Breed of the Week: The Gordon Setter (Video)


The Gordon Setter is a hunting dog, originally bred for hunting quail and pheasant. Today, these dogs are still used for hunting as well as field trials and agility. They also make great companion dogs.


Gordon Setters are intelligent and beautiful, and the largest of all the setter breeds. They’re loyal and affectionate, but somewhat late to mature – in fact, many Gordons are “puppies in their own mind” long after they reach adulthood.

These active dogs need a lot of exercise, and will do best in homes where they have large areas to run outdoors. Gordons are easy to train, and in fact if they’re not properly trained, they can become stubborn.

Gordons are sometimes aggressive with other dogs, but it’s not something that’s common to the breed. They can be a bit aloof with strangers – they’ll tolerate attention but won’t seek it out, preferring to get attention from their own humans. Early socialization is important.


The Gordon Setter takes his name from the fourth Duke of Gordon who, in 1820 started a breeding program. However, Scottish setting dogs go back to 1620s Scotland. Early Gordon Setters could be black and white, red, or tricolor, but the Duke bred mainly for black and tan, and carried on a breeding program for seven years. Following his death, the Duke of Richmond took over his kennels and continued breeding.

In 1859, the breed was recognized by the English Kennel Club as Black and Tan Setters. The name “Gordon Setter” was adopted in 1924.

In the United States, George Blunt and Daniel Webster brought in two dogs from Scotland, and began breeding. In 1892, the AKC recognized the Golden Setter. Today, the Gordon Setter is #88 among the 155 AKC-recognized breeds.


Male Gordon Setters typically stand 24-27 inches at the shoulder, and weigh 55-80 pounds. Female Gordons stand 23-26 inches and weigh 45-80 pounds.


Gordon Setters are incredibly loyal to their families, but not all that receptive toward strangers. This makes the Gordon a very effective watchdog.

Gordon Setters are a bit like children in that they require fair, consistent, firm training and in that if they’re caught doing something wrong, they might seem as though they’re sorry – the reality, though, is that it’s more likely the dog is just sorry that he got caught misbehaving. It’s important that you be the leader in the relationship, otherwise your Gordon could become willful and might even try to dominate you.

As is the case with virtually any breed, the Gordon Setter’s temperament will depend on several factors – heredity, socialization and training. When choosing a Gordon Setter Puppy, look for one that’s playful, curious and approachable. You don’t want the puppy who’s bullying his littermates, and you also don’t want the one who’s hanging out in a corner and not wanting to be with the other puppies. Also, make sure that you can see the mother – if she has a good temperament, then most likely your puppy will, too. If you can see the father as well, that’s even better, but it’s not always possible. Frequently, Gordon Setter breeders use outside studs.

Early socialization is vital, so you’ll want to expose your Gordon to as many different people, experiences, sounds and sights as possible early on. Let him meet the neighbors, and visit areas where people tend to congregate. You could also consider enrolling your Gordon in puppy kindergarten.

One thing that’s specific to the breed is that Gordon Setters often go through a period, usually when they’re between 6 and 9 months old, where they’re fearful and easily spooked. Avoid coddling – if you make a big deal out of things, your dog is just going to think that he’s right in thinking that there’s something to be afraid of. Just stay calm and speak in a reassuring tone of voice.

Gordons are also among the breeds most likely to develop separation anxiety. For tips on how to handle this, see Mommy, Don’t Leave Me! Dealing With Separation Anxiety in Dogs.

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Gordon Setters are usually healthy dogs, but they can be prone to a few conditions.

1. Hip Dysplasia

This is an inherited condition, so if you’re buying a Gordon puppy, you should ask the breeder to show you clearances on the adult dogs. This is because the condition isn’t identifiable in puppies – it appears when the dog attains full growth.

With hip dysplasia, the hip joint and thigh bone don’t fit snugly. Some dogs can have the condition while remaining symptom-free, whereas others may appear lame in the rear legs. Hip dysplasia can also be affected by too-rapid growth or by injuries from falling or jumping. If you discover that your Gordon Setter has hip dysplasia, you should not breed.

Much of the time, the condition can be managed using medication. In other cases, surgery might be needed.

2. Elbow Dysplasia

This is another joint problem that’s usually found in large breeds. It occurs when the three bones that comprise the elbow grow at different rates. Lameness can result. Treatments include weight management, pain medication, or surgery.

3. Hypothyroidism

This condition occurs when the thyroid gland is underactive. Some dogs with hypothyroidism are infertile. Other signs of this condition include lassitude, droopy eyelids, irregular heats, mental dullness, and hair loss.

If your Gordon has hypothyroidism, he will need medication every day for the rest of his life. There is, however, no reason why that life can’t be long and happy.

4. PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy)

With PRA, the dog loses photoreceptors in the retina. It can be identified early, but it is not treatable, and eventually, if the dog lives long enough, he will go blind. Dogs with this disorder shouldn’t be bred, but will usually use their other senses to compensate for their failing vision. Just make sure to keep his surroundings consistent – if you love rearranging furniture, it’s a pleasure you’ll have to forego if your Gordon has PRA.

