Centuries of careful breeding have brought a do-it-all
setter to the forefront
On a cold January midday, Ken Alexander sits behind the pedigree- and shotshell box-cluttered desk in the DeCoverly Kennels office, smiling. A moment to sit is an uncommon respite as of late. Among overseeing the births of several recent litters in the custom-built kennels beyond the glass door to his left, fielding phone calls from people interested in puppies, talking to people about dogs already purchased, answering emails, scheduling training and puppy pickups, taking care of other business and supervising his kennel staff, Alexander is a busy man. Despite the workload, Alexander loves what he is doing. It is this love of the dogs, as well as a timeless vision of English setter perfection, that has fueled DeCoverly's growth over the last decade.
Alexander is one of several gun dog breeders who are on the cutting edge of a movement to reunite gun dog form with function. No longer satisfied with dogs that possess only outstanding field abilities or refined looks, gunners now want dogs that have both--the dual setter, as Alexander describes it.
To understand this movement, we need to look both back in time and forward.
ROOTS AND DIVISION
The definitive roots of the English, Irish, Gordon and Welsh setters have been obscured by the dust of time. However, some time between the mid-1500s and early 1600s, the progenitors of these setters emerged from a mixture of Spanish land spaniels and local dogs, including the Spanish pointer, greyhound and foxhound. As early as 1582, the different appearances of the dock-tailed spaniel and the long-tailed setter were being contrasted.
By the early 1800s, setters were recognized as a distinct breed of sporting dog, having developed regionally across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, with various colorations and types of setters established in a particular area. Among the early English setters, for example, were the Anglesea setter, a light, active, very narrow dog, deep in the ribs and with a habit of standing with forelegs and feet close together; and the "coarse and lumbering" liver and white setter of the Carlisle district, north of England. Welsh setter varieties included a jet black setter and the Llanidloes setter, a white dog with a coat "as curly as the jacket of a Cotswold sheep" that excelled at close work on woodcock and snipe.
The modern English setter is linked to two Englishmen, Edward Laverack and R. L. Purcell Llewellin.
Sir Roger DeCoverly, the scion of the Ryman and DeCoverly English setter lines.
About 1825, Laverack, a shoemaker's apprentice who inherited a legacy from a distant ancestor and could indulge his sporting passions throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, obtained two setters--Ponto, a dark blue belton, and Old Moll, a light blue belton--from Rev. A. Harrison. For 50 years--five dog generations--Laverack inbred his Ponto-Old Moll offspring and produced numerous English setter foundation dogs.
Laverack's contemporaries didn't put much faith in his pedigrees, however, because orange beltons and tricolors showed up in his supposedly pure lines, probably the result of outcrosses to Irish setters and pointers; and while under the spell of fermented grape he was said to have admitted various outcrosses. Still, Laverack's dogs were some of the first English setters imported into the United States. In 1874, for example, Charles H. Raymond of Morris Plains, New Jersey, brought one of the first braces of Laverack dogs to the United States.
Purcell Llewellin was one of a number of English gunners dissatisfied with the field abilities of Laverack's dogs. In the early 1870s, Llewellin was looking for English setters that could win at the developing sport of field trialing. The trials were, by definition, walking stakes, more like a modern gun dog trial than the horseback affairs most Americans associate with field trialing. Llewellin experimented with crossing Gordon, Irish and some "old fashioned" English setters to get dogs that could win trials, but failed.
In 1871, while at a field trial in Shrewsbury, Llewellin encountered the Duke-Rhoebe-Laverack line of English setters. Llewellin bought two of these dogs, Dan and Dick, which he then bred back to his Laverack bitches. None of these lines was pure English setter. The Rhoebe strain, for example, contained Gordon setter and black, white and tan English setter blood. (It wasn't until the Kennel Club in England, established in 1873, began their stud book in 1874 that dog breeding came even close to accreditation.) However, Llewellin's cross of Duke-Rhoebe dogs with his females produced dogs that won trials, and the resulting offspring served as the foundation for a great many English setter bloodlines, particularly in the United States.
The best example is Count Noble, a dog purchased from Llewellin by Dave Sanborn of Dowling, Michigan, in the 1870s. Sanborn tried Count Noble on the American prairies but was disappointed, and he intended to return the dog to England. However, B.J. Wilson, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, persuaded Sanborn to keep Count Noble. Wilson later inherited Count Noble.
