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 Featured Breed Archives | The Sporting Group

The Setters

The Setters--English, Gordon, Irish, and Irish Red and White (a Foundation Stock Service® breed)--represent one category of dogs in AKC's Sporting Group. All of the breeds in the Sporting Group were bred to assist in the hunting of game birds, and probably originated in Europe. It was in England that the bird dog breeds were refined and bred to perform specific tasks in the field. Spaniels, for example, find game and "spring," or "flush," it from its cover for the hunters to capture or shoot. Pointers mark the location of game by freezing in place and "pointing" towards its locations. Retrievers fetch the downed game. The special job of the Setter was to mark the location of game by freezing in place like the Pointer, allowing the hunter to lay a snare or net (or, in later days, to ready the falcon or firearm). The setter then crept forward in absolute silence until, at its master's command, it announced its presence and caused the game to fly up into the trap. Setters thus combine the stealth of a wild predator with the absolute obedience of the best of domesticated dogs.

Dogs recognizable as "setter types" can be found in artwork dating back to the 1400s, and were popular on British estates by the seventeenth century. The distinction between the four Setter breeds as we know them today was a longer time coming. The first dog show in England, held at Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1859, held classes for Pointers and Setters, with no further divisions. A year later, the Birmingham Exhibition of Sporting and Other Dogs divided their prizes among Irish Setters and Other Setters. The next year, the same show had classes for English, Irish, and Black and Tan (Gordon) Setters, but the fact that Black and Tans snagged the first and second prizes in the English class signifies that the true differences between the breeds had not been firmly established.

The growth of showing dogs as a sport and the growing practice of exporting dogs to countries such as America and Australia led setter fanciers to codify the distinction between the breeds into standards-written statements of the ideal physical characteristics and notable traits of each breed. The English Setter standard was drafted in 1872; the Irish, in 1886, and the Gordon in 1929 (although the Gordon Setter club was founded years earlier, in 1891).

At a casual glance, the major difference between the Setters is their coloring; indeed, each setter's standard is careful to exclude any color traits that are closely identified with the other breeds. For example, the Irish standard excludes black; the Gordon standard excludes red; the English excludes patches. But although each setter does have strikingly different coloring, they also have differences in shape, size and temperament, all related to the areas in which they originated and the variable terrain and game they were bred to hunt.

The English is the smallest of the Setters, and probably the most closely related to the ancient large Land Spaniels of Europe. Like today's spaniels, the English comes in a variety of beautiful colors with impressive markings. It has a longer, flatter skull and nose than the spaniel breeds-indeed, all the setters have "brick on brick" head shapes-a rectangular skull "stacked" on a rectangular muzzle. (Setters hold their noses up, catching scents from the wind, rather than following a trail on the ground.) English Setters were designed for endurance, if not great speed, and steadiness, as which is exemplified by its absolutely level topline (the outline of its spine). According to legend, English Setters could carry lanterns on their backs to illuminate the field at night; the modern word is that English should be able to carry a teacup on their backs, much like girls in charm school carrying books on their heads!

"Belton" is the name for the English Setter's distinctive markings; it means white color with an intermingling of darker hairs. English can be orange belton, blue belton (actually black and white), liver belton, lemon belton, or tricolor, which is blue belton with tan on the muzzle, over the eyes, and on the legs.

The Gordon Setter is the northern cousin to the English, developed in the more rugged terrain of Scotland and named for the fourth Duke of Gordon, from whose kennels the best of the black and tan hunting dogs were raised. The Gordon is taller than the English, and has the largest head and the shortest tail of any of the setters. Their dark coats help them to stand out against tall grasses and snow, and their tan markings add to their good looks and expressive faces. The markings are uniform: two spots above the eyes; on the sides of the muzzle; on the throat; two large spots on the chest; on the inside of the hind leg; on the forelegs toward the toes; under the tail. Like the other setters, the coat is silky and as straight as possible, with some feathering on the ears and belly and a fringe on the tail. A curly or profuse coat would be a hindrance to a dog in the field.

The Irish Setter is probably the most distantly related of all the setters, and seems to share more traits with Pointers than with spaniels. It is taller than the other breeds, with a more sloping topline to allow for greater speed. Setters in Ireland had slightly better terrain to work in than the English or Gordon-less undergrowth, more open spaces-but far less game; so the Irish Setter had to be willing to work for long hours over great distances for no reward other than serving its master.

