The Irish Setter – Ultimate Breed Information Guide

Considered by some to be the most beautiful dog in the working group, the Irish setter is equal parts grace, glamour, and charm. It doesn’t hurt that they’re also incredibly sweet and good-natured. But this active setter also has abundant energy and a lot of drive, making them too boisterous for some families.

Keep reading to find out if the big red dog from the emerald isles is the right addition for your household.

General Characteristics of the Irish Setter

  • Other names: Red setter
  • Height: 25 to 27 inches
  • Weight: 50 to 70 pounds
  • Lifespan: 12 to 15 years
  • Origin: Ireland
  • Colors: Red
  • Activity level: High
  • Grooming needs: Moderate
  • Best suited for: Active families and owners, bird hunters


The Irish setter has one of the most unique solid-colored coats in the dog world. The ruby-red color was intentionally selected for by showmen in the 19th century over the more common red and white coat. 

The History of the Irish Setter

The earliest hints of the existence of a red setter type dog can be found as far back as the late 1500s. These Irish spaniels were used during bird hunting to signal to their handlers the location of hidden fowl in the brush by setting down onto their belly and facing the location of the game. The hunter would then use a net or release a trained falcon to catch the birds.

These earliest “setting dogs” looked more like traditional spaniels and were largely white with red ticking or patches. While these kinds of dogs were used all over Europe, they were especially popular in Ireland. 

Prominent families all over the island took pride in breeding their own lines of these setting spaniels. Unlike similar types in other countries, these dogs had to be more athletic, lighter built, and more graceful in order to cover the wide open, flat lands of the Irish countryside.

Even as the setter of Ireland took on a more consistent look, only some embodied the full red coat of today’s big red dog. Most were white with red markings or even lemon-colored without any red. But this all changed with the growing popularity of dog shows in the late 1800s.

The original setter of Ireland was white with red ticking or spots. Today, you can still find field setters with white in their coat.

The elegant and unique red coat was preferred by showmen, as was a larger more substantial build. This deviated greatly from the working dogs of the time that were much smaller and lighter. 

As the red’s popularity grew in the show ring, their numbers in the field began to dwindle. Eventually, American breeders of the working dogs began to outcross their lines to widen the gene pool and grow the breed’s numbers. English setter blood was introduced with a focus to create a field dog that could better compete with other setters of the day.

This new line of dogs became known as “red setters” which were looked down upon by show dog breeders who would no longer consider breeding their pure Irishes with this new type. This led to even more disparity between the two types of IS, with show dogs remaining larger with a full red coat and the working dogs with a smaller build and variable coat colors.

Today’s gundog breeders field dogs of both types, with a full red coat being preferred on both body types, while the show-type dogs remain strictly the larger-bodied variety.

But the vast majority of Irish setters today spend no time at all setting birds or flaunting their striking coat in the show ring. Due to their sweet and outgoing personalities, they have become popular companion dogs for families and active individuals both in America and Europe.

The Temperament of the Irish Setter

Whether being bred for the show ring or the field, the goal of the IS temperament has always been the same: a sweet-natured dog with a strong work ethic, desire to please, and a love of all people.

The Irish is a nobel dog with a fun-loving personality perfect for any active family or individual. They do need a lot of stimulation, both mentally and physically and can become destructive if they don’t get the freedom to run and work.

While they are observant and will bark if something is out of place, the IS is generally a quiet dog accepting of strangers. They are not at all shy and will happily greet anyone they come across. This confident and easy-going personality makes them a great choice for families.

They are an active breed meant to be coursing the wide-open spaces of Ireland and will not do well if left cooped up. Without enough exercise or stimulation, they can become destructive and engage in repetitive behaviors often seen in spaniels and similar breeds. They need long daily walks and the opportunity to run free when appropriate.

They will enjoy a large fenced yard and are a great candidate for dog sports such as agility, scent work, and flyball. The IS is typically an intelligent dog, but their enthusiasm and keen focus can cause problems if they aren’t set in the same direction as you are. They will get bored with training if it isn’t exciting enough or doesn’t engage their natural instincts.

Big reds are very attached to their humans and do not do well if left alone for long periods at a time. They enjoy visiting new places and meeting new people and dogs. They are especially great candidates for therapy dog work given their love of strangers and fondness for being pet and loved on. But consistent training and exercise will be key in keeping their excitement in check.

Overall, the Irish is an outgoing and enthusiastic dog with a love for people both new and familiar. They need a lot of room to run, a job to do, and plenty of time spent exploring the world with their family.

Want to learn more about this beautiful breed? Check out this episode of Dogs101.

Health Issues Common to the Irish Setter Breed

The IS is a healthy breed but some structural problems can crop up, especially if care wasn’t taken in their breeding. They can also suffer from some eye and ear problems.

Here are some of the more common health issues seen in this breed.

  • Hip dysplasia
  • Hyperosteodistrophy
  • Progressive retinal atrophy
  • Entropion
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Epilepsy
  • Von Willebrand’s disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Bloat
  • Cancer

The IS is one of the few breeds of dogs who frequently suffer from celiac disease, an intestinal condition characterized by gluten intolerance.

If an affected IS is fed a diet containing gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye, and other similar grains) they will develop an immune response to the protein which will cause scarring in the small intestine. If left untreated, this continued scarring will disrupt nutrient absorption, cause weight loss, malnutrition, diarrhea, and even certain cancers.


The Irish setter is a relatively long-lived dog with few health issues. Choosing a reputable breeder, quality food, and the right vet will assure your Irish enjoys a long life at your side.

If an IS has the genetic mutation for this condition symptoms will first appear around 6 months of age. To avoid problems, many IS owners choose to feed a gluten-free or grain-free diet from the beginning. Dogs that have been diagnosed with celiac will require such a diet for their entire lives.

