What kind of dog would prompt an acclaimed food critic and writer to open one of his last bottles of very expensive French wine? If the critic is Jim Harrison, the answer is simple: an English Setter.
I remembered that on this very day a friend had sent afresh foie gras … I ate it with a baguette and my best remaining bottle of [Chateau] Margaux. I don’t recall the year of this fine wine, but I raised my glass to my sleeping dog, who had been nearly lost but was found again.
Harrison’s tribute to his dog may have been unique, but his admiration of this sporting breed is not. Plenty of other dog lovers in the conformation ring, at field trials, and within their own homes hold special places in their hearts for the breed.
Nets Before Guns
Although today’s field-trained English Setter is accustomed to the sound of gunfire, the breed originated in the 14th century, long before firearms existed. According to the English Setter Association of America (ESAA), the dogs of that period would help their hunter-masters by crouching down on their front legs to indicate the presence of birds. This is how the Setter was bred to lay down silently, or “set.” The dog’s posture would prompt the hunter to spread their net over a wide area (including over the dog), make a loud noise to flush the birds, then reap the harvest of fowl caught in the net. A standing dog on point would be much more readily tangled in the net. Therefore, this low-lying method was ideal for net hunting.
Early authorities say the breed developed before the Pointer. The English Setter was bred from crossings of the Spanish Pointer and the Springer Spaniel, according to evidence in sportsmen’s writings.
First Reference to Setting
English Setters might not be thousands of years old, as some breeds are, but they certainly have a long and distinguished history. Setters are discussed in the first extensive book on British dogs, De Canibus Britannicis (1570; translated in 1576 as The Dogs of Britain) by Dr. John Caius (also Kees, Keys, or Kaye), physician to King Edward VI and Queens Mary I and Elizabeth. Caius writes:
The Dogge called the Setter, in Latine Index. Another sort of Dogges be there, seruiceable for fowling, making no noise either with foote or with tounge, whiles they followe the game. These attend diligently vpon theyr Master and frame their conditions to such beckes, motions, and gestures, as it shall please him to exhibite and make, either going forward, drawing backeward, inclining to the right hand, or yealding toward the left, (In making mencion of fowles, my meaning is of the Partridge & the Quaile) when he hath founde the byrde, he keepeth sure and fast silence, he stayeth his steppes and wil proceede no further, and with a close, couert, watching eye, layeth his belly to the grounde and so creepeth forward like a worme. When he approcheth neere to the place where the birde is, he layes him downe, and with a marcke of his pawes betrayeth the place of the byrdes last abode, whereby it is supposed that this kinde of dogge is called Index, Setter, being in deede a name most consonant and agreable to his quality. The place being knowne by the meanes of the dogge, the fowler immediatly openeth and spreedeth his net…
The doctor’s description is so appropriate that we still recognize it today in English Setters. You can picture the dog silently stepping forward, scenting the bird, always biddable. They creep forward and freeze into the point with a paw lifted to mark the spot. Some dogs today still crouch toward the ground in the old way which was useful with nets. Other dogs are more upright, a position that became popular after firearms became common. In either case, the English Setter at work in the field is a beautiful sight and the breed’s birthright.
The Dogs of Laverack and Llewellin
The modern English Setter is the result of the efforts of two 19th-century residents of the United Kingdom, Edward Laverack and Richard Purcell Llewellin. In 1825, Laverack obtained “Ponto” and “Old Moll,” products of a 35-year-old English Setter line.
Laverack’s breeding initiatives produced a gentle dog who was a fine companion and show animal but who did not always perform well in field trials. To correct this perceived deficiency, Llewellin crossed Laverack’s English Setter with other breeds. Today, the Llewellin setter is considered to be the field-bred English Setter, while Laverack’s dog is the foundation for the breed’s show dogs of today. These dogs are generally larger and carry more coat than their canine colleagues in the field.
Once the breed was exported to America in the 19th century, C.N. Myers of Blue Bar Kennels in Pennsylvania played a major role in the development of the English Setter in the states. In fact, the English Setter was one of the nine original “charter breeds” to be recognized by the AKC in 1878.