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The Irish Setter: A Guide for Owners

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree from UNC Charlotte. He has 15+ years of experience with dogs and various pets.

The Irish Setter: A Guide for Owners.

The Irish Setter: A Guide for Owners.

Throughout the world, there exists only a handful of dog breeds that can be consistently described as intelligent, sweet-natured, and energetic. One of these dogs is the Irish Setter. First bred in the 1700s for the purpose of bird setting and retrieving, this breed is now favored for its remarkable companionship and kid-friendly demeanor. This work examines the Irish Setter and provides an in-depth analysis of the animal’s behavioral patterns, temperament, and physical traits. This includes a general discussion of the Irish Setter’s health concerns, nutritional needs, as well as the pros and cons of this particular breed. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding (and appreciation) of this remarkable dog will accompany readers following their completion of this work.

Dog Quote

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

— Roger Caras

Scientific Classification

  • Common Name: Irish Setter
  • Binomial Name: Canis Lupus Familiaris
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Genus: Canis
  • Species: Canis Lupus
  • Subspecies: Canis Lupus Familiaris
  • Other Name(s): Red Setter
Irish Setter posing for the camera.

Irish Setter posing for the camera.

History of the Irish Setter

  • Life Span: 12 to 14 years
  • Group: Sporting
  • Area of Origin: Ireland
  • Date of Origin: 1700s
  • Original Function: Bird Setting; Retrieving
  • Family: Pointer; Setter; Gundog

Origins

As its name implies, the Irish Setter originated in Ireland during the 1700s. Seeking an all-purpose hunting dog, it is believed that early breeders developed the dog by crossing English Setters, Gordon Setters, as well as a variety of pointers and spaniels. The end result was the Irish Setter as we know and love today. Originally referred to as the “Red Spaniel” or “Red Dog,” the first Irish Setters were used extensively for hunting expeditions as they possessed a keen sense of smell and a knack for spotting birds.

In spite of being developed in the 1700s, however, it wasn’t until 1875 that the first Irish Setter was imported to the United States (a dog by the name of “Echo”). After showcasing the dog’s natural intelligence and capabilities as a gundog, it wasn’t long before the Irish Setter’s popularity in the United States reached epic proportions; thus, prompting the American Kennel Club (AKC) to officially recognize the breed only a few years later (1878). In the decades that followed, the Irish Setter quickly became one of the most popular dog breeds in America. And while its popularity has seen a slight drop in recent years, this breed continues to be a favorite for families and hunters alike.

A beautiful Irish Setter lounging in the grass.

A beautiful Irish Setter lounging in the grass.

Appearance and Body Characteristics

Body

  • Weight: 70+ pounds (male); 60+ pounds (female)
  • Height: 27 inches (male); 25 inches (female)

The Irish Setter possesses a muscular build with an overall weight that is highly proportionate (and balanced) with its height. Generally speaking, this breed is slightly longer than it is tall, with an average weight of approximately 60 to 70 pounds. In regard to height, most Irish Setters are in the vicinity of 25 to 27 inches depending on their sex.

Head

Heads on the Irish Setter are often described as long and lean. Lengths of the head are usually twice the size of their width, and are accentuated by low-sitting ears that fold close to the skull. Generally speaking, the Irish Setter’s skull is oval in appearance, and is highlighted by a soft (gentle) expression, along with medium-sized eyes that take on an almond-like shape. Completing the head is a moderately long muzzle that is topped by a black (or chocolate) colored nose, wide nostrils, and a scissor-like jawline.

Forequarters

The Irish Setter possesses wide shoulders that slope downward to the back. Shoulder blades sit relatively close to one another at the withers and are proportionate to the upper arms (in regard to length). Forelegs, in contrast, are remarkably straight and muscular in their overall appearance. They are completed by relatively small feet with arched toes.

Hindquarters

Hindquarters on the Irish Setter follow many of the same characteristics as the front. The rear portions of the dog are generally wide with muscular thighs and hind legs. Overall angulation of the rear legs is slightly bent at the joints to provide the dog with greater mobility and speed. Finally, the feet are the same as the front, and are relatively small with highly-arched toes.

Tail

Tails on the Irish Setter are set relatively level with the croup, and serve as a natural continuation (extension) of the topline. In general, tails appear strong at their root and taper to a fine point. And while the overall length of tails varies with each dog, most should be long enough to reach the dog’s hock. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, tails should always be carried straight with a slight curvature upward. Extreme curvature is considered a major fault with this breed and should be evaluated by a qualified veterinarian.

