The Gordon Setter is a sporting breed native to Scotland, and is in fact the only existing gundog breed native to that country. Of the four setter breeds: the Irish Setter, Gordon Setter, English Setter and the Irish Red and White Setter; this breed is the heaviest and the only one to be black and tan in coloration. The Gordon Setter is known not only for being a superb personal hunting companion, but also for being an excellent companion animal and frequent competitor in both obedience and agility competitions. At one point in history, this breed was known as the Gordon Castle Setter.
The Gordon Setter is named for the Fourth Duke of Gordon, who was a great admirer of the breed and operated a major kennel out of his castle. Although their method of hunting is substantially different, Setters were originally descended from Spaniels. Spaniels are a group of gundog breeds native to Western Europe. These are some of the oldest gundogs, and many actually predate the use of firearms in hunting. These breeds are so old that no one really knows their true origin. The English word Spaniel comes from the French word “Epagnuel,” which roughly translates as Spaniard. Because of this, most have assumed that these dogs originally came from Spain. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any evidence to support this theory, other than linguistic. One potential reason to doubt this theory is that there is evidence of the existence of Spaniels well prior to the nation known as Spain becoming unified in the 1400’s. However, Epagnuel may also refer to the Roman province of Hispania; an area that once consisted of much of what is now Spain and Portugal. If in fact, this is how Spaniels got their name, it may imply that these breeds are quite old.
In more recent years, it has been commonly suggested that modern Spaniels are actually of Celtic origin and that the Welsh Springer Spaniel was the original breed. It is hard to deny that most Spaniel breeds are native to countries which at one point had a major Celtic presence, such as France and those of the British Isles. This means that it is also quite possible to combine a Spanish and Celtic origin for Spaniels; as most of what is now Spain was once inhabited by a people closely related to the Celts, the Celtiberians. Perhaps the Celtiberians particularly favored these dogs, and gave them the name of their homeland. There is also a theory which suggests that the first Spaniels may have descended from dogs brought back from the Middle East by crusaders and pilgrims. This theory although outwardly farfetched may hold some merit, as many Islamic peoples did and still do keep a sighthound breed known in the West as the Saluki. The coats of many Salukis, particularly the fur on the ears and tails, closely resemble that of most Spaniels. As a large portion of modern-day Spain was once controlled by Islamic conquerors during the Middle Ages, it is very possible that the first contact which the French had with these dogs was in Spain.
However it is that Spaniels were first developed, by the end of the Renaissance period they were found across most of Western Europe. These dogs became increasingly popular as hunting birds with guns did. Especially popular in the British Isles, a number of different varieties developed, one of which became known as the Setting Spaniel. The Setting Spaniel was so named for its unique method of hunting as these dogs did not flush birds as do most Spaniels, but rather would locate game and stay queitly by it to alert the hunter to its location. When staying by the game, the Setting Spaniel used a distinctive crouch, known as a set. It is believed that the modern Setters were then developed from the Setting Spaniel, although it is very likely that other breeds may have been used as well. While there are no good records of this process, it was confirmed by several of the leading dog experts of the 19th Century. In his much acclaimed 1859 work, ‘The Dog in Health and Disease’, English writer Stonehenge claimed that the Setters were descended from Spaniels. In 1872’s ‘The Setter’, Edward Laverick described the Setter as, “An improved Spaniel.” Written in the same year, Reverend Pierce’s work, ‘The Dog’, says that, “A setting Spaniel was the first Setter.” It is very likely that several other gundog breeds and perhaps several hounds were also used to develop the large Setters from the small Spaniels. William Taplin gives us a clue as to potentially which ones in ‘The Sportmen’s Cabinet’ of 1803-1804 when he wrote that the earliest Setters were the result of crossing large Setting Spaniels with the Spanish Pointer.
