is that she moves very efficiently and smooth through the grouse woods and fields, is very durable and can hunt day after day without breaking down. With that being said, I compare her topline to that of a wild horse and the wolf vs. the gentile sloping of the show setter.

      I’d really like to hear from others as well if there are any other conformation discrepancies between our show standard and what lends itself to a great hunting dog.

      – Chuck

    • #163
      October Setters

        Hi Chuck,

        Conformation and its impact on performance is something we’ve been interested in for many years as it certainly effects our dogs’ ability to hunt as desired.  Before I forget here’s a corrected link to the article you referenced:
        The comparison of wolves to German Shepherds is quite interesting if an extreme case.  I had a neighbor years ago who adopted a racing Greyhound.  Apparently this individual was so good it had lasted for more than twice the typical Greyhound’s racing career.  It was the “worst” cow-hocked dog I’ve ever seen but it didn’t seem to have a negative impact on the dog’s performance.  Maybe I should have said it was the “best” cow-hocked dog….? 

        Your question about which standard to use as a template is one we started out asking ourselves, and anyone else we thought could help answer our questions, back in the early 90’s.  Without getting too long winded I’d suggest you decide what is important to you (not anyone else) then seek dogs that display the performance you desire.  There are some things you need to keep in mind during this process. 

        First and foremost, the ESAA/AKC standard for English setters has nothing to do with hunting.  Nor is it the only “sound” conformation.  You should mostly ignore the ESAA standard if what you seek is a hard hunting bird dog.  It is designed specifically to produce the gait desired in the show ring which I would suggest is not what you want in a hunting dog.  That’s why no breeders who are serious about hunting (or field trialing) have dogs with show conformation.  We’ve discussed this with a number of show breeders over the years and their typical approach was to declare the ESAA standard the only “sound” conformation for the breed.  Some suggested that gaiting was the most efficient motion, that wolves gaited when hunting, and that setters should gait while hunting as well.  (Don’t know about anyone else but that would bore me to tears)  Many pointed out “faults” in dogs that we could see in field trial champions but none of them could tell us what physical problems would be caused by the supposed fault.  In the worst case we showed a photo of a 7x all age field champion to a show breeder who also did some judging and she declared the dog unsound and stated flatly that it would “break down” (an interesting term I don’t quite understand – can’t say I’ve ever seen a dog do anything I’d term “break down” despite knowing some with horribly inefficient or unstable gaits).  None had an answer for why these field trial champions, dogs that had proven their soundness over many years of running very hard for long periods of time, hadn’t broken down, although one suggested that they have so much drive they overcome their faults, whatever that means.  What they all seemed to miss is that they themselves had never proven the soundness of their own dogs, never hunted them hard to evaluate efficiency, heat tolerance, or stamina over the short haul or the long haul – in fact never actually tested their dogs’ conformation under tough field conditions.  They also seem to miss the fact that field trial champions ARE proven over the long haul and that their conformation is a direct result of the function required by trials.  Show setters are bred to exacting standards by dedicated breeders (who also do an excellent job screening for health issues) and they are exactly what they are intended to be.  They perform as required to win shows but don’t be fooled into thinking those are the same qualities that make a good hunting dog.

        You also need to recognize that you have to compromise somewhere.  You can’t select equally for perfect conformation, disposition, head shape, trainability, nose, range, drive, retrieving instinct, etc, etc, etc down the long list of qualities you evaluate in a hunting dog (don’t forget health issues either).  It’s not possible, no way, no how.  You have to identify what is most important to you, focus on that/those traits, and do the best you can on the rest. 

        For us hunting performance is most important (assuming no health problems) and conformation is part of that in as much as it affects their ability to perform.  Details of hunting abilities aside, we like a short coupled, hard hunting, athletic dog.  That doesn’t equate with wider range, just more energetic searching.  For us, it’s just more fun to watch than slower more methodical dogs.  There are plenty of other less important  considerations but I won’t get into those.  What’s important is that you decide which hunting style YOU prefer then focus on selecting a stud dog that has conformation consistent with the style/performance you seek. 


