Both versions of the English Setter -- the field version and the larger, furrier bench dog -- make outstanding companions. Bred to spot and retrieve downed birds, these gun dogs have a long history of team-work with humans. Their origins date back to the 14th century. But it was in the 19th century that the breed standards were set. Those standards have changed very little to this day.
Despite their long history, English Setters, particularly the bench version seen in American Kennel Club (AKC) shows, are not a particularly popular breed in the United States. This is unfathomable to people who have shared their lives with these lovable bird dogs. Here are five reasons why English Setters are wonderful pets.
The adjectives “gentle” and “sweet” pop up repeatedly in descriptions of the English Setter, including the AKC’s official breed standard. This dog is highly social and needs to live with humans, rather than be relegated to a backyard kennel. English Setters are highly tolerant of children and other pets. There is no shortage of anecdotes about these dogs gently putting up with an ear-pulling, squealing toddler.
English Setters are somewhat protective of their family and will certainly sound an alert if a stranger shows up at the door. Seeing a substantial, barking dog, the stranger may not realize that the primary risk he faces is a solid slobbering. More so than some other dogs, setters experience the world through their noses. They have yet to encounter a square inch of human skin that was not worth a thorough sniffing.
There are many cute dogs. Only a few breeds classify as truly beautiful. The English Setter -- with its elegant lines, silky fur, flowing “feathers,” large, noble head and soulful brown eyes -- is one of those few.
No, a good pet doesn’t “need” to be beautiful. But when you’re having a lousy day and you see your English Setter effortlessly covering ground, with fur flouncing, that lovely sight lifts the spirits.
Like most sporting dogs, the English Setter is a natural athlete. The dog has the long legs and deep chest of a runner.
It needs exercise. If it is not getting regular workouts from bird-hunting, it needs adequate (and safe) room for running or regularly scheduled exercise with its human. English Setters enjoy agility training and just about any water sport. They also enjoy daily walks on lead.
In other words, having an English Setter as the family pet offers all sorts of ways for family members to get or stay in shape.
And once the daily exercise drill is done, the English Setter likes nothing better than kicking back with his humans. Unlike many other energetic breeds, this dog knows how to relax around the house. A marathon jogger outside, the English Setter can morph into a contented couch potato inside.
You won’t find any scientific treatises dissecting the canine quality of goofiness. But you know it when you see it. English Setters have a sense of humor and like nothing better than making their humans laugh.
Despite their elegant looks, setters will gladly toss dignity aside in the interest of getting a laugh or two. An English Setter won’t mind in the slightest if you erupt in giggles at the sight of a 65-pound dog trying to squeeze through a 6”-square cat door. A rain-soaked English Setter will happily pose for pictures after it has wrested away the drying towel and paraded around like some deranged crusader, wearing the soggy towel like a cape. Kids and setters often team up for antics that would make The Three Stooges look like intellectual commentators.
The English Setter is nowhere near the top of the list of popular dog breeds, according to AKC statistics. The breed ranks 70th in the number of AKC registrations, out of about 140 dog breeds. As a result, finding an English Setter pup can be difficult and the pup can come with a steep price tag: over $1,000 for the offspring of registered bench setters and over $500 for a pup from registered gun dogs.
But not being the fad du jour is a good thing. When a breed experiences a surge in popularity, undesirable elements, out for a quick buck, are drawn to that type of dog. Puppy mills pop up and breed standards deteriorate. English Setter breeders, on the other hand, are more likely to be responsible, particularly if they are affiliated with the English Setter Association of America. For them, love of the breed outweighs the profit motive. Responsible breeders are picky about mates for their dogs and bitches, generously space their litters, socialize their pups and carefully vet prospective buyers. The buyer ultimately benefits -- by bringing home a gorgeous, mentally and physically healthy bundle of furry love.
One way of circumventing the difficulty in finding an English Setter puppy is to adopt a rescue dog. The English Setter Rescue Trust is a good place to start. Sadly, even the most committed owners occasionally need to find new homes for their setters -- because of death, illness, divorce or work-mandated relocation.