English setters define a tradition of elegance and field performance
English setters are the oldest type of setter, having been developed about five hundred years ago from spaniels.
They were originally called “setting spaniels,” bred to locate birds then “set” or crouch down to face the scent. This allowed hunters to ensnare the birds with large nets without a standing or running dog getting in the way. When hunters began using firearms, selective breeding encouraged an upright point that shooters could easily see.
Hunting style and temperament
English setters’ intelligent response to the range and pattern required in a cover helped make them a classic choice for woodlands ruffed grouse hunters. They combine a joyful search with an exquisite point, heralded by a feathered tail pointing straight out or at twelve o’clock. They are graceful and agile—and notably adaptable to their hunter’s pace. With a head held high and a long lissome neck, their posture characterizes their air scenting.
English setters are also affectionate family dogs, playful and sweet with both strangers and children. Like with any breed, you should use caution around toddlers. They do not make good kennel dogs and have some wanderlust in their nature.
Traits important to hunters
Medium: Males run 24-26” in height, 65-80 in weight. Females range 22-24” in height, 45-55 in weight.
The English setter’s flat feathered coat repels briars and withstands nasty brush, but is a magnet for burrs and stick tights. If neglected, knots develop and the coat mats. Grooming, including bathing and clipping, is inevitably required.
Whereas some English setter puppies sight point at an early age, the consensus is that the breed matures at a gentle pace. Patience and temperate handling allow their natural instincts to emerge when they’re ready.
Generally, English setters have few health risks. Prospective buyers should ask about hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and allergies. Congenital deafness has appeared in a small percent of English setters.
Finding a good breeder
Besides the obvious rule of finding a dog from reputable hunting lines, prospective English setter buyers might want to research some of the more well-known kennel names like DeCoverly, Grouse Ridge, or Ryman-type setters. You could also consider a Llewellin setter, descendants of the original setter lines that trace all the way back. Buyers might want to think about how much they value versatility. English setters were not originally bred to be versatile hunting dogs. Early breeders were not looking for water drive, retrieving, and tracking abilities. Some English setters lines are more versatile today, particularly those in the NAVHDA registry.
Nancy Anisfield is an outdoor writer and hunting dog photographer, creative director for the Ugly Dog Hunting Company, member of the Pheasants Forever / Quail Forever Board of Directors, and co-owner of the Track2Wing Project which grants Action trackchairs to individuals with mobility challenges who want to train and hunt with bird dogs. She and her husband live in Hinesburg, Vermont, where their lives are governed by her two German shorthaired pointers and his two German wirehaired pointers.