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
Tom Keer is a regular contributor to many sporting magazines and blogs. He is a Senior Editor and Destinations Columnist for Sporting Classics magazine, the Editor of USA Today Hunt and Fish magazine, the Flushes columnist for the Upland Almanac, and a Contributing Editor for Fly Rod and Reel. You'll find him with his wife, two kids, and four setters mostly hunting grouse, woodcock, and quail. He lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Visit him at www.tomkeer.com or at www.thekeergroup.com.