The Kid in the Dog Suit

By Wendy Czarnecki



Nimble-witted, high-spirited, energetic, adventurous, gorgeous redhead with a great sense of humor and a love of the outdoors. Great listener with simple tastes; can offer loyalty, protection, sporting opportunities, and lots of wet sloppy kisses. Call 1-800 IRISH-4-U; ask for the kid in the dog suit!


In the last week of my year of student teaching I was seduced by a 9-week-old Irish Setter puppy brought to class every day by one of my Creative Writing students. She set out a little rag rug for her pup on the floor between desk and chalkboard, and the wee beast would lie right down on her side, all legs stretched out straight, and sleep for the entire class period. She was exquisite, like a piece of the finest European porcelain, but warm and breathing and furry also, and while my students were reading their final projects out loud to the rest of the class, I spent much of the time gazing upon that perfect little self-contained creature and inwardly sighing in esthetic fulfillment.

School closed for the summer, but the memory of that sleeping beauty continued to intrigue me, and a scant year later I had the opportunity to acquire a precious little red-haired Setter baby of my own. Little did I know that in just a few short weeks my sweet angel would turn into a flame-colored dynamo, a bundle of concentrated energy and needs that would overwhelm many of my old friends; introduce me to wonderful hiking trails and beautiful outdoor scenes; cause me to develop friendships with an entirely new group of persons; force me to learn many new skills; refresh my emotional life; and in large measure preserve my sanity!

Irish Setters have been recognizable as a distinct breed of upland game hunting dogs in Ireland since the early 1800's. Their two strains existed, solid red dogs and red-and-white ones; both were imported to and bred in America since at least mid-century. Irish Setters were shown at the first dog show ever held, in the Town Hall of Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, on June 28-29, 1859; at the first bench show on record in the United States in Chicago on June 4, 1874; and won the third field trial ever held in America in 1876, near Memphis, Tenn.

Sportsmen who valued most the setter's field qualities preferred the parti-color dog, while those primarily interested in bench shows favored the all red one. In February 1891 21 of these latter individuals founded the Irish Setter Club of America, adopting virtually the same breed description written by the Irish Red Setter Club in Dublin the previous year, and thus the solid red dog has prevailed to this day. Although there have been many changes and refinements to the original shape and size over the years, the one unvarying distinguishing mark of the Irish Setter has been his color, which has been described as, chestnut, mahogany and just plain red.

Irish Setters are rapid learners who generally wish to please their owners. One should treat them rather like gifted children who need intense and nearly constant stimulation of their physical, sensory, intellectual, and social capabilities and a definite structure with firm boundaries to guide their energies and development into positive channels. This translates largely to time on the part of an owner and should be started at once and continued throughout the dog's life.

To do an Irish Setter justice, one must be willing to commit a minimum of 45 minutes every day to personal interaction, be it grooming and brushing, chasing balls and sticks, formal obedience exercises, birdwork, general roughhousing, or preferably a variety of activities within each week's span. Take him to doggy classes; take him for rides; take him to wonderful places to run and romp; take him on social calls. Interaction with one's Irish Setter should be looked upon by both owner and dog as the high point of their respective days. Unless you can perceive this as a joyful and rewarding interval, instead of a cherished partner, your Irish Setter will become merely another burdensome chore.

Irish Setters found wide popular favor after the 1962 release of the Walt Disney movie, with thousands of folks suddenly wanting their own Big Red. Interest in the breed continued to grow, and when then-President Richard Nixon introduced us to his King Timahoe, romping on the White House lawn and loping amidst the dunes on the shores of San Clemente, the dam burst, and the ensuing flood carried the breed to third place favor with the American public by the late 1970's. Never a breed for the apartment dweller, the sedentary or overly-occupied family, very tiny or fragile children, or the frail elderly, their flowing beauty overcame all practical considerations; demand seemed inexhaustible; and indiscriminate breeding became the hallmark of the day: You got a red dog; I got a red dog; let's have pups and make a bundle!

