Irish Setter

By | Posted: Wed May 22 00:00:00 PDT 2002

By Sue Wright

Shirley Farrington's guests marveled over her dog Chrissy's silky-soft red coat and affectionate demeanor. "Love me, love me," her adoring almond-shaped eyes seemed to plead, and the guests obliged.

Who could blame them? "You look in those eyes and you melt," Farrington said. Guests never saw Chrissy's ulterior motive as she slowly moved from floor to couch to wedging herself behind them. Before the guests knew what was happening, they were on the edge of the couch, subtly nudged aside while Chrissy reclaimed her usual spot.

Irish Setters have a knack for bending human will. "What's theirs is theirs," said Farrington of Riverside, Calif., and Irish Setter Club of America president. "They tend to take over."

By the time Irish Setters get what they want, owners can only scratch their heads. One morning, Sarah Ann Muska, 12, and her mother Maryellen found their 4-year-old Setter, Gabby, sitting in the kitchen sink, chewing the drain stopper.

The dog already had moved the kitchen table, knocked the lamp on the floor and broken a glass. "She had a cute, innocent look on her face," said Muska of Broad Brook, Conn. "She looked adorable, but when we saw the mess she'd made, I couldn't believe it." Gabby licked Muska's hand and rolled over for a tummy rub and all was forgiven. "How can you resist?" Muska said.

Ready for Action
Fun-loving and adventurous, Irish Setters need equally energetic owners who'll give them plenty of exercise. "They are always ready for a game of ball or an outing of any kind," said Connie Vanacore, a breeder in Mendham, N.J. If no one is around to show an Irish Setter a good time, it'll make its own fun.

Vanacore's dog Casey loved to ride in motorboats on a lake near their home. "If no one was there to take him for a ride, he'd trot over to the neighbor's house and wait on their dock to be driven home," she said. All the neighbors knew Casey, and he'd always arrive home, tail waving, perched at the bow of the boat like Washington crossing the Delaware River.

The Irish Setter's auburn coat makes it one of the showiest members of the Sporting Group. The breed's ground-covering gait presents an image of grace with fire when going through its paces in the ring. "In the past 10 years, many of the country's top winning dogs have been Irish Setters," said Vanacore, who has raised and shown Irish Setters since 1956.

The red hair helps distinguish the Irish Setter, but winning dogs have more than a great coat. Judges look for traits that reflect the breed's original purpose as a gun dog: well-balanced proportions sturdiness without coarseness and long, muscular hind legs. Dark, almond-shaped eyes should have a soft but alert expression. Ears are set well back and low on a slightly domed skull.

If properly introduced to the show ring, most Irish Setters adore the excitement and attention. Though the breed rarely competes in field trials, where competitors favor Pointers and English Setters, increasing numbers of show dogs compete in American Kennel Club hunt tests and excel in obedience, Farrington said. "Irish Setters never lost their instinct to hunt, even though most people today keep them as pets," Vanacore said. Whenever a bird enters the back yard of May Ralph in Sacramento, Calif., her Irish Setter Daisy races around and barks blissfully as the bird soars to safety.

Spotted Past
The original Irish Setters of the early 18th century would look odd to the modern fancier. Most likely a mix between Irish Water Spaniel and Irish Terrier or a mix of English Setter, Spaniel and Pointer with a dash of Gordon Setter, the dogs were parti-colored, not solid-red. The red Setter developed in Ireland 100 years late and became the preferred variety in many aristocrats' hunting kennels because of their beauty.

When hunters began to import Irish Setters to the United States in the late 19th century, t hey took the red variety, and it gradually became the standard of today's American show dog. But look closely. In some Irish Setters you still can spot remnants of the red and white variety in some Irish-streaks of white on the chest, throat or toes-all admissible in the show ring.

Striking looks sometimes come with heartache. The Irish Setter suffered the ill effects of popularity in the early 1970s when the Disney movie "Big Red" and President Nixon's dog, King Timahoe, caused a surge in demand for pups. People concerned about profit bred without regard for health or temperament. "It caused a population explosion," Farrington said. "You'd pick up the paper on any given day and find up to 20 litters for sale. Nowadays, you have to really scrounge to even find an Irish Setter puppy, which is wonderful for the breed."

