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Irish Setter/Red Setter: Hunting Dog Breed Profile

How two different dog breeds and a cross-registry conundrum has caused confusion between these setter breeds.

Irish Setter/Red Setter: Hunting Dog Breed Profile

Whether you choose to fall into the Irish setter or red setter camp, these pointing breeds make an excellent bird hunting companion and family pet. (Photo By: Mark Chesnut)

The Irish setter, often thought of by many these days as a thing of the past, has come a long way from the greatly diminished state the breed found itself in some 50 years ago.

I hunt and compete in both horseback and walking field trials with my field-bred Irish setters, and one of the most common comments I hear is, “My grandpa had a really good Irish setter bird dog back when I was a kid!” In fact, quality Irish setters were much more common back a couple of generations ago. But that doesn’t mean the breed isn’t thriving as a hunting and field trial dog in the United States right now if you put a little effort into looking around for them.

In The Beginning

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the Irish setter is believed to have developed from an English setter-spaniel-Gordon setter mix. These earliest ancestors were not solid red, but red and white. The solid red Irish setter first appeared in Ireland in the 19th century.

Irish setters reached American shores by the 1860s. They were medium-sized dogs, smaller than the show dogs of today, and immediately made their mark as a fine gentleman’s gun dog. In their early days on the continent, they were also very competitive in field trials.

In fact, in the mid to late 1800s, many sportsmen considered the Irish setter to be the best of the pointing breeds, and a famous field trial in 1890—a duel, to be exact—did little to discourage that claim. By 1879, an American-bred Irish setter named “Joe Jr.” was considered by many to be America’s top dog. Joe Jr. was pitted against one of the top-imported English setters of the day, “Gladstone,” in a three-day duel to answer the question of which breed was best.

After three days of intense competition in extremely harsh weather conditions, Joe Jr. emerged the winner with a score of 61 finds to Gladstone’s 52. Having injured one leg on the second day, Joe Jr. had gritted it out on his three good legs on the final day of the contest. Incidentally, Joe Jr. was red with a white blaze and white rear toes, markings not uncommon in field-bred Irish setters today.

Unfortunately for the Irish setter, its innate beauty led it to becoming extremely popular among show breeders, who for several generations bred more for size, conformation, and coat, rather than hunting ability. Hunting and trialing Irish setters soon became hard to find, prompting outbreeding to English setters on a very limited basis, which was approved by both AKC and the Field Dog Stud Book (FSDB) registries. Consequently, the Irish setter didn’t become just a footnote in history.

red irish setter pointing in a field
A field-bred Irish setter pointing wild quail in Kansas. (Photo By: Mark Chesnut)

Irish Setter Versus Red Setter

This can be a contentious topic, especially among those who raise these fine bird dogs. Ask a handler out hunting or field trialing with an Irish setter if it is, indeed, an Irish setter or a red setter and you’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask. At one point the two breeds were pretty much the same, with most registered through both the AKC and FDSB. However, in 1975, the AKC chose to withhold reciprocity from Irish setters registered with FDSB. This did away with the long-standing cross registration and caused somewhat of a chasm among breeders.

red irish setter field trial winner circle
Winners of the derby at the 2022 ISCA National Championships near Booneville, Arkansas. Kelli Aitken (far left) had the winner, Pence, and the author (middle) took second-place honors with Boone. (Photo By: Mark Chesnut)

Nowadays, those referring to their dogs as field-bred Irish setters typically have dogs registered through the AKC, although many of those dogs are also FDSB registered. Those choosing the red setter moniker are typically, but not always, raising dogs registered with the FDSB. Some red setter breeders also have AKC registration on their dogs, and some owners of AKC-registered dogs refer to their dogs as red setters. I won’t say they’re the same thing, but I also won’t say they’re not! Truth is, however, many AKC Irish setters share very common ancestors with red setters.

Moving forward, I’ll risk the ire by referring to all of these dogs as field-bred Irish setters, a title we’ll use to avoid confusion. Also, this discussion will focus on characteristics and traits of setters purposely bred for hunting and field trialing, not show-type dogs raised for the show ring or for pet homes.

