If you're seeking an active canine companion, an adept game bird dog, or a loyal family companion, seek out one of these four setter breeds. The Irish setter, Gordon setter, English setter, and Irish red and white setter are four outstanding examples of setter dogs that thrive in the field or at home.
Setter breeds gained their name and their notoriety as hunting dogs for their instinctive tendency to crouch or 'set' when they find their quarry. Typically, a setter will take a low stance, with his body nearly touching ground and attention firmly fixed on the game. This position allowed hunters of early days to cast a net over the birds without being obstructed by the dog's body; today, it's not as necessary with the use of firearms in hunting, but remains a characteristic mark of setter breeds nonetheless.
Each of these setters shares an aptitude for hunting and a family-first disposition that makes them much-loved companions. However, the origins, breed characteristics, and nature of each dog varies by type. Set your sights on these four setter breeds and you just might find your new best friend.
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The Irish setter is a beautiful example of a setter dog breed. Easily identified by a rich mahogany-colored coat with flowing locks and feathering, the red setter (as the breed is sometimes called) was originally developed in Ireland as a steady and capable birding dog.
The most notable features of an Irish setter are an elongated muzzle, skirted coat, and red-to-mahogany coloring. What makes this a true ‘setter’ dog breed is the innate ability of these dogs to locate game birds and signal their presence to a hunting companion. From an early age, many Irish setters display a drive to please their owners and take to fieldwork quickly. At the same time, the Irish setter is known to be an excellent family dog and a mellow housemate—as long as sufficient training and exercise are provided.
Height: 24 to 27 inches
Weight: 35 to 70 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Coat is most commonly flat, silky, long, and soft with deep chestnut red or mahogany coloring; feathering on the chest, belly, legs, tail, and ears; neck and tail outstretch to point in the direction of game
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The largest of the setter breeds, there is no mistaking the Gordon setter. With a larger bone structure and distinctive black-and-tan coat, the Gordon stands out. Like other setters, though, this breed originated in Great Britain and shares an instinctive drive to search out game.
The Gordon setter traces its roots back to northern Scotland where Alexander the Fourth Duke of Gordon developed a hunting dog capable of traversing the hilly Scottish countryside. The larger bone structure and stature served the dog well in the inclement weather, but was optimized for stamina over speed. Upon first being recognized with the United Kennel Club in 1872, this breed was registered as simply the ‘black and tan setter.’ However in 1924, the name of the breed was changed to Gordon setter—following the lead of the American Kennel Club which first recognized the breed in 1884 as the Gordon Castle setter before changing to simply ‘Gordon setter’ in 1892.
The Gordon setter possesses a family-friendly disposition, however owners of the breed do report a stronger guarding tendency in these setters. You should socialization and training early with this breed to encourage a friendly and obedient nature.
Height: 23 to 27 inches
Weight: 45 to 80 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Medium to large build with a shiny coat that is straight, or wavy with feathering on the ears, chest, legs, and tail; coat is characteristically black with tan markings
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Smaller in stature than the Gordon setter and Irish setter, the English setter stands out for its freckled coat and pleasant demeanor. The white coat has either orange or black markings (referred to as ‘belton’) or may be tri-color in appearance. Good looks and good temperament aside, this breed has been developed to excel in setting and retrieving upland game birds.
The English setter is believed to have descended from a cross of pointer and spaniel breeds, though its exact origins are largely undocumented until the 18th century. Two gun dog enthusiasts, Laverack and Llewellyn are frequently credited with the development and standardization of the breed. Today, some field-type English setters are described as ‘Llewellyn setters’ but this is a reference to a dog’s lineage rather than a distinct breed.
Like other setter breeds, the English setter is both a capable hunting dog and family pet. They demonstrate a strong desire to bond closely with human companions, making them loyal in the field and good-natured at home. However, they still require plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. Some English setters suffer from separation anxiety if not properly trained and socialized.
Height: 25 to 27 inches
Weight: 65 to 80 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Large breed, athletic dog with plumed tail, feathering on the legs and pendulous ears; long, flat, silky, and a little wavy coat; white coat base with 'belton' markings in orange or black (referred to as blue); may also be tricolored
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Irish Red and White Setter
While the all-red Irish setter has more notoriety among setter breeds today, the Irish Red and White setter (also referred to as IRWS) was the first Irish-bred setter on the scene. Believed to have originated in Ireland in the 17th century, the bright coloring of the red and white setter stood out against the landscape and allowed hunters to easily track their dogs in pursuit of game birds.
Over time, the solid red setter was developed through selective breeding of the IRWS and gained attention in show rings throughout Great Britain. In time, a separate breed standard was developed for the Irish setter. Today, the IRWS is still more rare than the well-known Irish setter, but it’s worthy of mention in any list of setter breeds.
The largest differences between the Irish red and white setter and the Irish setter obviously include coat color—while the Irish setter is only allowed to have minimal white markings on the chest, throat, toes, or a small streak on the skull, the Irish red and white setter is by definition a white dog with solid red markings across the body. In addition, the IRWS is slightly smaller but very sturdy in comparison to the Irish setter. These dogs are typically no more than 26 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh 60 pounds or less. An Irish setter, on the other hand, features a rangier build and is 27 inches tall at the shoulder with an average weight of 60 to 70 pounds.
Height: 22 to 26 inches
Weight: 35 to 60 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Medium-sized dog that is sturdy yet athletic in appearance; a white coat with distinct red patches and feathering along the ears, legs, body, and tail