Under Wilson, Count Noble showed his prominence as a field performer and sire, producing 30 winners, including Count Gladstone IV, the first National Field Trial Champion. (Count Noble's taxidermy-preserved body resided in an 11-foot lighted glass and wood-cased diorama for nearly a century in Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It was moved to the National Bird Dog Museum in Grand Junction, Tennessee, in 1999, certainly worth a visit if you're in the area.)
Many of these early setters possessed both field ability and looks that enabled them to compete in the show ring. Even Llewellin chose two Laverack bench dogs upon which to found his field dog line. The dual setter clearly existed on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1870s. Yet between 1880 and the 1950s, specialization by breeders preoccupied with bench or field success parted formerly parallel Laverack and Llewellin bloodlines so that Laverack-type dogs would eventually be considered bench dogs and Llewellins field dogs.
American field trials, especially the big southern trials during the early 1900s, influenced breeding practices that intensified those traits field trial judges considered important--speed, range and flash. The result was a dog far removed from Llewellin's early setters. Bench aficionados did no better, breeding huge, heavily feathered dogs with little field ability.
Dafyd, DeCoverly Kennels owner Ken Alexander's English setter, stacked bench s
The widening division between field and show among all setters has continued, resulting in dogs that are bench or field, but rarely both. It is only in the last few decades that the demand for dogs with good looks and bird-finding ability has started swinging the pendulum of change back towards the dual setter, and it might have been the post-World War II importation of various versatile breeds from Europe, dogs with traditional looks and bird hunting ability, that brought about this change.
PERPETUATING THE DUAL SETTER
Despite the widening divisions among setter types, regionalized pockets of breeders who maintained dual setter lines persisted. One of those regions was Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. By 1900, the Poconos' virgin white pine and hemlock forests were gone, the result of a late 1800s logging boom that denuded most of Penn's Woods. From the stumps sprang a cloak of second-growth aspens, farm fields reverting to forest, and pole timber--a ruffed grouse and woodcock gunner's nirvana.
The Poconos were also a short train ride from New York City, by 1900 the center of American business and culture. Some very wealthy gunners decided to build homes in the Poconos, and similarly in the Hudson River valley, north of New York City. Material wealth and great bird gunning conjoined to create the circumstance necessary for the development of some unique gun dog bloodlines.
In the Poconos, this was the Ryman English setter line. The Ryman setter was an amalgam of several distinct lines of English setters breeding true to type. But the predominant sire of the line was Sir Roger DeCoverly, born in 1907 and owned by a wealthy Pittston, Pennsylvania, gunner, M.I. Mangan. Sir Roger was the result of a union between Mallwyd Sirdar, a Laverack bench setter with exemplary field ability; and Lady Mangan, a Count Noble Llewellin setter of the large type.
In 1912, Sir Roger began the happy task of siring some dogs for George Ryman, of Shohola Falls, Pennsylvania, near Milford, on the Delaware River. Ryman had a vision of what an English setter should be, and he was looking for a dog that could serve as the foundation for a line of gentleman's gunning dogs. Ryman was known to be a ruthless culler of any offspring that didn't live up to his vision, yet enough of a dreamer to visualize what might be by combining the right bloodlines.
In 1913, Dr. H.M. Beck, of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, acquired Sir Roger. Sir Roger's trail ends here, but his son, Roger II, bred by H.M. Posten, another Wilkes-Barre gunner, would soon produce the scion of the Ryman line. In 1916, Roger II and Blue Girl Jaine, the product of Wyoming Valley Mason and Princess West, produced Sir Roger II, Jr., registered to George Ryman. After a four-year wait, Ryman finally possessed enough of Sir Roger's gene pool to begin his own kennels.
From 1916 to 1955, Ryman blended Sir Roger II, Jr.'s genes with dogs produced by Mangan, Beck, Posten and others to make his English setters the standard against which other gentleman's shooting dogs were gauged. Ryman, Ken Alexander says, never isolated the bloodlines in the kennel or ignored the accomplishments of other breeders. His dogs were measured against an ideal, not a pedigree alone, and they had to meet Ryman's exacting standards of both appearance and ability.
Outside English setters used in the breeding program came from field and bench blood, as well as several foreign setters of dual quality. Some of Ryman's field and show Hall of Fame dogs included: Ch. Phill's Speed Ben, Ch. Rackets Rummey, International Ch. Spiron, Ch. Tony Boy, Rummy Stagboro, Ch. Broomhill Banker, Superlative, Marse Ben, Nugym and Sports Peerless.