Well, no one made a bundle; temperament was soon abandoned as a qualification for breeding; dogs of inferior mental stability and physical soundness were bred without discrimination; and a bunch of folks who never should have owned Irish Setters fell prey to that glorious red coat and those high spirits. A year later, after the precious puppy had chewed up the better part of their furniture and landscaping, many pet owners simply threw up their hands. The breed became the tramps, the street dogs of the 70's, one in every pound, and still a litter in every classified section. As quickly as they had embraced them, the public now ran screaming from the breed; the bottom dropped out of the puppy market; Gerald Ford moved into the White House with his Golden Retriever Liberty; and never has a breed plummeted so rapidly from the heights of popularity as did the big red dogs! (Ranked #54 of 140 in popularity in 1992.)

Perhaps this was the Irish Setter's salvation...when no one wanted to buy their pups any longer, the opportunists quickly abandoned the breed, leaving it in the hands of the responsible breeders who understood and loved the true nature of their dogs, who recognized and appreciated their high level of energy, their quickness in learning, their adaptability, their need for both physical and mental stimulation, and who knew that (1) their breed was not for everyone, and (2) if an Irish Setter was your cup of tea, you could never be fully satisfied with any other breed.

I lay snug abed in the loft of Hansel and Gretl Cottage on a crisp spring morning on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. I had ventured forth at first light to let my two Irish Setters out for their morning chores and a romp on the beach, and quickly raced back to the warm sheets. As I was lazily dozing, I heard Jamie's rapid insistent bark and smiled to myself; he had found someone to throw sticks into the still-icy-cold water for him to retrieve, and was allowing no end to the game. He and his new-found companion would occupy themselves for hours and I could relax and snooze away the rest of the morning.

A sense of humor is a pre-requisite for owning an Irish Setter: Jamie liked to run down the long linoleum-floored hall of our house, slam on the brakes five or six feet from the end and slide the rest of the way; then he would run back the other way and repeat the performance. The louder we cheered him on, the longer he continued. He especially liked to do this when zipped into my heavy red down jacket, which made him look like an abstract expressionist pastiche of Irish Setter and poodle, a veritable kid in a dog suit!

In the late 1980's the American Kennel Club launched a campaign to standardize the terminology used in the official written Standards of Perfection for every recognized breed of dog. (Each AKC breed has one national organization, often referred to as a Parent Club, that represents it to the AKC and is responsible for creating and monitoring that breed's Standard.) Some Parent Clubs used this opportunity to consider other revisions to their Standards as well, among them the Irish Setter Club of America (ISCA.)

The proposed revised Standard for the Irish Setter was presented to the general membership of the ISCA in June 1989, at the annual National Specialty show, held that year in Newport, Rhode Island. A number of changes significant primarily to breeders were offered and polite discussion of the pros and cons of each ensued. When the section on General Appearance was reviewed, however, there arose a great tumult and uproar, regarding not a change but an omission so significant that the entire character of the breed would be altered!

The original paragraph read: The Irish Setter is an active, aristocratic birddog, rich red in color, substantial yet elegant in build. Standing over two feet tall at the shoulder, the dog has a straight, fine, glossy coat, longer on ears, chest, tail, and back of legs. Afield he is a swift-moving hunter; at home, a sweet-natured, trainable companion. His is a rollicking personality.

The new version deleted the last sentence, and this proved vehemently unacceptable to the membership, both at that meeting and in subsequent letters and articles in breed publications. Upon further consideration, the old paragraph on Balance was moved from the end of the Standard and incorporated into General Appearance, which now includes: At their best, the lines of the Irish Setter so satisfy in overall balance that artists have termed it the most beautiful of all dogs. The correct specimen always exhibits balance, whether standing or in motion. Each part of the dog flows and fits smoothly into its neighboring parts without calling attention to itself.

The sentence at issue was incorporated into an entirely new section on Temperament at the end: The Irish Setter has a rollicking personality. Shyness, hostility or timidity are uncharacteristic of the breed. An outgoing, stable temperament is the essence of the Irish Setter. With this and a few other modifications, the new standard for the Irish Setter was quickly adopted by the membership and approved by the AKC on August 14, 1990.

