About English Setters
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The English Setter’s history goes back some 400-500 years. Early authorities say the breed precedes the Pointer in development. Evidence in sportsmen’s writings suggest the English Setter was originally produced from crosses of the Spanish pointer, the large water spaniel, and the Springer Spaniel.
The Setter was developed to lay down quietly, or “set,” when they located game birds. This style of hunting at the time would then require the hunter to cast a net in the area, sometimes covering the dog as well, and flush and harvest the birds that were ensnared. This low-lying method was ideal for net hunting as a standing dog on point would be much more easily tangled in the net. Any breed that “set” was branded a setter, but ultimately, the Setting Spaniel’s keen nose and superiority in finding birds made it the best choice in the selective breeding that developed dogs for this particular purpose. In the 18th century, firearms replaced the nets and further selective breeding developed an upright point in Setters, the better to see the dog from a distance. The 19th century saw a divergence of Setters into different breeds, evolving based on their location and the terrain in which they hunted.
Considerable credit for the development of the modern Setter goes to Edward Laverack of England, who, in 1825, obtained “Ponto” and “Old Moll,” products of a 35-year-old English Setter line. Another prominent figure in this breed’s development was R. LL. Purcell Llewellyn of Wales. Though he had bought his dogs from Laverack, Llewellyn’s focus was on field performance, unlike Laverack, who is mostly associated with the show Setter. Once the breed was exported to America in the 19th century, C.N. Myers of Blue Bar Kennels in Pennsylvania played a major role in the development of the English Setter in the states.
English Setters are elegant but solid dogs of beauty and charm. The word “belton,” unique to the breed, describes the speckled coat patterns of colors that sound good enough to eat: liver, lemon, and orange among them. Under the showy coat is a well-balanced hunter standing about 25 inches at the shoulder.
A graceful neck carries a long, oval-shaped head proudly, and dark brown eyes convey a soft expression. The merry English Setter is known as the gentleman of the dog world but is game and boisterous at play. English Setters get on well with other dogs and people. A veteran all-breed dog handler says, “As a breed to share one’s life and living space with, no other breed gives me more pleasure than the English Setter.”
What the “L”? Who the Heck Are Laverack and Llewellin?
How did your English Setter get its distinctive look? Two breeding giants -- Edward Laverack (1800-1877), an Englishman, and R. Purcell Llewellin (1840-1925), a Welshman -- are largely responsible for the breed’s modern appearance.
Before Laverack, English Setters were somewhat a hodge-podge of different traits and combination of different breeds, but they loosely displayed a certain type. In 1825, Laverack began a 35-year quest to turn the English Setter into a recognizably pure breed. He bought a male dog called Ponto and a bitch named Old Moll from Reverend A. Harrison of Cumbria. Laverack did not know the exact pedigree of these dogs but maintained that the strain had been pure-bred for 35 years before he got them. Laverack closely inbred to these two dogs for generations and through this process, developed what we think of as the show type English Setter. Laverack was keen to produce dogs that displayed both his vision of ideal type and prowess in hunting.
In the mid-1860s, Llewellin began his breeding program with dogs he got from Laverack. Llewellin experimented with various crosses before discovering the nick that would establish his name as a synonym for topnotch field English Setters. Llewellin's breakthrough occurred when he purchased two dogs, Dan and Dick, while attending a field trial at Shewbury in 1871. Dan and Dick were sons of a dog named Duke and a bitch named Rhoebe (Rhoebe's dam was half Gordon and half South Esk, a now extinct breed). Both of these dogs were out of northern England stock noted for outstanding field work. After Llewellin bred Dan and Dick (whose dam was not an English Setter) to his presumably linebred Laverack bitches, a new era in English Setter history began.
The Duke, Rhoebe, and Laverack crossing produced exactly what Llewellin was looking for, dogs that had great prowess in hunting and at field trials. Dan sired a dog named Gladstone, one of the most important Llewellins of all time, exported in utero to Canada and later exported to the United States. Gladstone quickly established himself as a top field performer and sire. His achievements contributed greatly to the surge of popularity of Llewellins.
Though Laverack is credited with developing show type English Setters, he didn’t set out to do that since dog shows did not exist when he first began breeding. The first dog show ever held was on June 28, 1859, in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Field trials were much more popular than dog shows during the late 1800s, so people interested in competition gravitated to field trials and wanted dogs that could excel in that venue.
Laverack was fascinated with defining and describing breed type. He was the author of the book entitled The Setter, published in 1872, considered to be the definitive book on the breed and became the basis for the English Setter Standard. Who knows; if Llewellin had written the first standard, we might be looking at that type of Setter in the show ring instead of the Laverack type.
Laverack and Llewellin illustrate two different and classic approaches to breeding. Laverack inbred and selectively linebred to produce a certain look and seems to have been most concerned with producing a predictable genotype and phenotype. After many years of breeding, Laverack reached a dead end, having nothing to breed that was not overly inbred. On the other hand, Llewellin outcrossed to whatever English Setters possessed the performance traits he wanted to intensify. In previous centuries, breeders would breed to dogs that embodied the traits they wanted, such as a superior scenting ability or natural tendency to point or set birds, even if they were a different breed.
Though you can tell at a glance that both are the same breed, show type English Setters look very different from the field type. The AKC breed standard calls for a larger dog (males about 25” at the withers, females about 24” at the withers) with a brick on brick head, squared flew, long feathering, and even ticking all over. This ticking is known as Belton coloration, named for Bilton, a town in Northumberland, England, where many of the setters carried this distinctive color scheme.
Field type setters are often, but not always, smaller, have less feathering, wedgier heads, less flew, and often more body patches than bench type Setters. Frequently, they do not conform to the AKC breed standard (based on Laverack’s vision of what is correct breed type). A big difference between the two types is that the show type carries (or should carry) its tail straight off the back, whereas the field type carries its tail at around 12 o’clock.
If carefully bred by a responsible breeder, both types have the loving, sweet, mellow English Setter nature that is a hallmark of the breed, and both make excellent family dogs. Most bench Setters have retained their hunting instincts and hunt just fine but not always with the extreme intensity of the field type.
The first Laveracks exported to America were Pride of the Border and Fairy, who was in whelp to Laverack’s Blue Prince – a son of POTB. They were advertised for sale by Laverack in 1874 and bought by Charles Raymond of New Jersey. Both were described as high-class gun dogs.
Beginning in 1880 many Llewellins were exported to the US. Llewellin always called his strain “The Field Trial Breed.” The term Llewellin was applied by American breeders, but it was said that Llewellin didn’t like the term.
English Setter fanciers today are proud of the fact that the very first dog registered with the AKC and the holder of registration number one is an English Setter named Adonis. He was born in 1875 and is recorded as sired by Leicester out of a bitch named Dart. His colors were given as black, white and tan. He was owned by his breeder George E. Delano of New Bedford, MA. We don’t know much about Adonis, and it is not known whether he was a Laverack or Llewellin type.
Thanks to English Setter historian Carl Sillman for sharing his wealth of knowledge of the history of the breed while I was working on this column. If you would like to know more about the evolution of the English Setter standard and how the Laverack type finally vanquished the Llewellin type to dominate the show ring, check out Carl’s article “How To DESIGN The Perfect STANDARD…Or Not” in the 2009 English Setter Association of America Annual.