An English Setter is often described as moderate. In fact, our English Setter standard specifically states, “Extremes of anything distort type.”
The hallmarks of the English Setter can be found in the first sentence of the standard under General Appearance:
“An elegant, substantial and symmetrical gun dog suggesting the ideal blend of strength, stamina, grace, and style.”
Elegant, substantial, and symmetrical are key words, but what do those italicized words mean?
“Elegance” in English Setter standard indicates there should be some “pretty” to the dog. A long, lean head leading into a long, lean, graceful neck blending smoothly into the shoulders help to give the impression of elegance. To be typey, the head should have level, parallel planes and a squared-off flew with a well-defined stop, and a moderately defined occiput. A dark, large, nearly round eye with dark pigment and a soft expression complete that look of elegance. When in motion, the dog should be light of foot with efficiency of gait. Prancing, while pretty, is incorrect, as are mincing steps.
“Substantial” in English Setter standard indicates the English Setter has enough bone and body to hold up well in the field. Given their job as a gentleman’s hunting companion, they should be able to cover ground in search of upland game birds for the better part of the day. They were developed to hunt in English fields, so there was no need for heavy bone as in the Gordon Setter who works in heavy cover, or lighter bone as needed by the Irish and the Irish Red and White Setters who work in Irish terrain. The body should have enough heart and lung room (depth of chest to the elbow, and rib spring) to carry the long-distance runner through the day. Starting to see how this all comes together?
“Symmetrical” in English Setter standard indicates a dog that is balanced front and rear, with the front angle approaching 90-degrees and a rear that matches the front. A straight front causing extra lift to the front legs with diminished reach, coupled with a long, over-angulated rear that lacks drive will cause the dog to soon tire at his job. While this combination can present a striking picture in the show ring, it is not a correct English Setter. The proper front construction also helps with the “set” (the position a Setter tends to use to indicate game) versus a Pointer who indicates birds with an upright stance. Both breeds have intensity, but a Setter often crouches to indicate the location of the bird; a throwback to when they were hunted over with nets instead of guns. Before the introduction of fire arms, hunters used large nets, which they threw over the place where the birds were—including over the dog—to reap the birds. When the hunter flushed the birds, they took flight and became caught in the net and were easily harvested. If the dog did not crouch, or “set,” it could become entangled in the net. A high tail carriage could cause the tail to get caught in the net, but a tail carried level with the back did not interfere with the net.
The reproduction of the painting by Percival Rousseau shows how an English Setter sets to indicate a bird. This photo also illustrates how form follows function because a dog must have good angulation front and rear in order to assume the setting position. This position often needs to be maintained for several minutes while the hunter approaches and prepares to harvest the bird.
When firearms began to be used to hunt birds, selective breeding of English Setters allowed for a more upright stance for the dog to indicate birds because the dog was easier to see from a distance when standing upright. But the tendency to set is hard-wired in their DNA, and it comes naturally to many of them.
Acceptable Markings and Color
Color helps to define breed type in English Setters and is one of the traits that distinguishes the English from the other Setters. There are no disqualifications in the English Setter standard, including for color. All English Setters have a white base coat covered with varying degrees of orange, black or liver flecking known as Belton. (Named for the English town of Belton where the dogs so marked were first seen.) English Setters flecked with black are called Blue Beltons. Lemon Belton (dilute orange) and Liver Belton (dilute blue) are also acceptable colors, but have become rare. If in doubt whether a dog is Lemon or Orange Belton, check eye color, as the lemons have lighter-colored eyes and lighter pigment than the oranges. It is genetically impossible for a Lemon or Liver Belton English Setter to have very dark eyes, so a lighter-colored eye is acceptable in those colors. Dogs with tan points are called tricolors. Tri-markings can occur in all colors, but they are harder to see in the oranges, lemons, and livers than in the blues. The tricolor marking is a specific gene pattern. All colors listed in the standard are equally acceptable, and there is no preference given to any of them.
There can be little ticking, so that the dog appears almost totally white, through all gradations to very heavy ticking so as to appear almost solid in color (known as roan). Evenly flecked all over is preferred. Patches may occur, especially on the head and neck; these also being acceptable. Occasionally, patches occur elsewhere, such as on the body, a leg, or base of the tail. Body patches are often areas where the soft, solid-colored undercoat (for warmth) is not covered by top coat (for weather proofing). Body patches are undesirable because the dog is more quickly wet to the skin in rainy weather on areas not protected by topcoat. While not preferred, remember it is only color, and the conformation and temperament should always be considered first. You would only consider color or markings when comparing two equal specimens—and looking for a tie breaker. In that case, the dog with the more preferred coloration may break the tie.
Show versus Field
The show dog should be synonymous with the field dog. The field is where the dog proves that he can perform the function he was developed to perform, and the show dog reflects this athletic ability. While a well-built field dog can do his job, we require that the show dog adhere to the written breed standard and also be pretty. Excessive coat is a detriment in the field and it can also hide the dog’s true lines in the show ring. Creative grooming can make a dog look different than how he is actually built. To know for sure what’s under that coat, you must get your hands on the dog.
The feathering on an English Setter is there to help protect the dog as he runs through the brush in search of birds. Too little and he is no longer protected. Too much and it can be a nightmare entangled in briars, twigs, burrs, etc. Coat texture is also a huge factor in allowing the dog to perform its hunting function. A correct, silky coat combs out easily whereas a soft, cottony coat takes hours to remove debris from the field, pulling a lot of coat in the brushing process. Ideally, a dog should be able to go into the field one day and be competitive in the show ring the next day. Realistically, this is difficult because the current fad for a profuse coat is very prevalent in the ring. A dog in moderate coat may not be as dramatic as a dog with extremely long coat, but the moderate coat is far better for the true hunter, and is more correct. The standard calls for “good” but not excessive length.
The show dog should cover ground efficiently, without any high action or fancy stepping. Fluid movement is essential to an efficient, ground-covering gait. The tail should be level with the back, although the excitement of the ring may cause an otherwise correct tail carriage to be a little high. An examination of the croup will tell whether the high tail is a structural fault or the result of high emotion. Tail carriage is best evaluated on the last go-around, to allow the dogs to settle in and relax. There should be no flag waving in the wind. The topline should be level when moving (and standing still), indicating strength and grace, and carrying the rest of the body with it.
There is a variety of English Setters, bred mainly for the field, with very different goals than conformation breeders have. The goal for field bred dogs is to run very big in field trials, so they are lighter and leaner than their conformation cousins. Field bred dogs tend to have a more triangular head, viewed both from the side and from the top. While their angles front and rear tend to match, always the tail is carried “Terrier high.” This flag helps to find the dog when afield, since they are generally at a far distance from the handler when on point. These dogs are usually much smaller than dogs bred for conformation (the AKC English Setter standard calls for males to be about 25 inches at the withers and bitches about 24 inches, though there is no DQ for size), often with more body patches, little feathering, and much less bone. The eye may be dark, but many have quite light eyes.
The temperament is the same sweet gentleness that is the trademark of the English Setter, whether bred for the show ring or strictly for the field. All are great family dogs because of their gentle nature and their patience.
English Setters have been around a long time—at least 400 years. Their type was defined and refined in the 1800s by breeders Edward Laverack and R. Purcell Llewellin. Some field English Setters today are known as Llewellin Setters, but they are actually a sub-branch of English Setters. We in the US are proud of the fact that the very first dog in the AKC stud book was an English Setter named Adonis.
Whichever color, whether open-marked or roan, this elegant, substantial, symmetrical gun dog is a very handsome member of the Sporting Group.