The Irish Setter has a knack for making itself the subject of controversy. A brief examination of its history brings us immediately to the first dispute—the origin of the breed. Something more or less like an Irish Setter has existed in Ireland since the 1700s, albeit in a piebald color. How it came to be there is uncertain.
Most setter breeds involved a cross between a spaniel and a pointer. Experts differ in their opinions on whether this was the case with the Irish Setter:
- The Irish Setter might have derived solely from spaniels according to an Irish tradition.
- It could indeed be descended from pointers, based on its physical appearance.
- What appears to be pointer conformation could be hound conformation inherited from some Celtic breed of scenthound.
- And of course, there is always the possibility that the Irish Setter owes its existence to the crossbreeding of English and Gordon setters.
In any case, the Irish Setter was from the first bred to point out upland birds for the hunter. In the early days when birds were captured with nets, the setter stealthily crouched (“set”) near its prey and awaited the arrival of human assistance. When firearms were introduced among the landed gentry, the dog adapted to the new circumstances by working ahead of the guns and pointing at the quarry in a more visible fashion.
The second major contoversy within the breed dates to the birth of the dog Palmerston in 1862. He was an unusual sight in that day, boasting a refined head and slim physique that bordered on delicacy. His owner feared that he could not hold up to a day’s work in the field and unceremoniously condemned Palmerston to be drowned. Fortunately for the hapless dog, another man interposed and obtained permission to take Palmerston himself. Palmerston went on to become a top-winning show dog and to sire numerous offspring, gradually taking the breed away from its working heritage. The show type quickly became a fixture in America, as well, and received AKC recognition in 1878.
The remarkable looks and style of the Irish Setter made it wildly popular in America. The race for puppies with refined conformation and striking solid red coats was on. The old-fashioned Irish Red and White Setter became a separate breed, while hunting abilities were lost altogether. Flashy movement was simply not compatible with endurance. By the early 1900s, the Pointer had become the breed of choice in field trials.
In the 1940s, sporting magazines began clamoring for a return to a more practical type of Irish Setter. Many hunters felt that upgrading was necessary, but many hunters also felt that the necessary leadership and support was lacking. A breeder named Ned Le Grande struck out on his own to do the work. He bought as many of the few remaining working Irish Setters in America as he could find, and then imported a few more, regardless of price. These dogs he crossed with red-and-white English Setters with the approval of the Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB) and the understanding that Le Grande’s dogs could be registered with the stud book again after a few generations of breeding back to purebred Irish Setters. Le Grande faced many frustrating circumstances along the way, including everything from field accidents to disease outbreaks, but he nevertheless managed to establish working bloodlines. A few like-minded friends assisted by forming the National Red Setter Field Trial Club to test the abilities of hunting setters.
At that time, the AKC and the Field Dog Stud Book had an agreement to reciprocally register each other’s hunting dogs. The fact that Le Grande had introduced English Setter blood, however, outraged breeders of show dogs. In 1975, the Irish Setter Club of America requested that the AKC end its reciprocal registration agreement. The AKC did end reciprocal registration for Irish Setters, although it continued to register other hunting dogs in the FDSB, and the FDSB continued to register AKC Irish Setters.
Meanwhile, however, new problems were plaguing the Irish Setter. The breed became a tremendously popular pet in the 1960s and 1970s. As always happens under these circumstances, the Irish Setter soon became a prime choice with puppy mills, as well. Health and temperament went by the wayside, creating a fresh headache for fans of the breed.
Repairing the damage of both show fads and puppy mills has taken decades. Real progress did not occur until the breed’s popularity fell sharply. But improvements are being made. At the turn of the millennium, a few breeders began searching for purebred Irish Setters that could still hunt and breeding them for versatility in both the field and the show ring. Progress has been slow, since crossbreeding is not an option if AKC recognition is to be maintained, but the fruits of the breeders’ efforts are just starting to become evident. A new type of Irish Setter has emerged, one that excels in both conformation and working ability.
Meanwhile, for those who just want a good-looking, fun-loving pet, the Irish Setter remains a moderately popular choice. The breed ranks 76th in AKC registration statistics.
Today, there are four variations on the basic Irish Setter theme.
The most common type is still probably the show dog. Irish Setters from show bloodlines are not only good at strutting their stuff in the ring—their indomitable good nature also makes them satisfactory companions, particularly for those who love to spend time outdoors. They are also good therapy dogs. These Irish Setters can make themselves useful as watchdogs, but don’t expect them to serve as a powerful deterrent to trespassers.
Le Grande’s field type, now typically called the Red Setter to distinguish it from the AKC version, is quite a bit smaller than the show dog. It is also less encumbered with coat and may have a few white patches. The Red Setter is a high-octane dog made for serious work. It excels at pointing and retrieving upland game birds for a serious hunter, and performs even better in the grueling world of field trialing. Casual sportsmen may want to seek out a less intense bloodline.
