The Irish Setter is a sporting breed native to Ireland. This breed has long been famous in the United States for its beautiful red coat. There are two distinct varieties of Irish Setter, the show variety, which is known as the Irish Setter and the working gundog variety which is known as the Red Setter. While the Irish Setter is descended from working gundogs, that variety is now considerably more well-suited to life as a show dog and companion animal. At one point the Irish Setter was among the most popular companion dogs in America. Although it is substantially less common now, it remains among the most recognizable breeds in America. This breed is also known as the Irish Red Setter and the Red Setter.
The Irish Setter is one of four breeds of Setter, along with the Gordon Setter of Scotland, the English Setter of England, and the Irish Red and White Setter. The Irish Setter is a relatively old breed, and very few records of its ancestry have survived. As a result, most of its origins have been lost in time; however, a great deal of this breed’s history can be surmised by examining what little information survived . Of the few things to be known for sure is that the Irish Setter originated in Ireland, and that it was standardized in the 1800’s and that this breed and the Irish Red and White Setter were considered to be one in the same until the late 1800’s.
The Setters are considered to be members of the Spaniel family, and it is generally agreed that they were descended from Spaniels. The Spaniel family is very old, and consists of some of Europe’s oldest gundogs. Most of the origin of the Spaniel family is a mystery. The English word Spaniel comes from the French word Epagnuel, which can be loosely translated as Spaniard. This would seem to imply that these breeds originated in Spain, which has long been the traditional explanation for their origin. Unfortunately, there is almost no hard evidence to support this theory. This is also somewhat less likely as the earliest Spaniel breeds are known from a point in history before the nation of Spain unified from a number of independent Iberian kingdoms. The term Epagnuel may also be translated to mean someone or something from Hispania, a Roman province which comprised much of what is now Spain and Portugal, though there is an equal lack of evidence to support this theory.
In more recent years, many dog experts have suggested that Spaniels are actually Celtic in origin, and that the Welsh Springer Spaniel is the ancestral Spaniel breed. This theory may have some merit, as most Spaniel breeds are native to countries which once had a substantial Celtic population, France and the British Isles. It is quite possible that both theories could be equally correct, as Spain was once populated by a people quite closely related to the Celts, the Celtiberians. Perhaps the Celtiberians particularly favored these dogs and gave them the name of their homeland. It is also sometimes suggested that Spaniels are descended from dogs brought back to Europe from the Middle East. This theory may have some merit as well. There is a breed of sighthound known as the Saluki which has been owned by Islamic royalty for thousands of years. The coats of some Salukis closely resemble those of Spaniels, especially around the ears and tail. Most of Spain was once controlled by Islamic conquerors who may have brought Salukis with them. It is possible that the French first encountered the breed in Spain, and mistakenly assumed that it was native to that region.
However it is that Spaniels were first developed, by the end of the Renaissance they had spread across most of Western Europe. These dogs were used primarily as bird dogs. Most Spaniels hunted by locating birds and then flushing them from cover. Their masters would then use nets to catch the birds. Many different Spaniels were developed, each specializing in a different type of terrain or prey species. In England, at least two distinct breeds of Spaniel were developed, the Land Spaniel and the Water Spaniel. Eventually, another breed was developed from the Land Spaniel known as the Setting Spaniel. It is unclear exactly when the Setting Spaniel was developed, but it was probably sometime before the 1500’s. The Setting Spaniel differed from other Spaniels primarily in the way that it hunted. The Setting Spaniel did not flush game from cover. Instead, when it located game it went into a distinctive crouching position known as a set. The dog’s handlers recognized this set and would then throw a net over the birds.
At some point, larger Setting Spaniels became more desirable, and the largest examples of this breed were selected. It is highly likely that other breeds were crossed with the Setting Spaniel to increase its size and hunting abilities. Although no one knows for sure exactly which breeds were used, the most commonly suggested is the Spanish Pointer. Virtually every old Spaniel breed has been suggested, as has the Bloodhound, the Talbot Hound, and various other old breeds. At some point, the Setting Spaniel became known as the Setter. As none of these changes were recorded at the time they occurred, it is impossible to know an exact timeline. However, many later writers confirmed their occurrence.
