The English Setter: A Well-Balanced Hunter

Thank you to the editors of ShowSight Magazine for highlighting the English Setter, a breed close and dear to my heart! I have been asked to comment from a judges’ perspective on ES. I found as I was assembling the following that I was more or less quoting the standard. My daughter, who now handles all the breeding, exhibiting, and choosing of bitches and sires, asked why I was repeating the standard. Well, to answer her question, I believe that as a judge, one is required to judge to the standard. Yes, there is an interpretation that varies from judge to judge, but it is the standard that we must adhere to. So please keep this in mind.

To evaluate the English Setter, one must first understand the similarities and differences in the four Setters. These differences arise from the purpose of each breed and why they were developed as individual breeds. All Setters were bred as upland gun dogs (birds that are either pointed or flushed on land) versus ducks or water birds. All Setters originally were accompanied by the hunter on foot, so they worked the bird field fairly close and within shot range. Originally the dogs would find the birds and “set” or crouch and the hunters threw nets over the quarry and the dogs—thus the term “Setters.” This concept is really important as you can imagine these dogs need to get down between their shoulder blades. The breed differences come mainly from country of origin and the terrain they hunted over as well as the breeds and breeders who developed each. The Irish and the Red and White, (think Ireland) come from rolling ground, the Gordon (think Scotland) from rugged craggy ground, and the English (think England) over moderate terrain. All these dogs represent their owners and breeders as well; the Irish and Red and White with a rollicking personality, the Gordon with a more dour outlook and the English with a serious, dignified way. So if you start by thinking Setter in general then you can begin to understand each breed. For the purpose of this article we will concentrate on the English.

We know that there were Irish-English crosses in the mid 1800s. By the late 1800s there were two distinct strains of English Setters, the Lavarack and the Llewellyn, both named after the gentlemen who developed them; the first as the bench type or show dog, the second as the field type. Today, the modern Lavarack English is further away from that original dog than perhaps in the early 1900s as we see a more stylish, trimmed animal that to the eye stands out in the ring. We will concentrate on this modern dog, but do remember they both can hunt and they originally came from the same genetic stock.

The ES is a well-balanced, moderate, elegant gun dog, but with no part to show exaggeration. There should be no part out of balance—no necks like Giraffes or heads plopped straight onto shoulders, no bodies a mile long, no legs too short or too long, no straight front and over-angulated rears—I am sure you get the picture! His head is not as lean as the Irish, nor as deep and wide as the Gordon, but shows parallel planes as the others. He has a definite stop and occiput and a lovely dark, almost round eye, well-set. Full pigmentation of the eye and lips is important as it is essential in creating that wonderful, soft expression. The head should be in balance with the rest of the dog and neither underdone nor overdone. These are scenting animals so it is important to have good noses and straight nasal bones.

A lean, arched neck should lead into well laid-back shoulders. Front and back assembly must match if this dog is to be well-balanced and good angulation front and back is ideal, but often lacking. Abrupt, steep shoulders create a pounding movement that is far from effortless. The same can be said for short upper arms. I find this to be a common problem in most Sporting dogs. I am thrilled when I find a correctly assembled front and rear and as a fellow Setter judge just commented to me, “If you find that run to the table and throw them every ribbon you have!” A chest with fill in the front and depth to the elbow will provide the lung room needed for a dog who is hunting hard all day. Ribs should be well-sprung, but not barreled. The ribs need to be carried back with a short loin for the efficiency of movement. This correct assembly should result in an oval look when viewed from the top. A wide thigh is a plus. Our standard does not give any height to length measurements, but balance is key—too short or too long in body will distort just as legs too short or long. I need to caution you not to dwell on pieces and parts, but judge the whole dog. Yet, the summation of the pieces and parts are what makes the dog. Might I mention again that it is important to reward animals with correct assembly.