For an Irish Setter every new activity is a wonderful adventure: Put a puppy down on sand for the first time and he immediately starts to dig. Show him an agility course and he will be among the first to climb the ramps, tackle the tunnels, and leap the jumps. Bring him near water and in he'll dash with exuberance, diving into swimming pools, splashing through mountain streams and lakes, jumping off boats in marinas and cruising about visiting the neighboring docks, body surfing in heavy breakers at the seashore. He'll love chasing seabirds up and down the beach and often out into the swells, and just wait until the first time he goes out into snow! His favorite position in a moving vehicle is standing on the front seat, head out the window, ears flying in the wind, mouth open and nose working to catch the scent and taste of everything the wide world has to offer. When traffic or weather conditions make this unwise, he will rapidly cover windshield and side windows with wet noseprints!

Most Irish Setters are gregarious by nature, both with people and with other dogs. Occasionally a dominant male will be very assertive about protecting his home territory, but a well-socialized Irishman should be mannerly and playful with his canine contemporaries. Irish Setter owners must take care not to be fooled by their pups' soft looks and sad eyes into believing that they cannot enforce their training, although severe corrections are rarely necessary and can result in the dog "turning the owner off" instead of mending his ways. Most Irish are direct and honest dogs and will accept an appropriate correction and change their behavior, but some can be rather sneaky and find alternative ways to achieve their desires when their owner's attention is elsewhere!

Many Irish Setters have strong territorial interests, and their concept of what constitutes their "realm" may bear little resemblance to actual property lines. Some males particularly (although not exclusively) may take on the responsibility for an entire neighborhood and need to keep tabs on it regularly. This will require a certain amount of what is often called roaming, and if your Irishman is a roamer there may be little that can be done about it. No system of fencing, locks, roofs, or high-tech devices will keep an Irish in if he is fully committed to getting out, although few actually run away. If he doesn't get hit by a car, stolen, impounded, or shot in the neighbor's sheep pasture, he will more than likely come home whenever he's good and ready!

Since this behavior is generally unacceptable in the 90's, it is often necessary to spend more time exercising, mentally challenging, and interacting with such a dog. The alternate solution, to keep him confined to a small locked kennel most of the day, will usually frustrate such a dog so much that he may channel his excess energy into destructive behavior such as chewing, constant barking, pacing, digging, or house soiling, or self-destructive licking, scratching, or chewing at himself. When freed for brief periods, this pent-up energy may lead him to true frenzied behavior, the so-called bouncing off the ceiling that many associate with this breed.

One of the best ways to channel an Irish Setter's need for exercise and mental stimulation is to use him for his original purpose, for hunting upland game birds, including pheasant, partridge, quail, grouse, woodcock, and prairie chickens. While native game has become very scarce in many parts of the country, private hunting clubs and preserves that release pen-raised birds for their members to pursue are widely found. Although the necessary coat care and their sense of humor make them not as popular among hunters as Labrador Retrievers, Brittanies, or German Shorthaired Pointers, Irish Setters have highly refined scenting abilities for finding such game, and many have strong pointing and retrieving instincts. Even if your only weapon is a camera, you will thrill to watch your beautiful Irishman, red coat streaming, streak across a field on a hunt, and suddenly slam into the classic frozen pointing stance. As well as an outlet for his energy, birdwork is the ideal way to develop a pup's self-confidence, his physical and mental agility, and his rapport with his owner!


An Irish Setter is not immediately everyone's best friend. He will readily bark to advise his owners that someone is approaching the home territory, and will watch your reaction to that person prior to accepting him. He will make it clear that he will defend his owners from someone whose intentions are less than friendly. Once you introduce him to a new person or he recognizes an old friend, however, the greeting process begins, and your friends will be flattered by how much attention your dog pays to them: He may approach them wagging his whole body, lean against them, step on their feet, dribble great mouthfuls of water all over them (remember that required sense of humor!), bring them a stick or a ball or a cow pattie, or try any of dozens of other ingratiating mannerisms to get his new friends to interact with him. Once the visit or activity is over, however, your Irishman will again make it clear that he is YOUR dog and is not fickle in his devotion no matter how congenial he is a host!

