The Gordon Setter

Origin of the gordon setter

The black and red setter, known as the gordon setter, evolved in the north of the British Isles in Scotland. These dogs were mentioned in literature as early as the 17th century and were considered to be less fast but very hardy. The history of their development is linked to the name of Prince Alexander Gordon IV (1743-1827), who lived at Fochabers Castle in Banfshire. Its origin is the same as that of the other setters, a mixture of various bush dogs and setting dogs. He owes his knowledge of the wild stance to a cross with the Spanish pointer.

The Duke’s dogs were said to be three-coloured, rarely black. According to reliable descriptions, Alexander was seriously involved in breeding these setters between 1800 and 1820, and mainly developed the working ability of the dogs. He used a shepherd’s collie bitch named Maddy, who was said to have very good hunting abilities, often standing up well to grouse when the setters had stopped hunting. This dog looked quite different from the collie of today, mostly black and tan in colour with small to large white patches. The first litter of this dog consisted of 6 pups, all of which were three-coloured, black and white tabby. These dogs became highly intelligent and easy to train adults, guarding sheep as well as hunting fowl.

With Alexander’s death the breed declined and dwindled considerably, but a few years later the Duke of Richmond revived the breed by taking over the castle.

At first they were bred almost exclusively for work, their origin depending almost entirely on the choice of the master hunter and his employee. As early as 1859 there was an English show organised by hunters, at which only pointers and setters were shown. On that occasion, dogs were classified in the same class, regardless of colour or type. The first prize out of 36 dogs was won by a black and tan Dandy, a Gordon setter. From 1861 onwards, the different varieties were entered in separate classes, but for a time the gordons were shown as ‘black and tan setters’. Dandy’s granddaughter Dandie was the winner. Its popularity in the British Isles, however, waned quite quickly, but it was well liked on the European continent, mainly because it was suitable for all-round work. She is a hard worker in the field and on the water, is hard-working, easy to drive and likes to bring game. It has a strong trapping ability, also due to its crossbreeding with the now rare Bloodhound, a dog often used to track down runaway slaves and hunt people in the colonies. The colouring and markings of the Gordon Setter are reminiscent of the dog breeds of yore. There are also references to various foxhound breeds, such as the Austrian Alpine Hound, and this ancient colour can be seen in the Havanese Shepherd, Pinscher and Rottweiler breeds.

Later, at the first Field Trial held at South Hill in 1863, Gordon Setters took the top three places, proving that their speed, which had been somewhat eroded by breeding, could be compensated for by perseverance and a good nose.In 1873, with the formation of the English Kennel Club, breeders began to keep pedigrees, in which they entered the names and general details of their dogs. This put an end to the confusion caused by constant name changes in breeding. In 1890 the first Gordon Setter Club was formed, and in 1893 it held its first field competition, which was not repeated due to the small number of entries. In the second half of the 19th century, many breeders, large and small, began to take up the breed. At that time the Reverend Pearce had a kennel of the finest gordons. He bought the Kent, a dog with many offspring and good hereditary qualities, which was a very good working dog, but very ugly in the head. It is indisputable that it was the work of the Dukes of Gordon and their efforts to develop super hunting ability that made this breed popular, leading to the formation of a breed club in America in 1888.

The tasks of the setters after their formation

Hunting with the English vizsla, like vizsla hunting in general, was common among the gentry. A hound was needed to mark game on small game hunts. At first they were used for hunting with snares and nets. Their tasks were to search for game by air, mark it, stop it, pull on it, drag it and, when the game was upset, bite it.

In low-flying solitary hunting, the setter searched for the game in the reeds or in the field. This type of hunting was mainly for ducks, geese, herons, pheasants, partridges and crows. As soon as the vizsla was standing, the scalped bird, sitting on its hand, would be mounted and would slaughter the game which the dog had beaten on command.

In high-flying falconry, the hawk or falcon’s hawk was released into the air to circle, and the dog searched with the bird. The bird would strike the game found by the dog. This form was mainly effective for partridge, quail, pheasant and duck.

The other form of hunting was cover netting, which resulted in the breeding of setts. This method was used for quail and partridge. The dog would zigzag across the field, search, and when it caught a snipe, it would stiffen its body to indicate the game and lie down in front of it. Then the bird watchers approached the prey from the front, cautiously, and set the net on the game and the marking dog.

In hedgerow netting, the multi-layered net was stretched low above the ground and the dog would search for the game in a wide arc as it approached the net. The aim was to prevent the bird from flaring up and staggering away towards the net, where it was trapped in the densely woven part of the net. The nets were used to hunt partridge, quail, pheasant, occasionally woodcock, but also rabbit and wild duck.