Coat and Coloration

The coat on the Irish Setter is considered extremely short (and fine) along its head and forelegs. However, this changes dramatically with other portions of the body where it is considered both long and flat along the ears, hindquarters, and topline. Feathering is common along the tail and ears.

In regard to coloration, the Irish Setter’s coat is generally described as mahogany or chestnut red in appearance. And while this color typically covers the dog in a uniform manner, small patches of white are occasionally seen on the throat, chest, toes, or center portions of the head.

Up-close photograph of the Irish Setter.

Up-close photograph of the Irish Setter.

Are Irish Setters Right For Your Home?

General Characteristics

  • Energy Level: 5/5
  • Exercise Needs: 5/5
  • Playfulness: 5/5
  • Affection Towards Owners: 5/5
  • Friendliness Towards Other Animals: 4/5
  • Training Difficulty: 2/5
  • Grooming Level: 3/5

Note: Scale of 1 to 5 (1=Lowest, 5=Highest)

Temperament

The Irish Setter is a highly energetic breed known for its tireless personality. Often described by experts as enthusiastic and “full of gusto,” the Irish Setter makes a great companion for individuals of all ages (including small children). This particular breed responds well to commands (despite its tendency to be stubborn at times), and is generally eager to please their owner whenever possible. The Irish Setter also does well with strangers and other pets, making it a great dog for nearly any household. Extreme shyness and hostility are considered major faults for the Irish Setter, as this breed is considered an even-tempered and outgoing dog with a rollicking personality (akc.org).

Are Irish Setters Good With Children?

Yes! The Irish Setter is highly suitable for families with children (of all ages). In fact, the breed often ranks as one of the “top 10” best dogs for children due to its outgoing nature, gentle demeanor, and sweet-loving personality. As an energetic and playful breed, children are also extremely well-suited for the Irish Setter as they are better-suited to provide the dog with the affection and attention it desires on a daily basis. This is crucial, as the Irish Setter hates to be alone and desires regular playtime with its owners (PetHelpful.com).

How Smart are Irish Setters?

The Irish Setter is considered a highly intelligent breed with the capacity for learning a wide array of tricks and commands in their lifetime. According to Stanley Coren, an authority on dog intelligence, the Irish Setter typically ranks as the 35th most intelligent breed in the world (Coren, 182). Irish Setters possess a remarkable degree of both obedience and working intelligence. This means that the dog is not only capable of understanding tasks that are assigned to them, but also possesses the mental ability to respond appropriately to situations in an effective manner. As a result, the Irish Setter is highly trainable for a variety of household roles.

Irish Setter taking a well-deserved break.

Irish Setter taking a well-deserved break.

Grooming and Training Requirements

Grooming Requirements

As a relatively long-haired breed, the Irish Setter requires grooming several times a week to maintain its beautiful coat. Owners should brush their setter every other day to prevent tangles and matting. This also prevents dirt and other debris from accumulating on your dog’s coat, resulting in a cleaner and tidier appearance.

As with all dog breeds, owners should also pay particular attention to their Irish Setter’s ears, nails, and dental hygiene. Ears should be checked daily for excessive earwax, dirt, and other debris (such as the accumulation of hair). Prompt removal of these substances is crucial for your dog’s health as it helps to prevent skin infections and sores within the ear canal. Likewise, nails should be kept clean, short, and trimmed on a regular basis. Failure to do so can result in serious injuries to your Irish Setter’s feet as longer nails can become snagged on rougher terrain. Nail trimming can be performed at home, or at a local veterinarian’s office for individuals that are uncomfortable with the process.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, dental hygiene is also extremely important for the Irish Setter. Ideally, owners should plan to brush their pet’s teeth daily in order to remove food-based substances from the gums and teeth. Proper oral hygiene is an important element of grooming that is often ignored by pet owners. Over time, the absence of dental cleaning will almost certainly lead to gingivitis, gum disease, and tooth decay for your pet. In turn, these health issues can dramatically affect the overall quality of your Irish Setter’s life as many dental problems are both painful and harmful to their bodies.

Training and Exercise

As an energetic dog breed, the Irish Setter requires a great deal of exercise on a daily basis. Generally speaking, most experts recommend an hour of exercise for the Irish Setter each day. This can be done once a day, or broken into two separate routines of thirty-minutes each. The best exercise routines for this breed include running and jogging. However, long walks are also highly appropriate, along with swimming and games (such as frisbee or fetch).

Irish Setter puppies also require a great deal of exercise, but on a far different level than adults. From 2 to 4 months old, approximately 15 minutes of playtime each morning and evening is usually enough to meet their physical needs. From 4 to 6 months, playtime can be expanded to half-mile walks (daily), reaching as much as a mile once they reach a year old. As with any training routine, however, it is crucial to actively monitor your dog’s breathing and responsiveness to strenuous activities. Frequent breaks should always be taken, particularly when it is hot outdoors. Moreover, dogs should be properly hydrated before starting their daily activities.

