The king of Scotland: don't be fooled by the Gordon Setter's royal bloodline and noble bearing--this breed was built to hunt hard.
The Gordon setter owes its name to Alexander, Fourth Duke of Gordon, who is largely credited with establishing and perfecting the large black-and-tan setter. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Alexander crossed various strains of setters to develop a breed that was best suited to hunt grouse on the extensive "dogging moors" around Gordon Estate. The rough country required a solid dog with plenty of prey drive, and the unpredictable Scottish weather favored a dog with a coat that could stand up to the elements.
Over the decades Alexander refined his breeding program, thanks in part to outcrosses with setters on nearby estates, and eventually developed a specific type of hunting dog that became known as the Duke of Gordon setter. Initially these dogs were tri-colored, but over time the characteristic black-and-tan coloration associated with the modern Gordon setter became the standard.
In 1842 U.S. statesman Daniel Webster and George Blunt traveled to Scotland and picked up two pups from the Duke of Gordon's kennels. Named Rake and Rachel, these two dogs were to become the foundation of the Gordon setter in America. The Duke of Gordon's hunting dogs proved to be as versatile and effective hunting dogs in the States as they were in Europe, and soon the breed had a foothold in this country. In 1884 the Gordon setter was officially registered by the American Kennel Club.
Gordons seem to share an inherent understanding of their stately history, carrying themselves with a grace and elegance that hint at royal lineage. The AKC describes the Gordon's bearing as "intelligent, noble, and dignified," but this was not a breed built for the show ring or as a mere companion. The modern Gordon is a representation of years of careful breeding to develop a dog that is built for the hunt, and few dogs are better-equipped for the trials of field work.
The Gordon is the largest of all the setter breeds, with males standing between 24 and 27 inches at the shoulder and females between, 23 and 26 inches. Males should weigh in at 55-80 pounds while females should weigh between 45 and 70 pounds. All Gordons should exhibit a strong, muscular frame. According to the AKC, the breed should have "plenty of bone and substance" and should "suggest strength and stamina rather than extreme speed."
The breed standard calls for a setter with a short, strong back, relatively short tail, and well-sprung ribs. The breed's solid frame is partially hidden beneath that feathered fringe of air that hangs down from the tail, chest, legs and belly. One of the Gordon's defining characteristics is its striking coloration; smooth, jet-black hair contrasts with rich mahogany spots above the eyes, along the muzzle, on the chest and the feet. A little white on the chest is permissible, but it should be minimal.
The Gordon is an affectionate and intelligent if somewhat reserved dog, generally preferring the companionship of one or two close family members over a crowd of strangers. That doesn't mean that Gordons are aggressive or highly territorial, they simply aren't as gregarious as other breeds like Labs and golden retrievers.
My first experience with Gordons came when I climbed into Tom Loy of Tallgrass Gordon Setters' hunting vehicle and we were several miles down the road before I realized there were two dogs in the car. They were lying in the open cargo area behind my seat, and when I turned around Sammi, the female, slapped her tail against the floor cordially. If the unbridled joviality of a retriever is what you seek you won't find it here, but your Gordon also won't be sitting on your dinner guest's lap as they try to eat.
"I have four kids and I have yet to have a dog that would be aggressive with my family or guests," Loy says. "Gordons are not fighters. They do tend to be loyal to one person, and that person is generally the one that feeds and cares for them. Most Gordons are interested in house quests for the first few moments and then are aloof, generally ignoring them from that point on."
Gordons are said to mature more slowly than other breeds, but Loy isn't sure he agrees with that statement in all instances.
"We need to define 'mature,'" Loy says. "For me 'mature' is defined as a gun dog that will point staunchly, know where to hunt, use the wind to their advantage, range out or hunt close de pending on cover conditions, sort out foot scent from body scent, generally making adult decisions when at a distance. Physical maturity and mental maturity are two different things; mental maturity is greatly influenced by training and experience.
