Gordon Setter

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Gordon Setter

The largest and heaviest of the setter breeds, the Gordon Setter hails from Scotland, where it was used to hunt game birds, such as partridge and ptarmigan from the seventeenth century. A bold and confident dog, it is intelligent and loyal, but does have a stubborn streak that needs to be managed by an experienced dog owner. Without consistency and discipline, its strong-willed nature can make it stubborn, and problematic dominant behaviour is not uncommon, especially in males. This is a very energetic breed that needs regular, vigorous exercise and plenty of attention.

Despite its resilience and adaptation to the harsh climate of the Scottish Highlands, the Gordon Setter does not tolerate being left to live outdoors. Rather, it needs to be at the centre of family life, where it will be a devoted companion and protector. Most love the company of children, so they make excellent family pets. However, aggression towards other dogs is frequently a problem, particularly if they are not adequately socialised when young. Gordon Setters are generally healthy dogs, though they can suffer with eye and joint problems, and the breed’s average life expectancy is 11–13 years.

About & History

The Gordon Setter takes its name from the fourth Duke of Gordon, Alexander, who established a renowned breeding kennel at the family’s castle in Moray sometime in the early 1800s. Though the breed had been in use in Scotland for at least 150 years prior to this, its appearance was far more varied than that of the modern type, and it was Alexander that chose the black and tan colouration in preference to the black and white, red, and tricolour variations that were seen up until this time. Following his death in 1827, his breeding programme was continued briefly by his son, George, until the Duke of Richmond took over the Gordon estate in 1836.

Because of its relatively large size, the Gordon Setter was known for being slower than the Irish Setter and English Setter, but was also said to be more reliable and to have great stamina. The breed’s working style was to wander from his master, ranging over an area while scenting the air for signs of prey. Rather than following a trail with its nose close to the ground, the breed has a more upright style, following the scent of the bird itself instead of its path. Upon finding a bird, usually pheasant, grouse, ptarmigan, or partridge, the dog would “set”, adopting a characteristic pose on the ground to indicate to its master that it had located its quarry, which could then be either shot or ensnared. This free-ranging, independent style of working can help explain some of the behavioural traits still seen in the breed today.

The Gordon Setter’s popularity waned from the 1930s with the modernisation of farming and the loss of habitat for game birds in its homeland. However, its early exportation to the United States in 1842 means that it continues to find employment, albeit in smaller numbers, around the world up to the present day. Fans of the breed in the hunting fraternity believe it to be unparalleled as a companion for those seeking to hunt alone with a single dog. It was first registered with the Kennel Club in 1859, and by the American Kennel Club in 1892.


Gordon Setter Large Photo

The Gordon Setter is a strong, bulky dog, less “flashy” than the other setter breeds, and with heavier bone structure. It carries itself with dignity and confidence. The breed has a large, long skull that is slightly rounded. The muzzle, which begins after a pronounced stop, is long and square, featuring loose but not pendulous lips and a broad black nose. The upper and lower jaws are strong and perfectly aligned. The eyes are intelligent and eager, usually dark brown in colour, while the ears are set low and lie close to the side of the head.

The elegant neck is long and lean, without dewlap, and the back is level and strong, being markedly more muscular behind the ribcage and in the loins. The breed has a very deep, though narrow, chest, and a moderately marked abdominal tuck. The pelvis in the Gordon Setter is quite flat, which may play a role in the prevalence of hip dysplasia seen in the breed (see below). The limbs are well angulated and muscular, with the lower limbs revealing a good stock of bone, and the paws having well-padded arched toes. The tail is usually quite straight, and is carried horizontally.

The Gordon’s coat is a spectacular glossy black and tan colour, with occasional flashes of white permitted around the chest. It is fine and silky, of moderate length, but with pronounced feathering on the ears, backs of the legs, and tail. Though red pups are occasionally born to black and tan parents, these are ineligible for showing. Male Gordon Setters measure around 64–68 cm (25–27 in) in height, and weigh between 28 and 36 kg (60–80 lb). Females are generally 59–64 cm (23–25 in) tall, weighing 25–29 kg (55–65 lb).

Character & Temperament

Intelligent and even-tempered, the Gordon Setter is a confident dog with an outgoing nature. It loves spending time with its family, and wants constant human contact. Without this, it is prone to depression and frustration, and its intelligence allows it to develop a range of destructive behaviours as a response. It is often said to be stubborn and wilful, and it certainly needs an owner that is capable of taking charge and correcting it when necessary. This may be understood in the context of the breed as an independent and free-thinking hunting dog.

Without a strong leader, the Gordon is likely to attempt to assert its own dominance, which will inevitably lead to problems within the home. However, once this tendency is anticipated and managed, a well-mannered Gordon Setter is a loving and loyal dog, and is usually very tolerant of young children. The breed’s innate courage makes it very protective towards family members, and it can make a good watch dog. Many are not keen on the company of other dogs; they were bred to be sole hunting companions, and dog-to-dog aggression is a common issue, so this is not the most suitable breed for owners who have other pets in the home.


