Bred for Red

Irish Setter Bred for RedSetters are dogs that hunt by detecting scents in the air. They sweep back and forth across a field with their noses held high to detect hiding birds. Rather than pursue the birds, setters will creep close then freeze themselves and their prey in place. This quirky behavior was greatly appreciated by hunters before they had guns. They could see where their dog had stopped moving and ‘set’ a bird; they just had to toss a net to capture it.

Caius was first to mention this “setting” behavior in print in a 1570 dog book. Those early setters, now extinct, resembled today’s spaniels and had white coats with red spots.

The Irish Setter is a breed developed in Ireland from the 1600s onward. The dog is a genetic mix of spaniel, Irish Water Spaniel, several pointers, Irish Terrier, English Setter, and Gordon Setter. Bred for hunting, the Irish Setter was at first similar in shape to today’s dog but had many colors: solid red, red with white markings, pale yellow, or white patched with deep chestnut or red. The coat was also shorter and rougher than today’s dog.

As guns replaced nets, the Irish Setters learned to point. The dogs were favored for their silence in the field. They kept close to the hunter and worked delicately, careful not to flush a bird prematurely. They were also reliable retrievers.

In the late 1700s, groups in Ireland started breeding for a taller, thinner, and more athletic animal. Over time they also started selecting for the pure red coat as it was the most popular. They published standards for this breed, named the Red Setter, in Dublin in 1886.

Much of the desire for the pure red dog came from the rise of the beauty pageant for dogs. The first “bench” show, as opposed to field trials for dogs, occurred in England in 1859 and was for setters and pointers.

The red dog was practically the only color of the Irish setters that came to the US in the 1800s. The dogs were used primarily by professional market hunters. Over time, the Irish Setter in America, as in Ireland, became more of a show or companion dog than hunter. It was among the first breeds registered by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1878.

The fading of the Irish Setter as a hunting dog created a controversy in the 1940’s when the American Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB) gave a breeder permission to outbreed Irish Setters with red and white English setters to create the “new” Red Setter hunting dog. This created a skirmish between AKC and FDSB in the 1970s at a time when the AKC and FDSB had reciprocal registries; the AKC refused to register the outbred Red Setter pups.

An early relative of the Irish Setter was almost lost during the frenzy to develop the pure red dog. The Irish Red and White Setter, a hunting dog in Ireland since the 1600s, almost became extinct by the 1920s as the Irish Setter was being developed. The Irish Red and White breed survived and was finally recognized as a separate breed in 2009 by the AKC.