"More hunting time will quicken the maturity rate in our dogs. In the dogs that I've had I was able to shoot birds over their staunch points before they were a year old, but having a mature dog in its application of all aspects might take a few more years."
Regarding training, Loy says that the Gordons he raises and trains don't respond well to harsh methods, and that a positive approach will help you see better results more quickly.
"Generally, Gordon setters can be less forgiving of mistakes in the training process then some other breeds," Loy says. "So going slow and keeping things positive is very important. The best technique that gives me a happy trained gun dog is using positive reinforcement or clicker training."
Hell's Canyon in western Idaho is far removed from the heather-covered moors of Scotland. The aptly-named canyon is the deepest gorge in the United States, and at its bottom lies the twisting and turbulent Snake River, which carves its way across southern Idaho and into the Tetons of Wyoming.
Hot and rugged, remote and steep, the canyon is also prime habitat for a variety of gamebird species. Chukars, Huns and quail can all be found here in abundance, and in the higher elevation above the canyon ruffed and blue grouse are also common, but it takes a special breed to find them.
Tom Loy's Pistol Pete, who a few hours before had been snoozing in his owner's vehicle with eyes half-closed, was buzzing up and down through the short grass hillsides of Hell's Canyon, an ebony dot in a sea of dry, yellow grass. There's a reason that there are so many birds in this canyon and so few hunters chasing them. Nothing about a Hell's Canyon hunt is easy, and each year plenty of out-of-state hunters find out very quickly that neither they nor their dogs are up to the challenge.
Pete is used to running birds in this big country, however, and aside from the occasional stop by Tom's side for a drink of water the dog looks far better at the end of the day than I do. When the sun finally sets over the canyon rim Pete has accounted for three chukars, a ruffed grouse and several quail from the Cottonwood tributaries along the Snake.
He offers me a subtle tail thump as he walks by in the late afternoon light, his glossy black coat shimmering against the rocks, and lies down at Tom's feet. There's truth to the old adage that the Gordon is a one-man dog, and although he's cordial to me, I'm not Pete's man.
Hell, as it's affectionately known, has become something of a proving ground for dogs. Sure, you can stay low and pot a few birds now and then, but the real hunting is in the steep country. This is the type of terrain where the Gordon thrives. With plenty of stamina and a workmanlike pace that is neither slow nor exhausting the Gordon is right at home on these sheer cliffs.
These dogs were bred, after all, for hunting on the steep Scottish moors, and the Gordon's thorough style is conducive to a landscape of broken rock faces and boulder piles. The Gordon's manner of hunting is also well-suited to chasing birds in thick alder and Cottonwood thickets farther east, and the breed has long been a favorite of grouse and woodcock hunters.
In fact, the versatile Gordon is capable of a wide variety of tasks and the breed's steadfast, methodical hunting style lends itself well to all types of foot hunting. In addition to their dignified demeanor and hunter-friendly style, the Gordon is also one of the most striking gun dog breeds, and it's little wonder that the breed is so commonly a subject of sporting art such as Thomas Blinks' famed nineteenth-century painting The Thistle.
Gordons are a generally robust breed but are subject to some of the same ailments common in larger dogs such as hip dysplasia and bloat. These dogs are also susceptible to a condition known as progressive retinal atrophy or PRA, a degenerative disease that leads to blindness. PRA is caused by a specific genetic abnormality known as rcd4 mutation, and there are tests to determine if dogs are carriers for this condition.
Since there is no treatment for PRA and the gene is recessive (meaning two unaffected parents can produce puppies that suffer from the disease) a genetic workup of the sire and dam is the only way to completely insure eye health in these dogs.
Handsome, regal and dignified, the Gordon has a royal background and a proud hunting heritage that dates back hundreds of years. Today's Gordons, through careful breeding, continue to carry on these traditions.*
BY BRAD FITZPATRICK