Field-Bred Irish Setters

Kelli Aitken, owner of Quantonas Kennels, breeds, trials, and hunts some of the best Irish setters around these days. A sweep of all three national championships at last fall’s Irish Setter Club of America Nationals lends credibility to that statement.

Aitken, like many, was originally drawn to the breed by its beauty, then found they had so many more endearing traits. “When I was seven years old, I was at a dog show and I saw a lady with a dog on the grooming table and I decided that was the dog for me, and that was an Irish setter,” Aitken said.

Thirty years later, Aitken still own Irish setters.

“I think they’re the best-looking bird dogs. There’s nothing prettier than a red dog standing on point with the sun glistening off its back. You can compare their temperament, hunting ability, and biddability to several other breeds, but there’s nothing prettier than a red dog in the sunrise or sunset.”

Aitken is also quick to point out many other positives of the breed in the field, whether hunting or field trialing.

“For the most part, I tell people who are skeptical that they can be just as good, and very comparable, to class shooting dogs of any breed. The depth of quality might not be there, because we don’t have a huge number of them, but when you find some good ones, they’re going to be really good.”

Aitken affirms the Irish setter can keep pace with any good pointer, setter, or shorthair, and good dogs will hold their own in the strongest of competitions.

red irish setter in snowy field with female hunter
Kelli Aitken accepting a retrieved quail from Grit during a Kansas blizzard hunt. (Photo By: Mark Chesnut)

Of course, few have the extreme range needed to compete with all-age pointers in American field-sanctioned all-age trials. But that’s typically not what these dogs are bred for. Aitkens sells many of her prospects to field trial participants. But she sells many to hunters who are looking for a great bird dog of a different color and those hunting owners are typically quite pleased with their foray into field-bred Irish setters.

“I find that the owners that are the happiest with their dogs have done a lot of work early on,” she said. “You get out what you put into these dogs. The harder you work with them as young dogs, the better they’re going to be as mature dogs.”

Training And Home Life with the Irish Setter

Training-wise, these dogs, like other breeds, are all individuals and you can’t generalize without missing the mark with some individuals. However, there are some traits that are widespread among field-bred Irish setter lines.

Aitken mentioned that on a a whole, the dogs generally wanting to please.

“Now, there’s going to be exceptions to that rule. There are going to be breedings that produce dogs that are a little tougher or a little softer. Sometimes, though, we need the tougher dogs to add to our genetics. But as a whole they tend to be very biddable.”

two red irish setters laying on a bed
The author’s dogs, Grit, and Cain, are proof of the indoor “off switch” many field-bred Irish setters display. (Photo By: Mark Chesnut)

One remarkable thing I’ve learned about field-bred Irish setters over the years is that they make great family companions as well as bird dogs. That’s a selling point for those who realize their gun dog is a hunter for only about one-third of the year or less. Gun dog owners have to also consider the other two-thirds of the year.

“My owners tend to love having them as members of the family,” Aitken said. “They do great with kids. They tend to really thrive in the house and have a great ‘off’ switch. If you establish those boundaries and work with them early on, they’re going to learn that when they come into the house they go lay down, hang out, and be nice dogs.”

Who is the Irish Setter For?

In the end, a good field-bred Irish setter is a pleasure both in the field and in the home. However, you can’t just see an advertisement that says, “Irish Setter Pups For Sale,” run out and grab one and expect a good field experience.

Finding an Irish setter gun dog today, however, is far easier than it was in the past. When I got my first red bird dog back in the early 1990s, it involved lots of perusing issues of The American Field, writing letters, and making long-distance telephone calls. Now, of course, you can let your fingers do the walking by getting on the web.

The first thing to ask yourself is if AKC registration matters to you. If so, you’ll still have many options, but you’ll have to search a little harder. If AKC registration doesn’t matter to you, the National Red Setter Field Trial Club has a list of breeders on its website that give you a good start. Incidentally, some of those kennels raise AKC-registered dogs, although many don’t.

Aitken, who is working to make the field-bred Irish setter better generation by generation, is also a wealth of knowledge and loves to share her beloved breed with anyone wishing to learn more. You can contact her through this form at her website.

two upland bird hunters on tailgate with red irish setter quail hunt
The author’s sons, Caleb and Josh, with field-bred setters and some wild Oklahoma quail. (Photo By: Mark Chesnut)
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