In 1759, Arthur Guinness began brewing ales at the St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin, Ireland. One of his products, a dark beer with a white head, became the national drink of Ireland. As synonymous as Guinness and Ireland have become, the beer is a mere Seánny-come-lately in its “Irishness” when compared to the Irish red and white setter, and that’s no blarney.
The Irish red and white setter (IRWS) is a very old breed—older, in fact, than the solid-red Irish setter. Paintings from the 17th century and some written descriptions show and describe white “setting dogges” with red markings. Certainly, by the end of the 1700s, the red and white breed was well established, and several kennels were widely known for producing purebred dogs. These dogs were white with red markings ranging from the “shower of hail” coloring to nearly pure white and nearly pure red. The patched variety that marks the breed today was the most prevalent. It was only through selective and judicious breeding of the nearly solid-red dogs that the red Irish setter emerged and eventually became a separate breed.
By the end of the 19th century, the red version had almost completely eclipsed the red and white, which became so rare it was thought for a while to be extinct. But during the 1920s, an effort began to revive the red and white breed, and in 1978 it was classified separately and given championship status by the Irish Kennel Club—although not until 2009 was the breed admitted for full recognition by the American Kennel Club.
Beauty and Brains
The Irish red and white setter is a breed with both beauty and brains, having avoided the bane of popularity that did so much damage to the Irish setters in the 1970s. They are also easy to train, according to the people who own and hunt with them.
“They look to you for direction,” said Judy Baumgartner, owner of Laurel Oak Irish Red and White Setters. “I had been working with a friend whose dog was a really big runner before I got my first IRWS. When I heard that they were a ‘gentleman’s’ dog, I knew it was the breed for me. They don’t range far ahead of you, and my dogs hunt for me—they don’t run off. They’re also family dogs that love to serve and be with you. When I breed, I don’t sell the pups to someone who is going to keep them in a kennel. They need to live in the house and be part of the family.”
According to Christina Phillips, who is president of the Irish Red and White Setter Association of America, the parent club for the breed with the American Kennel Club and an AKC breeder of merit, IRWS often only need guidance in training to produce a steady hunting partner, as they still carry great bird sense and working ability.
“They can be pretty soft as far as taking corrections is concerned, but when it comes to work ethics, they are bred to think and work independently. You have to keep training interesting and positive with an IRWS,” said Phillips. “They’re not a breed for everyone, and definitely not for the faint of heart. They are easily bored with constant repetitions, or if they have no interest in the job you are asking them to do. You need some tricks in your bag to keep their interest and to make whatever you are doing with them fun. If it’s not fun for them, they will not try their best, and being a tad stubborn, you as their trainer will ultimately be the loser.”
Phillips says that the IRWS love to hunt, but like most sporting breeds, it’s best to introduce them to birds and hunting at an early age. The IRWS are easily conditioned to work close to you, or to be a bigger runner if you prefer.
“The Irish red and white setter has a unique style of pointing,” noted Debbie Reed, who has owned and hunted with the breed for several years.
“When they go on point, they can stand, crouch, or even lay down. The ‘crouch’ and ‘lay down’ goes back to the days when birds were not shot, but rather had nets thrown over them,” said Reed. “But in hunt tests and field trials, the judges definitely prefer dogs that stand, so if you are playing those games, you may want to look for dogs whose parents were ‘standers,’ even though our parent club permits all three stances when the dog is on a bird.”
While the breed is very biddable and generally quite easily trained, the IRWS is not a German shorthair in terms of their innate pointing instincts. They mature slower and take some patience and time before they reach their full potential, according to IRWS owner and hunter Harvey Hazen.
“They are a soft breed that is anxious to please and very attached to their owners. They are also very smart, which means you have to be smarter than they are to be successful in training them,” said Hazen. “Irish red and white setters are best suited for a foot-hunter as they generally work close, although that can vary with individual dogs. They tend to be very thorough hunters that cover the ground methodically.
Gentle Breed, Gentle Training
Jean Webb, owner of Webb’s Kennels located in Ohio, noted that this isn’t a breed for anyone who likes to train with a lot of e-collar. They will shut down if too much pressure is applied.
“Corrections need to be consistent without severity with this breed, and on tasks that require repetition for the dog to ‘get it,’ you have to be creative, so this can be done without the dog getting bored,” said Webb. “They are extremely willing, people-oriented dogs that get along well with children and other dogs. They don’t do well with life in a kennel. They’re great companions and personal hunting dogs.”
The IRWS may also not be a good candidate to be sent off to a pro trainer—at least not without making sure that the trainer isn’t heavy handed with them.
“The Irish red and white setter is a gentle dog, which means you’ll get nowhere with them if you have a heavy hand in training. They don’t forget. I had a female that had a bad experience with a male trainer, and after that she wanted nothing to do with a man in the field, unless she knew him personally,” said Baumgartner. “It was difficult for me and her to work through what his heavy hand did to her sweet demeanor. She was the reason I started training my dogs myself. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use an electronic collar on an IRWS. Mine are all collar-conditioned, but I never use it as a ‘club,’ just as a gentle reminder. I don’t force anything on my dogs—they learn willingly.”
Finding a Breeder
This is not a common breed, so finding a pup may require some work.
“I look for dogs with advanced hunt-test titles close up in their pedigrees. That at least lets you know that the pups in that litter will likely point, back, and retrieve, as these titles simulate foot-hunting skills,” said Webb. “Most of the Irish red and white setters available in the U.S. have ‘import’ bloodlines due to the rarity of the breed. While this keeps the genetics more diverse and minimizes inherited problems, it is still wise to find a breeder who has the health clearances recommended by the parent club. Also, if it is at all possible, it is important to see the sire or dam or both in a hunting situation, because range and trainability can vary quite widely. Knowing whether a breeder is breeding for hunting or for competition can help clarify what their pups’ future hunting style will be.”
A place to start looking for an Irish red and white setter pup is the Irish Red and White Setter Association of America, as they maintain a list of breeders.
“There are folks saying they are breeding red and whites when they really aren’t, so it’s important to buy from breeders on that approved list,” said Reed. “You want to make sure that what you are getting is really an Irish red and white setter, because they are such great dogs. I think the best description I can provide of them is this: The Irish red and white setter is a red-headed, freckle-faced, fun-loving, intelligent Irishman looking to love, be loved, and have a whale of a time even when they are being a little bit naughty.”