Irish Setter Dog Breed Characteristics, Fun Facts and Information

  • Pedigree: Pure breed
  • Height: 24 to 27 inches
  • Weight: 35 to 70 pounds
  • Breed Group: Sporting
  • Lifespan: 10 to 12 years
  • Intelligence: Moderate
  • Trainability: Moderate
  • Exercise Needs: High
  • Shedding: Moderate
  • Good with Kids: Yes
  • Good with Dogs: Yes
  • Good with Pets: Yes

Known for his rich mahogany coat and inquisitive nature, the Irish Setter is a talented gun dog. This breed is friendly but mischievous, bold but loyal, and he does well in many dog sports and other activities. The Irish Setter is a medium to large breed with unlimited energy who also has unlimited love to give. Affectionate with family and focused in the field, this breed does well both as a family pet and a hunting dog. If you’re considering the Irish Setter, be sure that you can provide for his high exercise requirements and care for his long, luscious coat.

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Fun Facts About the Irish Setter

  • Though they were developed as gun dogs, the Irish Setter forms close bonds with family and does well as a family pet. They bond so closely, however, that they have a high risk for developing separation anxiety.
  • The Irish Setter is a highly active and mischievous breed that needs a great deal of obedience training as well as a firm, experienced leader. They learn quickly but they are easily distracted.
  • Irish Setters are only a medium-sized breed by most estimations but they mature very slowly, often taking three years to grow out of the puppy phase.

Coat and Appearance

One of the breed’s most defining characteristics is his lush, silky coat. The coat is medium-length on the body but shorter and finer on the heat and the front of the legs. The back of the legs exhibit silky feathering, as does the chest, belly, and tail. Though a rich, mahogany red is the most common coat color for this breed, Irish Setters can come in an attractive red-and-white coat as well. According to the AKC breed standard, however, only a small amount of white on the chest, throat, toes, or forehead is permissible – no black is allowed.

Standing an average of 24 to 27 inches tall and weighing 35 to 70 pounds, the Irish Setter is somewhere between a medium-sized and a large-sized breed. These dogs have an elegant appearance with long legs, a straight glossy coat, and a noble expression. Their heads are long and lean with soft, almond-shaped eyes and long ears. The body is deep-chested with an overall appearance of athleticism and the tail is strong at the root, tapered at the tip.

History of the Breed

The rich red coat of the Irish Setter provides a clue to its heritage. This beautiful, elegant-looking breed hails from Ireland where he was developed as a gun dog. Early specimens of the breed appeared during the 18th century, presumably arising from a crossing of English Setters with various spaniels, pointers, and even Gordon Setters. In the early years of the breed, the Irish Setter was often referred to as the “red spaniel” and, in contrast to the modern breed, was known for its red-and-white coat.

The trend toward solid red Irish Setters is thought to have started in the early 1800s by the Irish Earl of Enniskillen. Other breeders who supported this movement include Sir St. George Gore and Jason Hazzard of Timaskea in County Fermanagh. The first Irish Setter to arrive in the United States was Elcho and he entered the show ring in 1875. Three years later, in 1878, the first specimen of the breed was registered with the AKC – his name was Admiral.

Through the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the popularity of the breed skyrocketed in the United States. By 1948, more than 750 Irish Setters had won conformation championships, though only five earned the title of field champion. This descrepency set off an alarm for fanciers of the original Irish Setter type and sparked a movement in resurrecting the original working type. For this reason, it is not uncommon to see two “types” of Irish Setters – the field type and the show type. Dogs of the show type are larger and heavier while dogs of the field type are lithe and sleek.

The popularity of the Irish Setter peaked in the United States during the 1970s when a book and movie came out featuring “Big Red”. Even Nixon himself had an Irish Setter by the name of King Timahoe. Today, the breed ranks 76th according to AKC breed registration statistics, though it fluctuates within 4 or 5 slots on the ranking from year to year.

Temperament and Personality

The AKC breed standard describes the Irish Setter as an outgoing, energetic breed with a rollicking personality. These dogs are playful and fun-loving, always ready to spend time with family and eager to make new friends. They don’t have much talent as a guard dog, but they have been known to protect their family when needed. They do, however, make great watchdogs, barking to alert you of any who dare trespass on his lawn.

Because the Irish Setter is very slow to mature, he may retain more of puppylike tendencies throughout most of his life. As puppies, these dogs are often playful and curious, though poorly socialized puppies may develop a tendency toward rough play. Breeding is incredibly important for the Irish Setter breed, though early socialization and training is important as well. These dogs get along very well with children and other dogs, and they generally do well with cats.

Training Tips

The Irish Setter is a very intelligent breed, though training can sometimes be difficult. These dogs are independent thinkers and they get bored quickly, so you’ll need to keep your training sessions short and engaging. You should also know that once this dog learns something, it’s difficult to change his mind so train him properly the first time around! This breed responds well to positive reinforcement but they won’t stand for rough handling. Housetraining is usually easy, as long as you provide him with plenty of opportunities to go outside and keep him on a consistent feeding schedule.

Early socialization and training is very important for this breed. Socialization will help to ensure that he grows into a well-adjusted adult dog and that he gets along with people and other pets. Training from a young age (as early as 8 weeks) is recommended because these dogs learn quickly and they can easily become headstrong if you don’t take control early on. If you plan to use your dog for hunting, early training is that much more important – you’ll need to develop his hunting instincts and teach him how to work alongside you in the field.