Eventually, Setters would spread across the entirety of the British Isles. At one point, Setters were a type rather than a breed and came in every imaginable color and pattern. Gradually certain breeders sought to standardize the Setters. One of the most influential of these breeders was Alexander Gordon, the Fourth Duke of Gordon (1743-1827), one of the most famed sportsmen of his time and one of the last members of the British nobility to actively practice falconry. He was an avid fancier of dogs and at some point in his life founded two separate kennels, one for Scottish Deerhounds and the other for Setters. The Duke greatly favored black and tan Setters, and it was these dogs that his kennel most focused on breeding. It is theorized that this color pattern was first found in Setters as a result of crosses between Setters and Bloodhounds. Eventually, Gordon was able to standardize the black and tan color, as well as eliminate any white. A breed with almost all of the modern day characteristics probably existed as early as the 1820’s. It is widely believed that the Duke got many of his dogs from a Mr. Coke of Longford, with whom he regularly bred his animals throughout his life. Alexander Gordon not only standardized this breed, but also popularized it and bred many individual dogs himself. Because the Duke ran his kennels out of Gordon Castle, this breed became known as the Gordon Castle Setter in his honor. Eventually, the castle was dropped from the breed name and these dogs became known as Gordon Setters.
Gordon wanted to create the ideal personal gundog for the Scottish environment, and to a great extent he succeeded. A personal gundog is one which works with one dog and one hunter, as well as being one that is not generally kenneled with many other dogs. The Gordon Setter is capable of working over very large open spaces, which at the time of its creation prevailed over much of Scotland. This dog is able to locate every game bird species in Scotland. This breed is capable of working on both land and water, but is definitely best suited for drier areas. There was a time when this breed was among the most popular gundogs in the British Isles. However, with the arrival of hunting competitions, it began to fall into disfavor as flashier breeds prevailed. In particular, the English Pointer hunts a great deal faster than the Gordon Setter. This dog remained popular with those who did not wish to compete against other hunters, but just enjoy a day shooting birds. This breed was always most popular in Scotland and Northern England, the environment to which it is best suited.
The first Gordon Setters to arrive in America came over in 1842, and were imported directly from the Duke of Gordon’s kennel, which was at that point operated by other breed fanciers. In that year, George Blunt and Daniel Webster imported Rake and Rachel, a pair which would become the foundation for the Gordon Setter breed in America. One of the earliest to be recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), the Gordon setter earned full recognition as a member of the sporting group in 1884. The Gordon Setter Club of America (GSCA) was founded in 1924 to promote and protect this breed, and is currently the official breed club of the AKC. However, the club did not hold its first breed specialty until 1983. The United Kennel Club (UKC) granted the breed full recognition in 1949. In America, the Gordon Setter has remained a working dog to a much greater extent than either the English Setter or the Irish Setter, but it has also remained considerably less popular. The temperament of this breed is definitely that of a working dog, and many do not adapt well to life as a companion animal. Unlike breeders of other breeds such as the Labrador Retriever, Gordon Setter breeders have been very careful to prevent the creation of two lines, one for the show ring and one for the field. To this end they have largely suceeded as most Gordon Setters exhibit both excellent conformation and a strong working ability.
Gordon Setters have never been especially popular in the United States, and they remain relatively rare to this day. In 2010, the Gordon Setter ranked 98th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations. Although it is impossible to get accurate statistics, when compared to most modern breeds a much higher percentage of Gordon Setters remain working dogs. Many Gordon Setters are still used for their intended purpose of being a personal gundog. However, as is the case with most modern breeds, more and more Gordon Setters are now primarily companion animals and show dogs, tasks for which this loyal and elegant breed is well-suited, so long as its exercise requirements are met. In recent years, this breed is showing up more frequently in both agility and obedience competitions.
The Gordon Setter is very similar in appearance to the much better known English Setter and Irish Setter, but is somewhat larger and is black and tan in color. The Gordon Setter is a relatively large breed. The larger males typically stand between 24 and 27 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 55 and 80 pounds. The smaller females typically stand between 23 and 26 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 45 and 70 pounds. The weight to height ratio of the Gordon Setter is the greatest of all the Setter breeds. This breed is thickly boned, as well as being heavily muscled. Overall, this breed has more substance than most other members of the sporting group. The tail of the Gordon Setter is comparatively short. It is very thick at the base and tapers to a very fine point. This tail is traditionally carried at body level and nearly straight, although some curve is acceptable.