>>>Find the best grain-free treats for your gluten-sensitive pup.

To reduce the odds of this and many other hereditary conditions, it is important to only purchase a puppy from a reputable breeder. Responsible breeders who care for the integrity of the breed will screen their dogs for genetic conditions including performing the PRA Optigen DNA test to test for retinal atrophy.

These breeders also tend to be more open about their breeding practices and should allow you to meet the parent dogs, see where the litter will be whelped, and allow you to talk to other owners of their dogs.

If you would rather adopt and save an IS in need, there are many rescues that specialize in finding homes for these active canines. Contact your local rescue today to find out if there are any big reds available in your area. 

Do Irish Setters Do Well With Children and Other Pets?

The IS breed standard dictates that the breed should have a “rollicking personality” and that “an outgoing, stable personality is the essence of the Irish setter.” This exuberance for and love of people extends to children and babies, making them great family pets.

They can be boisterous and overly energetic during play, so care must be taken around very young children, but their gentle nature makes them a great choice for any growing family. As children grow older, they will especially appreciate such an active, fun-loving companion to run around the yard with.

Better figure out where the closest dog park is before bringing one of these social canines home. Irish setters enjoy playing with other dogs big and small and they will never pass on the opportunity to meet new people. 

This same fun-loving spirit often extends to other canines. The big red is a great candidate for doggy daycares and dog parks. For many owners, this is the only way to wear out their adolescent reds. Having a second dog in the house is another great way to help give your Irish the stimulation and activity they need.

How well an IS will do with other pets, such as cats and small animals, will depend on their personality, the socialization they received as a puppy, and the extent of their ingrained hunting drive.

While their job in the field is only to stock and set birds and other game, this instinct can quickly turn lethal in the wrong situation. It is important to introduce your IS to smaller animals slowly and socialize them with all types of pets early on. Given the variability, it is best to assume your new IS won’t do well with other pets rather than expecting them to do fine and having to rehome them or the other animal later on.

What to Consider Before Bringing Home an Irish Setter

Think you have what it takes to keep up with these social butterflies? Here are a few more things to consider before bringing an IS into your home.

The Irish love affection and expect to spend a lot of time by your side or out running in nature. This isn’t the kind of dog you can get and leave alone in the backyard. 

Activity Level

Did we mention that these dogs are active? Young dogs will take a lot of time and commitment to assure they receive enough attention and mental and physical stimulation. Even hunters who take weekend trips to work their hounds will need to spend extra time during the week running around with their pups.

Both adolescents and adult dogs will benefit from participation in agility, rally, and other active pastimes. These dogs are also great candidates for therapy work or 4-H dog training with the youngsters in your family.

Big reds require a lot of space to move and will appreciate a large yard or time spent frolicking around at the park or out in nature. City dogs will require more frequent walks and would love to be your new jogging partner.

Trainability

While these dogs are intelligent, their drive and independence can quickly get in the way of their desire to please you. They require a certain amount of excitement in their daily training and are likely to get bored and give up on the lesson if you can’t deliver. 

Start training early on with a positive puppy class. You’ll want to work especially hard on the recall command as one of the best ways to exercise your IS is to allow them to run free in open spaces and on hikes. But, because these dogs can get distracted by smells and animals, a rock-solid recall is a must before ever attempting off-leash play.

Grooming

The red’s flowing ruby coat requires at least weekly brushing to remain free of tangles and dreads. Their lop ears also require frequent care to avoid infections. Overall, though, these dogs are known for being clean and should only require bathing every couple of months. You will also need to clip their nails about every six weeks.

The tall, flag-like tail the setter possesses helps hunters keep track of them as they course through the fields looking for birds.

Nutrition

Because of their increased risk of gluten intolerance, it is best to feed your IS a quality, grain-free diet. Make sure the diet provides plenty of animal-sourced protein to keep your dog’s heart, skin, and other organs healthy. Even grain-free diets can be stuffed with filler ingredients like potatoes, peas, and tapioca, so double check your labels and rotate food often to assure your dog gets everything they need.

Cost

A purebred IS puppy will cost around $700 with show line and working gundogs going for as much as $5,000.

Overall, this medium breed is healthy and shouldn’t cost too much more than the average dog to own. However, it is smart to budget some extra cash for things like doggy daycare, training classes, and other physically and mentally stimulating hobbies.

10 Fun Facts About the Irish Setter 

Now that you know what it takes to own a big red, here are some fun facts about the breed.

  1. These beautiful hounds are frequently used in literature with prominent roles in books like the Big Red series and Stephen King’s The Stand.
  2. The setter is named for the way it signals it’s handler to the presence of game–by setting down on its belly–but these dogs can also point out birds much like the English pointer.
  3. Most show reds are large, around 70 pounds, while working dogs are closer to 45 pounds when fully grown.


The Irish setter was made to run long distances over the wide fields of Ireland. Their long legs, deep chest, and excellent nose make them the perfect bird hunter’s companion. 

  1. These dogs grow up slow, often acting like puppies well into middle age.
  2. They are clean hounds and typically house train very quickly.
  3. The IS is taller and lighter in build than the Gorden setter which was bred to be more sturdy so it could work in the rocky and difficult terrain of the Scottish countryside.
  4. The breed is believed to be descended from a mix of land and water spaniels and pointers.
  5. These dogs run a unique pattern during hunts called “quartering” which allows them to catch the scent of birds hidden in the brush.
  6. A well trained big red will also retrieve birds downed by their handlers.
  7. Multiple presidents including Truman and Nixon have owned these red hounds.

Before You Go

Not sure you can keep up with the physical demands of these active dogs? Here are a few more breeds to consider.