The Working English Setter
The breed is one of the oldest of the British gundogs, being developed from the ‘setting spaniels’ used in the 1500’s as a wide-ranging dog suited to heather moorland and other expanses of ground where game birds are few and far between. Setters were originally developed to quarter the ground at speed, using air scent to locate gamebirds. On finding game, they would ‘sett’, that is crouch down low in order to indicate the presence of game to the handler.
Game birds are inclined to sit tight and rely on their camouflage in order to stay safe, and will only fly off as a last resort. This is why a dog on point can ‘hold’ a covey of birds while the handler approaches. Originally the handler would then cast a net over the covey of game birds, but as the use of firearms became more widespread the use of nets disappeared.
Working & Show Blood Lines
During the twentieth century the breed diverged into two distinct types, the show and the working lines, although the Kennel Club fortunately sees both types as the one breed sharing the same Breed Standard. The two types are not interbred.
The show type, which is by far the most numerous, is the type more frequently kept as a companion. Its glamorous coat and attractive colouring make it instantly recognizable. The background colour of the coat is always white, but the flecks can be either tan (orange belton) or black (blue belton), or both these added colours (tricolour). The adult dog requires plenty of exercise, but trainability is not their strong point – a challenging combination!
The working dogs, by comparison, are found in an even greater range of colours (liver belton, and liver belton and tan dogs are still to be found in these lines, whereas they have disappeared in the show strains.)
They should be the same height as the show dogs, but are more athletic in build, as befits their purpose. Their coat is not as profuse, and is there mainly for protection rather than visual appeal. However, they share the friendly and affectionate nature of their show cousins, and are highly sociable with other dogs. They have an active brain, and need a purpose in life or they will quickly become frustrated.
The biggest difference from the show lines is in their trainability. The working lines have been selectively bred over the centuries to be eager to learn and to be responsive to their handler. Indeed, the bond between a working dog and it’s handler is probably unequalled by any relationship in the show ring.
The working dog uses it’s superior scenting powers and it’s speed to cover enormous distances on moorland or stubble, using instinct and experience to find the game. The handler will direct the dog to specific areas and will ‘walk in’ with the dog to flush the game when required.
Training begins at an early age, teaching the young pup to ‘drop’ (ie crouch down, or sit) on voice or whistle command (one peep to drop, two peeps to turn, repeated peeps for the recall). Most working bred pups will quarter into the wind and point game instinctively so there is normally no need to teach this.
As the pup matures mentally and physically more can be expected until before too long the dog is working under the control of it’s owner at a considerable distance.
Pups are only trained to work on game when their basic obedience training has been completed. All training must be done with kindness and the utmost patience – harsh handling has no place in dog training, and the aim is to create a partnership working in harmony.
Training will take time as setters are slow to mature, and there will be setbacks which must be dealt with calmly and with patience. A setter needs to be obedient and attentive to it’s owner, but also have the independence and initiative to work the wind and the ground to the best advantage.
Working and Field Trials
Working setters are used in the shooting field, in Field Trials, in falconry and in conservation work to count the population of rare game species such as black grouse.
Trials are held in Scotland in March, East Anglia in April, northern England and Scotland in July/August, and Norfolk in September. Trials are intended to resemble a shooting day so far as possible, but dogs are run as a brace.
A gun is fired over a dog on point to test for steadiness to gunfire, but as these events take place outside the shooting season no birds are shot.
Setters do not retrieve in the UK although this is required in trials abroad. Judges are very aware of the need to maintain standards in Field Trials – if it is considered that no dog has reached an acceptable standard, then awards will not be made.
Eliminating faults include missing game, flushing birds without pointing them, chasing fur or feather, and barking or whining. Noisy handling (blowing the whistle too much!) will also disqualify. Spectators are normally welcome to attend trials by previous arrangement with the Secretary of the organizing society. The Kennel Club is the organising body for Field Trials in the UK, and publishes a calendar of Field Trial dates annually.