The Gordon Setter

As published in GOOD DOG! magazine 


It was November, the last camping trip of the season, a long weekend in the Sierra foothills on friends' property. Nine of our Gordon Setters and six Irish Setters were present. As the last of the sun's rays faded, the air turned brisk and chilly, and we soon had a welcome campfire lit. Dogs and humans gathered around the warmth, humans having donned suitable heavier clothing. Some of the younger pups still raced around chasing balls and sticks and generally exploring the hillsides. It was soon apparent that the older and less heavily-coated dogs were becoming uncomfortably cold despite the fire's efforts. They weren't willing to call it a night and seek refuge in the camper, since we humans were still enjoying the star-studded outdoors. They were determined to be wherever we were, as is their nature and custom. We had brought several warm dog coats with us for just this eventuality. We hauled them out, and began "dressing" the ones in obvious distress. The three old guys, the less energetic ones, and the ones with sparse hair coats were all soon jacketed and content. We settled down to enjoy the evening's companionship. Then we noticed that Blaze, a four-year-old female Gordon, kept milling around the other quiet dogs, her head and tail lowered, looking generally miserable. She had a good, thick coat and was in excellent health and overall condition, so it didn't seem reasonable for her to be troubled by the autumnal chill. But she was definitely not happy about something.

Eighteen years of Gordon Setter ownership and observation finally clicked into place, and I realized what the problem was: Blaze wanted a coat! I jumped up and shared my conclusion with the other folks, who returned quizzical looks. This didnít make any sense to them. Besides, we didnít have any more dog coats available since we had continued to "dress" the dogs until we had used up all the coats. "Blaze must have a coat, " I insisted. "Weíll have to come up with something."

Quickly inventorying the contents of the camper, I seized my husbandís heavy old field jacket, complete with quilted liner. I removed the liner, put the back of it against Blazeís chest and inserted her forelegs through its sleeves, rolling each one up to accommodate her leg length. I snapped it shut along her back. Then I took a short length of rope, wrapped it around her midsection to gather up the excess fabric, and tied it over her back. Blaze stood quietly throughout her fitting session and cooperated when I pushed her legs through the sleeves and tied on the rope.

When I stood back to review my efforts, I beheld a different dog! Blazeís head came up and her tail came up. We praised her lovely coat and self in extravagant terms, with much hand clapping, and oohís and aahís. She began to prance around the campfire, "woo-wooing" at the assembly, looking extremely pleased with herself and with life in general. One friend remarked, "Thatís what she wanted, all right, her own coat!" I smiled and said, "Well, thatís Gordons for you!"

Gordon Setters are black-coated dogs with tan markings on the head, forelegs, chest, and hindquarters. Their coat is long and silky on the ears, forelegs, chest and belly, hindquarters, and tail. Males generally weigh from 60 to 80 pounds as adults and stand 25" to 27" at the shoulder; females are about 10 pounds lighter and 1 inch shorter. Both sexes are wonderful with children, devoted to the family, loyal and protective without being aggressive. They are generally clean and mannerly, quiet and a bit aloof with strangers. They get along well with other dogs and love to play and socialize.

Credit for the development of the contemporary Gordon Setter is generally given to Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon. He was a Scotsman who lived from 1743 to 1827. These dogs were used for hunting upland game birds (pheasant, quail, partridge, etc). The traditional method of hunting with setters was established before firearms came into regular use. The hunters worked with nets. Their dogs were trained to point at the scent of game and then crouch low so that the net could be spread over them and the birds alike. This silent method also worked well for game taken without authorization on private lands!

The first dogs known to have been imported to the United States from Gordon Castle were called Rake and Rachel. They were purchased in 1842 by George Blunt of New York. Rachel was given to Daniel Webster. Webster's family raised hunting dogs directly descended from this original pair until 1906.

Gordons were first registered in the United States in 1879. In 1892, the American Kennel Club officially designated them as "Gordon Setters." Because of their keen scenting ability, stamina, and enthusiasm for working all day, every day, Gordons were one of the favorite breeds of professional market hunters. This was an activity that persisted into the 20th century.

Gordons continue to be outstanding personal hunting dogs to this day. As companions afield, they are invaluable, with superb noses and a determined thoroughness. They are not shy of dense brush, and, with gusto, will bring back downed birds. They are intelligent and have excellent memories, retaining their training and eagerness for the hunt from season to season, year to year.

Even as they excel as hunters, Gordons have few equals as family companions. Acquiring a Gordon has been likened to adopting a child: They consider themselves members of the family and expect to be treated as such! Gordons can live outside, if they must, while the human household members are away at work or school. But they will insist on being inside with the family when anyone is at home. Fortunately, they are generally quite content to bask in the presence of humans, rather than insisting on constant interaction!