We ask for medium bone, good feet essential for hunting, and nice short hocks that will propel him with ease. Tails are extensions of the spine and should be straight off the back and lively. They should be long enough to only reach the hock and taper from the set. This does not mean a flag flying in the breeze nor a tail pointing to the head. Incorrect tails have become the norm. If the croup is correct it would be almost impossible to have an incorrect tail carriage. Look at the dogs in the accompanied pictures—those tails could not be elevated.

If the dog is well-balanced, he will move with ease, effortlessly, with good reach and drive, down and back, and around. Coming and going should show good flexion of the hocks with no weaving or crossing of legs or feet. From the side it is essential that the back be quiet and firm indicating balance fore and aft. Movement is a test of the construction. Remember we are not to select the best mover, but the best type who moves well.

The ES is a single-coated dog with a straight to slightly wavy coat. He should exhibit a top-coat of some length which protects the body in the field and feathering in all the usual places. It is permissible to use a clipper on the face, top of the ears and under the neck down to the point of chest, but never on the back. Soft, wooly coat is incorrect as is excessive length which is not in keeping with the purpose of the ES. This is basically a hunting dog and emphasis is on such. If you have a choice of two equal dogs, I would not let exquisite grooming or length of coat make my decision; but rather his suitability to get the job done. The ES is basically a white dog with ticking in various degree of orange (brown), blue (black), lemon, liver and tricolor (black, tan and white). These degrees can range from very white to very dark (roan). There is NO preference in colors when judging although dark patches are not preferred anywhere other than the head. I personally caution you to remember that color is only a part of your evaluation of the dog and one of the most wonderful things about this breed is the variety of those permitted colors. There has been discussion about body patches and my personal recommendation is that patching has always been inherent in the breed, especially in the field variety, so please fault accordingly. I feel personally involved in the color issue as I did have a dark, tri male with some patching who had a head and wonderful body to die for. I was reluctant to use him because he was so very dark and would have preferred to use his open tri brother. Alas, the open tri dog never could sire a litter. When we then used the dark tri he produced the most wonderful heads and bodies—yes—that darkness and patching did occasionally show up, but I wouldn’t trade anything for what he gave the breed. Personally I can’t think of a breeder who has deliberately bred for patching. I also hope that no one would eliminate a patched dog with wonderful attributes from their breeding program.

Though the breed has been around for a long time, you may have trouble finding English Setters to view. (We share a low number on the list of popularity; usually around 65.) We don’t mind this, but as you can imagine it can present a challenge for new judges. It is important to attend specialties to see good examples in numbers. We do have dedicated breeders, but our litters tend to be small and puppies are usually pretty fragile in the beginning which is odd from a large dog. The reproduction rate is not always a given and I find that A-I’s either frozen or extended do not work very well. Our health issues include deafness, hip and elbow issues and thyroid, but basically our dogs live a long life to 13 or 15. We have an active health committee and work hard at addressing the above issues.

In summation, the English Setter should greet you with a soft wag of his tail and extend his head into your hand. He is a sweet, loving companion who will curl upon the sofa after a hard day of hunting. He should never be aggressive, shy or exhibit any temperament other than that of a wonderful, friendly dog. He is loving of children and makes a wonderful family dog. He is most often exhibited by his inexperienced owner-handler so please be forgiving and encouraging of those as we want their experiences to be positive.

I hope this helps you in your evaluations of our wonderful breed and that you enjoy your time in the ring with him! 

  • Ann Yuhasz is a second-generation breeder-judge of English Setters. Her mother, Nancy Frey, raised the breed in the 50s and 60s and was a judge of Sporting and Herding dogs. Ann has been raising ES since the early 60s though she has finally given up and left her breeding program in the hands of her daughter, Rebecca Smith. Ann also raised Flat-Coated Retrievers and was involved in English Cocker Spaniels. She is approved to judge the Sporting, Herding, and Terrier Groups as well as Poodles. She has judged worldwide and at many National Specialties and most major shows in the US, including twice at the prestigious Westminster KC. She feels that dogs have been a thrilling ride and the most wonderful of sports! Ann and her husband now split their time between Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and Key Largo, Florida, with one very spoiled Norfolk Terrier.

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