Exercise Requirements

Developed primarily as a gun dog, the Irish Setter is a very high-energy breed. These dogs love to work and they have excellent stamina in the field. They require at least an hour’s walk every day and will appreciate having a fenced yard in which to play. Lack of exercise for this breed may result in hyperactivity as well as destructive behavior. In general, this breed should not be left alone for long periods of time, even with sufficient exercise. These dogs often take three years to reach maturity, so be prepared to give your Irish Setter some additional exercise to work off his puppy-like energy while he is still developing. Just be careful not to exercise him too rigorously because it could put excess strain on his developing bones and joints, increasing his risk for musculoskeletal conditions as an adult.

Grooming Tips

The Irish Setter’s coat is straight, fine, and glossy. In the winter, it has an abundant undercoat with a fine top coat – the breed sheds seasonally, blowing its coat in the spring. Because the breed’s coat is so long, regular brushing and grooming is recommended. The coat is thin and fine which comes with a risk for tangles, but it only sheds a moderate amount. Brushing three to four times a week is usually enough to keep the coat in good condition and bathing every two to four weeks is recommended as well. In addition to basic grooming, you should keep your dog’s ears clean, brush his teeth daily, and trim his nails once or twice a month.

Nutrition and Feeding

The Irish Setter is somewhere in the middle between being a medium-sized dog and a large-breed dog. More important than size (at least where nutrition is concerned), however, is his activity level. These dogs are very energetic and if you plan to train him for hunting or dog sports, he’ll need extra energy to sustain him. The best dog food for Irish Setters is generally a high-quality working or active breed formula. Make sure that animal protein is the first ingredient and that there are plenty of healthy animal fats for energy. Limit your dog’s carbohydrate intake and make sure that any carbs in his diet are highly digestible.

The amount of food your dog eats will vary depending on the calorie content of the recipe you choose. Start your puppy with a large-breed puppy recipe so he’ll get the protein he needs to develop strong muscles without too many calories to accelerate his growth. Slow and steady growth is important for this breed since they take up to three years to mature. To determine how much to feed your dog, refer to the feeding instructions on the package according to his weight. You’ll need to monitor his bodyweight and condition as well, making adjustments to his feeding amount as needed.

Common Health Problems

Generally speaking, the Irish Setter is a robust and healthy breed. As is true for all breeds, however, these dogs are prone to certain health problems. Most of the breed’s health problems are related to his size rather than genetics, but there are still a few congenital health problems to consider such as hip dysplasia, canine leukocyte, epilepsy, and hypertrophic dystrophy. Other conditions to which the breed may be prone include progressive retinal atrophy, gastric torsion, panosteitis, osteochondrosis dissecans, and hypothyroidism. Here is an overview of each of these conditions:

  • Hip Dysplasia – A hereditary condition where the head of the thighbone (femur) doesn’t sit properly in the hip joint, slipping in and out of position. Symptoms for hip dysplasia may include changed gait, reluctance to climb stairs, hopping or limping, and lameness in the affected leg.
  • Canine Leukocyte – A congenital abnormality that affects the immune system, canine leukocyte is a disease where the white blood cells have a reduced ability to fight infection.
  • Epilepsy – This condition causes mild or severe seizures which can be inherited or triggered by metabolic disorders, tumors, toxin exposure, head injury, or certain diseases. Though seizures can look severe and can be scary to watch, the prognosis for this disease is generally good with proper management.
  • Hypertrophic Dystrophy – This condition is caused by high levels of protein and calcium in the diet and it usually affects puppies between 4 and 8 months of age. Hypertrophic dystrophy causes symptoms such as fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, swollen joints, and lameness.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – A degenerative eye disease, PRA causes eventual blindness. This condition can be detected fairly early but there is no cure. Fortunately, most dogs adapt well to the loss of their vision.
  • Gastric Torsion – A condition that commonly affects large and deep-chested breeds, gatric torsion occurs when the abdomen fills with air and the stomach twists on its axis, cutting off blood flow. It can quickly become fatal, so be on the lookout for signs like distended abdomen, excessive drooling, and retching.
  • Panosteitis – A condition affecting the bones, panosteitis causes inflammation in the bone that may lead to lameness. There is no treatment and symptoms may come and go, but anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving drugs can be used to manage it.
  • Osteochondrosis Dissecans – An orthopedic condition in which the cartilage in the joints don’t grow properly, osteochondrosis dissecans can affect any joint but is usually seen in the elbows and shoulders. This condition causes painful stiffening of the affected joint and it may be exacerbated by rapid growth in puppies.
  • Hypothyroidism – This condition is characterized by abnormally low levels of thyroid hormone and it may produce symptoms such as low energy, irregular heat cycles, poor growth, obesity, and mental dullness – it may also cause the coat to become coarse and brittle. This condition can be treated with daily medication so the dog can live a full life.

The average lifespan for the Irish Setter is between 10 and 12 years which is on-par for other breeds of its size. Keep in mind that it often takes 3 years for this breed to fully develop, however, so he may not develop age-related health problems as early as other medium to large breeds.

Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and is the published author of several self-help books and nutrition guides. Also an avid dog lover and adoring owner of three cats, Kate’s love for animals has led her to a successful career as a freelance writer specializing in pet care and nutrition. Kate holds a certificate in fitness nutrition and enjoys writing about health and wellness trends — she also enjoys crafting original recipes. In addition to her work as a ghostwriter and author, Kate is also a blogger for a number of organic and natural food companies as well as a columnist for several pet magazines.

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