One of the oldest gundog breeds, English Setters date back to at least the 16th century where they are described in the first English book about dogs published in 1570. They are probably descended from older Land Spaniels in Britain. At that time Setters indicated where birds were located by crouching or “setting” in the field and lifting a paw. The gamekeeper then tossed a net over both the dog and the birds to catch them. Setters were also used to hunt with falcons at this time and you can still find some falconers today who hunt using this method. Once guns became popular, the English Setter was adapted to hunting with a more upright stance in the field. Many dogs still crouch to indicate the presence of birds since it’s a natural instinct with them.
We owe our modern English Setters to the 19th century British sportsman and breeder Edward Laverack. According to his writings, he maintained his own line of English Setters for some 35 years. Many of his dogs formed the basis of our bench dogs today in the U.S. Fellow breeder Purcell Llewellin, starting with dogs from Laverack, bred many outstanding English Setters for the field. Many of Llewellin’s dogs were also imported to the U.S. The English Setter was one of the original nine breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1884. The first dog registered by the AKC was an English Setter named Adonis.
When judging the English Setter in the show ring, it’s always important to keep in mind the breed’s original purpose as a working gundog. The original breed standard is based largely on the writings of Edward Laverack and other sportsmen-breeders in the 19th century. It has been changed very little since that time. Paintings and photographs from the 19th century show English Setters that look very much like our dogs today once you allow for slight differences in grooming.
The breed standard calls for a dog that is elegant, substantial, and symmetrical. Ideally, English Setters should be strong with stamina, grace, and style. They should be flat-coated with feathering of good length. When gaiting they should move freely and smoothly with good forward reach and strong rear drive. The topline should remain firm even when they are moving. Extremes in the breed should be avoided. Moderation and balance are virtues. Judges examining the breed should consider the total dog. Both breed type and movement are both important.
The English Setter has a white base coat with belton markings that makes them easy to see in the field. Belton markings can be orange, blue (white with black markings), tricolor (blue belton with tan points), lemon, and liver. All colors are equally acceptable.
Many owners today enjoy field work with their English Setters. Whether they are aiming for an amateur field trial or they are happy with hunt tests and earning a Junior Hunter (JH) title, more and more owners are spending time in the field with their dogs. The dogs seem to love it and their hunting instincts are still strong.
English Setters are versatile dogs and they can excel at other dog sports such as agility and rally. They make ideal therapy dogs and they can do well at obedience training.
The English Setter is generally a healthy breed. However, like all dogs, they can be prone to a few health issues. One of the issues that can occur in the breed is deafness. Puppies should be BAER-tested (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) as early as 5 to 7 weeks to determine if they are deaf in either ear. The occurrence of deafness in the breed has diminished since BAER testing became more common in the last 20-30 years.
Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia can occur in English Setters. English Setters currently rank #65 on the OFA hip dysplasia list; and #24 on the OFA elbow dysplasia list. Most breeders have these x-rays done (or use Penn-Hip ratings) when the dogs are two years old, so there is good participation.
Low thyroid in the breed is a concern and there is currently research being done regarding this condition in English Setters. Breeders are encouraged to have their dogs tested. English Setters are currently ranked #1 for thyroid in the OFA database with nearly 1,300 dogs evaluated.
For all their beauty and other good traits, owners will usually say that it’s the English Setter’s temperament that makes them stand out from other dogs. They are gentle, affectionate, friendly dogs devoted to their owners and their families. They love children and normally get along well with other pets. They make the perfect playmate for a child who wants to have a tea party or put a tiara on their head. Or, if you would like to do more outdoorsy things, your English Setter is perfectly willing to go for a hike or hang around the barn with you. They are easygoing, happy dogs who just want to spend time with you, no matter what you’re doing. Although, if that includes sleeping on the sofa and getting a bite of your sandwich, they like that even better. It has to be said that English Setters do enjoy comfort and luxury. They are also notorious counter surfers.
Are they the perfect dog for everyone? No, of course not. They do require plenty of regular exercise and you have to take care of their coat. Your English Setter probably won’t make a very good guard dog since they usually like everyone—even burglars. Some people might find that an English Setter wants to be together with them too much. You’ll never take a trip to the bathroom alone again. But if you want a friend who looks noble and acts like a goof—one who will stay right by your side, you should probably get to know the English Setter.