The English Setter

A gentle aristocrat at home and in the field


Sharon Jackson led her red speckled English Setter into the show ring and took her place in line. She positioned Sprite's legs, then squatted behind him, holding his head high with one hand and bracing his tail with the other — the customary show pose of the breed. Sprite's gentle expression, athletic body, and elegant feathered coat won praise from breed judges earlier in the day, but this time it was his 12-year-old handler who would be judged for her skill in presenting a dog to the junior showmanship judge.

Although he was a bit tired, Sprite played his part well, gaiting straight and true when required and raising his head to the judge to show his kind eyes and confident expression, and Sharon earned second place in the class.

Sprite is typical of the modern English Setter — a beautiful, graceful dog; a loyal and affectionate family companion; and an heir to a setter dynasty founded by two men who honed the breed to its current type and style.


The English is one of three modern setter breeds. The Gordon Setter developed in Scotland, the Irish was crafted in Ireland, and the English was perfected in England and Wales. The setter type is likely a result of crosses between other hunting breeds, including pointers, springer spaniels, and water spaniels, and was fixed more than 400 years ago. Today the setters are distinctive in appearance with finely sculpted heads; fringed coats; slender, athletic bodies; and long, feathery tails. The English has the most variety in coat color. Unlike the red or red and white Irish and the always black-and-tan Gordon, the English is white with flecking of red, lemon, black, or liver that gives a marbled look to the coat.

Although English setters were used by bird hunters since the 1500s, the breed was perfected in the 19th Century by Englishman Edward Lavarack and Welshman RL Purcell Llewellin. In 1825, Lavarack purchased his foundation dogs from Reverend A. Harrison, who had kept the strain pure for 35 years, and he concentrated on gentleness and companionability in his breeding. Lavarack probably added Pointer and Irish Setter blood to his lines and produced dogs that did well in dog shows but reportedly lacked skill for hunt trials.

Llewellin started with Lavarack dogs but, dissatisifed with their performance in the field, crossed his dogs with Gordon Setters and perhaps other breeds to improve scenting ability and speed. Both types of English Setters came to America late in the 1800s; Lavarack's lines became the foundation for the show setters of today, and Llewellin's lines became the field dogs. The show (Lavarack) dogs tend to be a bit larger than field (Llewellin) dogs, have a more luxurious coat, and differ slightly in color pattern. Patches of color are acceptable on the field dogs but are discouraged on the show dogs, and the field dogs have a narrower muzzle and broader skull. The show dogs can be capable hunters, but the Llewllin descendants are faster and have a keener nose.

Breed appearance and character

English Setter males are about 25 inches at the shoulder and weigh 60-70 pounds, and bitches are slightly smaller at 24 inches and 45-55 pounds. The whole dog, from the long, lean head and silken ears to the fringed tail, suggests stamina and grace. Viewed from the side, the muzzle is long and rectangular, rising between the eyes to a skull that is just a bit wider at the earset than at the brow. The neck is long and muscular; the topline is level or sloping slightly downward to the tail, which tapers to a fine point and is carried straight and level with the back when the dog is in motion.

The English Setter should move with power, elegance, and style. The coat is flat with feathering on the ears, chest, abdomen, underside of thighs, backs of the legs, and on the tail; the fringe gives the dog an air of dignity when moving.

As noted above, the show-type English Setter is a white dog with colored markings in a pattern known as Belton (after a village in England). Patches of color are discouraged except on the head and ears; preferably, the color is distributed in flecks throughout the coat, giving it a marbled look. A dog with black flecking is called a blue Belton; a dog with orange flecking is an orange Belton, and so on. A tricolor dog is a blue Belton with tan markings on the muzzle, over the eyes, and on the legs.

The English Setter breed standard describes the breed as “gentle, affectionate, friendly, without shyness, fear, or viciousness,“ a description that should provide clues to potential purchasers of a puppy. Although developed as a hunting breed, the English Setter prefers to be part of the family, not a kennel dog. He is a medium-to-large animal with typical sporting breed energy and a need to be with people; he's sociable with strangers and other dogs and moderately easy to train, traits that make him a good choice for an active family with children and for first-time dog owners. He's not especially adept at precision obedience work and does best with families that reflect his own easygoing personality.

Care and health

Along with daily exercise, the English Setter needs enough grooming to keep his coat free of mats and tangles. Done twice a week and more often if the dog runs in the fields or woods, grooming provides opportunities to spend quiet time with the dog. The coat should be spritzed with water or a dog coat conditioner or rinse before brushing to avoid tearing the hairs in a dry coat. The body coat can be brushed with a natural bristle brush, but the feathering should be combed, first with a wide-tooth comb, then with a narrow-tooth comb. Dogs for the show ring are trimmed to blend the body hair and even out the feathering, but pets don't need such attention.

The feathery hair in setter feet needs to be combed out as well. If the hair mats between the pads and toes, it can form an environment for fungus and skin irritations.

The English Setter is basically a healthy breed, but it is susceptible to hip and elbow dysplasia, deafness, hypothyroidism, and some cancers. When looking for a puppy, ask about hip and elbow clearances and thyroid testing of the parent dogs and BAER (deafness) testing of the litter.

Finding a puppy

The English Setter ranked 86th in registrations among the AKC's 145 breeds with 826 individual dogs registered in 1997 and ranked 100th in litter registrations with 148 litters whelped. Finding a puppy of this breed is more difficult than locating a Rottweiler or a Labrador Retriver, so prospective buyers have to do their homework.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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