Do English Setters do it Better?

English setter

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 (

Last modified: August 16, 2017

12 Responses to :
Do English Setters do it Better?

  1. Carson Foster says:

    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!

    1. Tom Keer says:

      Thanks Carson, glad you liked it!

  2. Don Brown says:

    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 🎳 😉 👍

    1. dogman7777 says:

      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!

  3. Ed Martin says:

    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.

  4. Joe Jenkins says:

    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…

  5. Mike says:

    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.

  6. Ed Belak says:

    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.

  7. CW says:

    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.

  8. Ted sartin says:

    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.

  9. Todd Huyber says:

    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.

  10. John Haney says:

    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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