The system of high netting was the same, but the height of the net was adjusted to the flight of the game to be caught. Here, the aim was for the dog to pull on the game with a good wind and then wake it on command.

In water hunting, the setter’s work was limited to searching in reeds and slush, but if found, the fallen game could be retrieved. The majority of the dogs were happy to do this, as they had the retrieving skills and boundless love of water.

The ‘modern’ gordons and their tasks

At the beginning of the millennium, the gelding, unlike its original activity, has to perform a very wide range of tasks in order to hold its own in the hunt, and is the breed of choice for modern hunters.

Their task cannot be limited to the field work for which they were bred hundreds of years ago, but must be able to compete with the multifaceted work of the continental vizsla. This requires them to perform all-round tasks, which is a major challenge for most animals. However, with proper training, setter breeds, including the Gordon Setter, can be trained to be excellent all-round dogs.

The setter’s nose is as good as any continental vizsla breed, because they have the blood of the pointer, the king of sniffer dogs. Their work ethic and passion are incredible, and they never stop scent hunting to find game. Most setters have a passion for water, and even frozen water can’t deter them. A keen retriever, with practice he becomes a great retriever.

Unfortunately, however, the modern world demands something else of these dogs, which is now the primary consideration in breeding the breed. It is the world of show, the world of exhibitions, that makes these great hunting dogs into show “pieces” most of the time. In this way, the breed’s characteristics, its old qualities, are lost in oblivion. In England, about 50 years ago, the two types of breeding, show and working lines, became separated, and elsewhere in the world the future of the breed is moving in the same direction.

The aim would be to combine the two lines in such a way as to produce a dog that is close to the standard – there is no such thing as a perfect dog – and at the same time has excellent working qualities of which we can all be proud in the future.

The character of the gordon setter

The proud, noble exterior and bold eyes of the Gordon reveal a sensitive and kind interior. He is an extremely temperamental breed, loves to be a leader in dog company and has the strength to do so.

In training, he has a low tolerance for violence, but in the right hands, the owner’s influence is enough to challenge his intelligence. Too rough treatment will break his nature, and may have the opposite effect.

In many cases he likes to make decisions on his own, he is quick to find solutions in new situations, his curious nature encourages him to explore new things. Persistent and passionate at work, he is a hard-working breed, with a beauty, noble elegance and an interesting nature, interested in all new things, which has many admirers in the non-hunting and canine world. We and the Gordons found each other, and in our house it became a lifelong relationship.

The role of breeders in maintaining the setter

The work of breeders is essential in maintaining the breed.

One of the breeders’ goals – by which the breed can be identified at first glance – is to record a spectacular phenotype, but just as important must be the maintenance of genetically inherited intrinsic qualities.

Unfortunately, the work of today’s breeders has shifted towards emphasising the external qualities, importing more and more beautiful setters at great sacrifice, but not being aware of the utility, temperament and hunting passion of their dogs. By breeding these dogs and favouring them for generations, many dogs are given to owners who will never have the opportunity to search a field or stop for game in their lives.

The English Vizslas (pointers, setters), which were still popular and much used in Hungary in the early 1900s, are now disappearing from the hunting scene. In the selfishness of breeding, a negative image – not always based on solid foundations – has developed among hunters and the less competent, which characterises the breeds: they cannot stand the sound of a shot because they have a weak nervous system, they will not go into the water because they have not had the opportunity to get to know it, they will not retrieve because they have not been given the right work.

“A lot of hunters imagine that the hound is made that way – you just go out hunting with it and it will even hit you in the mind. That’s why many hunters are then bitterly disappointed and lose interest in the hunting dog. You have to understand a hunting dog! Dealing with a hound is also a special science that needs to be mastered. A hunting dog can only be of help if you know its abilities, its qualities, its tendencies, if you know how to handle it, if you know how to hunt with it in different terrain, on different game.” (Endre Félix: Hunting small game with the vizsla, 1948)

The Hungarian hunting community should have the same role in solving these problems as the setter breeders in Hungary today. The responsibility lies in the hands of these two groups, it is not too late to seize the opportunity! It is a matter of individuality and taste which dog you choose to associate with your hunting. However, setters capture the hearts of all people, not just hunters, who have seen them work tirelessly in the field and become statues in search. What they see – the nobility of the dogs – remains an everlasting memory in their hearts.

Writen : Ács Piros