The four setters – a comparison by Karolynne McAteer
The AKC has over 175 registered breeds now, in 7 groups, with 28 of those breeds falling into the category of the “Sporting Group.” In the Sporting group, we have these 28 dogs in four categories of pointers, setters, retrievers and spaniels. Our club has members with all 12 of the “pointing breeds” and we have seen on our grounds all four of the setters. The purpose of this description is to compare and discuss the origins of the setters.
GENERAL PURPOSE: Taking the setters as a whole, their purpose is to hunt upland game, to seek and find birds, using the wind and quartering the terrain. When scent leads them to their game, the Setters stand (point) those birds until their hunter arrives. In the 1700s these setters would wait quietly for the hunter who would flush the bird and send his hawk for an air retrieval or cast a net trapping the bird in front of the pointing dog or the bird and dog together. Today, it is more likely you will hear a shot, a bird will be downed, and despite the fact they are setters and not retrievers, the setter will be sent to fetch! And, dinner is in the pot! Ancient oil paintings and tapestries reflect these setters with their hunters, some standing on traditional point, but frequently depicting a “setting” or crouching dog. And, to this day, over 400 years later, their four structural differences accommodate the terrain over which they originally hunted. The individual geography of these 4 setters is the reason for the most critical differences. Their common purpose, the reason for their similarities.
A small history:
These are four different breeds, despite the fact that the Irish Setter and the Irish Red and White, were at one time, found in the same litter. As late as the 1980s these two breeds were still considered one, and the Irish Kennel Club had them registered and exhibited as one. It is believed that “popularity” went to the all red dog, and as litters were born the more prominently red dogs were selected by the land owners and wealthy sportsmen, diluting the white on the dogs, to what we see as the Irish Setter today. As selection continued, the Irish Red & White now in very small numbers was near extinction. There were serious revival attempts in the 1940s; the most recent and successful in the 1970s. The saving of the Red & White was engineered by dedicated breeders and the Irish Kennel Club who selected Irish Setter stud dogs with pedigrees tracing back to the Red & White and whose structure more closely resembled the Red & White. Now over 40 years bred on its own, the Red and White has bloomed. In 1980 a standard was written and accepted in Ireland, separate from the Irish Setter, this standard was later accepted by The Kennel Club in England in 1983, and onward that standard was accepted in Canada in 1999 and by the AKC in 2009.
The Irish Setter has an AKC standard that was recognized in 1878!! It is believed that this dog, made so popular by the movie Big Red, has in him some Irish Water Spaniel, some Irish Terrier, and some pointer. This solid red dog was coveted by serious sportsmen, and the breed was acknowledged for its remarkable elegance and sporting abilities. Both the Irish Setter and the Irish Red and White have the appearance of strength, athleticism and refinement (not to be confused with “fine”) These two setters maneuvered the soft and bog like terrain of Ireland, meaning they could not be coarse or heavy. Both are fleet of foot.
The Gordon Setter whose AKC standard was recognized in 1884 hails from Scotland, and has traceable lineage back to the early 17th century. Popular among hunters and considered a personal bird dog, his prominence traces back to the kennels of the fourth Duke of Gordon. The Gordon is good sized and more sturdily built, and carries the heaviest bone of the setters, allowing him to work through the hard ground and high cover of Scotland. He is built for strength and stamina, not excessive speed.
The English Setter, whose AKC standard dates back to 1884, and the first dog listed in the AKC Stud Book is Adonis, an English Setter. The English has origins in crosses of Spanish Pointer, Water Spaniel and a “springing” Spaniel, producing a handsome and talented bird dog. He was well known among hunters, and had a great ability to find and point game in open country in England. The English has a grace about them, good bone, without evidence of coarseness, somewhere between the boning of the Irish and the Gordon. Remember, this dog hunted over terrain that was open and more moderate, neither as hard or high as Scotland, and not boggy and soft like Ireland. Thus body and bone reflect this gentler land condition. The English moves with ground covering efficiency.
The AKC Standard has absolute specifics for these four different setters:
The Red and White calls for dogs of 24.5-26 inches tall, with bitches 22.5-24 inches. The body length from point of shoulders to base of tail is not shorter than height from top of withers to the ground. They are to be judged with an emphasis on working condition. There are no stated disqualifications.
