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History and Standard of the Irish Setter

Irish setter in the woods


The Irish Setter is an active, aristocratic bird dog, rich red in color and standing over two feet tall. With its flowing silky coat, long ears, soft expression and regal presence, this dog turns heads wherever it goes.


Irish Setter Breed History

The origin of the Irish Setter is not known, however, it is reasonable to believe that it evolved from a combination of land spaniels. These land spaniels were imported to Ireland from Spain when the Spaniards helped the Irish in their rebellion against the British.

The breed, established as early as 1800 was not originally of solid color, but rather a combination of red and white. Through selective breeding, the color was derived and these “whole reds” became a breed unto themselves. Irish Setters were used to “set” game, hence the name “setters.” They were used to find upland game birds and crouched down close to their find so that the hunter could advance and throw a net over both dog and bird.

When firearms were introduced, the setter took on a more upright stance, and the breed became proficient in retrieving their game. It is important to understand the original functions of this hunter as it relates to form and function.

Today one may find this breed, with its rollicking personality and willingness to please, participating in many events including Field Trials, Hunting Tests, Obedience, Rally, Tracking, Agility, Conformation or just being that loving companion lying on the couch at home or fetching the ball.

irish setter history
Correct balance of head and neck fitting into properly laid back shoulders with return of upper arm forming sufficient angle.


Judging the Breed

The Standard for any breed is its blueprint. For breeders, the standard is what they work towards in their breeding programs and for judges, the standard is the tool they use to evaluate each exhibit that comes into their ring.

In the article, “Judging the Irish Setter” by breeder/judge Karolynne McAteer, she writes, “NOTHING is more important than the standard, and adhering to the fact that these are sporting dogs, they are athletes; and while they may not be asked to quarter a field for an afternoon of shooting, they should indeed be built to do the job!”

If one is approved to judge the breed, it goes without saying that being knowledgeable about the standard is of utmost importance. As you examine the standard you will find several key words. Medium, moderate and balanced can be found throughout the written text. Though all three adjectives play an important role in describing the perfect dog, BALANCE is most important. It is not just about front and rear angulation but about each part and how these pieces all fit together. Each part of the head should be in balance with the other parts.

The head should be in balance with the neck both in substance and length. The head and neck should be in balance with the body. The body being slightly longer than tall should end with a tail that is of correct shape and length. No single part should draw attention to itself. Each piece should fit smoothly into the adjoining part. This is a dog that should stand as it moves, with a slightly sloping topline exhibiting ground covering reach and drive with no wasted motion. And remember that when judging a class, “that one”, which is not like the others, could be the most correct specimen.

irish setter history


New Judges

For those planning to apply for this breed, all of the above applies to your learning the nuances of the breed. There are opportunities to become educated about the breed through seminars and workshops. This is a must in my book! There is a list of breeders/mentors on the AKC website under breed information or one can contact the Judges Education Coordinator to assist you in your endeavors. Whether it is ringside mentoring or making a kennel visit, the Parent Club coupled with local clubs, are here to help.

To you “newbies” I wish to suggest you attend the National Specialty. We have a two day program which includes classroom experience, hands on and ringside mentoring. There are local specialties throughout the country as well as field event including the National Hunt Test, National Walking Field Trial and National Field Trial. There is nothing like the experience of witnessing the Irish Setter at work to better understand the breed. Come and join us and watch form and function work together.


In Reference to the Irish Setter

As with any breed there are exhibits that are more correct in structure than others. Breeders are always trying to maintain correctness or to correct faults that have filtered into their breeding programs. When referencing the Irish Setter, one should make sure that they are using correct terminology for the breed and that it is in the standard.

Therefore we ask that the use of comments like, “our breed is not straight in front like the Irish Setter,” or “our breed is not over angulated like the Irish Setter,” or “our breed does not have a ski slope topline like the Irish Setter,” be eliminated when referencing this breed in a dialogue or a comparison. Also the term “racy” does not appear in the standard and should not be used in reference to this breed.



This breed has inherent charms which attract people to the breed. With a rollicking personality and high energy, they enjoy exercise each day and you will find they are more than willing to entertain their owners and others. A willingness to please, Irish Setters are never too old to be playful both at home and in the ring. 

History and Standard of the Irish Setter – From the December 2019 Issue of Showsight Magazine. Click to subscribe.


Irish Setter Breed Magazine

Showsight Magazine is the only publication to offer dedicated Digital Breed Magazines for ALL recognized AKC Breeds.

Read and learn more about the active Irish Setter dog breed with articles and information in our Irish Setter Dog Breed Magazine.


Irish Setter Breed Magazine - Showsight


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