The first litter of puppies I ever met was born in the living room of a neighbor’s house in the mid-1970s. Every other kid in the neighborhood wanted to see the puppies, and when they were old enough to accept visitors, I made sure that I secured an invitation to meet those little redheads. The puppies – quite a litter at 12 – were Irish Setters.
A breed known for its rather glamorous mahogany color and larger-than-life personality, the Irish Setter has long been a favorite companion for active people with a love of the outdoors. So lovely is the breed’s appearance that the Irish Setter Club of America and, in fact, the AKC breed standard, mentions that artists have termed it “the most beautiful of all dogs.”
Ireland’s rugged beauty has inspired writers as well as artists, with an oral tradition that freely weaves fact with fiction. It is for this reason, perhaps, that any documented record of the breed’s development has remained so elusive. As with virtually all of the Irish breeds, this Setter’s origin is as murky as a peat bog on a Sunday morning.
In her book, “The Truth About Sporting Dogs,” published in 1972 by Howell Book House, gundog authority C. Bede Maxwell offers some hope for establishing the Setter’s provenance by suggesting a French connection. She cites the work of English diplomat and author George Turberville who, in 1575, described “lively Redde” hounds with “tayles shagged likes ears of corn” living on the opposite shores of the English Channel.
Turberville’s French hounds may have found their way from medieval Europe to the Emerald Isle in the company of the Celts. As Maxwell notes, “There has always been close association between French and Irish, as from ancient Celtic relationships and the sharing of a common enemy, England.”
“That the Celts had a red hound as well as a red-and-white Spaniel is also historically established,” author Maxwell continues, referencing the likely ancestor of the modern Welsh Springer Spaniel, Brittany and, perhaps, the Irish Red and White Setter. “The hound was commonly described as having disappeared, while the Spaniel survived.”
Setting Spaniels, as the early Setters were called, developed along different lines throughout Ireland and Britain. According to Maxwell, “The English is basically a Spaniel. The Irish is basically a scent hound. The Gordon partakes of both groupings.”
Irish Setters were originally white with rich red markings. In 1812, the kennel of the Earl of Enniskillen recorded solid red dogs, a rarity at the time. During the 19th century, the now trademark color became fashionable among sporting dog enthusiasts.
In 1875, the breed was imported to the United States where it quickly found a following among upland game hunters. The breed parent club was formed in 1891, seven years after AKC recognition, and acceptance in the show ring began by the turn of the last century.
The ISCA held its first Combined Specialty and Field Dog Day in 1927, but success as both a field trial competitor with style and an elegant show dog eventually led to a division among Irish Setter supporters. By the mid-20th century, two distinct variations were bred, along either field or show lines.
Today the Irish Setter remains a Sporting dog of high style with energy to match. Although not as popular as it was 40 years ago, the breed still enjoys the support of dedicated breeders who are serious about preserving its many fine qualities, including the promotion of dual champions. Registrations in 2012 place the rollicking redhead 74th of the 175 recognized breeds.
An Aristocratic Bird Dog
The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes the Irish Setter, in part, as “an active, aristocratic bird dog, rich red in color, substantial yet elegant in build.” Just one look at the breed working in the field, showing in the ring or sitting on the couch, and it’s easy to appreciate its unmistakable refinement.
The Irish Setter is a tall dog, with a height that enhances its aristocratic bearing. The standard describes an ideal height and weight for males as 27 inches and 70 pounds, and 25 inches and 60 pounds for bitches. At more than 2 feet tall at the withers, the red Setter is among the tallest of the Sporting breeds.
Balance is a major aspect of the breed’s artistry. “The correct specimen always exhibits balance, whether standing or in motion. Each part of the dog flows and fits smoothly into its neighboring parts without calling attention to itself.”
Although size disqualifications are notably absent from this hunting dog’s breed standard, dogs and bitches measuring an inch above or below the ideal lose both balance and elegance, and are “to be discouraged.”
Elegance is elemental to the Irish Setter’s essence. It is expressed through the breed’s flowing lines, rich red glossy coat, refinement of head, stability of temperament and, above all, balance of each component to all others. As noted in the parent club’s illustrated standard, “[The Irish Setter] is not overdone anywhere. All parts fit smoothly into one another. Angulation in front and rear are approximately the same. The coat enhances the elegant quality of the dog and must be shining, reflective of good health and vitality.”
The birthright of every Irish Setter is an aristocratic presence that exists only through absolute balance and freedom from exaggeration.
The Irish Setter’s long, lean head is a hallmark of the breed. A refinement of form and softness of expression are signature features of a breed renowned for both its functional agility as a bird dog, as well as its physical beauty.
As noted in the standard’s section on the head, its beauty is dependent on “delicate chiseling along the muzzle, around and below the eyes, and along the cheeks.” These details indicate muscling of the head and mouth that enables the dog to pick up a bird without causing undue harm to it.
The detailing of the skull and muzzle support the breed’s intended function while contributing greatly to its refinement. The head’s length is “at least double the width between the ears,” as noted by the standard. A “moderately deep” muzzle with jaws “of nearly equal length,” a “distinct” stop, “very slightly” domed skull and a “well-defined” occiput all combine to create an extraordinarily refined head.
A “soft, yet alert” expression is another crucial element of breed type. It is created through eyes that are “somewhat almond shaped, of medium size, placed rather well apart, neither deep set nor bulging.” Color of the eyes is “dark to medium brown,” according to the standard.
Maxwell indicates that the beauty of the Irish Setter’s head must be seen to be appreciated. “No one seems as yet to have succeeded in defining classic Irish Setter expression in print. The words elude everybody. One just has to ‘learn’ it from Setters that carry it – which, by the way, does not include every Setter registered as an Irish.” Bitches, it should be noted, are permitted refinement as befits their femininity.
A Rollicking Personality
The word that best describes the true nature of this elegant field hand is one attributed to no other breed of dog: rollicking. By definition, the Irish Setter’s personality is boisterous and carefree, with a spirited exuberance that is usually sustained throughout the life of the dog.
The spirited Irish Setter requires moderate daily exercise in order for its “outgoing and stable” personality to manifest. The illustrated standard indicates that this field and family dog should not shy away from a human greeting, nor should it ever demonstrate hostility toward an individual. “An outgoing temperament is the essence of the Irish Setter.”
Temperament, like balance, may be experienced when the dog is both standing still and while on the move. The rollicking nature is evident in a gait that is “big, very lively, graceful and efficient,” as noted by the standard. “At an extended trot the head reaches slightly forward, keeping the dog in balance.” On the move, the tail extends naturally from the topline and emphasizes the dog’s true nature by its constant flagging motion.
The happy-go-lucky Irish Setter, elegant in form, refined of head and joyful of spirit, must certainly be the world’s most impish aristocrat.