As one of the breeds equally suited to working in the fields and displaying their qualities in the show ring, the Irish Setter has a rich history of competition. In addition to standard dog shows which are looking for ideal specimens of a particular breed, the Irish Setter performs very well in other types of skill-based competitions such as agility courses and hunting tests.
It was near the 1890s when the solid red variety of the Irish Setter, renowned for its beautiful appearance, began its migration from a predominantly working breed to one that was frequently shown off in the ring for its aesthetic qualities. As they became serious competitors in shows, a curious division happened in which two separate strains of the Setter were developed: litters bred for their working qualities and those bred for their show qualities. Until recently, it was the show stock that saw the most attention, especially in the United States. However, more breeders are beginning to show interest in working stock Irish Setters and their unique ability to perform well in field competitions even against long-time working dog favorites like the English Setter and the pointers.
The most common field competition for the Irish Setter is the "hunt test". A hunt test is a competition that judges the training of a working breed against an objective standard much like in a regular dog show. These tests generally set up scenarios that replicate the experience of hunting and allow the dogs to demonstrate the skill with which they can spot, track, and retrieve downed birds over a long distance. The time required to complete these tasks is recorded and compared to what is considered the "ideal", with the dog that comes the closest to that figure being declared the winner.
Apart from hunt tests are the competitions known as field trials, which are much more directly competitive in that they pit the dogs against one another in a test to see who can perform the best. Again, simulations are held to test the dog's ability to perform tasks that are typical of hunting and working, and those dogs who perform the best in comparison to the others are considered to be the winners. This means that unlike the hunt test, not all dogs will even finish the trial.
The discipline required for field work also makes the Irish Setter an ideal breed for competing in obedience trials and agility courses. These require that the dog perform complex tasks in a controlled and obedient manner, such as running an elaborate obstacle course or following a set of commands in the midst of many tempting distractions. In recent years, the Irish Setter in particular has made great strides in this type of competition.
One of the things that makes the Irish Setter so unique is their ability to perform not only in the show ring but also in more practical physical trials and demonstrations. This versatility is but one of the reasons that they remain one of the most popular breeds to this day.