In regard to training requirements, potential owners should note that the Irish Setter requires a great deal of mental stimulation (daily) to maintain a happy lifestyle. They are an exceptionally intelligent breed with a desire to learn new tricks and commands. Failure to meet this basic need will result in the development of bad habits (and behaviors) such as excessive barking, digging, and chewing.

Despite their affinity for learning, owners should also note that the Irish Setter often suffers from an inability to focus on the task at hand. During training, it is easy for the Irish Setter to become bored, resulting in behaviors that often run counter to their owner’s desire. As a result, this breed requires a great deal of patience and understanding from owners. As a highly-sensitive (and alert) dog, the Irish Setter also doesn’t respond well to anger or shouting. Failure to heed this warning will result in the development of timid behaviors from your setter. As such, owners should always practice calmness, as well as positive reinforcement techniques (such as praise and reward-based incentives). To keep your Irish Setter interested in training, repetition of the same task (every day) should also be avoided whenever possible.

If these steps are followed, Irish Setters make excellent training and exercise partners with an ability to learn numerous commands and tricks in their lifetime.

Nutritional Needs

As with most breeds, high-quality dog food should always be the number one priority for your pet. These meals can be prepared by a manufacturer, or at home following the guidance and supervision of your Irish Setter’s veterinarian. And while it is tempting to provide table scraps to your pet (as a cheap and affordable alternative to dog food), experts warn that human-based foods are often extremely harmful to your dog’s health and well-being. This is due, in part, to the fact that many table scraps possess substances that are toxic to canines. Many foods also contain sharp bones that can cause choking or injury to a dog’s digestive tract. The following list shows 10 foods you should avoid giving to your Irish Setter (or dogs in general):

Avoid giving these 10 foods to your Irish Setter.

Avoid giving these 10 foods to your Irish Setter.

How Much Food Should an Irish Setter Eat Per Day?

As with all dog breeds, feeding requirements vary significantly with every pet and depend greatly on your Irish Setter’s weight, energy level, and age. For this reason, owners should work actively with their veterinarian to establish a feeding cycle that fits their dog’s specific needs. Generally speaking, however, most Irish Setters require approximately 2 to 3 cups of dog food (dry) on a daily basis. This should be divided into two separate meals of 1 to 1.5 cups each sitting. For less-active dogs, 2 cups will usually suffice for their nutritional needs, whereas more-active setters will require additional food to replenish calories lost throughout the day.

Water Needs

Maintaining proper hydration is also extremely important for the Irish Setter. Nearly 70-percent of a dog’s body is comprised of water. Therefore, owners should pay active attention to their setter’s water needs throughout the day as their requirements can change in response to both outside temperatures and their daily activity levels. As with most breeds, standard water requirements are usually determined by your dog’s weight. For every seven pounds of weight, an Irish Setter should consume approximately 6 ounces of water per day. For example, a 63-pound dog would require 54 ounces of water in a day’s time (minimum). For less-active dogs, water requirements will be slightly less, whereas more-active pets will require even more water (in the vicinity of 70 to 107 ounces).

Signs and symptoms of dehydration in the Irish Setter.

Signs and symptoms of dehydration in the Irish Setter.

What Type of Home is Good for an Irish Setter?

Selecting an Irish Setter as a pet is a major life-decision that should never be taken lightly. In spite of this, the Irish Setter is an incredibly easy dog to care for, and is suitable for a wide array of household situations and environments. Nevertheless, as a relatively larger dog that requires regular exercise, this breed is generally not suited for smaller homes (such as apartments, condominiums, and townhomes). They are also not recommended for individuals living in cities, as the ability to perform off-leash activities is greatly diminished within these areas due to traffic and confined spaces. Although owners in these areas can often find ways to provide their Irish Setter with the exercise and playtime they need, it often takes a great deal of time and effort on their behalf. As a result, this breed is best-suited for life in the country where they can run and play with relative ease.

In regard to owners, the Irish Setter is highly adaptable and does well with a variety of individuals (including kids). As a dog that requires a great deal of attention, however, owners who are extremely busy or incapable of spending time with their dog on a daily basis should probably avoid purchasing an Irish Setter as a pet.

Are Irish Setters Good With Other Pets?