The Irish Setter calls for males to be 27 inches with an inch either side acceptable. Bitches to be 25 inches with the same inch preferred up or down. The Irish Setter appears slightly longer than tall. There are no stated disqualifications.
The Gordon suggests a size of 24-27 inches in males, with females being 23-26 inches. There is a stated disqualification in color, for dogs predominantly tan, red or buff. It is one of the few breeds to introduce a point scale back into their standard. The Gordon is measured from forechest to the back of thigh and is approximately equal in height from the withers to the ground giving it a squarer outline.
The English Setter calls for dogs to stand at 25 inches, and bitches about 24. The length of body accommodates free gaiting with the overall silhouette being very slightly longer than tall. There are no disqualifications stated.
In all instances these four setters are to be judged as a “whole” with the overall picture being of far more consequence than size or any other single entity. Each of these breeds should be built to move as they stand, with effortless ground covering motion, and conditioned to do a day’s work in the field. It is important not to confuse ability with opportunity when examining and moving these four breeds. While many dogs are not given the opportunity to hunt, they should be built and conditioned to do so. While no dog is flawless, a deviation from the written standard is a fault. In my personal opinion, a deviation that causes the inability to function is a sin!
The heads of all four of these bird dogs, reflect and match their body type, coupled with the need and ability to scent and carry game. All four heads require parallel planes to accommodate clear scenting with no obstruction to the olfactory senses. All would like equal length of foreface (nose to stop) to back skull. Overall the head balances itself fore and aft, and the overall headpiece balances the individual dog. If examined with your eyes closed, there should be absolutely no question to your hands whose head you are going over! The eyes on the Gordon and Irish are oval in shape, the English eye nearly round and the Irish Red and White calls for a round eye. All eyes are preferred dark, and reflect a soft intelligent expression. All want tight eye rims, so there is little possibility when hunting of seeds or other ground grasses getting into the eye rims While the planes are parallel in all setters, the back skulls differ, in that the Red and White calls for a broader skull with a dome but showing no occipital protuberance. The Gordon head is deep rather than broad, and nicely rounded and broadest between the ears. The English and the Irish head call for long and lean, and both are oval when viewed from above. Muzzles balance the individual heads, with the Gordon having a well covered and squared off flew (but not pendulous). The English head calls for good depth of muzzle as well, with flews squared and fairly pendant. The Irish and the Irish Red and White call for clean muzzle, squared off, but with lip covering, meaning not the depth when viewed from the side of the Gordon or English. All want good sized nostrils for great scenting, and all want ears that are set well back and low (at eye level or just below). Bites are to be scissors with level accepted. In the Irish Setter, some dropping of teeth while still within a good bite are not to be penalized. In Gordons, mention is made that pitted teeth from distemper or allied infections are not to be penalized. Refer to the included head shots for good examples of head type that clearly define the differences. In all instances a good head takes a while to develop, and it is not uncommon for the heads to still be developing well past two years of age, and frequently the fine chiseling beneath the eye and cheek becomes more evident and more beautiful with full maturity. Puppy heads should be checked for an overall pleasing expression, a good bite, level planes and eye shape but with an awareness that the best is yet to come.
The silhouette of the setter, is the “tell all” of the breed, both standing and moving. Their commonality and their differences are readily apparent, and remember these breeds move as they stand. All four setters want a length of neck that allows them to retrieve game from the ground without crouching – so each dog has a neck length that accommodates his height. All of the setters call for necks that are long enough to accomplish the ground retrieve, built with muscle, lean in appearance and free from throatiness. These necks all fit into clean shoulders that are well laid back and close at the withers with shoulder and upper arm being of the same length and joined at an angle that allows the elbow to be set under the withers with elbows turning neither in or out. The front boning differs but in each of the four, should be straight and continuing to strong pasterns. The front legs finish off with firm, close feet pointing straight ahead, and with arched toes. Pads are well developed cushions to absorb the shock of the different groundwork of these dogs. As one’s hand moves along past the withers in examination, differences readily emerge. All toplines should be firm in motion, but the Irish Red and White has a topline that is level from withers to croup, but at the croup should be well rounded with a slight slope downward to the tail set which may be carried level, or slightly below level That says slight slope – not a dropped croup. The Irish Setter has a gentle incline from withers to croup, that ends in a tail set that is a natural extension of the topline, the Gordon has a very moderate slope in topline, and a tail set that is carried horizontal. The English Setter calls for a level topline or a slight slope, ending in a tail that is a smooth continuation of the topline. In all instances, the tail should reach approximately to just the hock joint or slightly less. Remember, the function of this dog was` to “set” and to originally allow a net toss, thus the correct tail set reflects original purpose. With a too high tail, the net would be caught, or the tail would be injured. The length of body is carried in the ribcage on these athletes, with loins being strong and only of moderate length. Rears are long from hip to hock, and short from hock to heel accommodating the strong drive required in the field (and for that matter in the group ring). Hocks to be perpendicular to the ground. Perpendicular is important, anything less would surely cause fatigue and lack of efficient rear movement. The stifle and hock joints are well bent turning neither in or out. Rear feet same as front feet and rear angles are to balance front to accommodate smooth movement.
