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15 Fun Facts About the Colorful Large Dogs of Ireland

Let's take a look at the Irish Setter, the Red and White Irish Setter, the Irish Water Spaniel, and the Irish Wolfhound.

Allan Reznik  |  Mar 15th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our April/May issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

Some of these breeds will be more familiar to you than others, but they all share a proud hunting history.

1. High-spirited redhead

The Irish Setter matures slowly, both physically and mentally. The breed standard describes a “rollicking” temperament, so prepare to share your home with a mischievous, intelligent, independent, and stubborn redhead who will remain a puppy for a long time. Such exuberance calls for space and plenty of safe daily exercise.

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Red Irish Setter via Shutterstock.

2. Come set for a spell

Everyone knows that retrievers retrieve, but how do setters “set”? Setting means locating and pointing upland game birds. The Irish Setter is a tireless, wide-ranging hunter who can work on wet or dry terrain. Using his keen sense of smell to locate the bird, he will then hold a pointing position, indicating the direction in which the bird lies hidden.

3. Lights, camera, Irish!

Not many breeds can claim a starring role in a beloved novel, much less a Disney movie. All hail the Irish Setter. Big Red was made in 1962 based on a 1945 novel by American author Jim Kjelgaard. The movie is named for an Irish Setter who prefers bounding through the woods to being groomed and trained for the show ring. A 10-year-old orphan helps care for the dog, falls in love with him, and, of course, clashes with the setter’s stubborn owner (played to grumpy perfection by character actor Walter Pidgeon).

4. Politically correct

Irish Setters have proven to be very popular with American politicians over the decades. Maine Governor Percival Proctor Baxter owned an Irish named Gary Owen. Richard Nixon’s beloved King Timahoe was a gift from his White House staff on his 56th birthday. President Harry Truman had an Irish Setter named Mike.

5. Which came first?

As early as 1845, the setters in Ireland were predominantly either red and white or solid red. As conformation shows became established, the flashy all-red dogs (today known as the Irish Setter) were preferred for the show ring. By the late 19th century, it was difficult to find an Irish Red and White Setter at a dog show, although there are reports of them being exhibited in the U.S. until World War I.

6. Restoring the Red and White

The people and dogs of Ireland suffered greatly during WWI. The Irish Red and White Setter population was near zero. The breed’s first savior was the Rev. Noble Huston of Ballynahinch, County Down, who worked tirelessly to increase numbers during the 1920s and ’30s. Although most of the Red and Whites were kept in Ireland, one was sent to the U.S., two to Spain, and a few to England.

7. The mother of them all

In 1940, Maureen Cuddy was given a sickly female puppy that she named Judith Cunningham of Knockalla. It’s very likely that every recorded Irish Red and White today is descended from Judith Cunningham. The Cuddys formed an IR&WS group in Ireland and achieved recognition for the breed. Mrs. Cuddy corresponded with Rev. Huston, researching much of the Red and White’s early 20th-century history.

8. America welcomes the Red and White

Between the end of WWII and the early 1980s, the Red and White’s numbers increased in its homeland. The breed returned to the U.S. in the 1960s with the arrival of a few dogs. In the 1980s, breeding pairs came over to gradually supplement the population. The American Kennel Club officially recognized the Irish Red and White Setter on Jan. 1, 2009.

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Irish Water Spaniel via Shutterstock.

9. It’s an Irish what?

Owners of Irish Water Spaniels get asked a lot of questions. “Is that a curly-coated Afghan?” “Is that a chocolate-colored Poodle with a long, bare tail?” The Irish Water Spaniel definitely has a unique look, with its tightly curled, liver-colored coat, the distinctive topknot on his head, the smooth face and rat tail, and feet that are webbed between the toes. The Irish Water Spaniel combines powerful swimming ability with keen intelligence and a great sense of humor. Small wonder that it’s known as the clown of the spaniel family.

10. Hair of the dog

The Irish Water Spaniel has two coats, and both serve an important purpose. The short, dense, thick undercoat provides warmth while the outer, longer coat gives added protection and water resistance. After many retrieves in the coldest water, the dog’s skin will likely remain dry.

11. Ancient breed

The Irish Water Spaniel can be traced back to the time when the spaniels were divided into land and water varieties. By 1859, a special class was provided for the Irish Water Spaniel at dog shows. Justin McCarthy of Dublin is credited with refining the breed and achieving its distinctive look. America came to appreciate the breed by the 1870s, when a number were brought over. By 1875, the Irish Water Spaniel became the third most popular sporting dog in the U.S.

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Irish Wolfhound via Shutterstock.

12. Captain Graham’s recipe

Captain George Augustus Graham, a Scotsman in the British army, devoted his life to ensuring the survival of the Irish Wolfhound. In 1879, he wrote: “It has been ascertained beyond all question that there are a few specimens of the breed still left in Ireland and England to be considered Irish Wolfhounds, though falling short of the requisite dimensions. This blood is now in my possession.” Due to the few surviving specimens, Capt. Graham used Borzoi, Great Danes, Scottish Deerhounds, and Mastiffs to build up numbers and increase the hounds’ size.

13. Release the hounds

Despite its name, the Irish Wolfhound was also used to hunt stag, boar, and gigantic Irish elk that stood 6 feet at the shoulder. Some of the hounds found their way into Scandinavia and Iceland, so tales of their hunting prowess exist in those two cultures as well.

14. Breed motto

The Irish Wolfhound became the most valued hunting dog of the early centuries because he not only reliably brought down his quarry but was a superb companion and guardian. His temperament is embodied in the famous breed quote: “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.”

15. Special owners then and now

During the English conquest of Ireland, ownership of Irish Wolfhounds was restricted to the nobility. How many hounds were permitted depended upon one’s position. A castle is no longer a prerequisite, but owners are as loyal to the breed as the hounds are to them. Famous Irish Wolfhound owners have included Richard III, Anne Boleyn, Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington, Robert Kennedy, the singer Sting, composer Leonard Bernstein, model Claudia Schiffer, TV personality Conan O’Brien, and reality TV producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey.

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About the author: Allan Reznik is a journalist, editor, and broad-caster specializing in dog-related subjects. He is the editor-in-chief of Dogs in Review and the former editor of DOG FANCY magazine. A city dweller all his life, on both coasts, he now enjoys the rural South with his Afghan Hounds, Tibetan Spaniels, and assorted rescues.