Introduction to the Irish Setter

One of the most beautiful of all breeds, the Irish Setter has a distinctive glossy red coat that ranges from dark mahogany to rich chestnut red.

Fun-loving and energetic, Irish Setters are affectionate and playful in the home. They may look aristocratic, but they love to be clowns.

Irish Setters are large dogs, standing about 25-27 inches tall at the shoulder and usually weigh 60 to 70 pounds or more.

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Irish Setter History

Setters, in general, are descended from the older land spaniels which existed in Britain in the Middle Ages. Irish Setters first appeared in the 18th century and became popular in Ireland and throughout Britain. They are thought to be a mix of English Setters, Irish Water Spaniel, Irish Terrier, Pointer, some other Spaniel, and some Gordon Setter. In those days there were numerous kinds of Setters and many gentlemen kept their own kennels with dogs bred for their particular hunting conditions and game. There were different strains of Setters found all over Britain and it was not unusual to cross English with Welsh and Irish and Gordon (black and tan) Setters. There were Setters of different colors. Some ranged far a-field, some hunted closer to the hunter. Some were better on certain kinds of birds. The early Setter strains were often bred together to get the kind of dog someone wanted in their personal kennel. You can still see hints of these early breedings in the Irish Setter breed standard when it warns that dogs should not have any black – which was sometimes present from early crosses with Gordon Setters. It also mentions that small amounts of white are allowable. The original Irish Setter was a red and white dog until the late 19th century when solid red dogs became preferred. Today there is a closely-related Irish Red & White Setter which shares the same roots as the Irish Setter. Those dogs have a white base color with solid red patches. The red and white dogs were nearly extinct in the 19th century but the breed continues today. Irish Red & White Setters are a distinct breed and they have other differences with the Irish Setter besides their color.

The Irish Setter was originally used to crouch and “set” to indicate where birds were to be found. When guns were introduced, the breed adapted and began to point in a more upright stance. Irish Setters are still used for hunting today, though most Irish Setters in the United States are pets. The Irish Setter has been in the United States since the early 19th century. They were one of the nine original breeds registered by the American Kennel Club in 1884. Today the Irish Setter ranks 72nd in popularity among 184 breeds. During the 1960s and ’70s the breed was extremely popular in the U.S., possibly due to a Disney movie called Big Red.

Irish Setter Health Related Issues

Irish Setters are usually very healthy dogs but, like all dogs, they can have some health issues. If you are interested in getting an Irish Setter you should talk to the breeder about health concerns with the breed.

The Irish Setter Club of America, the AKC parent breed club for the breed, provides health information about the breed.  They recommend the following health tests for Irish Setters, particularly for any dog that is considered for breeding:

  • Hip Dysplasia
  • Autoimmune thyroiditis
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

Other health problems that can occur in the breed include cancer, epilepsy, entropion (an eyelid problem that can be corrected with minor surgery), bloat (gastric dilatation and torsion – the stomach fills with gas and twists; it can be life-threatening); hypertrophic osteodystrophy or HOD (a disease that occurs in large breed fast-growing puppies); osteosarcoma; Von Willebrand’s disease (similar to hemophilia); patent ductus arteriosus; and canine leukocyte adhesion deficiency (CLAD). Genetic tests exist to detect CLAD and PRA in Irish Setters. Some of these conditions are not very common, but it is possible that they can occur in the breed. Ask your breeder if their dogs have experienced any of these problems and what health tests their dogs have had.

Irish Setter Temperament

Irish Setters are rollicking, merry, happy dogs. They love to be with their owners and have fun. They are very energetic dogs so they need lots of exercise each day. Simply taking long walks is not enough. These dogs need some room to run. If they don’t get enough exercise you can expect them to use their pent up energy to destroy your house. They will happily eat books, dig holes in furniture, and scratch your woodwork. They have to use their energy, so make sure they get lots of exercise.

Irish Setters get along well with other dogs and animals. They make great family pets and love everyone. They are not the best guard dogs because they do usually like strangers. They tend to be friendly with everyone. They are a little more protective than English Setters – who will show a thief where your valuables are hidden and offer him tea – but not much. The Irish Setter will at least put up a show of barking at an intruder, but that’s about all. Irish Setters are great with kids but they do best with an active family.

If you have a backyard, do not leave your Irish Setter unattended for long periods of time. They are very smart – despite what any authors or books on dog intelligence may say. They will find ways to amuse themselves that can include digging under fences, climbing over fences, or finding other ways of getting into trouble. Like children, they are dangerous when they are quiet.

Some Irish Setters, unfortunately, like to roam. If they discover that they can escape from your yard they may make a game of it and keep looking for ways to get out. Or, they can start running all over the neighborhood. It’s best to make sure your fences are as secure as possible so this behavior doesn’t start.