Photo of Gordon Setter puppy

The Gordon Setter’s stubbornness can make training a little challenging at times. It is important to begin teaching the basics from a young age. Puppies as young as 8 weeks old can begin to respond to simple commands, and are more likely to be obedient adults with early instruction.

As discussed below, this is a very high-energy breed, and it can be useful to teach a Gordon Setter to fetch – while this obviously serves as a play activity, it also promotes good recall behaviour, and allows owners to provide vigorous exercise to their dog by simply throwing a ball or other toy. Housetraining Gordon puppies is usually not difficult.


There are several common health problems recognised in the breed. Notably, there is a very high incidence of eye problems with up to 50% of Gordon Setters thought to be carriers of inherited retinal disorders. Anyone considering the purchase of a Gordon Setter puppy should insist on seeing a certificate of health from a veterinary ophthalmologist. In addition, all breeding Gordon Setters should be hip scored to reduce the incidence of hip dysplasia.


Congenital and acquired cataracts are more common in the Gordon Setter than in the general dog population. These crystalline deposits in the lens of one or both eyes impede the passage of light and can affect vision. Diabetes is one potential cause of acquired cataracts, and should be ruled out in any older dog that suddenly develops cataracts in both eyes. With specialist equipment and the appropriate expertise, cataracts can often be surgically removed in order to restore vision.

Cerebellar and Extrapyramidal Abiotrophy

Though present from birth, this is a progressive neurological condition in which nerve cells within the brain degenerate, causing varying degrees of imbalance and weakness. Signs are usually first noticed in pups around 3 months of age, with affected pups being noticeably more awkward and less coordinated than their healthy siblings.

These symptoms may worsen until around 16 months of age. Depending on the severity of the condition, some dogs may lead otherwise healthy lives, but severely affected dogs are often euthanised on humane grounds.


A congenital disorder of the eyelids, causing them to scroll inwards, and allowing hair to rub on the surface of the eye. Clearly, this causes significant discomfort, and can even result in blindness if not surgically corrected.

Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus

Like many other breeds with very deep chests, the Gordon Setter is predisposed to developing this condition, also known as bloat/gastric torsion. It is caused by the stomach rotating along its long axis, creating obstructive twists at both the entrance and exit of the organ.

Gas and liquid rapidly accumulate in the obstructed stomach, causing the dog’s abdomen to swell dramatically. Without prompt recognition and surgical treatment, this condition is usually fatal.

Hip Dysplasia

This common inherited cause of hindlimb lameness is due to abnormal development of the hip joints. Signs of lameness are usually first seen in young dogs between 5 and 12 months of age, and can be debilitating in some cases.

While this early onset lameness may subside over time, most dogs with hip dysplasia go on to develop osteoarthritis at a relatively early age. Hip scoring of parents, avoiding excessive exercise in young dogs, and feeding good quality food are the steps that may be taken to reduce the incidence of this disorder.

Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca

This cause of ocular pain and discharge arises because of immune-mediated destruction of the tear glands of the eye. This may be idiopathic, meaning no initiating factor can be identified, or it can be caused by toxicities, drug reactions, and allergic skin disease. Though the resulting dryness is extremely uncomfortable, it can usually be well managed using topical anti-inflammatories and artificial tears.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

As stated above, this is a very prevalent genetic disorder within the breed. While most dogs are simply carriers of the problem, affected individuals will begin to show signs of visual impairment from around 5 years of age. This is often more noticeable at night initially, but progresses to cause profound loss of vision.

Unilateral Renal Aplasia

An uncommon birth deformity, in which only one kidney develops within the abdomen. External signs are usually absent unless advancing age, toxins, or severe dehydration impair the function of the single kidney.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Gordon Setter owners must budget up to two hours per day to exercise their dog, and this is a breed that needs vigorous activity. This can be provided through a combination of walking, running, swimming, or ball games – the breed is adaptable and willing to partake in any sport on offer.

Gordon Setters have very high energy levels and are slow to mature, and so are often a handful around the house, for the first three years of their lives at least. Access to a secure garden is an important requirement to allow them expend some of their restless energy.


The glossy coat takes some work to maintain, and needs to be brushed and combed at least twice a week. The feathered areas – the ears, legs, paws, and tail – are prone to matting, and need particular attention, including regular clipping. The breed’s flat ears make it prone to ear infections, and owners should use a veterinary-approved cleansing product at least once a fortnight to remove excess wax and to monitor the condition of the ears.

Famous Gordon Setters

Not the most common dog outside of hunting circles, the Gordon Setter keeps a low profile. However, Diane Sawyer of ABC News, and Ed McMahon of the Tonight Show are among the celebrities known to be fans of the breed.


It seems that most Gordon Setter owners prefer to keep their bloodlines pure, as cross-breeds are uncommon.

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