Ryman refused to get involved in pedigree fetishes. As an example, Alexander points to a five-generation 1955 pedigree that contains a nearly equal mix of field trial dogs, show dogs, dual-bred dogs, Llewellin dogs, Ryman dogs and Ryman outcrosses. Of the sire's (Ryman's Superlative Pride) 32 progenitors, 10 are dual dogs, nine are Ryman dogs, eight are field trial dogs, three are DeCoverly outcrosses, and two are show dogs. Obviously, George Ryman synthesized a wide assortment of influences to produce superior dogs.
Ryman suffered a stroke in 1955, but participated as he could in the kennels until his death in 1961. Ryman's second wife, Ellen, managed the kennels through 1963. She had an extensive background raising and evaluating puppies prior to their marriage, and managed the kennels during Ryman's extended gunning trips. According to Alexander, the kennels were much improved by her influence.
In 1963, Ellen married Carl Calkins, a successful businessman and since 1931 a Ryman setter owner. Calkins dropped all his business concerns to put his energy and his money into renewing the kennels. Without him, it is unlikely the kennels would have survived; yet Calkins referred to himself as just the "caretaker." The Calkinses were a devoted couple and a successful team.
Ken Alexander and his wife Nita were on their honeymoon in 1968 when they visited Ryman Kennels and became involved with both dogs and kennels. Smitten, Alexander took some puppies home and later made a business arrangement--a breeding franchise in some respects--to purchase and breed premium Ryman setters with no offspring produced being sold directly to the public, but delivered to the kennels for sale instead.
In 1975, the Calkinses sold the kennels to Robert Sumner, a West Virginian, with the stipulation that the arrangement with Alexander remain. For the first time in 60 years, the Ryman lines were split. Negotiations in 1976 to reconsolidate the Ryman lines into a single kennel in a new facility in West Virginia were unsuccessful. Sumner retained the Ryman name. Ellen Calkins suggested that Alexander use the DeCoverly name to distinguish his dogs from the West Virginia Rymans, just as Sir Roger DeCoverly setters had transferred from Dr. Beck to George Ryman in 1913.
Alexander credits his early success to the Calkins' expertise, support and involvement. They provided records, evaluated puppies and adults, and found appropriate Ryman setters for the kennels through the mid-1980s. Carl Calkins even transferred his personal Ryman setter, Ryman's My DeCoverly, or "Deke," to DeCoverly Kennels
Evan, a DeCoverly Kennels English setter at two months of age. DeCoverly setters are, since 1916, the result of a blend of bench and field bloodlines, resulting in a classy, handsome setter that can perform afield.
In 1993, with the help of his business partner Bill Sordoni, Alexander constructed a new kennel facility with training grounds, clay target ranges and other amenities on several hundred acres of ground near Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, a few miles north of Scranton. The kennels feature state-of-the-art everything--from soundproof whelping rooms with in-floor and radiant heat, to a computer controlled air exchange system. The puppies produced are the result of carefully planned pair
ings from more than 70 adult dogs, all superb specimens of what an English setter should be.
Alexander also continues Ryman's effort at synthesizing everything good in the English setter world by outcrossing to bench setters, field trial lines like Tekoa Mountain Sunrise, as well as returning to DeCoverly-produced dogs. Health is a paramount concern, with puppies receiving two types of hip certification and hearing testing.
His staff also reflects his synthesizing philosophy. For the last 13 years, a bench setter specialist, Angela Uzdilla of Sweetbriar Setters, has handled and stacked up puppies as young as three weeks to analyze their strengths and weaknesses and to imprint them to human beings and develop weaknesses into strengths. Bridget Bodine, the kennel's current trainer, brings years of experience training Sight to Sea championship Labs to DeCoverly.
This is just a beginning, however, because the trend toward breeding dual setters extends into other regions and other setter breeds. Many of New England's grouse dog lines feature dual setter blood, and some Western gun dog kennels are working to combine field and bench blood into a single package, as well.
For more information, contact Ken Alexander, DeCoverly Kennels, Post Hill Rd. RR 1 Box 1316, Factoryville, PA 18419, or call (570) 378-3357, www.decoverlykennels.com
John D. Taylor is author of The Wild Ones: A Quest for North America's Forest & Prairie Grouse and Gunning the Eastern Uplands. His next book, A DeCoverly Kennels History, will be available by Christmas 2004. Information on these books is available through Bonasa Press, www.bonasapress.com