Gordon Setter Tails

Gordon Setter standing in the woods


The tail is an important part of the Gordon Setter’s general appearance. There is a correct tail set and carriage, and the breed standard defines it this way:

Tail short and not reaching below the hocks, carried horizontal or nearly so… thick at the root and finishing in a fine point. The placement of the tail is important for correct carriage. (If the croup is nearly flat the tail must emerge on the same plane as the croup to allow for horizontal carriage.) When the angle of the tail bends too sharply at the first coccygeal bone, the tail will be carried too gaily or will droop…

I have omitted a bit about the feathering being triangular because, even though it’s important, it’s not pertinent to this discussion.

This describes the perfect tail, but this is the real world where perfection is rare. One is likely to encounter variations in tails, primarily in the way a number of Gordons carry it, especially when they are in motion. A fair amount of this has to do with their attitude on a given day. The Gordon tail is probably more expressive of a Gordon’s mood and attitude than any other part of the dog. One can put a Gordon into a perfect stack that looks beautiful in profile, but when the dog moves, the tail will tell one exactly how the dog feels about what it is doing.

Is the tail up? Is it down? Is it level? Is it tucked? Is it flagging?

Gordon Setter Tail
A Gordon Setter bitch with a slightly ‘up’ tail whose tail motion was somewhere between the other two. She is shown here winning the Field Trial Bitch Class.

Before we go any farther, let me say that I am not an AKC conformation judge. I have, however, been in the breed since 1977 and have seen a fair number of Gordon tails (and been abused and bruised by more than a few very hard ones). I have opinions that some may disagree with and you are free to do so.

A tucked tail has three basic meanings: the dog is either unhappy, unsure, or intimidated by the surroundings. All are a problem, but most of the time the first two are correctable with experience or even with a different day or judge. A shy or intimidated Gordon might be beautiful, but it belongs in a quiet, loving home—not the show ring. A tucked tail is often found on pups or older dogs that are very new to the show ring.

The slightly down tail can be more a result of the tail set than the dog’s attitude, a result of the bend at the first coccygeal bone. The tail may still be wagging and the dog may still be happy and showing well, but it sends a wrong picture. An unhappy or bored Gordon may also carry its tail a bit down.

The “tail up” is worthy of a full evening of discussion among Gordon breeders as to what is too much. The “up” can have several causes. This is not about the twelve o’clock high tail set preferred by some breeders specializing in field trials, nor is it about too sharp a bend at the coccygeal bone. It is also not about the curved tail resembling a scimitar or a sickle. Those tails are not acceptable. The “tail up” is about a Gordon who is so happy that it can’t keep its tail down, and it’s all about the degree that the tail comes up. A little bit up is more than fine; way up is not fine. A wee bit curved is fine; more is not.

When it comes to movement, the standard says, “The head is up and the tail ‘flags’ constantly while the dog is in motion.

Gordon Setter Tail
A Gordon Setter bitch whose tail was a ‘breeze-maker’ when she moved, even though it is difficult to show that movement in a still photo. (Best of Breed Class)

Once again, this depends on the individual dog. There are Gordons that are all business in the ring and, when they gait, the tail will stay dead-still or move only slightly. It may be a bit “up” or it may be totally straight, but it doesn’t move much. The counterpoint to this is the happy-go-lucky Gordon whose tail could create a breeze on a calm day when the dog moves. To make things more difficult, those two flagging movements may “switch dogs” from one day to the next, depending on how their brains are functioning on a given day.

A dog whose tail, on the day the photo was taken, stayed relatively still when it gaited. (Best of Breed Class)
A Gordon Setter dog whose tail, on the day the photo was taken, stayed relatively still when it gaited. (Best of Breed Class)


  • Jim Thacker has owned, bred, and campaigned Gordon Setters in the show ring and field since 1977 under the Dunbar kennel prefix. His dogs have earned titles in each part of the sport, including one Dual and Amateur Field Champion who was twice the parent club’s Gun Dog of the Year. He previously judged AKC and American Field pointing breed trials and hunting tests, and also judged Spaniel hunting tests. He is currently the Gordon Setter breed columnist for the AKC Gazette. Jim lives in Southwest Ohio.

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