Today the Irish is known for its gorgeous, deep red coat; but in early days, the breed known as the "Irish Setter" could be either solid red or white with red patches. It was with the advent of dog shows in Ireland-the Rotunda Show in Dublin, in 1863-that preference began to be given to the solid red dogs. Over time, the red Irish Setter was also bred to be taller, slimmer, and with a more profuse coat-altogether a more glamorous dog than its red and white cousin, and a sure eye-catcher at dog shows. In the United States, the Irish Setter's good looks made it more popular as a show dog than as a field dog, although it still retains the instincts and abilities of a good hunter, if trained properly.

The Irish Red and White Setter, on the other hand, stayed on the farms and estates of Ireland as a hunter and companion, relatively unknown outside of its native country. The Irish Kennel Club considered it the same breed as the Irish until 1980, but its lack of glamour in comparison to the Irish meant that it fared poorly at dog shows; in other countries, the Red and White was not shown at all. It was after World War II that some setter fanciers "rediscovered" the qualities of this dog, and worked to enhance the breed and its reputation, particularly in the field. While still considered a rare breed today, the Red and White is gaining ground, and is known for its excellent hunting abilities and hard-working spirit.

Setters are successful in the field due to their good noses, their stamina and strength, and their rapport with their masters. Setters have to be in tune with their handlers, which demands not only obedience, but trust and loyalty as well. These qualities, of course, mean that Setters make wonderful companions off the field. Setters love people, and love to please their people. They are fairly easy to train, and retain lessons well, although training should begin young and should always be positive and gentle, never harsh or punishing.

All of the Setters are happy, friendly, playful dogs, and tend to remain "puppy-like" longer than some other breeds. As with their physical traits, there are subtle differences in temperament between the four breeds. The English Setter is known to be extremely gentle, amiable, and patient. It is almost too good with children, in that it will tolerate more poking, pulling and prodding from young people than any dog should have to endure! The Gordon Setter is known for its "brains" and its adaptability; it can be frolicking with children one minute, and sitting serenely with an elderly person the next. The Irish Setter is the clown of the bunch, with a rollicking, fun-loving personality; it definitely needs an outlet for its energy. The Irish Red and White is similarly mischievous, with a penchant for figuring out latches, doorways and gates. The Setters all need a good deal of daily exercise in a safe, enclosed area.

Setters were bred with the ability to "keep sure and fast" to mark the location of game for their masters. Off the field, they are just as likely to "set" a sure and fast place in their owners' hearts with their unique combination of beauty and personality. As hunters and pets, whether belton, black and tan, mahogany red, or white with red patches, Setters are as good as gold.

photo by Mary Bloom
The very first dog to be registered with the American Kennel Club was an English Setter named Adonis.
Male English Setters grow to be about 25 inches tall; females, about 24 inches.

photo by Mary Bloom
The first Gordon Setters to come to America, Rake and Rachel, arrived in 1842. Rachel became the trusted hunting dog of Daniel Webster.
Male Gordon Setters grow to be 24-27 inches and 55-80 pounds; females are slightly smaller, at 23-26 inches and 45-70 pounds.

The signature traits of the Irish Setter are its deep red color and its constantly wagging tail.
Male Irish Setters grow to be about 27 inches and 70 pounds; females. about 25 inches and 60 pounds.

Breed Facts
English Setter
Gordon Setter
Irish Setter

Males 25"
Females 24"

Males 24-27"
Females 23-26"
Males 27"
Females 25"
Males 65-80 lbs
Females 45-55 lbs
Males 55-80
Females 45-70
Males 70 lbs
Females 60 lbs
First dog registered
1878: Adonis, owned and bred by George E. Delano, New Bedford, MA. By Leicester ex Dart. Whelped 1875. Black, white, and tan.
1878: Bank, owned by E.H.Nicoll. Bred by J.H. White. By Jerome's Shot ex White's Nell. Whelped 12/1875. Black and tan.
1878: Admiral, owned by M. Ketchum, Westport, CT. Bred by Fisher & Bickarton. By Rufus ex Belle. Whelped 8/1877. Deep red.
Litters registered in 2001
Dogs registered in 2001

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