Putting Color and Markings in Perspective
The English Setter standard calls for “white ground color with intermingling of darker hairs resulting in belton markings varying in degree from clear distinct flecking to roan shading but flecked all over preferred. Head and ear patches [are] acceptable, heavy patches of color on the body [are] undesirable.” Heavy patches of color are discouraged because, over time, we might see larger and larger fields of solid color until the distinctive belton markings so emblematic of the look of an English Setter might be severely compromised or even lost altogether.
Allowed colors are “orange belton, blue belton (white with black markings), tricolor (blue belton with tan on muzzle, over the eyes and on the legs), [and the more rare colors] lemon belton, [and] liver belton.” Though not mentioned but perhaps implied in the standard, orange, liver, and lemon tri’s are also possible. The term “tri” has nothing to do with the body color but refers to the presence and placement of tan points. The tri markings are harder to see on colors other than blue belton.
All the colors in the standard are equally fine, whether widespread or rare; it is the proportion of white to color in the overall coat that needs further consideration. We want that moderate blend of white and color. Our standard clearly states “extremes of anything distort type, “so even flecking all over is preferred to extremely white or extremely dark dogs. A very dark dog, especially a dark blue roan, feels the heat more than an open-marked blue, affecting the dog’s working ability in hot climates.
Great color does not necessarily make a great dog. Back when our standard included points to indicate the relative weight of various components of the English Setter, color and markings were assigned three points out of a possible total of 100. The head piece was assigned 20%, the body 27%, running gear 23% (these three together comprise 70%), coat length and texture 5%, tail length and carriage 5%, symmetry, style, and movement 12%, and weight and size 5%. The old point scale is a good rule of thumb in understanding what traits are most significant in producing a superb English Setter.
Breeders can now use DNA to identify the color genotype of parents in order to predict the colors of their progeny. Predicting the inheritance of markings is more difficult, and English Setter breeders would be very happy if only there were tools for that too.
Once you have an understanding of correct color in English Setters, how do you use that knowledge to evaluate a class of dogs in the show ring? The answer is that color and markings are minor considerations, and body, running gear, and headpiece — taken together — are the major considerations. Color is merely a tie breaker between two equal specimens. If that very white or very roan or body-patched dog has a headpiece, body parts, and movement that are better than the rest, that dog should be your pick.
Addendum: The Gazette allows only 550 words for breed columns, but there is much more to say about color and markings in English Setters.
For example, English Setters have a modest double coat. The somewhat fuzzy body coat, next to the skin, is mostly colored and keeps the dog warm. The silky topcoat, which can contain a lot of white hairs, is for waterproofing. A body patch is mostly body coat, so it allows a working dog to be wet to the skin in that area on rainy days.
Many groomers advocate stripping an English Setter coat for show grooming, rather than scissoring, because stripping produces the desired smooth look by taking out the fuzzy undercoat and preserving the top coat. A fringe benefit of stripping is that it tends to make a dark coat look lighter.