Irish Setters do have a cuddly, quiet side. They will happily curl up next to you and want you to pet them. They can be very loving and gentle. They love belly rubs and your Irish Setter will probably want to sleep on your bed next to you. Lots of Irish Setters think they are lap dogs, even if they weigh 70 pounds.

Irish Setter Grooming

Although they have a medium-long coat, it’s not too difficult to groom an Irish Setter. Their coat is smooth and fine. They need regular brushing to keep it from matting and tangling, with special attention to the feathering. Brush your Irish Setter several times per week. You can use scissors to tidy up the hair around the paws and under the tail to keep it neat. That’s all most dogs will need. If your dog is spayed or neutered, you may have a more cottony-coat to deal with. You can use an undercoat rake like the Furminator or the Mars Coat King to remove excess undercoat and keep the coat looking nice.

Check the ears and keep them clean to prevent ear infections. Trim nails as with all dogs. Brush your dog’s teeth regularly.

Irish Setter Fun Facts

  • The Red Setter is a different dog from the Irish Setter. In the 1940s, some hunters became concerned that the Irish Setter was no longer competitive in the field so they began crossing the Irish Setter with field champion English Setters (and possibly other dogs) to create the Red Setter. Red Setters are registered with the Field Dog Stud Book. If you want to start a fight among Irish Setter people, ask them about Red Setters.
  • Irish Setters make wonderful therapy dogs. They often visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, among other places. Many Irish Setters take part in school reading programs so kids can read to them. It’s a great way to encourage children to read without fear of being judged.
  • One of the most popular Irish Setters in fiction and in movies was Big Red. The Big Red books were written by Jim Kjelgaard. The 1962 movie Big Red is a little different from the 1945 book, but it’s well worth seeing. Kjelgaard followed up Big Red with several other books about the dog’s life and offspring.
  • Irish Setters have been popular pets with several presidents. Richard Nixon and Harry Truman both owned Irish Setters (King Timahoe and Mike, respectively).
  • Irish Setters can sometimes be quite fertile. One dog recently had 15 puppies in a litter with all of them surviving. They usually come in season about once every 7-9 months, though some dogs may take longer.

Common Irish Setter Mixes

The most popular Irish Setter mix seems to be the Irish Setter crossed with the Golden Retriever. This mix produces a beautiful dog – but it loves to retrieve and has lots of energy.

  • Irish Doogle – Irish Setter and Poodle mix
  • Golden Irish – Irish Setter and Golden Retriever Mix

Irish Setter FAQs

What is the the life expectancy of Irish Setters?

Irish Setters usually live to be around 12 years old.

Are Irish Setters easy to train?

Irish Setters are about average when it comes to training. They are very smart but they don’t always choose to listen to you. If they notice something more interesting, they may decide to ignore you. The more you can make training fun and interesting, the easier it is to train them. Use positive reinforcement techniques. They enjoy clicker training because it’s fun. They usually respond well to kibble as a reward. Use lots of praise and affection, too.

Irish Setter puppies are usually fairly easy to housetrain, especially if they have frequent access to a yard.

If you make training fun for your Irish Setter, they can do very well at obedience, agility, rally, and other dog sports. There are many Irish Setter champions in these events. Many people still hunt with Irish Setters and there are dogs earning dual championships (show and field) in the breed. Some people have even used Irish Setters as sled dogs!

Do Irish Setters shed a lot of fur?

Irish Setters are only moderate shedders. Their hair is fine and they don’t usually have a very thick undercoat. If you brush them regularly there isn’t a lot of shedding. Many people think that if a dog has a long coat that it sheds more but that’s not the case. Shedding depends more on how thick the coat is and how much undercoat the dog has than its length.

Do Irish Setters make good apartment pets?

It depends. As they get older, Irish Setters usually have good house manners. However, you would have to be dedicated to making sure that your dog gets plenty of daily exercise. An Irish Setter puppy in an apartment could be very destructive. Most Irish Setters do best if they have a yard and room to run.

On the other hand, an Irish Setter on a farm can be a nuisance. Unless they are well-trained, they may chase chickens or other animals, just for fun.

Are Irish Setters good with Children?

Irish Setters love children and they are great with them. The only caveat would be if you have very small children. Irish Setters can be very rambunctious and wild at times when they are running and playing. You might need to be careful if you have small kids. But most Irish Setters try to be gentle with little ones. They would not do anything to intentionally hurt a small child.

Carlotta Cooper

Carlotta Cooper is a freelance writer and a long-time contributing editor for the weekly dog show magazine, Dog News. She is the author of The Dog Adoption Bible, the Dog Writers Association of America Adoptashelter.com award-winner for 2013. Additionally, Carlotta is the author of Canine Cuisine: 101 Natural Dog Food & Treat Recipes to Make Your Dog Health and Happy, as well as other books about pets. She is a guest writer for numerous website and blogs and a frequent pet food reviewer.

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