You may have heard that blondes have more fun, but Irish setters are here to shatter stereotypes. Rambunctious, intelligent, and loyal, these dashing redheads have a well-earned reputation for being marvelous family dogs.
What the Irish setter is not, however, is a dog well-suited to apartment living. Standing nearly 2 feet at the shoulder and blessed with a hunter’s energy and stamina, the Irish setter needs plenty of space to roam. He’ll benefit from frequent walks coupled with lots of supervised off-leash time. He’s always up for a long run, refreshing swim, or lively game of fetch.
Irish setters generally straddle that line between medium- and large-sized dogs. Females typically weigh between 50–65 pounds, with males coming in 5–10 lbs heavier. The Irish setter’s coat is their most recognizable feature: a luscious shade of mahogany or deep chestnut. Their hair is long and fine, usually feathering at the ends, with a thick undercoat in the colder months. That means Irish setters need frequent brushing to keep their hair clean and tangle-free. They are moderate shedders, especially in the spring, as their undercoat starts to thin out.
Bread as gun dogs, Irish setters have athletic frames with deep chests, small waists, and slender hindquarters. Their eyes are almost always a deep brown, with rare varieties having black, reddish, or golden irises. Irish setters have long, slender snouts and large, shaggy haired, pendant ears.
Honestly, Irish setters can be a handful. They’re very intelligent dogs with a stubborn streak and propensity for mischief. Irish setters mature more slowly than other breeds—they actually develop faster physically than they do mentally. As a result, an Irish setter’s temperament can be like that of a small, hyper toddler trapped in an adult’s body.
And because Irish setters are so slow to mature, you could find yourself with a dog that’s two, three, even four years old and still has all the energy and curiosity of a puppy. This makes them excellent playmates for children and physically active adults but, when combined with their size, may make them too much for households with very small children. A rambunctious setter could accidentally knock a toddler down.
Training an Irish setter is a practice in patience. They take to instruction easily and pick up new tricks quickly, but their headstrong nature means your Irish setter will often test boundaries. But once they learn a new task, they never need a refresher course.
Consistency and variety is key in training your Irish setter. They’ll respond best to positive reinforcement, never physical punishment, and a training schedule that avoids boring repetition will help keep them entertained and focused. This breed has a tendency for “attention deficit” so keep your training sessions short.
Once properly trained, Irish setters make excellent therapy and companion dogs. In fact, you can often find them visiting hospices and retirement homes, providing a calming, loving presence to people in need.
While they require a good amount of space to run around, Irish setters should not be left in a yard unattended, as they may dig or destroy things out of boredom. Also, Irish setters form extremely strong bonds with their humans and tend to suffer from separation anxiety if left alone for more than a couple of hours. This is the biggest reason Irish setters should never be expected to live as “outdoor” dogs, but instead should be brought inside to be with their humans when they aren’t being exercised.
Irish setters are excellent hunters, but they have no guarding instincts. They’re more likely to lay out the welcome mat for would-be intruders than to defend your television or stereo. But they’ll always let you know when someone is coming up the walkway.
“Irish setters have a nice ability to read from their owners if a stranger presents a threat,” says Dennis Riordan, DVM, of the Riordan Pet Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. “A lot of people want that first warning, but don’t want a dog they have to put away every time someone new comes to the house. That’s an Irish setter.”
If you have an active lifestyle, the Irish setter might be your perfect dog. As a breed that forms deep bonds, your Irish setter will love going everywhere you do, and their high levels of energy and endurance make them excellent companions for runs once they are a year old. Some will even jog alongside you during bike rides.
Irish setters love having a job or task to complete: tracking you on a run, carrying items in a pocketed dog vest, or playing fetch will all keep your setter’s mind occupied and their bodies healthy and happy. Irish setters make excellent hunting companions, with a strong sense of smell and a natural desire to track and retrieve.
Even if you’re not out running a 5K every weekend, an Irish setter will still fit in well with any household that has a yard in which to run and enough time to devote to exercise (at least an hour a day). A fenced yard is a must, and Irish setters can’t be left unattended for long periods of time, because their natural hunting instinct will often lead them to wandering off or going after smaller wildlife.
“This is an athletic breed,” Riordan explains. “They’re not couch potatoes. Anyone who gets one of these is going to have to take them running or out to the dog park. If you’re not doing that stuff, any behavior issues will only get worse.”
Irish setters are extremely social dogs and will do well in households with children or other dogs. Cats can be problematic, as they will sometimes trigger the Irish setter’s hunting instinct.
You have an Irish setter. Congratulations! Did you get a brush? Because you’re going to need a brush.
An Irish setter’s coat is the breed’s hallmark. It’s the most recognizable thing about them and their long, red, Fabio-like locks have helped establish the Irish setter as among the most beautiful breeds in the world. But all that beauty comes at a price.
That long, fine hair is going to collect burrs easily and, if left unattended, will mat up quickly. Brushing at least three times a week will be a requirement. And you should still get used to having hair around your house, because shedding is a moderate concern for Irish setters, especially during the spring months when the dogs ditch some of that thick undercoat that serves them so well during the winter.
Here’s the good news: Dirt will tend to fall right off, thanks to the natural oils produced by the water-wicking undercoat combined with the naturally fine nature of the Irish setter’s topcoat. So unless your Irish setter gets especially muddy or goes for a dive in your trash can, baths are a rare necessity. For that classic “Irish setter look,” the dog’s hair is kept short on the head, while being left longer on the neck and body. Kept to this standard, you shouldn’t need to cut your Irish setter’s hair more than once every three months or so. Regular nail trimming and tooth brushing are also a must.
Irish setters tend to be relatively long-lived dogs, with average lifespans of 11–15 years. For most owners, the biggest health challenge will simply be making sure your Irish setter has his exercise needs met. Without enough activity, Irish setters can develop weight problems fairly easily, which can cut down on life expectancy by up to two and a half years.
That aside, Irish setters tend to be stout, healthy dogs. The most common medical issues tend to be hip dysplasia, Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD), hypothyroidism, and epilepsy. It is also estimated that nearly a quarter of Irish setters will be afflicted with bloat at some point in their lives; a condition that can be fatal if it is not corrected. While the exact causes are unknown, it is primarily thought to be a common malady for dogs bred with slender bodies and deep chest cavities.
Irish setters are also one of the rare breeds that can manifest a gluten sensitivity, which will commonly appear around six months of age and can result in malnutrition and diarrhea, but is easily overcome with a gluten-free diet. Make sure to schedule regular checkups with your veterinarian.
The term “setter” was first used to describe a breed of hunting dog in 1570, but the breed we know today as the Irish setter most likely came into being in the late 17th or early 18th century. Originally, the dogs came in a variety of colors and patterns, often red and white; the now-distinctive red coat is a result of selective breeding throughout the 19th century.
The first Irish setter brought to America—a dog named Elcho—was sold in 1875 to a Mr. Turner of St. Louis, where Elcho became a celebrated champion. The breed standard for the modern Irish setter, including a color standard of “mahogany or rich chestnut red with no black” was set in 1886 and remains largely unchanged to this day.