      • #164

        Whew, conformation is a huge topic but I am glad that someone has started conversations about it, thank you Chuck.  In my experience it is also a topic that can generate some widely different opinions.  Which in some venues ends up dividing the discussion participants but I hope that here it can simply serve to educate and to help each of us as we make our own breeding decisions. Personally, I don’t think there is one correct answer or standard or description.  Just like there is no perfect dog but I think it is the goal of all good breeders to produce dogs that present a whole package that is very pleasing to look at, healthy to live with, and fun to hunt.   

        Oh, perhaps I should disclose something up front.  Although I have had bird dogs for 46 years (rymans for over 20 of those) and am now ‘just’ an avid hunter, I also showed dogs for more than 25 years – mostly dual bred Gordon Setters, with a good number of CH’s under my belt.  So the show ring and what it takes to win is very familiar territory.  And I’ll state right here that sadly, what happens and wins in the ring does not have a whole lot to do with the written breed standard.  My personal feeling is that if you focus too much on only one aspect of the dog – either the conformation or the performance – that you lose the beauty and function of the whole package and end up with extremes.  Which explains the exaggerated coat and topline of the show dogs as well as the exaggerated pointing style and range of the trial dogs.

        When looking at the relationship between conformation and function, it is important to identify the purpose and lifestyle of the animal.   For example, wolves travel great distances in their territories – up to 50 miles a day, every day, with a long strided easy gait.  Coyotes also travel a lot.  Both are built with
        narrow chests and long legs: cow-hocked rears and east-west fronts are common.  Dingos however do not travel all that much and have wider chests and bodies and
        my limited understanding is that they look more true in front/rear. 

        The issue of being cow-hocked in the rear and front angles has been brought up above. For some perspective about cow-hocked rears and east-west fronts, here are some photos of wolves showing some fronts and rears.  These are typical and perfectly functional for a wolf, for how they are built and how they move and function.  


        Myself, I would cringe if my dog had particularly a front like these wolves…because my dog is not a wolf.  However,
         in certain working dog breeds among those who actively work them, being mildly cow-hocked is quite acceptable, even desirable.  This is from a group discussing herding dogs: “In breeds such as the Border Collie, a small amount of
        inward bowing is allowed (this is called “cow-hock”) as it indicates
        a greater flexibility in the rear to enable crouching.  Many Australian Shepherds have this fault as
        well; it can be beneficial in working, depending on the dog’s style.  “Dogs with slight cowhocks have a
        quicker gait, and find it easier to turn,” says Klarer, “but they
        aren’t as pretty. ”  (

        Ahh… “but they aren’t as pretty.”  Although the Border Collie is a very old breed, it was not accepted into the AKC until 1995: the working Border Collie people had long fought AKC acceptance, dreading what might happen to their breed if the show folks got hold of them.  And sure enough, in the AKC Border Collie show standard it states, ” the hocks perpendicular to the
        ground ”   So in the show ring, a cow-hocked Border Collie is at fault.  Yet, wait, I thought I just read that a small amount of cow-hocked gives greater flexibility to the rear?  So here is an example of where there is a division between folks with working dogs and folks who want pretty, show dogs.  I see many Border Collies around where I now live and yeah, many (most?) are cow-hocked.  And I have seen Border Collies at shows…with heavy, fluffy coats and yep, straight hocks.

        I will stop here….for now anyway….and I hope that others will chime in with their thoughts on various aspects of conformation.  


      • #165
        October Setters

          Thanks Lynn Dee.  As I read your post I saw a couple things that hit home and I’d like to expand on them. 

