Breed Profile: The Llewellin Setter
There's no sight more classic than a pair of gun dogs working a gamebird with one dog pointing and the other backing.
The canines in this case were two Llewellin setters on a South Dakota pheasant hunt last fall. The two dogs stood frozen with heads and tails high in a picture-perfect pose. As one of the hunters walked in to flush the pointed bird, two hens and one rooster rocketed out of the prairie grass. One well-placed shot brought down the long-tailed ringneck and one dog ran out, picked up and brought it in.
"You know, one of the best parts about hunting over these Llewellins," one of the hunters later said, "is that they hunt 'with' us, rather than us hunting 'for' them out in the field. Compared to some other kinds of setters I've hunted over, Llewellins tend to stay close to the gun, check in with the hunters and generally can be seen nearby in open country or easily found when hidden in heavy cover."
These dogs are amiable partners that want to find birds for their human hunters rather than just for themselves, and this was made clear after spending three days with the Llewellins. Though this team-player factor is one of the main features of Llewellins, this type of English setter is also praised for numerous other key qualities.
"Look in any book on gun dogs in general or read in particular about these dogs as described on websites or in magazines and you will see them portrayed as having great noses, an intense prey drive, a natural search pattern and a cooperative temperament," says Dennis Dorfman, a pheasant and prairie grouse hunter from Colorado who has owned Llewellins for more than 30 years.
"Most of my dogs, compared to other types of English setters, are a little smaller with males in the 40- to 50-pound range and females at 35 to 45 pounds," Dorfman says. "All of them are fast in the field with above-average stamina and a high level of tolerance for warm-to-hot temperatures. And most of my dogs have been natural retrievers. I do, however, personally take them through a trained retrieve course, just to be sure they fetch anything I shoot down and send them for."
Dorfman doesn't breed his dogs, but instead takes his time searching for the right lines of Llewellins to buy.
For 30-some years, Vern Austin has driven from his home in Decatur, Ark., to hunt bobwhite quail in western Texas.
"During that time my family, my friends and I have taken dozens of bird dogs into the heavy-duty Texas cover. Of all the kinds of pointers and setters that have made these trips, Llewellins have been the best overall at hunting close, finding birds and not getting lost in the jungle of vegetation out there," Austin says.
Close-working setters are the norm in this breed.
"I won't say our Llewellins never get lost, but I will say when they do lose contact with us, they are the breed most likely to find their way back to where we are," Austin says. "It's a genetic thing, I guess, for them to stay in touch and keep close to the gun."
After years of looking for lost pointers that may not come back all day or all week, he says he can usually count on the Llewellins to come in to a voice call or whistle. With the assistance of an e-collar, Austin says Llewellins are the dogs most likely to be found when the beeper goes off in point modeâ€”and the most likely to check in when Austin signals them in with multiple beeps.
Dead Bird Hunters
When Rod Colson hunted ruffed grouse and woodcock in the Wisconsin woods, dead and wounded birds that fell in heavy cover were usually found by his hunting partner's German wirehaired pointer.
"My two-year-old Llewellin, Luke, would sort of stand and watch as Bud the wirehair would rip up the cover looking for any dead birds," Colson recollects. "I thought that maybe Llewellins just didn't have any dead-bird search in them."
But one day during a lunch break, Colson's mind started to change about Luke's hunt for dead game. His hunting buddy took three freshly killed ruffed grouse and two woodcock, tossed them into a big patch of brambles, and led Luke into the gnarly cover.
"Hunt dead," he commanded as he took Luke up close to the first bird, which the dog found after a short time. Much petting and praise followed finding that first bird and the rest of them in the thick cover.
From that day on, Colson worked his Llewellin in the "hunt dead" exercise. He used bird carcasses kept in the freezer to do at-home training from January through September so that by October, Luke's nose would drop to the ground and immediately search for dead game with the cue of "dead bird."
"My conclusion is that Llewellins are team players as good at finding dead game as any other bird dog if they are taught to do so," Colson says.
"All three of the Llewellins my family has were trained by my son and me," says Chuck Hill from Hannibal, Mo. "With Ellie, our first dog, we used as our guide a couple of basic gun dog training books and one DVD on the subject. Ellie turned out to be a good quail dog despite a few mistakes we made along the wayâ€”specifically in our failure to develop her retrieving skills."
That was a mistake they corrected with their next two Llewellins, as they encouraged them as pups to fetch quail wings, dummies and then freshly killed pigeons. At about nine months, they began a gentle trained-retrieve course using an ear pinch. As a result, when the dogs were about a year old, they eagerly fetched up shot training pigeons or wild quail, Hill said.
"Most Llewellins we've had were pretty quick to mature and were ready for all basic training while still puppies under a year old. In a majority of cases, in fact, pups born in January to April would be pretty well yard trained in five or six months so they could go on a pheasant, grouse or quail hunt by October to December," reports Brad Devon of Rochester, N.Y.
Still, because some lines of Llewellins seem to be a little sensitive when introduced to live birds and gunfire, Devon says he starts out with dead pigeons that pups can pick up, carry and play with until they seem comfortable with feathers. Then he moves on to wing-locked live pigeons that pups can chase to develop their enthusiasm for the real thing.
"When the pups are busy with the live birds, we shoot a pistol at 100 yards or so, then slowly work the gun sounds in closer over a seven- to 10-day period, depending on how individual pups react to the experience," he says.
Many setters are advertised as Llewellins, but not all of them are pure Llewellins; instead, they may be just plain setters with some Llewellin blood mixed into their breeding, according to Gary Wente, a Llewellin owner and hunter from Oklahoma City, Okla.
As a member of the North American Llewellin Breeders Association, Wente emphasizes the association's policy that purebred Llewellins must be registered in the Field Dog Stud Book with DNA documentation as proof of their genetic purity. Anyone who buys one of these dogs and wants the real thing should be sure to look for the FDSB certification, Wente notes.
"All breeders in our association have this certifiable authenticity. Within the association, however, there are at least five lines of Llewellins, each with its own special features. So finding a line with specialized characteristics that fit a buyer's needs is possible with some homework," Wente says.
To see pure Llewellins at work in the field, look at the www.nalba.org website for breeders who are scattered across North America. Check with each kennel for available puppies, started dogs or finished dogs.
But Wente warns about breeders who give exaggerated sales pitches about their own lines while making negative attacks on others. "Though this is often done in private conversations, some breeders make these claims and mount these criticisms on their websites. Watch out when you hear or see this sort of thing," Wente says.
"Llewellins love being house dogs but can tolerate being outdoor kennel dogs," says Carol Christianson, a Llewellin owner-breeder-hunter for 11 years. "In our home, our young dogs are restricted to the kitchen and family room and kept off the furniture. At night we put them in crates just to cut down on the temptation to wander and get into trouble. Our two older dogs, however, will stay the night on their beds in the kitchen."
Compared to some other English setters and many English pointers, Llewellins seem to have a naturally calmer temperament that makes them more willing to be around people and to please them, Christianson saysâ€”"all of which makes them better house and kennel dogs," she adds.
"Tanner is out of his kennel and has been gone for an hour," Chuck Wilson's daughter told her dad when he came home from work one afternoon. A wave of panic swept over him. Tanner was Wilson's field trial champion Llewellin setter, the central stud in his breeding program, his main gun dog used for Texas quail hunts all season, and the family's favorite house pet.
When Wilson went to get his cell phone to alert the neighbors to a dog running loose, he walked out into the back yard. There was Tanner calmly sleeping at the top of the porch steps.
As the dog followed him back to the kennel, Wilson noted, "This is what I like about Llewellins. They want to stay close most all the time. They are team players."