Yes! The Irish Setter is renowned for its easy-going and friendly demeanor towards other pets and animals. As a result, they often do extremely well with other pets in the home (including cats). As with all dogs, however, early socialization is crucial for this breed as early introductions to other pets will help to establish positive relationships for the future. It is also important to note that the Irish Setter was originally bred for the purpose of hunting. As a result, owners should always monitor their setter when they are in the presence of smaller animals. And while aggressive behavior is rare for this breed, the Irish Setter’s larger size and rambunctious personality could lead to accidental injuries to smaller animals.

Are Irish Setters Good Guard Dogs?

No. As an extremely sweet-natured and affectionate breed, the Irish Setter is not designed for guard dog duties. In fact, the Irish Setter is more likely to greet an intruder (or would-be burglar) with gentle kisses rather than growling or biting. Although this breed will certainly protect its owner from danger (when provoked), owners seeking a pet for guarding purposes will be better-served by breeds such as the Doberman, German Shepherd, or Rottweiler for these particular roles.

Health Concerns

Recommended Medical Tests and Evaluations for the Irish Setter:

  • Hip and Elbow Examination
  • Eye Exam
  • Thyroid Function Test
  • DNA Testing for PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy)

Owners should actively work with a qualified veterinarian in their area to develop a nutritional and preventive-care plan for their Irish Setter. Proper diet, nutrition, and early detection of health issues can go a long way in helping your dog achieve a happy and healthy life. Generally speaking, however, the Irish Setter is a remarkably healthy breed with only a few major health concerns. This includes hip dysplasia, hypothyroidism, epilepsy, and Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA). Gastric torsion (or bloat) is also occasionally seen with this breed and can result in life-threatening situations for your Irish Setter if medical treatment is not sought. With proper care, owners can expect their setter to live between 12 to 14 years, with many dogs living several years beyond this.

Signs and symptoms of illness in the Irish Setter.

Signs and symptoms of illness in the Irish Setter.

Pros and Cons of the Irish Setter

Pros:

  • Extremely sweet-natured and affectionate breed.
  • Does well with children and other animals.
  • Highly intelligent breed with the capacity to learn numerous tricks and commands in their lifetime.
  • Extremely beautiful breed.

Cons:

  • Requires a great deal of exercise on a daily basis.
  • Prone to excessive jumping.
  • Suffers from “separation anxiety” when left alone for too long.
  • Can be stubborn (to a fault).
  • Requires a great deal of grooming on a weekly basis.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, the Irish Setter is a remarkable pet that is renowned for its abundant energy, companionship qualities, and affectionate demeanor. Although originally developed as a hunting breed, the Irish Setter has proven itself (time and again) of its ability to adapt to a wide array of individual needs and environmental situations. As a result, it has become a favorite for households with children, the elderly, and individuals seeking a dog for companionship. And while this breed can certainly prove problematic with its stubbornness and aloof personality, owners will be hard-pressed to find another dog capable of providing them with the love and devotion showcased by an Irish Setter. For these reasons, the Irish Setter will likely remain a favorite of dog lovers for the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

  • American Kennel Club. The New Complete Dog Book 22nd Edition. Mount Joy, Pennsylvania: Fox Chapel Publishing, 2017.
  • Coile, Caroline. The Dog Breed Bible: Descriptions and Photos of Every Breed Recognized by the AKC. Hauppauge, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007.
  • Dennis-Bryan, Kim. The Complete Dog Breed Book. New York, New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2014.
  • Larkin, Peter and Mike Stockman. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Dogs, Dog Breeds, & Dog Care. London, England: Hermes House, 2006.
  • Mehus-Roe, Kristin. Dog Bible: The Definitive Source for All Things Dog. Irvine, California: I-5 Press, 2009.
  • O’Neill, Amanda. What Dog? A Guide to Help New Owners Select the Right Breed for their Lifestyle. Hauppauge, New York: Interpret Publishing Ltd., 2006.
  • Schuler, Elizabeth Meriwether. Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Dogs. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, Incorporated, 1980.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The Top 10 Smartest Dog Breeds.” (PetHelpful). 2019.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The 10 Best Dogs for Children.” (PetHelpful). 2019.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Larry Slawson

Comments

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 14, 2020:

Very cool. Both the breed and your article. Thanks.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 13, 2020:

This is a great article for anyone considering getting this beautiful dog. I had one many years ago, and I remember how energetic he was. I think your article is very thorough and well-written.

Lorna Lamon on August 13, 2020:

This is a detailed glimpse into the Irish Setter, and a very popular breed in Ireland. They are so friendly and lovable, although they are useless when it comes to guarding the home. A great breed for families and wonderful characters. Thank you for sharing this great article Larry fully of interesting facts.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 12, 2020:

Hi Larry, thanks for enlightening us on the Irish Setter. I had not a dog yet. But I would prefer this breed because of its soft friendliness. Thanks.