One of the first written records of the Setter comes from 1570, when the acclaimed British dog expert Caius wrote his classic De Canibus Brittanicus. Caius described the unique hunting method of the breed. However, many later writers have come to the conclusion that Caius was actually writing about the Setting Spaniel, and that the modern day Setter-type had not been fully established. Another famous work of canine history, The Dog in Health and Disease, written by Stonehenge in 1859, claimed that Setters were descended from Spaniels. Two famous works written in 1872 also confirmed this theory, The Setter by the famed English Setter breeder Laverack and The Dog by the Reverend Pierce.
From their initial homeland of England, Setters spread across the British Isles. Initially these dogs were bred almost entirely for working ability and trainability, with considerably less attention paid to their physical appearance. As a result, early setters were quite variable in terms of appearance. These dogs came a fairly wide size range and a wide variety of coat colors and patterns. Some Setters made their way to Ireland. The Setters on Ireland began to develop differently from those of Great Britain. The Irish crossed the Setter with several local dog breeds, as well as favoring slightly different characteristics. It is generally agreed that the Irish Water Spaniel, the Irish Terrier, and the English Pointer were used to improve and alter this breed, although it is possible that a range of Spaniels, hounds, and other breeds were used as well. At some point, Irish breeders began to heavily favor red and white colored Setters. It is unclear whether this trait was present in the first Setters to arrive in Ireland, whether it was a natural mutation which occurred on the island, or whether it was introduced by crosses with another breed such as the Irish Terrier. By the end of the 1700’s, the Irish Setter was seen as distinct from the Setters of Great Britain.
During the 17th and 18th Centuries, English Foxhound breeders began to standardize their packs and keep organized breeding records. These records eventually became studbooks and then the beginnings of modern day kennel clubs. Fanciers of other dogs began to take notice by the start of the 1800’s, and organized breeding programs for a number of different breeds began to take shape. The Irish Setter was one of the first breeds to have documentation kept of its breeding records. The de Freyne family of French Park began keeping a very detailed studbook of their Irish Setters in 1793. Around the same time, other landed Irish gentry were conducting their own breeding programs, notably Lord Clancarty, Lord Dillon, and the Marquis of Waterford. In the early 1800’s, a Scottish nobleman, the Duke of Gordon, began to develop his own breed of Setter, which became known as the Gordon Setter. Several of these dogs were used to enhance Irish Setter lines. These early breeders continued to favor red and white setters. In 1845, prominent canine expert William Youatt wrote that Setters in Ireland were, “very red, or red and white, or lemon colored, or white-patched with deep chestnut.” Breeders gradually began to favor only those dogs which were predominantly red in color, and bred out the white from these dogs. By the turn of the century, red and white Irish Setters were very rare, and probably would have gone extinct if not for the dedicated intervention of a few fanciers. Most breeders heavily favored the solidly red dogs, and this is evidenced by first breed standard, which was written in Dublin in 1886. This standard is remarkably similar to the current breed standard.
The Irish Setter was first brought to the United States in the early 1800’s. It became a popular working gundog in this country. In 1874, the Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB) became the first pure-bred dog registry in the United States. This registry was focused on working dogs, and allowed cross-breeds of two different breeds to be registered. Irish Setter fanciers were influential in the early days of the American Kennel Club (AKC), and this breed was one of the very first to be registered with the AKC in 1878. Initially, the AKC registered Irish Setters in several different color varieties and coat patterns, but solidly red dogs were greatly preferred in the show ring. Breeders began to focus primarily on show ring conformation, to the detriment of the breed’s working abilities. Between 1878 and 1948, 760 Irish Setters became AKC conformation show champions, but only 5 became field champions. The FDSB continued to breed working Irish Setters, although their dogs were primarily known as Red Setters. For many years, the FDSB and the AKC had a very cordial relationship, and dogs which were registerable with one organization were equally registerable with the other. In 1891, the Irish Setter Club of America (ISCA) became one of the first breed clubs in America, and eventually became an official affiliate of the AKC. The ISCA’s primary mission is to promote and protect the Irish Setter, as well as to organize breed fanciers. In 1898, a group of dog breeders led by Chauncey Z. Bennet broke off from the AKC to form a kennel club based on a dog’s performance rather than its conformation in the show ring. The newly formed United Kennel Club (UKC) granted full recognition to the Irish Setter in 1914. The FDSB, the AKC, the ISCA, and the UKC became and remain the major organizations which influence the Irish Setter.
