As with most of the hunting dogs or the sporting group in the American Kennel Club, the Irish Setter has been bred to not only be able to think and work on his or her own, but also to work in combination with a hunter. The setter types, perhaps more than the pointers, also are effective retrieval dogs, very versatile and effective for hunters of any type of bird or small game. In addition the Irish Setter is a breed that was used by farmers and sportsmen alike, often rural people, which valued the dog as an actual companion as well as a hunting partner. This lead to increased breeding for both hunting and temperament as exhibited in the earliest ancestors of the modern Irish Setters, Red Setters and Red and White Setters.
Over time the Irish Setter separated from the other two setter varieties that were all part of the original breed. The Irish Setter, with its slightly larger frame and beautiful rich coat became the setter most commonly seen in the show ring, and breeders, particularly in the United States, bred for show events rather than for actual hunting ability or performance in field trials.
There are several events that the Irish Setter does very well in. These include obedience, agility, hunting and field trials as well as overall conformation and show ring events. The naturally friendly nature of the breed makes them a true pleasure to show, plus they are also very intelligent dogs. As a breed that is closely bonded with owners and handlers they also strive to do what the handler wants, allowing solid teamwork to occur provided the dog and handler are on the same page.
Training the Irish Setter is similar to working with other intelligent and high energy breeds. The very inaccurate characterization of the breed that they are slow to learn and are too easily distracted to train is completely false. Training does, however, have to take the dog's personality and energy levels into consideration.
When training an Irish Setter it is essential to provide a significant, intensive exercise time prior to the training session. This can include a robust game of fetch, a jog or a very brisk walk that lasts 20 to 30 minutes. In addition the dog should also be provided some off-leash time to really run and burn off all their accumulated energy. Once an Irish Setter is exercised, like any dog, they are much more able to focus and attend during repetitive training types of activities.
The Irish Setter does best in a very low stimulus and distraction free environment, especially during the initial stages of training. This can be obtained in an obedience class where all dogs are doing the same thing at the same time, but will not work if some dogs are running free, as the temptation for the Setter to run and play is too much for focused attention. Another distraction can be other family members talking, moving about or interacting with the puppy or dog during the initial training sessions. Once the dog has mastered or is fairly proficient in responding, it is then time to add in distractions and other activities going on around the dog.
The show lines of Irish Setters are often the best for obedience types of events since they have not been bred for their hunting instincts and abilities. Typically the show lines tend to be calmer dogs that are less likely to show the traits of a hunting dog. Hunting lines, on the other hand, tend to be more independent but also more energetic, which can be a good match for an agility event as well as hunting trials.
Irish Setters, as with most breeds, will require routine socialization no matter what event they will be entered in. They need to learn to remain calm when greeting people and also to greet other dogs appropriately. Many Irish Setters tend to be somewhat submissive when greeting other dogs, which is desirable, however they should not be frightened or timid as this can count against them in most types of events. By familiarizing the dog with meeting lots of well-behaved, non-aggressive types of dogs this tendency can be minimized and the dog's confidence increased.
The Irish Setter is a breed that does need moderate amounts of repetitions to fully master a command. These repetitions need to be spaced out throughout the training session, not all grouped together at one time. For example, if you are teaching the sit command, have the dog come to you and sit. Then work on heeling or leash work, incorporating the sit command in several times. Don't have the dog sit, then stand and sit again for more than two repetitions. A bored or disinterested Irish Setter will be a non-compliant dog and will become more interested in other things in the room than your commands.
When planning on using the breed as a hunting dog or for field trials, it is essential to select from a line that has been developed for hunting and that has a proven record in the area. Many of the show lines are very limited in their natural hunting instincts, however they can be taught many of the skills with little effort. Choosing from a current field line that is proven will minimize your training requirements. In the field the Irish Setter really is an all purpose dog that will set to show the location of game, flush the birds or game out into the open and then retrieve the game for the hunter. Each of these steps is taught in conjunction with the previous step until the dog has a comprehensive understanding of its role. Most Irish Setters are very good at retrieving, even if they aren't from hunting lines. Setting and flushing are typically the most intensive areas of teaching for most dogs.
Positive training and rewards will be important throughout the Irish Setters life. With their wonderful, friendly and enthusiastic temperament they are a joy to train, even if it does require patience and understanding on the part of the trainer.