Pictured above – Formally known as Ch. Glynscott Firecracker Bright Star, “Spice” was WB at the national, and went on to several wins in the field.
The opening line in the General Description of the Irish Setter Standard states that they are “an active, aristocratic bird dog!” With this as a reader’s first impression, I hope you will read on as we dive a bit into the aristocratic bird dog phrase and marry it with the dog that we see today, both in the field and in the show ring.
By the early 1800s, the Irish Setter type had become well established by the English gentry who came over to Ireland with their Setters, and by Irish families who took pride in the purity of their own strain of Irish Setter. Many of the “royal” families of Ireland developed their own lines, which is, perhaps, what led to the phrase “aristocratic bird dog.” In the United States, the Irish Red Setter, as it was then known, was frequently seen at field trials as far back as 1875 when “Elcho” was imported to the US. Elcho’s success, and the success of his progeny, was almost equal on the bench and in the field. There are well-documented records of the success of the Irish at field events. However, somewhere, breeders ceased to focus on the field, and the breed’s work with the bird dropped dramatically. Many say that the Irish Setter’s active love of life—and his accepted rollicking personality—made him a better dog on the bench than in the field.
Let’s fast forward to the Irish Setter you see today. He is, in essence, the same dog! His overall build represents that of a dog born on the soft or bog-like land of Ireland, where heaviness or coarseness would be detrimental to a full day’s work. His refinement is NOT to be confused with “fine.” The standard calls for “all legs sturdy and plenty of bone.” Whether out in the field or in a show ring, he is built for his purpose; a full day in the field.
The dog in the ring today encompasses all the body traits for the purpose of this breed. Starting head-on, that eye has a tight rim to prevent pods, seeds, and grasses from getting into the eye. The beautiful, long neck is in balance with the height and length of the individual dog, so he does not need to crouch when retrieving his birds.
The length of body is in the rib cage to supply support for the body (topline), and his tail is set as an extension of his body. It is important to note that in his heritage, the level tail was a part of his purpose. In the 1800s, a setter would go on point, frequently “crouch” slightly, which was referred to as a “set,” and then the handler/owner would approach and throw a net over dog and bird. Clearly, a level tail was important. There is, however, a difference between set and carriage. (NOTE… I have seen many proper tail sets, when the dog is in repose, that have the ability, when on point, to display a very high tail!)
I will briefly mention the coat. Finishing a dog in the show ring, and running him at field events, is a matter of good scheduling. Field/Hunt Test events have limited weekends in Spring and Fall. As such, people make the choice of what to do when. My handler always bemoaned, “What did you do to his coat?” It wasn’t beaten up, but clearly a lot of it was left out on the field and in the brush. Consequently, we competed in the ring in summer, and tried to accomplish our hunting/field event titles in Spring and Fall.
The aristocratic bird dog really comes together both in the ring and in the field when he covers the ground, displaying all of his elegance with effortless reach and drive, nearly clipping the grass with no wasted motion or over-lifting of the limbs. These are the same attributes, whether in the field or in the ring. It is this elegance of movement that drew landowners and the Irish aristocracy to favor the Irish Setter over other breeds.
There has always been evidence that one line leans toward breeding for show and another line leans toward the field. The advent of the AKC Pointing Breeds Hunt Tests in 1986 was something of a game changer for our bird dogs; getting them back into the fields. You did not need horses or the rig to pull them; just a pair of jeans, some sturdy boots, and off you go. You could approach hunt tests at the Junior level and gauge your dog’s interest or instinct. Many judges remarked, “Boy, I haven’t seen an Irish in the field for years.” Well, here we are! Our ranks, and our success at both field trials and hunt tests, have grown significantly over the past three decades. Today, our active, aristocratic bird dog has 26 Dual Champions and 59 Master Hunters (of which 22 are also breed champions) with many more in Senior and Juniors. Out in the field, we boast of 324 Field Champions and Grand Field Champions, and 113 Amateur Field Champions or Grand Amateur Field Champions.
This year, Irish Setter breeders and owners celebrate their Irish Setters in the field with four events: The National Hunt Test and Walking Field Trial in Ohio, October 2 and 3. This is followed by Booneville, Arkansas, October 30 – November 7, for three championships: the National Field Trial, the National Amateur Field Trial, and our National Gun Dog Championship (walking). Come and join us! It’s the best view of the active, aristocratic bird dog—and where the standard comes alive!