Behavior Breed Lists The Truth Re The English Setter: Hunter or Family Pet?

The Truth Re The English Setter: Hunter or Family Pet?

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When choosing a family pet it can be easy to overlook the English Setter simply because it has a long history in the sporting group as a hunting dog.

However, this would be a mistake. The English Setter breed is a charming, intelligent, and loyal dog. It actually makes a great family pet.

A Little History

The origins of the English setter can be traced to the 14th century. It is a derivative of the spaniel and was originally known as the setting spaniel or Spanish Pointer. The term was descriptive of their duties in the hunt.

Hunters were known to take several setting spaniels with them on a hunt. The dogs would move in front of the hunter looking for birds. When they saw them they would crouch on the ground, it’s also known as setting. The hunter could then position a net and the dog would drive the bird into the net.

In the 18th century, the gun became a common hunter tool, reducing the need for dogs to set the trap. This was the turning point for the English Setter.

During the 19th century, the Setter became the dog that you know today. Much of the credit for this can be attributed to Edward Laverack. He spent much of the 19th century focusing on breeding selective lines to create a purebred dog. The English setter show dogs recognized today at shows, and by the American Kennel Club, is the breed created by Mr. Laverack.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Richard Purcell Llewellin took the Laverack Setter and continued to breed it. He aimed to create a working dog. As a testimony to his success, modern-day working setters are known as the Llewellin Setter.

It’s worth noting that the modern hunting setter now adopts the pointer style stance instead of crouching, or setting.

Distinguishing Features Of The English Setter

Photo of white, brown, and black dog at daytime. Part of the "The Truth Re The English Setter: Hunter or Family Pet?" article.
Photo by Joseph Keil on Unsplash

The English Setter is often confused with the English Springer Spaniel because they have similar colorings and facial expressions. But, the English setter is a larger dog than its cousin.

English setters are between 24-27 inches tall, (61-70cm) and weigh between 50-80 pounds, (23-36kg). On average they live for 12 years with hazel eyes, medium length ears, dark noses, and feathered undercarriages.

Most importantly these dogs are gentle, very affectionate, and rarely become aggressive. They are usually great with children and other animals. In short, they are very sociable. It is worth noting they have a protective streak, especially when it comes to territory or family. However, a well-trained English Setter will also calm quickly.

You do need to be aware that they have lots of energy, especially if you are planning on getting English Setter puppies. If their energy is not consumed they are likely to dig and jump a lot. It’s best to have a large yard and be prepared to take them for at least one brisk walk a day. The longer the better.

You should be careful when walking a puppy. The bones of this dog breed will not fully form until approximately 14 months of age. Before this, you need to ensure their exercise is not too strenuous; you do not want to give them extra health issues.

Equally, English Setters do like company, this is not the sort of dog you can get and then leave in the backyard. It needs social contact regularly.

Finally, you should note that you need to brush their coat at least once a week to prevent it from matting. This pet hair brush is a great idea for regular grooming.

What To Look For When Buying

The most important items to verify when purchasing an English Setter are the breeder and parents. There are many breeds of setter, you want a purebred to ensure you get the characteristics you expect in this dog. For example, the Gordon Setter is very similar but generally has darker fur and is a little more aggressive than the English Setter.

Visiting the breeder’s home allows you to inspect the parents to ensure they are being looked after properly. It will also allow you to check the interaction between English Setters. This will give you an indication of the nature of your dog.

It is worth noting that almost all setters undertake mouthing. This is when they put your arm in their mouth but do not bite. It’s seen as both possession and affection.

Once you are happy that the parents are in good health and the breeder keeps everything clean and tidy, you will want to look at the actual puppies for sale.

They should play nicely together. You need to choose a puppy that is friendly, sociable, but not aggressive. You can usually tell this by watching them play together.

A First Time Option?

The English Setter is a great choice for first-time pet owners, it is accepting of hot and cold weather, and is very affectionate with all members of the family.

While this dog breed is relatively easy to train, it is intelligent and has a strong prey drive. This means it is difficult to get your dog back once it has got the scent of potential prey. It may not be as fast as a Greyhound but it will try! It’s also quite good at escaping and wandering off from places.

You should not forget, this dog has been bred to hunt on behalf of humans, it’s used to being independent. You’ll find it is much more responsive to praise rather than being told off, especially with an angry voice.

English Setters are generally bred for either showing (Llewellin type), or field trials and other dog sports (Laverack type). The field type generally has less feathering underneath but, cosmetics aside, both types make great pets.

Known Health Problems

As with most dogs, there are specific health problems that you need to watch for:

  • Elbow Dysplasia

If the elbow bones in your dog grow at different rates they will not connect together properly. The result is a defect that causes lameness and considerable pain, this condition is inherited and you will need to monitor and maintain a healthy weight in your dog to minimize the issue.

Surgery is an option, as are painkillers. The choice is yours regarding what is best for your dog.

  • Congenital Deafness

As many as 10% of English Setters are born deaf thanks to the Piebald gene. This is the same gene that gives these dogs their spots. Effectively, unpigmented skin in the inner ear causes the nerve endings to perish, making the dog deaf.

You will need to make sure your dog is tested for this, or the parents are tested before you commit to purchasing. You cannot tell the inner ear hair colors just by looking at your dog.

  • Hip Dysplasia

This often is not noticed until your dog is heading into middle age. Hip dysplasia is when the thigh bone does not fit properly into the hip joint which creates pain and lameness in the dog. As it ages it will become arthritis causing considerable discomfort to the dog.

This condition is hereditary and dogs that have it should not be allowed to breed. However, it can also happen if a dog regularly consumes a high-calorie diet or injuries themselves from a slip or a fall.

Behavioral Training Tips

Training your dog is important, it should start the moment you get the dog and remain consistent throughout their life. English Setters are independent and need to be reminded that they are part of your family and should abide by your decisions. Positive reinforcement is definitely more effective than punishment

Because they are protective of the family they are prone to becoming nuisance barkers. It’s important to take avoidance steps when the dogs are young.

Remember, using rope toys to play with them will reduce their energy level. This also helps to prevent digging and escape attempts in the garden which can build the pack loyalty which ensures your dog sees you as the boss.

These dogs have strong prey instincts, you cannot leave them in an open yard, and if you do they are likely to disappear while chasing something. You must have a fenced-in area to allow them to exercise without the risk.

Surprisingly these dogs can also be difficult to toilet train, this is another thing you need to start young and reinforce regularly.

Finally, despite their energy levels, they can quickly gain weight, you should monitor this and change their diet if necessary.

The Setting Line

The English Setter is a very affectionate dog that, with a little training, can be a delight to own as a family pet. They started life as hunters and retained many of these abilities. But, with love and attention, they will focus more on you and your family than potential prey.

In short, the English Setter was a valuable assistant for hunters. Today it is content to be a family dog, providing you take the time to select the right dog you will have a friend for life.

Would you like to read more about English breeds that are good family pets? Please read our article about the English Shepherd on this link. 


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