          First your suggestion:
          “My personal feeling is that if you focus too much on only one aspect of
          the dog – either the conformation or the performance – that you lose the
          beauty and function of the whole package and end up with extremes.
           Which explains the exaggerated coat and topline of the show dogs as
          well as the exaggerated pointing style and range of the trial dogs.”
          I agree and it reminds me of something I’ve often contemplated.  I feel the strict adherence to an inflexible standard dictated by competition, be it bench or field, leads directly to the undesirable focus on a limited set of traits you point out.  The desire to win requires the extremes of performance or conformation with no room for compromise. 

          Next, your story about the Border Collies reminds me of the situation with many breeds, English setters included.  Yes, when the “show folks got hold of them” they changed them into something other than what they originally were.  However the real key is not keeping them from being popularized in the show ring, rather it’s making sure there are enough breeders who continue to produce dogs consistent with their original purpose.  It doesn’t matter at all what “show breeders” do to Border Collies as long as the working BC breeders ignore them and keep breeding quality working dogs.  Likewise English setters.  Show setters may not be of much interest to a serious bird hunter but it doesn’t matter because there are still excellent bird dogs being bred.  Irish setters are an example of what can happen if no one keeps the hunting lines going.  They got popular with pet/show types and were bred without consideration for hunting ability.  Now I hear people blame “show breeders” for “ruining” Irish setters.  If enough breeders had kept the old hunting lines going it would be the same as what we have now with ES.


        • #166

            Great topic, one that I need to learn a lot about. I am fortunate that the lady I work for runs her German shorthairs in every venue, field trials, navda, and the show ring. She tells me what she looks for in a dog, and she does a good job of explaining why. I feel she is lucky because, the discrepancy between a show gsp and a field gsp is next to nothing compared to a lot of breeds out there. She is teaching me about angulation bone structure, and overbites. We will sit there when she has a lit of pups and play pick the pup. I tell her the puppy I would pick and why, and then she would show me the one she would pick, she would explain the very small differences between the pups. I am learning a lot, but when you go to a breed like setters there is so much variance between the lines, more than any line I can think of. Cliff was right about the Irish setter, the show ring ruined there dogs, it took a very dedicated group of people to bring them back, and they actually had to outcross to the English setter to bring it back. Every breeder has a different vision on what a perfect dog looks and performs like, that is why when Mr. Ryman passed, that was the end of his dogs, because it was his vision. While others try to duplicate it, there will never be another ryman setter. I like a short coupled dog that has an easy gate, I am a suckerer for a great head, I like good solid bone structure on a pup, and I know it has nothing to do with conformation, but I also like the pup who shows the most energy:) This is why I really love the idea of the ryman get together, I feel it will help the breed tremendously by seeing other dogs and finding more comparable matches to enhance your line, it can be nothing but beneficial in helping to keep the ryman type line alive.

          • #171
            October Setters

              I think this is an important subject right now because there are people
              promoting the idea that crossing to current show dogs, or even crossing
              field trial dogs with them, would be similar to what Ryman did.

              The real issue with the standard is the fact that it is a “standard”.
              The intense focus on the one acceptable conformation, to the exclusion
              of everything else, is the problem. Ryman did not breed to a “standard”.
              He clearly had a preferred type in mind, but that type had a broad (and
              difficult to define) range of acceptable conformation. I would say that by definition, a
              Ryman, or a Ryman-type, is a dog that is not bred to fit into a standard
              imposed by any form of competition. They are not show dogs, they are not
              field trial dogs, they are hunting dogs.

              I respect what the show breeders accomplish, and think we can learn from
              their expertise regarding how conformation affects movement, etc, but
              for a number of reasons I don’t feel the standard is relevant to
              breeding Ryman-types, and breeding to it cannot produce them. There is a
              superficial similarity between the two types, but if you really look at
              them they are not close at all.

              Show dogs have changed dramatically since Ryman was using them. The
              great show winners of the past that were also known as good hunting dogs
              were mainly, if not all, born in the 1930s or earlier. All of the photos
              of hunting show dogs in Tuck’s book The Complete English Setter were
              from that era. Ryman didn’t use any new show lines after the mid 1940s-
              a very good indication of what happened to them after the English Setter
              Association gained complete control of the standard in 1931.