The head and face of the Gordon Setter are quite refined, which is exactly what one would expect from a British sporting dog. They sit at the end of a long and thin neck, making them appear even smaller than they would otherwise. This breed has a head which is relatively small for its body size, which ends in a quite long muzzle. This muzzle is flat at the end and should not appear pointed from the side or from above. The large size of the muzzle gives this breed extra area for scent receptors, enhancing its sense of smell. The dark brown eyes of this breed are largish in size, but not particularly prominent. They give off a keen and intelligent expression. The ears of the Gordon Setter are quite long and hang down close to the head. Although long and drooping, these ears are also triangular in shape and would not be described as hound-like. These ears are well-feathered, making them look much larger than they actually are.
The coat of the Gordon Setter is perhaps the breed’s defining feature. As is the case with all Setters, this breed has a medium to long, flowing coat, albeit one that is not so long as to restrict the dog’s movement in any way. This coat should be flat and as free as possible from curl or wave. The coat is fairly uniform in length except on the head and front legs where it is quite short. This breed has very long and silky feathering on several parts of its body; most prominently the ears, tail, and backs of the hind legs. The hair on the tail is longest near the base and shortens near the tip. There is a great deal of long hair on the belly, neck, and chest which form a fringe.
Color is the major difference that distinguishes the Gordon Setter from other Setter breeds. There is only one acceptable color combination in Gordon Setters, black and tan. The black should be very dark, without any hint of rust. The tan markings should be lustrous. There should be a clear distinction between the two colors, although black pencil markings on the toes and black streaking under the jaw are permissible. All dogs should have the following tan markings: two clear spots over the eyes no greater than ¾ inches in diameter, on the sides of the muzzle not extending beyond the base of the nose, on the throat, two large spots on the chest, on the inside of the hind legs, on the forelegs, and around the vent.
The Gordon Setter is generally similar to other sporting breeds, but is somewhat harder tempered than most. This breed was bred to work one on one with its handler, and is known for showing intense loyalty. This is a breed which would follow its master anywhere without question. Most Gordon Setters form very close bonds with their family. This can be problematic as many breed members suffer from severe separation anxiety and this is not a dog that handles being left alone for long periods. Although this breed loves nothing more than to be with those it knows best, it does not particularly enjoy the company of strangers. While most Gordon Setters will be polite with strangers when properly socialized, they tend to be quite reserved and standoffish. This breed tends to take a wait and see attitude with new people, and is not one to rush into a new friendship. However, this breed will make friends without too much difficulty, and is certainly not known for human aggression.
This breed would make an excellent watchdog, but would not make the best guard dog. The Gordon Setter is quite gentle with children, over whom it becomes quite protective. This breed generally makes a good family dog with children who have been taught how to properly act around dogs. However, very young children are likely to be tempted to pull this dog’s long fur and ears, and it may not be ideal to house a Gordon Setter with them. The Gordon Setter can be quite challenging of an owner’s authority, and as a result is probably a much better choice for an experience dog owner than a novice.
Gordon Setters are generally good with other dogs, and have relatively few problems with them. However, most breed members would probably prefer to be an only dog, in order to get all of a family’s attention. When properly socialized, most Gordon Setters will be polite with strange dogs, though they may not exactly be excited to see them. Most Gordon Setters have some dominance issues and will almost certainly attempt to take control of a doggy social situation. This can result in problems with other dominant dogs. However, most Gordon Setters are not dangerously or violently dominant. Some male Gordon Setters, especially intact ones, do develop aggression issues. These dogs may attempt to attack other dogs, particularly if the other dog is also an intact male. Because Gordon Setters are likely to get stuck in their ways, this can be a difficult tendency to correct. It is much better for owners to start socialization and training at a very early age to prevent problems from developing.
Although the Gordon Setter is a hunting breed, it has a relatively low level of interspecies aggression. This breed was created to locate game and to occasionally retrieve it, but never to attack it. As a result, Gordon Setters are more than capable of sharing their lives with non-canine animals, but socialization must begin at a young age. This breed is more than capable of living peacefully with cats, although some young Gordon Setters may pester them in an attempt to play.