The AKC dual-purpose Irish Setter is not entirely a new development. Soon after Le Grande’s work, show dogs once again began to put in appearances at field trials. Unfortunately, most of these dogs were mediocre in both conformation and hunting skills. Since 2000, however, a few breeders have been perfecting bloodlines for those who want to have it all. The true dual-purpose Irish Setter is still rare, but its numbers and popularity are increasing. It is a great choice for a more casual hunter who values a stylish dog with plenty of bird smarts.
Finally, an even rarer type of Irish Setter bred strictly for the weekend hunter exists. This is the old hunting type, so called because it most closely resembles the original Irish Setters, having been neither selected for show conformation nor crossbred for competitive field trialing.
Few dogs are as energetic and enthusiastic as the Irish Setter. He throws himself wholeheartedly into whatever he does, whether work or play. Owners love his zest for life, as well as his Irish mischief. But be prepared! The Irish Setter wants to be involved in literally everything, whether that is investigating tantalizing smells in the kitchen or welcoming visitors in a headlong fashion. He simply must be exercised vigorously every day, or he will drive the household to distraction with his pent-up energy. Ideally, he will be included in the family’s daily activities, going out for regular adventures. Keep him leashed, however, as he will wander off in search of excitement.
In keeping with his intense approach to life, the Irish Setter loves with a passion. He is thoroughly devoted to his family and would be devastated by being relegated to the backyard. He prefers to stay close to his people, preferably in their laps. He thrives on the company of children and new guests, although he might do unintentional injury by bowling over the small and elderly. He also gets along well with other dogs, although he can be rather irritating to cats and is absolutely untrustworthy with poultry.
Training the Irish Setter is a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, he is smart and eager to please; on the other hand, he is independent and easily bored. A firm master is necessary, as this dog is a master at sneaking out of work. However, this firm master must also be extremely careful to avoid all harshness or nagging, as the Irish Setter will take it as a personal affront, and will never forget the occurrence, either. A balance of positive training methods and a tone of voice that inspires respect is usually all that is necessary for most Irish Setters. When correction is necessary, these dogs take very well to an electronic training collar, as they do not view it as an insult, but as a cue to change their behavior. Keep training sessions short and sweet, especially with puppies, as focusing on one thing takes quite a bit of effort for this breed.
When in the field, hunters should respect the fact that the Irish Setter has unique needs. His attention is primarily directed toward his master, which can be either good or bad depending on the circumstances. He may tend to lean on you for direction, but on the other hand he is a dog that will change his pace to suit yours. But just because he is holding back to better stay in touch does not mean that he is not eager to work. Quite the contrary! The Irish Setter loves nothing more than a day of sniffing out birds. As long as your dog is structurally sound, you will likely wear out long before he does. He has a keen nose that can be trusted implicitly.
Note the differences in temperament and style between bloodlines:
- The show type typically retains some hunting instinct, but may lack some of the brains of his field counterpart. He is a bit less intense, making him a good pet as long as he receives sufficient exercise. He crouches on the point, just like his earliest ancestors.
- The field type is incredibly energetic. Although he still likes to keep in touch with the hunter, he may run out a little farther and with more purpose. His stamina is unequaled. When pointing, he keeps his head and tail up, much like a Pointer.
- The dual-purpose type is somewhat intermediate in personality. However, his hunting instinct is far more solid than that of dogs bred strictly for show.
A well-bred Irish Setter is healthy and sturdy, although soundness has been sacrificed in some show bloodlines. Note that all Irish Setters mature slowly, sometimes over a period of two or three years. Don’t let that furry bundle of energy trick you into too much roughhousing! Gentle exercise on softer surfaces such as grass is recommended to avoid bone and joint damage.
The Irish Setter’s long, pendulous ears tend to hold in debris and moisture. Regular examination and cleaning is recommended, especially in working dogs.
The most common health problems in the breed are:
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Ear infections.
- Growing pains.
- Hypertrophic osteodystrophy, a developmental disorder causing lameness and inflammation of the legs.
- Hip dysplasia.
- Megaesophagus (enlarged esophagus).
- Bloat; this can be prevented by feeding your dog two or three small meals each day.
- Skin allergies.
- Bone cancer.
- Canine leukocyte, a genetic defect that prevents white blood cells from fighting infection.
- Availability of field and show bloodlines.
- Suitability for homes with other dogs.
- Moderate grooming requirements (field bloodlines only).
- Fertility of breeding stock.
- Athleticism (field and dual-purpose bloodlines).
- Scarcity of dual-purpose and old hunting types.
- Separation anxiety.
- Incredible ability to get into trouble.
- Training challenges.
- Exercise requirements.
- Hefty appetite.
- Grooming requirements (show bloodlines).
- Unsuitability for cold climates.