What drives the English setter obsession?
A Medieval alchemist said if something happens once it’ll never happen again. If it does happen again then it will continue to happen. I guess that means if you spot an acquaintance in your coverts you’ve shared he’ll never return to them again. But if you see him in your haunts a second time then he’ll be in your woods forever.
The same holds true with dogs. Buy a pointer, you’ll never buy one again. But if your second dog is a pointer then your lot in life is cast and you’re forever known as a pointer man. The same holds true for shorthairs, wirehairs, springers, and Brits. It’s called Breed Myopia, and I have it, too. I’m a setter man.
It was that way for just about everyone for a long time. Look at old advertising and you’ll see setters everywhere! They’re in sporting ads galore, but they were used to hawk gin, carpet, apples, beer, motor oil, and insurance. For a long time the English setter was America’s Favorite Dog. Ask anyone up through the 1950’s and they’ll have one response about their chosen breed. They’d say that setters do it better.
Is it true? Maybe not. For the past quarter century the Labrador retriever has been America’s sweetheart. And 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, thought enough about the emerging breed to chronicle them in his book Englishe Dogges: The Diuersities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties.” He was bullish about setters, but that was back in 1576. But lightening struck some 300 years later when Edward Laverack (1800-1877) and R. Purcell Llewellin (1840-1925) got to work to lay the foundation for the dogs that are so beloved today. That is, the dogs that some of us love todayPerhaps what attracts most people to English setter is the fact the graceful showmanship with which they pursue game. If they are trained to cast at specific distances they can run in a systematic, rhythmic and methodical pattern. Or if they are from field trial stock they 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. Depending on an era’s fancy, their tails have sometimes been held straight outward whereas the current trend is for higher body positions and tails raised perpendicular to the body.
Fur suits protect ’em from briars and thorns while white bases make them highly visible in the somber woods. Laverack himself coined the setter’s color “belton” and named it after a village in Northern England. A base coat of white was the beginning with ticking or flecks and speckles of various colors so the dog would be easily detected. Some combinations are orange belton (with orange flecks), chestnut belton (with chestnut flecks), blue (with black flecks), lemon (an orange belton with a lighter nose), and a tricolor (a blue or liver belton with the addition of tan markings). The feathers on their tail, ears, and legs contribute to the overall picturesque vision. When working, a setter’s tail flashes from side-to-side which adds to their pomp and splendor.
Setter wins at Ames Plantation 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 proportion. Pointers stole the show until 1970 when Johnny Crocket reclaimed the coveted first place. Hope was lost for a generation. It was all pointers again 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.
It happened once, then it happened again, and I’m a setter man. Some of my friends call them pretty dogs or sissy dogs and other things best not repeated. They favor their own breeds, but they always smile when I put down my dogs. Like ‘em or not, a setter on point connects each of us with a long-standing legacy. That legacy is far greater than each of us, and it connects our pasts with the present. Our future? Well, it’s about as bright as could be.
*Advertising photos curtsy of Andrea Strobl at the Willie Walker Pedigree Database (http://pedigree.englishsetters.at/index.php)