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Are you a hunter who seeks out game birds but also wants a dog the kids will love? The English setter might be the one for you.
English setters, the so-called "gentlemen of the dog world," are just as at home on the dog show floor as they are in the field hunting with their beloved humans. These well-built, athletic dogs want nothing more than to spend time with you—so much so that their immense loyalty will rub off on you. English setters will mesh quickly into your family environment as easy-going dogs who do well with kids. Just take note: Their long, feathery hair and floppy ears mean you'll have to spend plenty of time—and money—grooming. But these dogs' sweet nature and ready-to-go attitude make it all worth it.
English setters are on the larger end of medium-sized dogs. According to The English Setter Association of America (ESAA), full-grown female setters weigh between 45–55 pounds and stand 23–25 inches tall. Male dogs are larger, tipping the scale around 65–80 pounds and reaching 25–27 inches tall.
There are actually two types of English setters: Laverack and Llewellin. Generally, Llewellin setters are smaller and more commonly used for hunting, says Gladys Jacobson, breeder at EvrSett English Setters. Laveracks can definitely still hunt, but they're usually bigger and happy just being family dogs.
They're sturdy and athletic but have a seriously gorgeous flair. Their flecked, spotted coat pattern is called belton, and it's unique to the breed. It kind of makes them look like Dalmatians, but with long, flowing hair called feathering that tapers down from their ears, chest, belly, thighs, legs, and tail.
English setter puppies are born white, but then the "Spot Fairy," as Jacobson says, comes a few weeks later and reveals the coat's colors. Those markings will vary in size and can even form large patches. These belton patterns come in several hues: orange, blue (which will look like black markings compared to the white fur), lemon, and liver. Some English setters will even be tricolored—blue belton with tan patches on the face and legs.
Not only are they nice to look at, but English setters are also great family dogs. They get along easily with kids because they're so laid back, Jacobson says. This calm temperament is why they can also make great therapy dogs.
Above all, they just want to spend time with their families, and might even be a little sad if you keep them out of the kitchen as you make dinner. English setters coexist well with other dogs and do well with cats, too.
Because of their serious smarts, English setters pick up basic training—your sits, stays, and comes—easily. Positive reinforcement is the best way to teach them, and you'll also want them to attend puppy kindergarten when they're young to make sure they're properly socialized at a young age.
While the English setter has a long history as a gundog, Jacobson says they can do well in apartments as long as you guarantee daily walks. But, as is the case with most larger or medium-size dogs, a house with a fenced-in yard is still the preferred option.
As with all dogs, you'll want to make time for your English setter's favorite pastimes: They love their daily walks, riding in the car, hiking, and running alongside you on a bike ride. Then they'll happily lie down at your feet or on your couch at the end of the day.
And don't worry if you're not living the most active lifestyle; an English setter can adapt to almost any family environment and only needs a moderate amount of exercise to use up all their energy. The most important thing for your English setter is that he's spending time with you, almost regardless of the activity, Jacobson says.
They value your companionship so much that you shouldn't leave your English setters alone for too long. It might result in your dog chewing or barking while you're away—hallmark symptoms of separation anxiety. This breed can live in both warm or cold climates. They'll love to run around in the snow, but make sure they don't spend too much time romping around in the white stuff. If you're uncomfortable outside, assume your English setter is, too. When the weather is warmer, you'll want to limit his time outside and make sure he has plenty of shade and access to water.
OK, back to the English setter's fancy coat. Owners of dog show competitors will brush their setters daily, but Jacobson says once-a-week brushing will do for the everyday pet owner. You definitely don't want that long, feathery hair to get tangled or matted, so use a soft bristle brush or long-toothed metal comb. That long hair is the perfect vehicle for your dog to carry in leaves, pine needles, and small sticks from outside, so regular brushing is vital. Baths are necessary at least once a month, and you might want to keep that longer hair trimmed.
While they do need a fair bit of hair maintenance, English setters don't shed as much as many other dogs, Jacobson says. She currently has five dogs in the house and says she'll only vacuum once or twice a week.
Your English setter's soft, floppy ears will need attention as well. Not much air moves through them, so you'll want to clean those bad boys out every week, Jacobson says. After his ears are spick and span, you'll need to trim his nails and brush his teeth regularly.
All that grooming can sound like a pain, but it'll all be easier if you start when your English setter is still a puppy. If he gets used to the routine early, the process will be faster and easier for everyone over your dog's lifespan.
English setters typically live between 12–15 years, though they can start to show their age when they're around 9 years old.
They're generally healthy dogs, but, as with all breeds, there are a few conditions they're susceptible to, says BJ Parsons, DVM, an English setter breeder, and the ESAA's AKC delegate. Here are some health concerns you should be aware of before you bring your new puppy home.
- Hearing issues. Parsons says about 2 percent of tested puppies will suffer from deafness in one or both ears.
- Thyroid disease. Specifically autoimmune thyroiditis, in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Parson says she sees a fair amount of the affliction, but sometimes dogs don’t exhibit symptoms.
- Epilepsy, though Parsons says it’s hard to determine whether it’s hereditary.
- Cancer is a huge issue in older English setters, mostly hemangiosarcoma and lymphoma, Parsons says.
- Hip dysplasia
If you're bringing home a new puppy, the ESAA recommends testing him for hip and elbow dysplasia, deafness, and any thyroid issues. English setters are also susceptible to unhealthy weight gain, so make sure to provide them with the nutrition they need to stay healthy—Royal Canin even makes a setter-specific dog food. Regular visits to your veterinarian will help keep your setter healthy and happy.
The ESAA describes the English setter as an "old, but not an ancient" breed, with their origins dating back about 400–500 years in, well, England. Evidence suggests this setter has Spanish pointer, large water spaniel, and springer spaniel ancestry.
They're called "setters" because that's what they were trained to do while hunting; before guns were used to hunt, English setters would indicate nearby game birds by lying down—"setting." The hunter would then throw a big net over the dog and the birds.
When hunters began using guns, the setters were trained to alert their humans by pointing (standing upright and leaning forward).
In the early 1800s, Edward Laverack and R. LL. Purcell Llewellin both began breeding their specific types of English setters—the former curating a larger show dog while the latter was responsible for the smaller dog who was best suited for hunting.
English setters arrived in the U.S. later that century and were one of the country's first nine registered breeds in 1878, according to the AKC.
- If you didn’t believe us when we said English setters make great therapy dogs, just look at these good boys and girls on Instagram—Eve, The Dude, Tru, Gromit, and Rose—who spread joy and comfort.
- The super-famous Clark Gable, who starred in Gone With the Wind and numerous other films, had an English setter.
- According to the American Kennel Club, an English setter aptly named Adonis—also the name of the Greek god of beauty and desire—was the first dog recorded in the club’s stud book.