While a young Irish Setter pup can get by with a soft brushing now and again, a fully-coated adult may take an hour or more to comb out thoroughly, removing any foreign debris entwined in the hair, as well as working out any tangles or mats. Some Irish adore rolling in the most horrid smelling deposits that they can find and will require weekly or more frequent bathing, while others have a more fastidious nature and keep themselves relatively tidy. Some have a fuzzy-textured coat that tends to mat excessively between the toes, inside the belly, and in the depths of their armpits; these areas must be examined regularly and kept free of seeds, burrs, and plant awns. Trimming the hair close on the bottom of the feet, between the toes, on the hocks, and around the ear openings is recommended for more rapid inspections for unwanted passengers from both the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Many Irish tend to have dry skin in the summer months, and it is recommended both to add conditioner to their baths and to supplement their food with fatty acids such as corn oil.

Most Irish Setters have strong constitutions and well-functioning immune systems and one can expect a typical pup from healthy breeding stock to live 10-12 years on average, with many surviving and active well into their mid-teens. Therefore it is always wise to check into both the health and temperament background of a pup before a purchase. A number of genetic and/or growth abnormalities can occur in the breed, some with far more frequency in certain bloodlines than others. These include hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), incorrect alignment of teeth and jaws, hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD), osteochondrosis and osteochodritis (OCD), bloat and torsion (gastric dilatation and vovulus,) and thyroid deficiencies with their associated maladies. Pancreatitis and bone cancers are not uncommon, nor are various seizure disorders of uncertain origin. Allergies to fleas, airborne pollens, and various foods are all found in the breed.

The ISCA is very concerned about the quality of Irish Setters being produced today and has established a highly-qualified Health Committee to identify and study the principal conditions and disorders most prevalent in the breed. A test mating program that determines and certifies Irish Setters genetically free of PRA has been established by the independent Irish Setter Foundation, and is funded in large by donations from individual owners, breeders, and local clubs. In 1994 a DNA map that specifically identifies Irish Setter PRA carriers was developed at the University of Pennsylvania by Dr. Aguirre and a simple (although somewhat costly) blood test is now available to ascertain the carrier status of any breeding animal. Many breeders use the services of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for certifying their breeding stock free of hip dysplasia.

Irish Setter females usually have little difficulty conceiving, bearing, and raising good-sized litters of pups, average number being 8-10, and 15+ babies not that uncommon! Breeding has taken a more responsible turn nowadays, however, and few are the litters produced without concern for quality and soundness. Still acutely aware of what damage over-popularity did to the breed, and still suffering the aftermaths of a reputation for hyper-activity and brainlessness, breeders today generally take great care in the placement of their pups.

Prospective owners may have waits of up to a year for an available pup and must have good-sized, well-fenced yards; lead reasonably active lives; participate in and enjoy the types of activities that their dog can join into; and have enough spare time for training, grooming, and playing with their canine kid. Perhaps the ideal Irish Setter owner is a lively teenager, but failing that, many Irish pups go to families that have previously owned one or more Irish that lived into the double digits, or to young adults who were raised with them and want to pass that experience on to their own children. The Irish Setter Club of America and many of the 53 local Irish Setter clubs sponsor rescue programs to reunite lost, stolen, or strayed dogs with their owners or to relocate them into new adoptive homes if need be.

For information about the ISCA contact Mrs. Shirley Farrington, 14465 Bush St., Riverside, CA 92508-8818; e-mail address: For local club information contact Marion Pahy, 16717 Ledge Falls, San Antonio, TX 78232 (512) 494-0389. National Rescue coordinator is Marilee Larson, 27371 Whitmoor Dr., Pioneer, CA 95666 (209) 295-1666; e-mail address:



Wendy Czarnecki has produced six generations of Bright Star Irish Setters since 1971 and numbers among them the 17th and only living Irish Setter Dual Champion, the second Irish Setter Dual Champion/Amateur Field Champion, 3 Field Champions, 2 Amateur Field Champions, 7 show Champions, 6 Companion Dogs, 11 Junior Hunters, 1 Master Hunter, and 4 ISCA Versatility Certificate holders. She currently lives with 7 of her red dogs and co-owns an additional 7. She is a member of the Irish Setter Club of America and the President of the Irish Setter Club of Central California.