              Chuck- in answer to your question about aspects of the standard that
              might be detrimental for producing hunting dogs, here are a few thoughts
              I have.

              -I don’t find the movement of the show dogs desirable in a hunting dog.
              When gaiting a lot of them look to me like they are working hard but
              can’t quite get going. The back is smooth, but the action of the legs
              looks contrived and inefficient for covering ground. Is the reputation
              the show dogs have of plodding around right in front of you because they
              lack drive, or is it also structural? Movement is judged at the speed of
              a handler running around in the ring. What relevance does this have to a
              hunting dog? Does it make them run smoother, or does it make them so
              they don’t run? I got curious a couple days ago and spent some time
              trying to find an on-line video of a show setter hunting and running in
              the field but couldn’t. I didn’t spend all day, but I couldn’t find a
              single one, not even a hunt test or training session. All I could find
              is people gaiting them around on mowed grass. If someone knows where
              there is one I’d love to see it.

              -I suspect the extreme deep/narrow chest is not good. Are there any real
              working or performance types in any breed that are built with that chest?

              -The coat is stupid.

              -Favoring no patches has resulted in 12% of ES being deaf in at least
              one ear.

              I might turn it around and ask what is there in the standard that would
              be beneficial to a hunting dog? For instance, I don’t think a relatively straight
              topline, or one that slopes slightly down, is a problem, and might be
              good for movement. The dog with the most fluid movement in our kennel
              has a topline like that, and his stamina is really good. On the other
              hand his shoulder blades are further apart than they are “supposed” to
              be, and there are plenty of dogs (including some of ours) that are high
              in the rear and move effortlessly and gracefully with the back staying

              If anyone wants to read the standard here it is:


              Here are a couple of interesting perspectives on conformation from field
              trial people:



              We can learn from them too.
              Maybe we should be asking why there isn’t a single field trial dog
              anywhere that conforms to the standard that purports to make the most
              sound conformation for a hunting dog.


            • #172

                I think Jerry from Northwoods hit the nail right on the head. He does not breed to the standard, he breeds so that the size and angulation is proportionate to the individual dog itself, not whether it meets the breed standard. This would give the breeder more flexibility in there breeding program as far as size and style of the type of dog they are looking for. Jerry I know runs in some field trials, and his dogs run smaller, but he holds to his keys of conformation to the individual dog, and going by Robert Wehle’s footprint can’t be all bad, I heard that he had a pretty good line of dogs himself:)

              • #176

                This has been a great thread! Thanks for all the comments and perspective. They say there is no substitute for experience and there is certainly no shortage of that here.

                Looking forward to any additional comments!

                – Chuck

              • #177

                I have been wanting to comment further on this topic but I just reread the original question and it focused my thoughts:  conformation discrepancies between our show standard and what lends itself to a great hunting dog.   There are a bunch.

                One – an obvious one is coat. Show coats are ridiculous for both the quantity and texture.  A soft, fuzzy, wooly coat texture grows a whole lot more coat than straight and can then be shaped and scissored and fluffed to cover or enhance certain structures.  Blow dryers, mousse and flat irons make those fluffy coats look straight and smooth for the judge but those coats are a nightmare for a hunter.  

                Another – shoulders.  Go watch a bunch of dogs run/hunt, including trial dogs.  And after you watch them run, pet them and feel their shoulders, and reflect on how you thought that dog moved.  You will feel differences that you cannot easily see and that is the best way I know to learn what good shoulders are for a working dog.  It’s not the same as for show dogs that don’t have to run. 

                As far as movement: the standard only discusses trotting, which is not the gait most used by hunting dogs (the gallop is.)  And in the show ring, movement is limited to trotting (slow or fast, depending on ring size) and the dog is moved in a very controlled manner, mostly with the lead strung up pretty tight.  A far cry from movement necessary and efficient in the field.  

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