Ben and I started breeding Setters in 1976. Ben was 23 and I was just 15 when we started. Ben started training dogs at 16 when our father built a 102 dog kennel facility for his long-time friend Ed Schnettler who put two dogs in the Field Trial Hall of Fame. Ben and I spent a lot of time at Ed’s training grounds. Looking back I know realize that Ed taught us valuable fundamental lessons. We learned from him that avoiding kennel blindness and a disciplined selection process are prerequisites to breeding superior animals. It took us a number of years of successes and failures to understand what it would take to produce dogs that exhibited strength across a variety of performance related characteristics. We also added one more requirement that would make it even tougher. We demanded they also be great companions. Disposition has a marginal effect on their performance in the field, but they are pets 365 days/year and we wanted dogs that were a pleasure to be around.
Canines regress toward the mean very rapidly. Therefore, the degree of selectivity practiced is a primary differentiating factor among breeders. It would seem very obvious that exceptional individuals are by definition one in many but the type of meticulous selection where good and even very good dogs are cut from the team is a rarity among breeders of any breed for a variety of reasons. Reason #1 is the effort and cost required to evaluate numerous females to identify superior animals. Even if you only aspire to have top 20% dogs, you would need to evaluate 20 dogs to get 4 females to breed. That is definitely not common practice and it’s still not at all adequate to meet our goals. Taken a step further, a very small percentage of breeders are willing to breed only the top 10% which means evaluating 40 to get 4 females to breed? Of course, this assumes you start with a top 10% female and have an effective selection process. The bottom line is you can’t trick the gene pool and the only way to consistently produce exceptional animals is practice a very discipline selection process and maintain a very open-minded view of the progress and what needs to be done to improve
Most Setters are bred by hobbyists and cutting a good dog to get a better breeding specimen means a considerable effort with no guarantees of improvement. It’s also very unpopular with most families. Unfortunately, this is directly responsible for many average females being bred. Ben and I have been applying this selection process since before we had wives and children and our families learned from the beginning to accept this process which is paramount to our success. The type of effort described above is also very time consuming and costly. This type of program assures small production and substantial expense for facilities, vet, food, etc. This is not a profitable business model and presents a great challenge to those who hope to make a profit from breeding
It took us about 15 years and considerable exposure to other dogs to understand we were not going to beat the odds. Elevating our program to the level we desired would require that we evaluate as many prospects from exceptional breeding as we could. We began to hold back more pups for evaluation and we supplemented our effort by acquiring outside pups from top females across the country. Finding exceptional females that were being bred to top males was not easy. One of the side benefits of this search was all of the knowledge and first hand information we exchanged with other top breeders. It helped us gain a deeper understanding of the characteristics of certain lines and also helped greatly with the selection of stud dogs. We continue to acquire 4-5 outside pups a year from the top females in the nation
The value of this collective information and my professional experience with collaborative efforts made me certain that a cooperative effort among the right breeders would give us a substantial advantage. We brought this idea to Hytest Setters and Suncanyon Setters whom we had been sharing information and the occasional puppy. The idea was to share breeding females and distribute certain offspring among the group for evaluation. Collectively we would have deeper knowledge of the ancestry and we would have an ample gene pool to create a line of dogs collectively that would be very difficult for any one breeder to match. This relationship has helped all of us elevate our programs. We are also starting to work with other breeders interested in a collective effort for the benefit of the breed. Dr. Allen Dunbar, Jim Breece, and Dave TerHaar are all now participating in this effort. The collective knowledge, experience, and collaborative effort of this group has been exceptionally valuable to our program. Side note: This effort produces many nice started dogs that do not quite meet our requirements to participate in our breeding program that are offered for sale.
Another critical component is the very demanding evaluation process we developed about 17 years ago. (see performance testing) As we stepped up our evaluation process, we wanted to test our progress and make sure our evaluation was accurate and as unbiased as possible. At the time I had been spending about 50+ days a year in the grouse woods so we started to enter cover dogs trials. However, this was also about this time we started to spend more time on the prairie evaluating dogs and we preferred the open country for evaluating prospects. So we started a National Bird Hunters Club (NBHA) and today we participate in every form of FDSB recognized walking trial. Our philosophy has become that the dogs prove themselves to us as bird dogs during an extensive evaluation on wild birds and we utilize trials to determine how are dogs compare in terms of style, stamina, intelligence of application, handling, and manners around game.
Field trials gave us a whole new perspective on what it would take to consistently produce dogs with superior abilities. Many hunters negatively associate field trial dogs with bigger run. We eventually learned that successful trial dogs must possess superior intelligence, biddability, bird finding ability, manners around game, drive and stamina. Their range, especially with Setters, is primarily a function of training. Pushing trial dogs to a greater range requires superior drive, stamina, intelligence and a very biddable nature. When pushed to an extreme, these dogs must cooperate with their handler, especially in foot handled stakes. With proper focus on mental make-up and biddability, winning trial dogs offer a great foundation for a breeding program.
In the last 15 years we have grown to appreciate just how demanding our selection process must be to identify dogs capable of improving our program and the breed. Today we evaluate 20+ dogs/yr to hopefully find two exceptional individuals to participate in our program. Our prospects are put through an extensive evaluation process on a variety of wild birds in several states and Canada. Only the most naturally gifted become part of our breeding program. Our record in field trials gives some folks the impression that range is a primary factory in our selection process which simply is not the case. We select dogs on a host of other factors with intelligence, bird finding ability, manners around game, and style topping the list. We consider stamina and drive to be absolute prerequisites but range is an attribute we put in the category of personal preference much in the same way we look at color or a preference for males or females. What it took us many years to fully understand was that these trials dogs will not produce many trial dogs but that they will produce the ideal females for breeding. We found that these gifted dogs will often reproduce offspring with the same exceptional intelligence, bird finding ability, manners around game and style as the trial dogs but with a very manageable level of drive and range. The one generation removed females are the dogs that produce truly exceptional foot hunting dogs. It is somewhat of a trickle-down theory. However, you can’t trickle very far. The selection process must maintain the most exceptional individuals. Greatness fades quickly. We have found that the very best hunting dogs are produced within two generations of trial caliber parents. About two-thirds of our females fall into this category. They produce great NSTRA dogs or class foot hunting companions that are exciting to watch and have excellent manners on birds. Roughly 1/3 of our breeding stock are proven trial dogs. We keep half of their offspring for evaluation and the other half we match up with trialers or hunters who's environment and preferences demand this type of dog.
Our selection of a stud is equally vigilant. We won’t breed to a dog just because it’s a champion. We select stud dogs we believe will produce dogs that meet our criteria. (see below) We then take the very best offspring to participate in our program. Each year we sell several excellent young dogs that in our view are not exactly what we are looking for in our program.
Berg Brothers Breeding Criteria
- Males 47-52 lbs. - - - - Females 40-45 lbs
- Demonstrates superior bird finding ability
- Intelligence with a strong desire to please
- Fluid gate that promotes style and endurance
- Ability to handle any species of upland game
- Predisposition to adapt range to the terrain
- Superior composure and intensity on birds
- Natural backing & retrieving instincts
- Exceptional companion & family pet
- OFA certified hips
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Berg Brothers Setters