By the 1940’s, it had become clear that the breeding of the Irish Setter with a heavy focus on the show ring had greatly damaged this dog’s working ability. During that decade, Field and Stream Magazine and Sports Afield Magazine both wrote articles detailing how this breed would soon disappear entirely as a working dog unless outcrosses were made to other breeds. Ned LeGrande of Pennsylvania spent huge sums of money purchasing the last available working Irish Setters in America, as well as importing some from overseas. With the strong approval of the FDSB, he began to cross these dogs with champion red and white English Setters, especially those of the renowned Llewellin line. These dogs became formally known as Red Setters. These crosses were extremely controversial among many breed fanciers. The majority of the ISCA were strongly opposed to them. In 1975, the club formally petitioned the AKC to end mutual registration with the FDSB, which the AKC granted. The ISCA claimed that the FDSB dogs were no longer pure Irish Setters. The FDSB countered that AKC breeders were simply jealous of the far greater success that their dogs had in field trials. This animosity between show ring Irish Setter and field trial Red Setter breeders has continued with a surprising amount of passion to this day. While most dog experts consider the Red Setter and the Irish Setter to be two different varieties of the same breed, there are some significant differences between them. The Red Setter is considerably smaller, as well as being shorter-coated and more lightly feathered. These dogs also have significant patches of white in their coats.
While controversy was brewing between Irish Setter breeders, the dog itself was becoming increasingly popular in America. This breed was one of the most popular breeds in America for several decades in the middle of the 20th Century. For many members of the baby boomer generation, the Irish Setter was the ultimate sign of success. The Irish Setter was seen as a purebred dog which was both extremely beautiful and prestigious to own. These dogs were also renowned as family companions due to their loving and gentle nature. The Irish Setter was one of the most instantly recognizable and iconic breeds in this country. However, the popularity of this breed soon got the better of it. The Irish Setter became one of the first victims of canine fashion trend in the United States. Although the Irish Setter can be an excellent family companion, this is certainly not the ideal breed for every family.
This breed needs a substantial amount of exercise; otherwise, they tend to develop behavioral problems. Many families did not provide these dogs with the exercise they require, and ended up with out of control dogs as a result. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Irish Setter is not necessarily the easiest dog to train, and inexperienced owners who do not understand dog training often experience training failures with them. Such dogs gave the breed a bad reputation as being problem animals. This breed also earned a decidedly unfair reputation for being stupid and untrainable. Additionally, although this breed has a very beautiful coat, this coat requires a great deal of maintenance which many families were not prepared for. Perhaps most damagingly, a number of disreputable breeders sought to cash in on the dogs desirability and perceived value. These breeders bred dogs with little to no regard to quality. They produced Irish Setters which were of generally low quality. Such animals did further damage to this breed’s reputation. By the 1980’s, the Irish Setter had fallen out of favor, and this breed has never recovered. To this day, this breed has a reputation for being both stupid and untrainable, neither of which is in any way fair to well-bred Irish Setters.
Because of this breed’s great beauty it has made many appearances in art. This breed has also made many appearances in film and television, especially during the mid-20th Century. This breed has appeared in The Fox and the Hound 2, The Fox and the Hound 3, Mad Men, and the Stephen King novel The Stand. Many celebrities and important political figures have been owners of this breed at one time or another, and helped to increase its popularity. Former Maine Governor Percival Proctor Baxter, former Presidents Richard Nixon and Harry S. Truman, the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and Beach Boys member Carl Wilson, all owned Irish Setters. This breed has also been selected as the official mascots of two universities, Pace University and the University of British Columbia.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest among some AKC fanciers to rekindle the working ability of this breed. To this end, some breeders have been selecting for working ability. Some of their dogs have had success, and to date there have been at least 12 dual champion (dogs with championships in the show ring and field) Irish Setters. However, for now, the AKC Irish Setters and the FDSB Red Setters remain almost completely separate from one another, with the AKC dogs being used almost solely companion animals and show dogs, and the FDSB dogs being primarily working gun dogs.