The movement on all setters is effortless, with great ground covering reach and drive. While I will admit to bias, there is nothing more breathtaking than watching a good setter cover the ground, coat flowing as he moves with no single part calling attention to itself. In silhouette, you see the beautiful head planes, the length of neck, the fit of shoulder, the firm toplines, and watching just the feet, the motion is almost grass clipping, with no excessive lifting of the front legs, though in the Gordon a slight lift is acceptable to accommodate what was originally the harder, higher ground cover of Scotland. Toplines remain firm, tails carried happily almost always as a direct extension of the topline. While heads are carried proudly, they can move slightly forward as speed increases (and would surely move forward when carrying the weight of the bird), and rears frequently move from parallel to a single track when room allows. This single tracking can be hampered in a too small ring, but where there is adequate space, it is nearly always present.
Color is important in all four setters.
In the Irish Setter, the dog is a rich red, somewhere between mahogany and chestnut, white is allowed on the throat, chest and toes, and on rare occasions a small snip on the head. The coat should be shiny, with a pleasing body fringe.
In the Irish Red and White, the correct color and markings are of exceptional importance and deviations are to be severely penalized. Remember, they have moved away from the solid Irish Setter. In the breed’s guidebook they go so far as to suggest that incorrect color should NOT be awarded a first place ribbon. The dog is to appear as a white dog with red color applied. They want broken color, flecking only allowed (not roaning) around the face and feet and up the foreleg to the elbow and on the hind leg as far as the hock. The ears are always to be a solid red. Coat should show obvious bloom of good health.
The Gordon is a black dog, with tan markings of rich chestnut or mahogany color. Black penciling is allowed on the toes. The definition between the black and the color is to be clearly defined and not indistinct or blended with black. Color should be readily apparent with two spots over the eyes, not more than ¾ of an inch, color on the sides of the muzzle, but not over the nose, on the throat, two clear spots on the chest, on the inside of the hind legs, on the forelegs and around the vent. A small white spot on the chest is allowed, but the smaller the better. The breed’s distinctive black and tan coat makes him easy to see in Scotland’s light fields and early snow. Again, coat should be glossy, and show good care.
The English Setter gets to play with the paint box a bit. The breed calls for a ground color of white, with darker hairs resulting in flecking or roaning, though flecking all over preferred. The “belton” may be orange, or blue, lemon or liver, with a tricolor being blue belton with tan markings on muzzle, over eyes and on the legs. Head (including around an eye) and ear patches are acceptable, but heavy body patches are undesirable. No color is preferred, and it is great fun to see all colors in a winning lineup.
While we are speaking of coat, a word to grooming, The English, Irish and Gordon y allow clippers on the throat and ears, and scissoring that should enhance “the natural” look of the breed. While no one should fault a great dog for someone with a crafty pair of scissors, we’ve come a long way off “natural” in grooming techniques!! A dog in huge coat cleverly sculpted is NOT a better dog than a good specimen in modest but pleasing fringe. The Irish Red and White calls for the absolute minimum of grooming, never to be shaved with clippers, a light trimming with thinning shears and tidy up allowed, and whiskers left on!
All setters should show a stable, friendly attitude with the Irish Setter’s standard calling for a rollicking temperament, the English saying affectionate, the Gordon saying gay and interested and the Red and White calling for kindly and high spirited. All are loyal companions, great hunters and outstanding family dogs.