5. Bloat

Also called gastric torsion, this condition can be life-threatening, and affects deep-chested dogs. The stomach fills with air or gas, and then twists. The dog can’t vomit or belch, and this causes the blood flow to the heart to lessen. The dog goes into shock as his blood pressure drops, and if you don’t get him to the vet immediately, he’s likely to die. If your dog is drooling a lot, gagging without bringing anything up or has a distended stomach, you should suspect bloat.

There’s no guarantee that your Gordon Setter will ever develop any of these conditions. They’re just things to keep in mind if you’re considering the breed.

Care and Feeding

Gordon Setters need vigorous exercise, so if you like going for long walks or running, you’ll find the Gordon to be an ideal companion. Avoid running, though, or anything involving jumping until the dog is at least 2 years old, and then start slow. Otherwise, you could end up subjecting your dog to excessive strain on his developing joints and bones.

When it comes to house training, be patient. With larger breeds, it can often take at least 4 months until the dog has sufficient control over his bladder to completely avoid accidents. Take him outside regularly, and if you’re not able to do that (perhaps you have to work during the day) make sure that you have a friend or family member you can recruit to make sure that your Gordon gets regular potty breaks.

As to feeding, I’ve often pointed out that I free feed my dogs, and there’s certainly no reason why you can’t free feed your Gordon – provided, of course, that he’s not a glutton.

If you choose to feed on a schedule, give your Gordon 2-3 cups of dog food each day. Spread it out over two or three meals, though – because of the propensity toward bloat, one large meal is not advised.

Keep in mind that not all Gordons have the same nutritional requirements, though – much depends on age, build, size and metabolism. If your dog is very active he’ll need more food than a Gordon who is less active.

If your dog looks like he’s “porking up,” you can check him out visually and also by using your hands. Take a look at him and see if you can identify a waist. Then, put your hands on his back with your fingers pointing downward, and your thumbs next to his spine. You should be able to see your Gordon’s ribs, but not feel them. If you do see ribs, he probably needs more food. If you can’t feel them, then step up the exercise and cut back on the food.

Coat and Grooming

Gordon setters have shiny, soft coats that can be either straight or a bit wavy. The hair is long on the tail, back of the legs, belly, chest and ears. The Gordon has a short tail with triangular-shaped feathering that’s shorter near the end.

As to coloring, the basic markings are black and tan, with the tan varying from mahogany to chestnut on the throat, muzzle and over the eyes. There should also be two large chestnut or mahogany spots on the inside of the hind legs and on the chest. The colors should always be separate and clearly defined. There might also be a spot of white on the chest, but this is not especially desirable.

Gordons need to be brushed 2-3 times a week in order to prevent tangling and matting. If you want to bathe your Gordon, do it every couple of weeks. You should also trim the hair between his toes and between the pads in order to prevent a buildup of ice in winter and debris in summer.

Because the Gordon Setter has pendulous ears, infections could be a concern. You should check your dog’s ears weekly for tenderness, redness or a bad smell, and clean them out using a moist cotton ball. Don’t use rubbing alcohol or other harsh substances – your vet can recommend a good cleanser.

All dogs should have their teeth brushed. The reason for this is the same as it is with humans – it’s to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. If you can brush daily, that’s ideal, but even a couple of times a week is better than nothing.

You should also get your Gordon used to having his feet handled, in case you need to clip his nails. Many dogs dislike foot handling, and Gordons are no exception, so start when he’s a puppy. It’s a lot easier than having to deal with a full-size dog that’s not accustomed to having his feet handled. Use lots of praise, and maybe some treats, and you’ll find that nail clipping doesn’t have to be a huge, stressful chore.

When you’re grooming, take a good look at your dog all over. Do you see any skin inflammation, discharge in the eyes or nose, or sore areas in the mouth or on the feet? Giving your dog a weekly examination can go a long way to identifying health issues before they become serious.

Kids and Other Pets

Gordons typically love children, and are very protective toward them. They’ll put up with quite a lot of roughhousing, and when they decide they’ve had enough, instead of becoming irritable, they’ll usually just walk away. The only real issue with the Gordon, when it comes to kids, is that because a Gordon is a big dog, he might accidentally knock over a toddler,

That said, of course, you shouldn’t leave any dog alone and unsupervised with your children.

As to other pets, Gordons will usually be fine with other dogs in your household, and they get along well with cats provided that they’re raised with them. It’s generally best, though, to introduce a puppy to an adult cat than it is to introduce a kitten to an adult dog. Additionally, Gordons are not always tolerant of strange dogs.

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The Final Word

If you want a dog that will happily play with you, go running with you, serve as a guard dog and be loving with your children, the Gordon Setter might be the right breed for you. Make sure, though, to train effectively and kindly, and to socialize early.