The Irish Setter has been declining in popularity since at least the 1970’s. This breed has never recovered from the damage done to its reputation at the height of its popularity. Despite the best efforts of the FDSB, the Irish Setter has largely been replaced in the field by such breeds as the Brittany, and the breed has been largely supplanted in popularity as a companion animal and show dog by such breeds as the Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever. However, many Irish Setter fanciers are quite happy with this breed’s lesser popularity. It allows them to better control the breeding of Irish Setters, and thus their quality. This breed has remained by far the most common of the four Setter breeds, although not by as large of a margin. The Irish Setter also remains among the most recognizable breeds in America, even if it is no longer among the most common. In 2010, the Irish Setter ranked 77th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations. Although the breed has not shown signs of making a comeback in the near future, it is very likely that this beautiful and likeable dog will eventually become more popular once again.
Because it was once so popular, the Irish Setter is instantly recognizable to most Americans, although some members of younger generations may mistake the breed for a Golden Retriever. The Irish Setter is quite similar in appearance to the other three Setter breed, but with a red coat. There is substantial variation in appearance between the working Red Setter and the conformation Irish Setter, especially with regard to size and coat length. Irish Setters bred for conformation are large dogs, while those bred as working gundogs tend to be more medium-sized. Male Irish Setters typically stand between 26 and 28 inches at the shoulders and weigh between 65 and 75 pounds. Female Irish Setters typically stand between 24 and 26 inches tall at the shoulders and weigh between 55 and 65 pounds. While working Red Setters are more variable in size, they average around 45 pounds. The Irish Setter is a solidly built dog, but should not be one that would be described as thick or bulky. This breed is fairly athletic in appearance, especially Red Setters. Although generally well-proportioned, most Irish Setters are slightly longer than they are tall. This breed has a medium length tail, which starts off thick at the base and then tapers to a fine point. The tail is always as straight as possible, and is carried either level with the back or slightly upraised.
The head and face of the Irish Setter sit at the end of a noticeably long neck. This breed’s head is somewhat small for its body size, but this is not especially noticeable. The head and muzzle are long and lean, and look quite refined. Most Red Setters are somewhat less refined in appearance, but are still obviously purebred. The muzzle of these dogs is quite long and fairly deep, giving them a greater area for scent receptors. The end of the muzzle is quite square and ends in a black or chocolate nose. The eyes of an Irish Setter are relatively small and slightly almond shaped. They are dark in color and set far apart. The overall expression of the Irish Setter is friendly but keen. The ears of this breed are relatively long, and hang down.
This breed’s beautiful coat is what made it so famous. The breed’s coat is short and fine on the head, face, and fronts of the legs. On the rest of the body it is rather long, and even flowing. The coat all over the body should be as flat as possible, without any curl or wave. This breed is heavily feathered on the ears, backs of the legs, and tail, and also has a fringe around the chest and brisket. The amount of hair varies between the two major varieties. Irish Setters bred for the show ring tend to have a great amount of hair and feathering, those dogs bred as working gundogs tend to have a great deal less. Irish Setters come in one color, solid red. The shade ranges from chestnut to mahogany. Many Irish Setters have small patches of white on the head, throat, chest, feet, and toes. This is not penalized in the show ring, but the smaller the patches, the better. Red Setters tend to have larger patches of white, as well as some on the face. This is considered more acceptable for working dogs.