The center of a Gordonís universe is his human family. Ideally, he would most prefer doing something with a family member. If that option is currently not available to him, he will be content to wait a very long time to do something, as long as he is with his person. There is little need to worry that he will run off and get into mischief - unless he is shut off from his folks. This trait makes a Gordon an ideal dog to accompany the family on outings, hiking, or camping. Most love to go for rides. Their preferred seating arrangement is lying down on the front seat with their head in your lap! It doesn't matter to them so much where they are going as that they are going some place with you!

Gordons respond beautifully to positive reinforcement of desired behaviors. Since they are very willing to please once they understand what their masters want, it is most useful to "seduce" them into wanted behaviors. Put them into situations where they can only do the right thing, and then tell them how wonderful they are for doing it! Food rewards from time to time can also be helpful, but some Gordons are not motivated by their taste buds.

Never forget however, that a Gordon is a true Scotsman. He should not be worked with force for he will then become very stubborn. One should never enter a contest of wills with a Gordon. The end result will be a dog that is sulky, shy, or sour, and a human who is frustrated and no longer has any use for the breed.

Gordons are very social with other dogs. It is highly recommended that pups living in single-dog households have several hours a week of interaction with one or more canine buddies. Watching several dogs interacting is the best free entertainment around, and it is a great confidence-builder for the participants. A single Gordon confined primarily to house and backyard may come to lack self confidence. This can lead to shyness with strange persons, fear of new surroundings, and confusion about proper interaction with other canines.

Generally speaking, Gordon females get along well with one another and with males. While many are easy-going, some Gordon males can be quite dominant and territorial. They will not tolerate another adult male on their own property, even though they may interact willingly enough with all other dogs on such neutral turf as a park, the beach, or hunting grounds. Now and again there is one who is better off as a single dog in all circumstances; this is a rarity and such a Gordon should not be used for breeding.

Gordons are not suitable for households where all members are away for over 10 hours a day. They are not "backyard-only" dogs, either. Gordons can live successfully in apartments and townhouses as long as they get a good morning and evening walk and have a chance for a nice long run on the weekend. A Gordon pup will blend easily into a household that already has cats, one or more adult female dogs, or several dogs of both sexes if a system of social hierarchy is well-established. He will take readily to children already present as well as to those born into the family later on.

Gordons have a natural affinity for children and often bond with them at once, without hesitation. They seem to know that children are mini-humans, in need of looking after and protection. The Gordon will patiently tolerate extraordinary treatment from them. It is not uncommon to hear of a Gordon inserting itself between parent and child, thereby thwarting all attempts at adult discipline!

Gordon instincts are little less than amazing in this regard: our household has never had small children and our dogs are rarely exposed to any in our home environment. One day, a couple came to visit with their three-week-old baby. They had been raised in Gordon-owning households themselves, and had several dogs of their own, so they were comfortable setting the baby down in its rush basket on our living room floor. At that time, we had six or seven dogs, including two one-year-old females (one a Gordon Setter, the other an Irish) all of whom had, of course, been exiled to the back of the house. The living room was blocked off with a baby gate.

After a short while, Joy, the young Irish Setter female, managed to push herself through the baby gate. We all settled back to watch her reaction to the infant. Joy approached the basket and sniffed. Her eyes got huge, and she began to lick the baby's face, wiggling all over in an attempt to crawl into the basket with the babe, clean her diaper, and generally adore her. We all thought that was pretty cute, and the baby didn't mind the face wash a bit. Joy was still in the midst of her antics when Brett, the young Gordon, made her appearance at the baby gate. She, too, pushed her way through and into the room.

She approached the basket at once, took one or two perfunctory sniffs, and moved back a little way, seemingly not interested. Then she plopped herself down on the floor about two inches away from the basket and proceeded to growl at Joy until Joy moved away from the baby. She kept Joy at bay and indicated that the same rules applied to all of the other dogs now crowding the baby gate. She wasn't very happy, a while later, when the baby's own mother approached: This was a baby, it was her job to protect it and nothing would sway her from that task! We were amazed at the time, but since then have heard similar stories from many of our clients. They regularly send us holiday photographs of their sleeping infants entwined on floor or bed with the family Gordon Setter!

For a first dog, it's best to acquire a single Gordon pup, develop a strong bond with him, and teach him basic house rules before getting a second dog. Two pups of the same age, whether littermates or not may bond more closely with each other than with their human family. It is not suggested to get Gordon littermates and it is never recommended to get Gordon male littermates. The dominance issue may never be resolved between them and they can grow into fierce enemies. A second dog acquired when the first pup is about 10 to 18 months of age is ideal. The younger will respect and learn from the elder and both dogs will bond with their humans. If both dogs will be unneutered males, it is perhaps wiser to leave a gap of three or four years in age between them. It is not advisable to bring an older male into the home of a younger adult male Gordon.

