Saturday, 9 February 2019

English Setter Puppies – The Storm before the Calm

The English Setter is sometimes overlooked and now classed as a vulnerable native breed. Last year I put forward a proposal to the Surrey Life editor for an article to help give them some positive PR. My praise for the breed was at the time fulsome and unequivocal but there wasn’t really a strong enough Surrey connection so this offer was declined.

Since then, I am beginning to understand why a prospective Setter owner might hesitate.

Our first, taken 1995
In our family we have had English Setters for the past 35 years, a tradition we are presently continuing with the acquisition of two adorable sister pups in September last year. Friends and family thought we were mad; even the breeder was incredulous, saying to us with raised eyebrows, ‘Are you sure?’  We are, after all, not as young as we were – in fact, we are ‘of a certain age’ – enough said.

The English Setter is one of the oldest breeds of gundog, with a history that traces back to the 14th century. It was developed over hundreds of years from the spaniel and was originally called a Setting Spaniel, used for finding and setting birds. Apparently, so we are told, used as such in Spain, once the hunting season is over, they are dispatched by hanging, which is why there is quite a trade in rescue dogs from there. I cannot personally verify this but it probably has at least an element of truth that makes my stomach churn.
Our 2nd beautifully behaved English Setter

I said to the editor in my pitch, ‘Classed by colour as Blue Belton, Orange Belton and Tricolour. I would describe them as, not only gorgeous, but ‘proper dogs’, beautifully proportioned, energetic, and some would say strong-willed but I stress that overall they are the most gentle of dogs. On Wikipedia the terms used are "intensely friendly," "good natured," and "adores visitors and is particularly happy with children", with which my family would heartily concur. Our first English Setter bitch, a blue we called Shimmer, we chose because, with young children and their playmates around, temperament was paramount and we noticed a waggy dog behind a wrought-iron garden gate that seemed to welcome children poking their fingers through and saying hello on their way home from primary school. We investigated and discovered the English Setter. That was 35 years ago when they were gaining in popularity.

Once they get over the mischievous, puppy stage we have found them to be soundly trainable, and since they were bred to be working dogs, always up for a long walk.’
Lovable Setter number 3
Now here I would interject and point out that as puppies they can drive you to a point of nervous and physical exhaustion. We had never had siblings before and this was a whole new ball game (actually a weak metaphor as they are not willing retrievers). Before, we did get a puppy when our existing dog was 7 years old and this worked very well, the older one acting as a kind of surrogate mother and patient role model.

They are such high octane bundles of energy that their time in the house with us, even now at 7 months, is limited. When little and virtually incontinent with both wee and poo and chewing anything available, five minutes was usually enough before they were escorted back to their bedroom, our utility room, or sectioned off patch of garden. Much better now – once they are mud-free or dry from being washed, they come in at various times of the day but my husband or I have to watch them like a hawk as they are still incurably curious, bless them – electric cables, shoes, the best furniture, coal and so on, – all those things you specially wish they would not touch. Before you say anything, yes we give them a plentiful supply of chews and ‘toys’ and play silly games. The constant correcting from us ie shouting ‘No’, ‘Leave’ and occasional expletives are beginning to register and take effect. They understand and obey commands ‘Sit’ ‘Leave’ ‘Stay’ ‘Lie Down’. Stupid they are not! Perhaps all puppies are like this, but English Setters can be notoriously naughty and two is more than double trouble.

Irresistible or what?
On twice daily walks up our local woods, they are at times ‘partners in crime’. There was that autumnal day they ate fly agaric mushrooms, or spotty red toadstools, and we thought they might die, but that’s another story … They need to run so we cannot keep them on leads all the time and have to take risks, constantly calling or whistling them back with the lure of rewards and praise. They understand all right, but if there’s some attraction they consider a better offer, like any other dog or group of dogs, a runner or cyclist, ‘selective deafness’ kicks in and we might as well not be there. At times they put their heads together as they scamper off at speed, quickly vanishing. We get a phone call from somebody a couple of miles from where we live to tell us they are in their garden and ready for collection. This is not funny. They can also easily find their own way home. Roads are alive with vehicles and even our best efforts to get them to sit when walking on a lead by a road every time a car goes by, is probably forgotten when they are going solo – together. Apologies to neighbours if you are reading this.

Now they are 7 months old we are beginning to see an improvement, so I am writing this not to put off anyone who might be thinking of getting an English Setter, but rather as a warning of what to expect in the short-term especially if you get two. We are retired and give a lot of time to them as a kind of project. If we were out working it would not work at all. They are energetic, strong, messy, lovable little vandals and unless you are prepared for the problems this brings, don’t go there.

They are indeed the best of dogs, once grown up and matured, and we see the green shoots of their sweet gentleness now beginning to unfurl.

Registrations of puppies reached 1344 during 1974 but by 2012, and again in 2016, the Kennel Club listed the English Setter amongst the Vulnerable Native Breeds as only 234 puppies were registered.

As we know from years of walking our dogs in different parts of the UK many people do not even know what the breed is called but often stop to enquire. Others approach us and our dogs, a little misty-eyed, to tell us that they used to have Setters or they were brought up with one and always these people say they are the best dogs in the world. When we meet a stranger walking an English Setter, we greet each other with beaming smiles – and it always seems as if the dogs do too!  (Dogs do smile, by the way, although near impossible to catch this on camera.)