The two primary lines of Irish Setter, field and show, are quite similar in regards to temperament, although working dogs have higher exercise needs and work drives. Irish Setters are known for having a great deal of personality, and most are rather mischievous and spirited. This is a primarily people oriented breed. Irish Setters love to be with their owners, and form very close bonds with them. However, this breed is one of the most independent of all sporting breeds and does enjoy doing its own thing from time to time. When properly socialized, the vast majority of Irish Setters are quite accepting of strangers, and most are very friendly with them. The average Irish Setter thinks that most strangers are potential friends. Proper training is very important, as this breed is very likely to become an inappropriate greeter, jumping up on houseguests and repeatedly licking them. Irish Setters can make decent watchdogs, who will alert owners of the approach of a new person. However, this alert is more of an announcement that someone is coming to play with them than it is a warning. Most Irish Setters would make poor guard dogs as they would be more likely to warmly welcome an intruder than they would to show aggression.
Irish Setters have earned a reputation as a family dog, and most breed members get along very well with children. In fact, most Irish Setters very much enjoy children, who provide them with more attention and playtime than the average adult. The average Irish Setter is at more risk from young children than vice versa, as these dogs will accept a great amount of punishment from them without protest. Irish Setters under the age of three may not be the most ideal housemates for very young children as these exuberant dogs may bowl them over accidentally. If you and your family are willing to meet this breed’s exercise and coat care requirements, you will likely be rewarded with a loving and loyal companion that is adaptable to many social situations.
Irish Setters have few problems with other animals. This breed is not known for having dominance, territorial, or possessiveness issues, and generally gets along very well with other dogs. In fact, most Irish Setters greatly prefer to share their lives with at least one other dog, and the more the merrier. This breed is best suited to dogs with similar energy levels, as they may regularly pester lower energy dogs in an attempt to play. When properly socialized, Irish Setters mostly do quite well with strange dogs, and are accepting of a variety of canine social situations. Irish Setters also get along well with non-canine animals. Although a hunting dog, this breed was bred to locate birds and alert its master of their presence, never to attack them itself. As a result most Irish Setters have relatively low aggression levels towards other animals. All dogs may pursue and attack animals with which they have not been socialized, but once socialized the average Irish Setter will do just fine with cats and even small pets. However, it is probably not ideal to leave an Irish Setter unsupervised with very small pets as it may injure them accidentally. Some Irish Setters may repeatedly attempt to get cats to play with them, which as any cat owner will tell you is not appreciated.
This breed has a reputation for being difficult to train, which is only partially deserved. Despite what many believe, these dogs are actually quite intelligent and capable of learning a great deal. Irish Setters have competed with great success at agility and obedience trials. That being said, Irish Setters do pose some training difficulties. The average Irish Setter is willing to please, but certainly does not live to do so. This breed has an independent mind and a stubborn streak. Sometimes an Irish Setter decides that it is not going to do something and no amount of coaxing or pleading will convince them otherwise. This breed is rarely obstinately willful, and won’t deliberately do the opposite of what you ask, but it will certainly refuse to do something it does not want to do. Irish Setters are more than smart enough to figure out exactly what they can and cannot get away with, and live their lives accordingly. This is a breed that will not obey anyone whom it does not respect. If you are not the definite alpha dog, you can essentially forget about commanding an Irish Setter to do anything. Irish Setters can be excellently trained; however, owners must be willing to take the time and effort to do so. This breed responds very poorly to harsh training methods such as yelling. Any training regimen for an Irish Setter must involve equal parts firm but calm hand and plenty of rewards. There are a few areas where this breed trains very quickly. These dogs are natural hunters, especially Red Setters, and readily take to hunting. This breed is also considered relatively easy to housebreak, as it is naturally clean and fastidious.
Both show and field Irish Setters need a great deal of exercise, although dogs from working lines need more. The average Irish Setter needs a long rigorous walk every day, and preferably time to run around in a safely enclosed area. Dogs from working lines probably need at least a jog instead of a walk, and definitely need time to run around. Most Irish Setters from any line will take as much exercise as you can provide them. These dogs are capable of working for long hours and are just as capable of playing for long hours. It is absolutely imperative that owners spend a minimum of an hour a day meeting the exercise needs of their Irish Setters. Irish Setters who have not been properly exercised will almost certainly develop behavioral issues. This breed has a tendency to become extremely destructive, nervous, flighty, hyper excitable, and an excessive barker. Once an Irish Setter has its needs met, they tend to be relaxed when indoors, and most will be couch potatoes in the house. The high energy level of this breed is seen as a benefit to many active families. An Irish Setter is always willing to go on an adventure, and this breed makes an excellent jogging or hiking companion. Irish Setters were initially bred as hunting dogs, and many (particularly Red Setters) still prefer to have a job to do. This is a breed that likes to have a purpose such as running through an agility course. However, most Irish Setters (particularly those from show lines) are quite happy to do their own thing and live life without structured play.