Gordon Setters are a highly intelligent breed, and are very trainable. This breed consistently performs very well at agility and obedience competitions. However, these dogs are considerably more challenging to train than most other sporting dogs. The Gordon Setter is not a breed which obeys blindly. This dog definitely has a, “What’s in it for me?” attitude when it comes to training. Any training regimen for this breed should involve a great deal of rewards and positive reinforcements. Avoid yelling and other harsh techniques which are only likely to make a Gordon Setter more resolved against you. This breed will also exclusively listen to those it respects. If you are not absolutely the alpha dog, don’t expect a Gordon Setter to do anything for you. This breed is also one that is almost impossible to get to change once it has learned something. Once a Gordon Setter starts doing things one way, expect it to keep doing it that way for the rest of its life. For example, if you let a Gordon Setter up on the couch, you will have extreme difficulty teaching it to stay off the furniture. These dogs are more than smart enough to figure out exactly what they can and can’t get away with, and will generally live their lives accordingly. Because many owners do not understand how to take a proper leadership position over this dog, this breed has developed a reputation for stubbornness as willfulness. However, owners who are firmly in control, and who use the correct training techniques, are likely to discover that this breed will both train quickly and is capable of learning a great deal.
This is an extremely high energy breed. Gordon Setters were bred to be working gundogs, and are capable of running around in the field for hours on end. These dogs need a minimum of 60 to 80 minutes of vigorous exercise every day and would probably prefer more. This dog makes an excellent jogging partner, but really prefers to be run off-leash in a secure area for extended periods. It would be extremely difficult to keep a Gordon Setter without a large yard. If you are not willing or able to provide this dog what it needs, you should almost certainly consider a different breed. Gordon Setters whose needs are not properly met are likely to develop severe emotional, mental, and behavioral issues. In particular, this breed can become hyper destructive, overly excitable, excessively vocal, and nervous. However, this energy and ability is one of the major reasons some active families choose this breed. A Gordon Setter is always up for some exploring and will more than happily go hiking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean. If you are a family that likes to go running or biking, the average Gordon Setter would absolutely love to go along with you. However, this breed takes some time to develop, and owners should refrain from overly exercising puppies under the age of 18 months. This can lead to a challenging situation where rambunctious puppies have difficulty getting all of their energy out. Also, the long hair of this breed can get extremely dirty and muddy, and may require some cleaning after a day of playing.
The Gordon Setter is known for taking a long time to mature. This breed is still a puppy until at least three years of age, and will show puppy characteristics for its whole life. Owners must be aware that they will be dealing with rambunctiousness, excitability, and clumsiness for longer with this breed than they would with most others.
This breed was bred to hunt over vast areas. It is in its nature to roam. An adult Gordon Setter is more than physically capable and intelligent enough to find its way out of almost any enclosure that is not properly secured. Owners must make absolutely sure that any enclosure which houses a Gordon Setter be entirely secure at all times.
The Gordon Setter has substantial grooming requirements, but not excessive ones. This breed needs to have its coat thoroughly brushed and combed on an almost daily basis. The coat of this breed is very likely to tangle and matt, and these must be worked out carefully at a very early stage. This should add up to no more than a couple of hours a week. Additionally, this dog may need some trimming, especially around the feet, and many owners have their dogs professionally groomed several times a year. The Gordon Setter is an average shedder, but its long fur can be quite noticeable. Owners must pay special attention to this dog's ears, which often collect dirt and debris. The ears must be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis to prevent irritations and infections.
The Gordon Setter is regarded as a generally healthy breed, which tends to suffer from fewer health problems than other breeds and at lower rates. This breed lives an average of 10 to 12 years, on the longer side of average for a breed of this size. However, a number of health problems have been identified in the Gordon Setter Breed. Luckily, the GSCA is determined to identify potential health defects and eliminate them from the breed.
Perhaps the most serious health concern for Gordon Setters is Progressive Retinal Atrophy or PRA. PRA results in deteriorating vision and eventually blindness. This condition is recessive in Gordon Setters, meaning that both parents have to have the gene for their offspring to develop it. Most Gordon Setters suffer from late-onset PRA, which shows up relatively late in life. There is no cure for this disease but a genetic test has recently been developed to identify potential carriers. Early studies have shown that as many as 50% of all Gordon Setters may be carriers.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF), particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
A full list of health problems experienced by Gordon Setters would have to include: