Irish Setter: Dog Breed Profile

Characteristics, History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Two Irish setter dogs looking at camera

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An elegant and even-tempered companion, the Irish setter is a popular dog breed for families and sporting enthusiasts alike. Originally bred for bird hunting, Irish setters have become prized for their beauty, friendliness, and work ethic. 

These medium to large breed dogs are best suited to a home with a yard and will benefit from an active lifestyle. They adapt well to life with children and other pets, but they do have a natural prey drive that means you’ll need to watch them with small animals.

Breed Overview

Group: Sporting

Height: 25 to 27 inches

Weight: 60 to 70 pounds

Coat: Medium length with feathering on ears, chest, legs, and tail

Coat Color: Red in color

Life Expectancy: 12 to 15 years

Characteristics of the Irish Setter

Affection Level High
Friendliness High
Kid-Friendly High
Pet-Friendly Medium
Exercise Needs High
Playfulness High
Energy Level Medium
Trainability High
Intelligence High
Tendency to Bark Low
Amount of Shedding Medium

History of the Irish Setter

Despite its red coat, the Irish setter hails from the Emerald Isle. This dog breed was developed in Ireland to assist bird hunters before the advent of firearms. Setters are a group of dog breeds that use their keen sense of smell to detect birds and ‘set’—or take a low stance with their body nearly touching the ground. When the bird is flushed from its hiding spot, the hunter makes the shot and these game birds eagerly retrieve the fowl.

Bird hunters in Ireland were searching for a bird dog that would move swiftly over the rather open terrain of the Irish countryside but retain the attentive and patient demeanor of prized hunting companions. In the early 1800’s, hunters looked to breed spaniels, English setters, and Gordon setters into an eager, attentive, and quick bird dog.

The result was a red-and-white setter-type dog that became known as the Irish setter. Over time, further breeding resulted in a dog with an exclusively red coat with no patches of white. Today, a coat with traces of black is considered a fault in the breed’s appearance, though it isn’t a disqualifying factor for show dogs. The rich red of the Irish setter’s coat is equally eye-catching in the field or walking down the street.

With such striking good looks and an eager-to-please temperament, it’s no surprise that these dogs quickly began spreading across Britain and into the United States. While the Irish setter only appeared on the scene at the turn of the 19th century, this breed was one of the first 9 breeds to gain early AKC-recognition in 1878. Along with the English setter and Gordon setter, the Irish setter was well on its way to becoming a popular dog breed in the United States for hunting and companionship.

Red setters, as they’re sometimes called by breed enthusiasts, developed into two sub-types: field and show. Show type setters are the most common and well represent the mental picture that most people have of an Irish setter—thick, flowing red coat, heavy bones, tall stature with long legs and body. The field type setter has been intentionally bred to retain its working abilities and has the same characteristically red or mahogany coat, but features significantly less feathering, finer bones, and a more compact stature.

What both types share is a strong drive to work and please their owners. Today, the Irish setter excels in the field, show ring, and family room. This breed has had the distinction of winning the Westminster Kennel Club’s Sporting Group competition 11 times. Irish setters rank within the top 100 most popular dog breeds the United States. 

Irish setter in show ring
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Irish Setter Care

Caring for an Irish setter is a rewarding experience. This dog breed is loyal and affectionate, but also has a playful side that delights owners young and old alike. It could be said that these dogs have never met a stranger; they seem to warmly welcome everyone. So it goes without saying that an Irish setter doesn’t make a suitable watchdog!

An affable nature doesn’t mean that training an Irish setter is a hands-off experience. Like all dog breeds, this breed requires a consistent and positive approach to training. If you start with your setter in puppyhood, be sure to provide plenty of socialization with people of all ages and animals large and small. Keep in mind that the setter was born to flush game, so their prey drive can sometimes be activated by smaller household pets. However, this tendency can often be molded and contained with good, consistent training.

Red setters are very intelligent and quick learners. Aside from a natural fit for field trials, they do well in fly ball, dock diving, canine agility, and obedience. Their attentive nature and calm demeanor also makes them well-qualified as therapy or service dogs.

However, the breed’s natural affinity for human companionship means that they can be prone to separation anxiety. Compared to some other dog breeds, they don’t tolerate being alone for extended periods of time particularly well.

To help this sporting dog maintain a balanced, happy disposition, you’ll need to plan on at least an hour of vigorous activity each day. These dogs love a brisk walk, going for a run, or endlessly retrieving tennis balls. Ideally, a fenced yard gives this breed a safe place to roam and romp, but it won’t replace the need for a daily walk or run.

Caring for the Irish setter’s gorgeous red coat isn’t as time-consuming as you may initially think. The coat will benefit from a couple of brushing sessions each week and an occasional bath, but it’s relatively low-maintenance despite its flowing appearance.

The undercoat becomes heavier in winter to keep the dog warm, and sheds as spring approaches. Expect to ramp up your grooming while the coat is blowing out and use a slicker brush to remove loose hair and keep fur balls from flying. 

Irish setter puppy
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Show type Irish setter
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Field type Irish setter
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Common Health Problems

The hearty Irish setter is a resilient breed and isn’t known for having frequent health complications. However, like most purebred dog breeds, there are some inherent conditions to be on the watch for.

Common health problems for Irish setters include:

Diet and Nutrition

Keep your red setter in tip-top shape with a quality dog food. This active breed will do well with a protein-rich formula that provides plenty of fuel for field activities or a daily romp in the dog park.

It’s important that you don’t let the Irish setter gulp down its food too fast since this breed can be prone to bloat. Canine bloat can become a life-threatening condition. Some people have had good success using slow-feeder dog bowls or feeding smaller, more frequent meals.

Pros

  • Friendly and affectionate with people

  • Very tolerant with children and other dogs

  • Highly intelligent and eager to please

Cons

  • May chase smaller housepets

  • Can develop separation anxiety

  • Prone to bloat and some inherited health problems

Where to Adopt or Buy an Irish Setter

If you’re starting your search for an Irish setter, consider first checking with rescue groups in your area or region. Irish setter rescues exist that specialize in finding new homes for these beautiful dogs.

If you have your heart set on an Irish setter puppy, there are plenty of breeders as well. Just be sure to find an Irish setter breeder that breeds for quality and health. It’s always a good practice to meet at least one, if not both, of the puppy’s parents. 

The National Breed Club recommends the following health certifications be provided by a breeder for any litter of Irish setter puppies:

  • Optigen Testing Results for Progressive Retinal Atrophy
  • OFA Certification of Hips
  • Eye Exam for CERF
  • OFA Thyroid Panel

Start your search for an Irish setter here:

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

Irish setters require a commitment of time, energy, and care, but this big-hearted breed will pay you back with a lifetime of devotion. If you’re considering whether an Irish setter is right for you, make sure you learn all you can about the breed, along with researching any prospective breeders you’re considering.

In addition, you might want to also check out these related breeds: