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Do English Setters do it Better?

Do English Setters do it Better?

An English Setter in an Advertisement.

What drives the English setter obsession?

A Medieval alchemist once observed that if something happens once, it will never happen again—but if it does happen again, it will continue to happen. I guess that means that if you spot an acquaintance in your covers, he’ll never return to them again. On the other hand, if you see him in your haunts a second time, he will never leave your woods.

The same can hold true for dogs. If you buy just one pointer, you probably won’t buy another. But if you do buy a second pointer, you will never buy another dog again. The same holds true for shorthairs, wirehairs, springers, and Brits. It’s called Breed Myopia—and I have it. I buy English setters.

For a long time, it was that way for just about everyone. You will find English setters everywhere in old advertising and not just in sporting ads, either. Advertisers used the iconography of English setters to sell gin, carpet, apples, beer, motor oil, and insurance. This is because for a long time, the English setter was America’s favorite dog. Ask anyone born before the mid-century what their favorite breed is. They will all say that setters do it better.

But is it true? Maybe not. For the past quarter century, the Labrador retriever has been America’s sweetheart.  Of some 140 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, the English setter occupies a middle-of-the-road position at number 70. Dr. John Caius, the English physician to Edward VI and Queen Mary, had plenty to say about them in his book Englishe Dogges: The Diuersities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties.” He was bullish about setters, but that was way back in 1576.

Lightning struck some 300 years later when Edward Laverack (1800-1877) and R. Purcell Llewellin (1840-1925) began laying the foundation for the dog so beloved today. Or rather, the dog that some of us love today. Their graceful showmanship while pursuing game attracts most people to English setters. If they are trained to cast at specific distances, they can run with a consistent rhythm. Those trained from field stock can race down a field edge or a wood line like a wide receiver sprints down the sidelines. High heads help them to easily differentiate between body and foot scent and they become visibly excited as the scent intensifies. In earlier eras, their tails were sometimes held straight outward. Current trends favor higher body positions and tails raised perpendicular to the body.

Fur suits protect them from briars and thorns. White bases make them highly visible in the somber woods. Laverack named the English setter’s fur color after a village in Northern England: belton. Various colors fleck the base coat of white, so the dog is easily detected. Various combinations abound. English setters may come in orange, chestnut, blue, lemon, or tricolor belton. Blue belton has black flecks and lemon belton is really just orange belton with a lighter nose. Tricolor belton may be either blue or liver belton with additional tan markings. The ‘feathers’ hanging off their tail, ears, and legs contribute to the overall picturesque vision. A setter’s tail flashes from side-to-side while they work, adding to the pomp and splendor.

At Ames Plantation, the English setter victories have been a tad bit lopsided. In the beginning, setters were in the winner’s circle each year for about a decade. Almost out of nowhere, English pointers delivered a beat down of epic proportions. Pointers stole the show until 1970 when Johnny Crocket reclaimed the coveted first place. A generation lost hope. It was nothing but pointers until Shadow Oak Bo won back-to-back victories in 2013 and in 2014. With luck, some of his progeny will return to center stage.

I bought one and then another, so I guess that makes me a setter person. Some of my friends call them pretty dogs or sissy dogs (and other names I shouldn’t mention). They favor their own breeds and always smile when I bring out my own dogs. Like them or not, a setter on point is a long-standing legacy. It is a legacy far greater than any of us that connects us with the past and present. As for the future? It’s as bright as could be.

*Advertising photos courtesy of Andrea Strobl at the Willie Walker Pedigree Database

View Comments (13)
  • Great piece, Tom! After half a lifetime with Labradors, I gradually switched to setters, and am surrounded by them. (Literally.) There are lots of other pointing breeds, but I like to say, ya have to look at ’em every day, and there just ain’t nuthin’ purtier than a setter. Keep up the good work!

  • Love the read, Tom. Anyone who can’t fall in love with a setter’s point with its tail feathers blowing in the wind should take up bowling ???? ???? ????

    • Exactly! I take my setters to AKC hunt tests and field trials and people love watching those beautiful setter tails – especially the GSP and Viszla people!

  • Great peace Tom. I wrote this comment on the Facebook page. When I was looking to purchase my first pointing dog and living in Michigan, I research the big four. GSP, Britney’s, Pointers and English setters. I studied the pros and cons of all of them . Then I run an article on banding Woodcock in Michigan. Out of the 83 dogs permitted to Bannon Woodcock, 67 were English setters. that did it for me.

  • Setter man until 2010 when I lost BUDDY to cancer…wonderful breed…bought my first ES after seeing the movie BIG RED by Walt Disney: was fascinated that a dog could point birds! My love of Setters began in 1961 and continued for the next forty-nine years…I currently have a Springer, but my love of Setters will never die…and perhaps there will be another in my future…

  • We have had Labs, two Shorthairs and now have five Setters. In my biased opinion there isn’t a better companion that loves its owner’s and can hunt.

  • Tom,
    Great article and thanks for writing it!

    One correction however. A tri color is most definitely not a blue or liver belton with tan markings and no patches.A setter with these marking would be registered as , for example,, blue belton and tan ticked. A tricolor , which most often have black face masks covering one or both eyes and body patches would be registered as white black tan and ticked. George Evans tried to get his Ryman type setters recognized as belton type setters, but this designation correctly refers to a setters markings– even ticking without patches.

    • Great job Tom . I have enjoyed our association in literature on grouse, woodcock and Parkers over the years and have always enjoyed your articles!
      Hello Ed – My setter “Olga’s Grace of Coronation” a true Twombly setter gave birth to a litter of eight two years ago and every one was a tri-color. They were blue beltons with brown ticking and some had black patches while others had brown patches. A very rare litter I am told.

  • Well done I too am a Setter Guy. My hunting partners are always making fun of me after a hunt as I brush out my dogs coat wile the partake of their favorite beverage. However never a misplaced comment in the field.

  • My family has had setters for 80 years that I know of and my father and grandfather trained all breeds. My grandfather run them in field trails back in the 50, and 60’s and won several times. I love their disposition and they make a great house dog also. I currently have one in the house. Love your article.

  • Awesome piece.
    Got first ES 10 yesrs ago he ruined me bc he did it all, upland, waterfowl, retrieved 28 geese in water one season in MN that waters cold in November. Full on dock layout jumps and a great family dog! Lost him to cancer at 6. Now have another and she is Rock star too! Could be time for two.

  • A very good read! Being a dog handler for 20 years on a private plantation in SC during quail season I cannot afford to be breed myopic, but I love Setters. You forgot to mention the Irish, three sit at my feet as I write this. Really enjoyed your article.

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