The history of the setter type of dog is very long, dating back to the early to mid 1500's with written records. These early ancestors of the modern Irish Setter were much smaller than the dogs seen today, plus it is highly likely that the coat was less plumed and long, rather it was likely to be much more like the modern spaniel's coat.
The first uses of a hunting dog that actually could both point and retrieve was highly valued by hunters in Ireland and the United Kingdom that mostly hunted on foot. Unlike the sports hunting, Irish Setters were more commonly used for hunting for food, so they were very quiet dogs, not valued for barking or chasing game. Rather they were in demand because they actually pointed at the game, indicating by their gaze and body position where the game was. Early records also show these dogs assumed a prone position facing the game, and then a net was thrown over both the dogs and the prey animal or bird.
In order to locate the game these early setters would run back and forth in a short zigzag pattern in front of the hunter, wider in open spaces and narrower in more confined or wooded areas. They kept relatively close to the hunters, within easy shot distance, ideal for the dog to set or point, the hunter to shoot, and the dog to retrieve all within a very short period of time. This prevented the need for the dog to track excessively or chase, however the modern setter has excellent tracking ability as did its ancestors.
The original setter types were also used as retrievers, leaping into the water to bring back waterfowl but also ready to dash into thickens and brambles to ferret out upland game birds. Unlike the pointers, they were naturally more capable of retrieving and were also well known for their attention to their handlers. These traits combined made the original setters very popular and highly proficient hunting dogs.
The breeds used to develop the setter type were a mixture of a variety of hunting dogs locally available as well as imported. They included the Irish Terrier, Gordon Setter or the English Setter, combined with the Water Spaniel and several different pointer types of dogs. Since many dogs at this time were not breed specific but rather called pointers or setters, the exact heritage of the breed is a bit speculative, given that some of the types are not longer in existence and were never formally considered a breed.
These early ancestors of the modern Irish Setter were certainly not selected for color, coat type or conformation; rather they were solely selected for their hunting abilities. It wasn't until the later part of the 17th century that hunters in Ireland and surrounding areas began breeding particular types of setter dogs that would eventually evolve into the modern recognizable and separate breeds.
Within Ireland itself there was a group of breeders that were working on a slightly taller, rangier and highly athletic type of hunting dog that would eventually come to be known as the Irish Setter or the Irish Red Setter. The original members of the breed were definitely developed with hunting abilities in mind, although there was also a general conformation or breed standard that was uniformly developed. The original dogs considered Irish Setters came in several colors including the solid red, red and white or a deep chestnut coloration with white markings and patches. There are also records of a lemon color, which may have been a color not dissimilar to the modern yellow Lab. The different breeders, most notably the Marquis of Waterford, Lord Dillon and the de Freyne family kept very specific stud book records of the breed, dating back to 1793.
From these various colors came a distinct appreciation of the rich, dark red to mahogany colored varieties of the setters. This color had become so popular the first group that actually developed standards for the breed in 1886 named it the Red Setter. The Red Setter Club in Dublin, Ireland developed a point system for evaluating the dogs, plus they also promoted the breed in local, national and international shows.
It wasn't until the 19th century that the breeders strongly moved away from anything but the pure red coat coloration. The Irish Setter also came to America in the later part of the 1860's, and the American breeders only used the pure red color variations. Several very prominent kennels evolved, with the Irish Setter becoming one of the first breeds to be recognized by the newly forming American Kennel Club. It also a caused a change in breeding standards, with dogs now bred more for the show ring than for the field. At this time the Irish Setter became taller and larger, with a much more fringed coat and showier appearance.
Throughout the 20th century there continued to be an emphasis, particularly in the US, in breeding a show dog as opposed to a hunting dog. Many hunters saw this as a problem within the breed and split off into attempting to keep the breed to the original hunting dog standards developed at the inception of the breed. Some of these dogs are now called Red Setters and the registration of these dogs is managed by the Field Dog Stud Book. This organization pre-dates the AKC and was increasingly alarmed by the few Irish Setters still used as hunting dogs. In order to keep the breed in hunting competitions, the Field Dog Stud Book allowed selective outbreeding to Red English Setters to boost the hunting instincts and ensure that the older, traditional styles of Irish Setters would not become extinct. The debate continues between the two registries, however there are kennels that are attempting to breed both show and field lines, similar in style to the original Irish Setter.
The Irish Setter is one dog that has made an easy transition from a hunting dog to an all round companion pet. They continue to exhibit the loving, playful and highly energetic temperament that is such as essential characteristic of the breed.
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