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Get to Know the Irish Setter: An Energetic, Clever Companion

They were originally bred for bird hunting, but Irish Setters also make excellent dogs for active people.

Caroline Coile  |  Aug 10th 2015


If you’re enough lucky to be Irish… You’re lucky enough! Rollicking and ravishing, this red-haired Setter is the prototypical Irishman, and like the Irish, he’s also outgoing, energetic and clever. Share your life with one, and you too, can have the luck o’ the Irish!

Irish Setters by Shutterstock.

Irish Setters by Shutterstock.

  • The Irish is one of four American Kennel Club setter breeds. It’s the most fine-boned and elegant of the four, and the only one that’s solid red. The others are the Irish Red and White Setter, English Setter and Gordon Setters.
  • Setters originated before the advent of using guns to hunt birds. They were expected to crouch, or “set,” so that hunters could throw a net over the birds without it getting snagged on the dog.
  • The Irish Setter probably dates from the 1700s, and is the result of crosses between English (and possibly, Gordon) Setters, spaniels and pointers. These crosses produced red and white setters that were fast working and could be seen from a distance, both of which were desired by Irish bird hunters.
Irish Setter by Shutterstock.

Irish Setter by Shutterstock.

  • Around 1800, the first kennel of solid red setters was established. Solid red setters and red and white setters diverged into different lines, now known as Irish Setters and Irish Red and White Setters.
  • In 1862, a dog named Palmerston changed the look of the Irish Setter because of his unusually long head and slender build. Most modern Irish Setters can be traced back to him.
  • In the 1970s, the Irish Setter rose to rank among the most popular breeds in America. It got the reputation of being flighty and scatter-brained during this time, but the truth is it wasn’t suited for many of the owners, who didn’t realize the dogs needed a lot of exercise and room. Its popularity decreased dramatically soon afterward. It is currently the 71st most popular AKC breed, down slightly from 73rd five years ago.
  • Irish Setters have been entered in the Westminster dog show since 1877, but none has yet won Best in Show there. But the Sporting group has been won by Irish Setters 10 times, most recently as of 2012, and the Irish Setter holds the record for the breed with the most group placements there: 54.
  • One of the most famous show dogs of any breed was an Irish Setter born in 1932 named Champion Milson O’Boy. He even had a book (“O’Boy: Memoirs of Ch. Milson O’Boy”) written about him in 1964.
  • An Irish Setter is the star of the book and movie, “Big Red.”
Irish Setter by Shutterstock.

Irish Setter by Shutterstock.

  • The Irish national bus company, Bus Eireann, uses an Irish Setter as its mascot.
  • An Irish Setter named T-Bone is the mascot for the Pace University Setters.
  • The death of an Irish Setter named Shannon, who was owned by Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, was the subject of a 1976 song by Henry Gross.
  • Owners include Tsar Alexander II of Russia (“Milord”) Richard Nixon (“King Timahoe”), Harry Truman (“Mike”), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mitt Romney (“Seamus”), Clark Gable, Carl Wilson, Brigitte Bardot, and Olivia Newton-John.

Interested in other breed profiles? Find dozens of them here.

Read recent stories by Caroline Coile:

About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.