Just as puppies have more energy than adults and need more food and exercise, they tend to be friendly to every human they encounter. At about one year of age, a Gordon begins to get quite choosy about his human companions. He develops a very strong sense of who is family, who is friend, who is stranger. The family can do no wrong, including infants and toddlers biting, pinching, pulling, knocking him down, and running over him with all sorts of objects. Outside people whom he recognizes and likes are greeted with much outward display, body movements and contact, and all manner of odd vocalizing!

A stranger is another story. A Gordon will always bark to alert you that someone is at the door or on the premises. He will stay at your side rather than approach the stranger. If you acknowledge the person and admit him to your home, whether on a social or business call, a Gordon will not readily accept petting or other contact. He may, in fact shy away at first. This is not a case of a faulty disposition. The Gordon isn't being shy, just doing his job of assessing the situation and making certain that this person really is all right and not just on your say so! Once he makes up his mind, he will approach the person on his own terms to check him out. That's normal breed response.

A Gordon pup will accept just about anything that he grows up with: cats, birds, babies, strange noises, etc. Early exposure works wonders. As pups, Gordons will swim, climb ladders, slide down playground slides, open doors, and turn water and lights on and off with glee. Don't however, expect an older Gordon to take to anything new immediately. He will have to assess new things in the sane way that he does new people, and may well decide that this is definitely not for him. Don't fight him, don't force him; let him come to his own terms and respect them (as long as he isn't in any danger).

Although most Gordons retain a good measure of hunting instincts, today the majority of them live in pet homes with nonhunters, or with folks who go afield only once or twice a year. Don't worry that your Gordon is missing out on anything as long as you can get him out for the occasional long run off lead. He will be hunting, whether you are or not. If you learn a bit about the way pointing dogs work, you may be able to observe some of his hunting in the way he runs back and forth in front of you, searches the ground and bushes or other brush, and interacts with any birds or other small animals he may encounter. If you would like to learn more about hunting instincts and behaviors, there are many fine books. Gordon Setter Club members are always eager to introduce a newcomer to the delights of working a birddog!

Gordons are superb hunting dogs, and devoted and responsive enough to their owners to be able to turn loose in a safe area without fear of their running off. But they are not particularly suited for formal obedience work. For general. everyday behavior, it is short work to teach a Gordon to walk nicely on a lead without pulling, to stand still, stay, sit, lie down, and to come when called. But perfect heel position can be quite a problem. The natural place for a Gordon to be is out in front, quartering the fields (going back and forth in a generalized figure eight pattern) for the hunter, covering all of the ground so that the hunter doesn't have to do so himself. Gordons, especially those who have done some actual hunting, have a great deal of difficulty understanding why you want them just beside your left leg. They must master centuries of hunting instinct to remain in heel position. Their Scottish stubbornness doesn't help matters at all. Unless you really enjoy a challenge and don't care much about high obedience trial scores, I'd suggest taking a Gordon to a puppy socialization and basic obedience class just to civilize him. Then relax and enjoy doing with him the things that he's best at!

Some Gordon breeders have specialized their lines quite highly for showing or for field trialing purposes (a field trial is a simulated hunting competition). Their Gordons may vary from the norm in both behavior and appearance. Gordons that have been bred strictly for show competition for several generations often tend to be large, sometimes as tall as 29" and weighing 100 pounds or more. They may carry thick, profuse coats that grow all the way to the ground, and may require daily grooming of an hour or more. They can be excitable and somewhat high-strung, and may not always get along well with other dogs.

Field trial Gordons are often quite small and fine-boned, standing as short as 21" and weighing as little as 35 pounds, fully grown. They usually have short coats and may have patches of white on their chests, bellies, feet, and at times on their heads and backs. While generally quiet and well-behaved in the house, these dogs may be so eager to ran that they are a constant source of concern to their owners when they are running free.

All lines of Gordons carry a red dilute color factor and may be a solid reddish color or a liverish color with tan markings. These dogs may not be shown, but otherwise make perfectly acceptable pets with all of the typical characteristics of Gordon behavior, instinct and attitude.

A Gordon Setter has a life expectancy of 10 to 12 years, although it is not unusual for them to live to 14 or more. Like every large, fast-growing breed of dog, it is important to balance their diet and exercise as pups and to maintain them on good programs of vaccination and worming. Hip dysplasia occurs in about 15% of Gordons, and only rarely is it incapacitating. Most conscientious breeders are careful to X-ray the hips of both parents before breeding them. Many have their breeding stock certified free of hip dysplasia by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. If a breeder cannot provide you with OFA numbers for the parents of his pups, he should have a letter from a qualified veterinarian stating that their hips are of breeding quality.

