The second phrase in the General Appearance section of the English Setter dog Breed Standard calls for “feathering of good length.” How do we define good length? This article explores some of the implications of that phrase.
The very first sentence of the breed standard states that the English Setter is an “elegant, substantial and symmetrical gun dog.” There you have the definition and essence of this breed: GUN DOG. This means its function is to work with hunters by locating, pointing, and retrieving upland birds (quail, pheasant, grouse, and partridges).
Some pointing breeds—Bracco Italiano, Pointer, German Shorthaired Pointer, Vizsla, and Weimaraner—have short coats, demonstrating that a gun dog can function without long coat. Others—Brittany, English Setter, Gordon Setter, Irish Setter, Irish Red and White Setter, German Wirehaired Pointer, Spinone Italiano, Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, and Wirehaired Vizsla—have longer hair on the body and fringe on the chest, back of legs, belly, and underside of thighs and tail; this fringe is called feathering or furnishings. The four Setters have the longest fringe of all the pointing breeds.
Since a pointing dog breed can function without feathering, why do some breeds have it?
The purpose of feathering is to help keep the dog warm in cold weather and to protect the dog from being injured, scratched, and lacerated by hazards in the field. The foundation stock of the longer-haired breeds had longer coats, and the breeders who developed these breeds thought it was an important functional element based on climate and terrain, and therefore, essential to breed type. So, they kept it.
Originally, these long-haired breeds had just enough furnishings to protect the dog. In the last 40 or so years, however, the Setters in particular have been bred for longer and longer furnishings simply because it looks dramatic in the show ring. Many people feel that if your dog doesn’t appear in the Group ring dripping in coat, you could miss out on a placement that might be awarded to a more heavily coated competitor.
In the section on Coat, the standard expands on length a bit when it says, “Feathering on ears, chest, abdomen, underside of thighs, back of all legs and on the tail of good length but not so excessive as to hide true lines and movement or to affect the dog’s appearance or function as a sporting dog.” (Italics added for emphasis.)
Below is a case study. Figure 1 represents three views of the same dog: Left (1A) is the dog in full specials coat; middle (1B) the coat has been shortened; and right (1C), the coat has been shortened even more.
To maintain the specials coat in 1A, the dog’s furnishings must be washed, brushed, and heavily conditioned every day. He could not run free in an area with any kind of vegetation because that would tear out big gobs of coat. If he did run in an area with vegetation, he would accumulate all sorts of debris that would take hours to pick out. Running in the field would be out of the question because it would destroy his coat. That length of coat does, indeed, affect the dog’s appearance and, more importantly, detracts from his function as a gun dog.
Does the coat in 1A hide the dog’s true lines? Let me ask, can you see the bend of stifle, or is it hidden by coat? Can you see the amount of forechest, or is it hidden by coat? This length of coat does hide the dog’s true lines. Does the length of coat hide movement? To some extent, it does. An observer would have to train his eye to be able to evaluate movement through that coat, both coming and going and side gait. Therefore, it is excessive by the definition in the standard.
The image in 1B has coat of a length that could be maintained more easily. The dog could run in thefield and keep this coat length with some reasonable amount of work by the owner. It is a good length for the show ring but could also be managed if the dog were to hunt.
The image on the far right (1C) is the best functional coat. It is sufficiently long to protect the dog from injury and cold temperatures, and short enough so that the dog could go hunting one day, get a bath and some grooming, and appear in the show ring the next day.
The dog in Figure 1 went on to earn a Master Hunter title after retiring from the show ring. Figure 2 indicates what his coat looked like during hunt training. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could have been specialed with this length of coat, indicating that he is a true gun dog?
Figures 4 and 5 are another case study, our 15th dual champion. Figure 4 was taken the day he finished his Field Championship and Figure 5 was taken on his way to his Bench Championship. This is the true dual gun dog, with the structure described in the standard to allow him to perform his function in the field. He satisfies the standard to a “T,” including feathering of good length. The fear of losing coat should not be allowed to discourage English Setter owners from running in field trials or hunt tests, or showing during hunting season when this amount of coat is perfectly acceptable in the show ring and should not prevent a dog from being considered for any award, including Best of Breed.
English Setters did not carry really long furnishings until about the last 40 years when we started breeding for more and more coat. Super long coat is an artifact of the show ring and nothing more. It is a burden to the owner and is not useful to the dog. In all the centuries before that time, the coat shown in Figure 6 was the length of coat they carried (and after the advent of dog shows, this was considered “specials coat” until the 1980s).
This photo (Figure 6) is of Ch. Silvermine Wagabond, a dog revered by English Setter breeders for his balanced proportions and his exquisitely correct type. He won the National in 1948 and 1949. It would be a big mistake to disregard a dog like this in the show ring because of the length of his coat. This length of coat is what English Setters had until the 1980s when the trend toward longer coat began. This is the length of coat the folks who wrote the standard saw, up until the current standard was approved in 1986. This length of coat is what they had in mind when they called for feathering of good length. If you want to see for yourself, you can go to the parent club website, look at the photos of past National Specialty winners, and note when the change in coat length began.
Going back to the original question, what do we mean by feathering of good length but not so excessive as to hide true lines and movement or to affect the dog’s function as a sporting dog? The photo above right is a good compromise. This photo (Figure 7) acknowledges the current taste for longer coat and (I hope) would be sufficiently competitive in the Breed and Group ring without interfering with the dog’s ability to hunt and still be shown. Less coat than this is even better in terms of allowing the dog to fulfill its function as a GUN DOG.
The sole purpose of the English Setter standard is to describe the form (structure) of a dog that can function as a hunter all day without tiring or sustaining injury due to functional flaws. Feathering of good length should, first and foremost, mean that the coat does not prevent the dog from hunting.
The future of the English Setter as a dual breed—one that can look elegant, graceful, and stylish in the show ring AND fulfill its function as a gun dog—depends on our willingness to reward dogs with coats of good but not excessive length. In this case, less is more.
Are you looking for an English Setter puppy?
The best way to ensure a long and happy relationship with a purebred dog is to purchase one from a responsible breeder. Not sure where to begin finding a breeder? Contact the National Parent Club’s Breeder Referral person, which you can find on the AKC Breeder Referral Contacts page.
Want to help rescue and re-home an English Setter dog?
Did you know nearly every recognized AKC purebred has a dedicated rescue group? Find your new best friend on the AKC Rescue Network Listing.
English Setter Dog Breed Magazine
Read and learn more about the friendly English Setter dog breed with articles and information in our English Setter Dog Breed Magazine.
English Setter Breed Magazine - Showsight