The Irish Setter ranked 62nd of AKC-recognized breeds in 2000, with 1,946 individuals registers.

Without the pressure of popularity, responsible breeders have corrected many negative traits, such as aggression and shyness that developed during the height of popularity. "They've taken the nightmares of the '70s and worked them out to where you have a good, loyal, friendly, calm Irish Setter," said Marilee Larson. Even so, you'll still see the occasional shy Irish. Larson, who coordinates rescue dog work for the Irish Setter Club of America, makes sure dogs are screened for health and temperament before adoption. When buying a pup from a breeder, observe its parents for shyness or aggression-traits that may be inherited.

"Puppyhood for an Irish Setter tends to last a long period," said Ed Meyer of Concord, Calif. Most don't grow up mentally until they're 2 or 3 years old. However, once they've gotten through that wild and woolly puppy stage, they usually settle down to become calm and trustworthy dogs. "They are probably one of the easiest dogs I've lived with," said Meyer, the former ISCA president.

To make the transition from pup to well-behaved adult, owners must invest time and energy in training. Lack of training is a primary reason owners surrender their Irish Setters to pounds and shelters. "People buy these little red puppies and expect them to grow up to be beautiful, perfect Irish Setters," Larson said. It won't happen without patience and proper training.

But once an Irish Setter learns a lesson, it never forgets. Love tempered with firmness, never harshness or cruelty, is the wise owner's way of schooling the intelligent, high-spirited Irish. "They're almost too intelligent in some ways," Meyer said. "They can be devious and one step ahead of you at all times."

Well-socialized Irish Setters usually adore children-perhaps too much. Supervise interactions with young children to make sure an over-eager dog doesn't accidentally knock them over.

Above many thresholds in Ireland you'll see the words cad mile failte, which is Gaelic for 100,000 welcomes. True to Irish tradition, once an Irish Setter is certain you're no threat, it will welcome you to join the jamboree, or ceili (kay-lee), as they say in Ireland. An Irish Setter will bound about the room, engage a guest in a game of ball, do everything but bring out the snacks and a pint of Guinness to entertain a visitor. Farrington's 8-year-old Irish Setter Spirit thinks overnight guests come specifically to see her. She lies outside their bedroom door all night, waiting for them to come out and greet her.

The Irish Setter thrives as part of the clan and craves the love and attention of its owner. Left ignored in the back yard, it will find interesting and often destructive ways to amuse itself, including barking or digging its way to freedom.
As a bird dog, the Irish Setter follows its nose. A large, amply fenced yard or the means to let the dog run will help manage its boundless energy, although some tend to be incurable rovers and can sail over almost any fence to pursue the daily rounds of the neighborhood.

Keeping Irish Eyes Smiling
The breed's beautiful coat is surprisingly easy to maintain. Grooming for pet dogs should take five to 10 minutes a day, making sure mats are out. Show dogs require more time to keep the coat in top condition. And be sure to keep the dog's ears clean and dry. "The feathering quality of the coat can cut off airflow to the ears and cause ear infections," Farrington said.

Epilepsy, hip dysplasia, thyroid disorders and bloat can occur in Irish Setters. Gastropexy-surgical tacking of the stomach to the ribs-usually prevents fatal torsion of the stomach. DNA testing has successfully traced the gene that causes progressive retinal atrophy, an inherited eye disease causing blindness. Buying your Irish Setter from an ISCA breeder can help ensure you get a healthy dog. Responsible breeders will sell only Canine Eye Registration Foundation-registered, Orthopedic Foundation of America-approved dogs. Research continues on the cause and cure for epilepsy and bloat.

Every Irish Setter is a champion in the eyes of those who love this charismatic, sometimes mischievous dog. Meyer told of his friend who stopped by after a show to share the news of her dog's obedience win. "She took her out of the car, and it was kind of like a kid let loose out of school. She ran through the bushes, getting full of mud and burrs, running up and down the stream and having a great time. I couldn't help but laugh, because it was just typical Irish Setter. God made 'em good, but sometimes they have the devil in 'em."

Sue Wright is a freelance writer in Sacramento, Calif.


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