If there is a weakness in the Gordon breed, it is the immune system. This manifests itself in many ways, including skin and food allergies, thyroid deficiencies, auto-immune diseases, and cancers of many sorts. Gordons that live to a ripe old age generally are stricken by some form of cancer, as opposed to skeletal deformities, organ failure, or muscular disorders. Common cancers in Gordons are lymphosarcoma, leukemia, bone cancer, mammary cancer, malignant melanoma, and various skin tumors. Most Gordons lead healthy lives and some owners use nutritional supplements to assist the immune system, especially in times of stress or illness.

There is one genetic disorder that occurs only in Gordon Setters. Its scientific name is cerebellar cortical abiotrophy (usually referred to as CCA). This is an inherited brain condition in which the pup's cerebellum (the part of the brain that governs balance and coordination) is normal at birth and begins to atrophy sometime thereafter. The disease is progressive and degenerative. The age of onset, the rate of progression, and the symptoms expressed vary with the individual dog. Generally, the dog is seen to be clumsy, to stumble and occasionally fall, to have difficulty with stairs, and to experience head tremors. Some affected dogs degenerate very quickly and are unable to stand at one year of age. Others live on into double digits with only slight impairment and fall prey to other disorders of advancing age.

The incidence of CCA is very slight with less than one Gordon in every 1000 affected. It is worthwhile to inquire into a pup's history, but since the condition is so rare, many Gordon owners, and even some breeders and veterinarians, may never have heard of this condition. A comment, therefore, to that effect could well be an honest response to your inquiry.

CCA is caused by a single recessive gene: To produce an affected puppy, both parents must have been carriers. If a sibling or one or both parents are affected, a dog must be a carrier, but a carrier need not be directly related to an affected dog (carriers can produce carriers.) At this time it is impossible to identify carriers by any test or examination.

Gordons, as a whole, tend to have a number of reproductive difficulties. Because they are so attached to their owners, females sent away for breeding many times fail to conceive. Thyroid or other metabolic irregularities in both males and females are common causes of lower fertility. Oftentimes, no one specific reason can be determined; there just are no pups! Once pregnant, Gordon females tend to give birth easily and are superb mothers. The average Gordon litter ranges from 6 to 10 pups.

Because they are difficult to produce, most breeders have a waiting list of potential puppy owners. The average wait for a Gordon Setter puppy is several months. But it is not uncommon to wait two or more years for one! Do not expect to be able to call a breeder at Halloween and order a pup for Christmas! Occasionally, an older dog becomes available. Breeders are generally aware of these, also.

The Gordon Setter Club of America is a national organization that supports local groups of fanciers in many parts of the country. The GSCA sponsors a rescue program that finds new homes for lost or abandoned Gordons. They also work with local affiliated rescue services.

Again, because of their relative rarity, it is not uncommon for folks to purchase their Gordons long distance. Most established breeders are accustomed to sending photographs and videotapes of pups to folks not able to come see a litter in person. Most of the large commercial airline carriers are well-equipped to ship pups anywhere in the country and often overseas. An established breeder knows that the reputation of his dogs, and the breed as a whole, rests upon his making a good match between puppy and puppy buyer. He will work conscientiously to make sure that the right pup goes into the right home. It's every breeder's wish to make owning a Gordon an experience of joyful partnership with a hard working and completely devoted companion.

Is it worth the wait for a Gordon? Certainly not for every person, nor for every family. Many folks aren't interested in including their canine friend in every aspect of family life or in experiencing the degree of emotional intensity that Gordon ownership almost always entails. A Gordon is always aware of what his family is doing and where everyone is. Just as Gordons love to hear their owners laugh, and will go to great length to elicit expressions of praise and delight so are they quick to react in times of tension and sorrow. Rage, and they will get out of your way; sing, and they may vocalize with you, cheek-to-cheek; laugh, and they will bounce their way into the middle of any game; weep, and a warm muzzle in your lap, sad eyes, and a tongue eager to dry your tears are at the ready. You may be alone with a Gordon Setter, but you will never be lonely with one at your side!


Wendy Czarnecki acquired her first Gordon Setter in 1973 and actively began showing and field trialing. In 1980, she began seriously breeding and, to date, has produced 33 Champion Gordons carrying the Bright Star kennel name. There are 2 Bright Star Gordon Setter Dual Champions, 3 AKC Field Champions; 17 Bright Star Gordons have earned Junior Hunter titles; 3 have earned Senior and Master Hunter titles; 18 have earned the GSCA Working Certificate; and 5 have earned CD obedience titles. Bright Star Gordons have been nationally ranked in both show and field competition. Wendy was Associate Editor of the Gordon Quarterly magazine from 1985 to 1995, regularly contributes to the Gordon Setter Club of America Reviews, and now works with the Gordon Annual.