The Setters: Beauty and Bird Sense

Originally published in the AKC Gazette.

In his 1872 book “Dogs of the British Islands,” J.H. “Stonehenge” Walsh says that “there is no doubt that the setter is a spaniel, brought by a variety of crosses, or rather let us say of careful selection, to the size and form which we now find him.” Walsh explains that during the days of hunting with a net, terrain was not a factor, but with the advent of shooting, different dogs were needed to handle the wide variations in the countryside, from the moors of Scotland to the Irish potato fields to the fens of Lincoln. Thus the four AKC setters developed with the same function but differing structure and temperament, due to the difference in both game and terrain.

The invention of the hunting rifle changed the setter into the bird dog we know today—one that stands and points its game. By the early 1800s, wing shooting had become a fashionable sport, and while the pointer became a favorite of some shooting sportsmen, the setter still dominated the scene by a 10 to 1 ratio. According to Vero Shaw, it was around this same time that the setters became a distinct breed (not just another variation of spaniel). A judicious mixture of the larger English Spaniel, with some pointer cross, the setter now stood its game (although occasionally it was still used for setting).

All the setters were developed for the same work, but differences in terrain and game soon caused differences in their structure and look. At the Birmingham show in 1860, all setters were clumped together. By the London show in 1862, however, separate classes were offered. Developing at the same time as the shows, the first field trial was held in April 1865, and consisted of 23 pointers and 27 setters.

Early setters

The Country Gentleman

It has been said that if one had to pick a breed of dog to symbolize English country life and the English country gentleman of the 19th century, it would be either the English Foxhound or the English Setter.

The development of the modern English Setter was a result of two sportsmen of the 19th century. The great pioneer of the modern English Setter was Edward Laverack (1797–1877) of Shropshire. Starting in 1825, Laverack linebred a strain of setters that dominated the scene throughout the 19th century. His ideal was a good-looking English Setter and he produced the beautiful, richly-coated dogs that we have today. His dogs were also competitive in the field. Then in 1875, R.L. Purcell Llewellin, of Pembrokeshire, South Wales, bought two of Laverack’s best show dogs, and outcrossed them to develop his own top field trial lines. These are the smaller, highly animated field setters of today; for while Llewellin himself wanted and bred dogs for looks as well as function, his line of great field winners was often bred by others with only function in mind. Both lines were imported to the United States and both still boast ardent admirers.

Rollicking Redheads

The Irish Setter was developed to hunt snipe throughout the fens and swamps of Ireland. Originally, the red-and-whites were in the middle and west of Ireland, and the reds dominated the north. The striking good looks of the red setter slowly but surely pushed the Irish Red and White into obscurity, until Vero Shaw wrote in 1881 that while the red setter was the more fashionable, the Red and White should still be encouraged. The Irish has always been considered the most impetuous, even headstrong, of the setters; thus when it came to field trials, they did not show conspicuously, due to their tendency to run riot. Still, as one author wrote in the 1880s, “For endurance, no setter can compare to the Irish. They are quick as lightning, but their pace never gets beyond their nose.”

The Irish Setter’s downfall as a hunter’s companion was due more to his outstanding beauty in the show ring than to a failing in the field. Again quoting Shaw, “So much in modern times depends on appearance, and there are so few opportunities for satisfactorily testing the merits of a show dog in the field, that the question of his beauty is of far more importance than it was before the origin of canine exhibition.”

The Duke’s Dog

As far back as 1620, Gervaise Markham talked of a “black and fallow setting dog hardest to endure labor.” The third of the setters was developed by and named after the fourth Duke of Gordon (1743–1827), at his estates in Scotland. An unconfirmed story tells of a clever sheepdog bitch that both set birds and remained steady. The duke is supposed to have bred her to his top stud dog. Whether the story is true is unknown. Certainly the duke’s Gordon Setters were valued highly and considered pure (at least pure for that era). There is a record of an 1836 sale in which dogs went for as much as 72 guineas, which, in terms of purchasing power today, would be about $8,000 USD. Even puppies went for 37 guineas.

The fifth duke made Bloodhound crosses to improve scenting and strengthen the black and tan color. Daniel Webster had one of the first Gordon Setters in America.—D.M.

Canine historian Dorothy Macdonald is a longtime AKC judge. In 2001, she judged Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club show.

Art: “English Setter, Gordon Setter, and Pointer,” by Gustav Muss-Arnolt, AKC Collection; “Types of Early Setters,” by Sydenham Edwards, c. 1805

For more on the breeds covered in this article, visit the English Setter Association of America, Irish Red and White Setter Association of America, Irish Setter Club of America, and Gordon Setter Club of America.