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Minnesotans raise red-and-white Irish setters for hunting

Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2002

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) -- Good sounds float through the home of Bob and Evan Devlin these days. Micro-barks. Mini-growls. Soprano yips.

The place is full of pups. Pudgy little 7-week-old pups. Ten of them. They're predominantly white, with patches of deep rust on their heads and floppy ears.

They are Irish red-and-white setters, a breed little known in this country and not long descended from its roots in Ireland. They will grow into handsome and fluid adult red-and-whites, with feathery tails and smart-looking heads. And they'll be hunters -- stylish pointing dogs bred to cover big, rough country in close-quartering fashion.

The Devlins have owned red-and-whites since 1994, traveling to Ireland numerous times to bring home the seven adults they own. This is the fourth litter they've raised in the eight years they've had red-and-whites.

Most people are more familiar with the pure red Irish setter, the tall and slender pointers with flowing coats. Those Irish setters descended from Irish red-and-white setters and became popular not only in Ireland but in this country. Bob Devlin used to own and breed red Irish setters, but he finally had to give up in the 1970s.

''There was no hunting left in the breed,'' said Devlin, 60. ''Only one out of 50 would be a hunter.''

Devlin was an avid grouse and pheasant hunter, but he finally sold all his Irish setters. Evan gave him a black Lab -- Sadie -- and the dog served him well for many years. He still has her, but now his heart is with red-and-whites.

Bred to cover the big, boggy country of Ireland while hunting red grouse, Irish red-and-white setters gobble up the ground in bounding strides. They quarter naturally, Devlin says, and tend to work closer than most other pointing breeds.

''People say, 'What's so great about these red-and-whites?''' Devlin said. ''If you're a car nut, it's like the difference between a Chevrolet and a Maserati.''

Steve Koskovich of Hibbing owns two red-and-whites, a 4-year-old named Katie and an 11-month-old named Tralee that he bought from the Devlins.

''There are any number of breeds that will point your birds for you,'' said Koskovich, 53. ''What I like about (red-and-whites) is their cooperativeness. They're the most people-oriented breed I've seen.''

Devlin likes everything about red-and-whites.

''It's their personalities, their brains, their hunting qualities and their temperaments,'' he said. ''They're a totally balanced, walk-behind gun dog.''

And they willingly retrieve, something many pointing dogs are not excited about.

Koskovich loves woodcock hunting, and his young dog, Tralee, caught on fast last fall.

''When she was 6 months old, I took her out with Katie,'' he said, ''and already by the second or third time out, she started hunting independently. She had a number of woodcock points.''

Tralee would work well into the woods but would check back with Koskovich often. He likes that in his red-and-whites.

''They aren't so independent that they forget the handler,'' he said.

Although Irish red-and-white setters have breeding lines going back to at least the 1750s, the breed was all but lost when the pure red Irish setters came into favor. Only a few red-and-whites remained in Ireland at the time of World War I, but the breed was revived thanks to the Rev. Nobel Houston, and, after his death, Will and Maureen Cuddy and a Catholic priest, Canon Patrick Doherty.

Many of the red-and-white lines today can be traced directly back to Maureen Cuddy's dogs. The Devlins had heard about red-and-whites and learned that only with Maureen Cuddy's blessing would they be able to bring a pup from her lines back to the United States.

''Once you knew Mrs. Cuddy, you could see how she could control the breed,'' Bob Devlin said.

He and Evan hit it off with Cuddy, and with her blessing were able to bring home a pup in 1994, although it was not one of hers. They had three litters from that male, Seamus, and a female they imported later named Grainne.

Maureen Cuddy has since died, and now the Devlins seek advice from Canon Doherty and his niece, Maureen Daly.

The Devlins estimate there are 500 to 600 red-and-white setters in the United States, and only about 5,000 or 6,000 in the world. The breed is still relatively close to its origins, and both the Devlins and Koskovich hope breeders are careful to maintain the balance of qualities that make the red-and-white both handsome and good hunters.

Before he breeds one of his dogs, Devlin consults with Maureen Daly in Ireland to make sure she approves of the breeding. The last thing they want to do is see red-and-whites go the way of red Irish setters, whose popularity in America diluted their qualities in a few decades.

''If I can distill the quality that Canon Doherty and Maureen Cuddy bred in, then we've achieved what I can expect in my lifetime,'' Bob Devlin said.

The Devlins are choosey about where their red-and-white pups go.

''We don't sell them,'' said Bob Devlin, 60. ''We place them. We try to get them to hunters.''

And when he sells a pup here, he does so with a ''no-breed contract,'' meaning the dog's owner cannot breed the dog without Devlin's approval of the breeding.

Though red-and-whites are still somewhat rare, Devlin doesn't price them that way. His red-and-whites go for about the same as any high-quality hunting dog in this area, from $500 to $800.

''I don't want it to become just a rich man's sport,'' he said.

The Devlins, obviously, are surrounded by red-and-whites with all the pups around. Jade, the 2-year-old mother of the pups, cavorts and prances around the Devlin home, playing with her offspring. The pups hide under the coffee table, nip Jade's ears, flop all over each other.

Jade, at 47 pounds, is just under the breed standard 55 pounds for females, Devlin said. Fiona, his 4-year-old female, weighs 58 pounds. The Devlins regularly rotate their adult dogs into the home to socialize them.

''These dogs really need to be brought into the house,'' Koskovich said.

Their temperaments make them good in the house, he added.

''Temperamentally, I'd call them golden retrievers with a sense of humor,'' he said.

Sense of humor?

''They pick things up,'' he said. ''Our house looks like we never keep house. There are shoes all over, socks all over.''

At the Devlins' home, there are simply pups all over. Until it's nap time. Then they all go back to the whelping pen in the exercise room. In seconds, it seems, they are lumped on each other in twos and threes, red and white piles of puppy sleep.

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