Irish Setters take longer to mature than most breeds. These dogs have puppy personalities until at least the age of three. They will be rambunctious and clumsy until at least that point. This breed also ages slower than most and many don’t begin to slow down until the advanced age of 9 or 10.
Irish Setters developed a reputation for having behavioral problems. However, this is not exactly fair. This breed can certainly develop a number of issues, but these are more the result of owners who selected the wrong breed than a problem with the breed itself. This is a high energy breed with substantial exercise requirements. It is unfair to expect a working dog to get by on a few short potty walks a day. Any dog will become bored if it is not exercised, and this breed needs more exercise than most. Many owners are also not experienced enough as dog trainers to properly handle this breed, and many others are not willing to take the time or effort to properly train an Irish Setter. While the Irish Setter is admittedly not the easiest breed to train, it is a very eminently trainable animal. As is the case with most dogs, the behavioral problems of most Irish Setters are the result of a poor owner/dog match than an inherent flaw with the dog itself.
Irish Setters have relatively high grooming requirements. The hair of this breed is very likely to tangle and mat, and owners must prevent this from happening. These dogs need to be thoroughly brushed and groomed on a daily basis. Any potential tangles and mats must be worked out before they develop. Irish Setters also need their hair trimmed on a regular basis. While it is possible for owners to do this on their own, most choose to have their dogs professionally groomed every 6 to 8 weeks. Unlike many dogs with high coat care requirements, Irish Setters are definitely shedders. Although the average Irish Setter is not a very heavy shedder, this breed will shed. An Irish Setter will leave a substantial amount of hair on your carpets, furniture, and clothing. Because their hair is so long, it may be more noticeable that that of other dogs. If you or a family member is an allergy sufferer or simply cannot stand the thought of cleaning up dog hair on a regular basis, this is certainly not the ideal breed for you.
Owners of Irish Setters must pay special attention to this breed’s ears. The drooping, heavily-feathered ears can collect dirt and grime. This can lead to irritation and infection. In order to prevent this, an Irish Setter must have its ears cleaned on a regular basis.
The Irish Setter is regarded as being a generally healthy breed. These dogs have a life expectancy of between 11 and 15 years, which is relatively long for comparably sized dogs. A number of potential health problems have been detected in Irish Setters, some of which are quite serious. Luckily for the Irish Setter, the ISCA as well as similar clubs in Ireland and the United Kingdom are dedicated to discovering potential health defects in Irish Setters and to eliminating them from breeding lines. Most of the serious problems commonly seen in Irish Setters are commonly seen in many dogs, both purebred and mixed breed.
One problem which afflicts a number of Irish Setters is Progressive Retinal Atrophy, or PRA. There are a number of forms of PRA but they all result in a gradual reduction in vision ending in blindness. There is no cure for most forms of PRA but there are some treatments available. The exact cost and type of treatment will be determined by the stage and type of PRA. PRA is a serious problem for many different breeds of dog, and veterinarians are working on developing a cure. Several different tests are available for PRA, and breeders are working to reduce its occurrence from the Irish Setter breed.
Another major problem for Irish Setters is hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is caused by a malformation of the hip joint. This causes the joint to function improperly. As a dog ages, it will experience pain and discomfort and in some extreme cases even lameness. Hip dysplasia is one of the most common problems experienced by large breed dogs. This condition is genetic, but environmental factors can impact the timing of its onset and the severity of its symptoms. There is no widely accepted cure for hip dysplasia, although there is some promising work being done with preventative surgery.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
A full list of health problems identified in Irish Setters would have to include: