I am often asked what the main differences are between Irish and Gordon Setters. Besides the obvious one of color, there are several that come to mind. Please bear in mind that these are two distinctly different breeds of dog and have been recognized as separate breeds by the American Kennel Club since the 1800ís.
Irish Setters come from Ireland, and Gordon Setters originated in Scotland, Alexander, the 4th Duke of Gordon being officially credited with the establishment of the breed in the late 18th century. Aside from color, the two breeds are similar in appearance and function.
Both breeds are setting dogs, hunters of such upland game birds as pheasant, partridge, and quail. By setting it is meant that after the dog locates game by scent or sight, it drops to its haunches and crouches until the bird is flushed into the air by its human hunting partner. Nowadays, the setting posture is looked upon with disfavor, and setters are expected to point birds from a standing position, as do the pointers. What is important to realize is that both breeds were developed for generations to work as part of a team, in a relationship with a human partner, and as such they both make excellent personal companions for whom the human/canine bond is a top priority.
Irish and Gordons have basically similar body shapes, with long legs, long tails, dropped ears, and long faces. The distribution of coat is the same for both breeds, with short hair on the head, back, and fronts of the legs, and long furnishings or "feathering" on the ears, front of chest, backs of legs, tails, and edges of belly. Irish Setters tend to be taller, leggier, lighter in bone, narrower and deeper chested, more rectangular in outline, and are solid red in color. Gordons are shorter overall, with heavier bone, broad and rather shallow chests, square in outline, and are generally black with tan markings in a set pattern on the head, throat, chest, legs, feet, and hindquarters. (A dilute coat color exists also, resulting in solid reds, reds with a black saddle or stripe, and livers with or without tan markings, but the basic standard calls for a black and tan dog.)
Given an Irish Setter and a Gordon Setter who are the same height at the top of the shoulders, the Gordon will always weigh more, since his bone is denser. An Irish, however, usually stands an inch or two taller than his Gordon fellow.
It is said that Irish are built for speed and Gordons for endurance. The Irishman is the sprinter, the Gordon the long-distance runner. The Irish has been rated a 5-hour dog for a dayís hunt, the Gordon goes slower, but lasts for 8 hours. The Irish is flashy and eye-catching; the Gordon is solid and reliable.
Probably the biggest difference in the two breeds lies in their respective temperaments. I have lived with both breeds in harmony since 1973. During that time, dogs of other breeds have passed through my life and my home, but none have lasted very long. So I would have to say that the Irish and Gordons probably have more similarities than differences, but the differences are significant when you spend as much time with your dogs as I do!
Both breeds would most like to be doing something with you (by you I mean their human family, be that a single person or a housefull.) If that is not an option at any given moment, the Irish will go find something to do on his own, and the Gordon will hang out with you and wait, content to do nothing so long as he is with you.
Irish have higher energy levels and a greater need for exercise. Gordons can live in apartments or townhouses - they arenít going to hang out outside on their own no matter how large the yard or property is. Irish need at least 45 minutes a day of personal interaction, be it formal training, grooming, running free, chasing a ball, swimming, etc. A Gordon gets his interactive time by lying next to you on the floor with his head on your foot, or leaning a hip up against you on the couch!
Irish can be exclusively outside dogs, although we donít recommend it. Gordons cannot be. They will be outside when you are not home if you insist, or if you are outside with them; but once you come indoors, so do they. Iíve known Gordons who hysterically throw themselves against the walls of the house in their need to be inside with their people.
Both breeds make good watchdogs and will let you know that someone has arrived at the gate or door. If it is someone they know well, they will be equally effusive in greeting them. If it is a stranger, their reactions will vary considerably. Once you admit the person to your property, the Irishman is the perfect host, bouncing about or on the person, bringing them balls and toys to play with, barking at them with excitement, approaching them eagerly. On the other hand, the Gordon isnít about to accept someone on just your say-so. He will often hang back and observe the stranger, may actually back away from a very assertive newcomer, and in his own time come to sniff and make friends.
Training seems to come naturally to the Irishman. He is very quick to catch on to anything new, rarely has to be shown something a second time, and is proud of his ability to please you. He accepts correction with good nature, and goes back and does it right the next time. His pride can be offended if your correction is harsher than the infraction merited, and he can be downright insulted if you donít give him credit for enough brains. He loves new experiences and continues learning throughout his life. He is rather like a gifted child, constantly needing and rising to new challenges.
The Gordon hates formal obedience. It just doesnít make a whole lot of sense to him. His instincts tell him that he belongs out in front of you, searching for game, and if you insist on keeping him in heel position at your side, he is certain that he must have done something wrong and is being punished for it. Thus he will tend to hang back, lag, and look absolutely disspirited. This is the same dog that you can turn loose anywhere and never lose; he always maintains rapport with you and an awareness of exactly where you are at all times.
Try this experiment: take your Gordon to a large safe field or beach and turn him loose. Walk briskly in one direction for several hundred yards. Your Gordon will be way out in front of you, acting as if he has forgotten that you exist. After several minutes turn a full 180ļ and retrace your steps. In a matter of two or three minutes at most, your Gordon will once again be up ahead of you! Careful of doing this with an Irish; it may take him fifteen minutes or more to come looking for you and a lot can happen in that time.
Gordons demand more subtle corrections than Irish; with the Irish the difference is in the degree; with Gordons itís in the kind. Traditional choke chain jerks, or other physical methods (generally successful although not always recommended for an Irish) can result in a contest of wills with a Gordon...the harder you push the harder he pushes back. You really cannot force a Gordon to do anything, because even if you win the physical contest, he may simply shut down and refuse to do anything further, even to look at you. The best way to train a Gordon is to put him in a position where itís only possible for him to do what you want, and then praise him effusively for doing it. A Gordon wants to please you very much, but you have to learn how to communicate to him that you are pleased. This often entails bending down and hugging him, saying riduculous love words in a high squeaky voice, and giving him lots of special treats to eat. Not nearly as emotionally needy, you can praise an Irish with a simple pat on the head or a "good boy."
New things: Show an Irish an agility obstacle course and he is frantically eager to give it a try, "oh, boy, something new, looks like fun." Show it to a Gordon and itís, "Nah, I donít think so, Iíve never seen this before."
Rides in the car: The Irish is excited, weíre going someplace. He is standing on the front seat, looking out. If the window is open, his head is outside, ears flying in the breeze, nose working overtime. If the window is shut, he is looking out the windshield and putting noseprints all over it. He watches for birds that fly across the sky, passing vehicles, the scenery. The Gordon is excited, weíre going someplace. He lies down on the front seat and puts his head in your lap. It makes no difference where heís going, heís going with you. And no stranger had better stick his hand or head in the car window when youíre stopped, or else.
Children: Both breeds love kids. Sometimes Iíve felt that every Irish Setter should be issued his own teen-aged boy. Irish will play and wrestle all day; they love kids, but they can a bit over eager, especially with young ones, and seem to have no sense about knocking them down and running them over. Gordons are somewhat more aware that very small children are fragile and need more guarding than they do jostling.
Loyalty: Both breeds are very territorial and aware of what is home and who does and does not belong there. While Irish are gregarious with all acceptable visitors, that ends when the visit ends, and rare is the Irish who will climb into a strangerís vehicle and leave home without at least an okay from you. They do sometimes feel that their personal territory is either boring or larger than the legal limits of your property, and may decide that they have rounds to inspect regularly. Unless prevented by mishap, they will eventually return home. Gordons have a very strong sense of home, and usually will not leave the property even if all the fences blow down. Do not confuse their tendency to range at several hundred yards from you while running free with running away. See experiment above.
A trained Irish Setter hunting dog knows and loves his job and can be loaned to a friend who wants a dog to hunt with occasionally. Donít try this with a Gordon. A trained Gordon Setter hunting dog will hunt for the person that trained him. If that is you, fine; if not, youíd better spend some time with the trainer and let your Gordon know that he needs to hunt for you also. If you lend him to a friend to hunt, that friend is apt to find himself alone in the middle of the field with your Gordon back at the car waiting to get back to you.
An Irish Setter can be sent to a trainer easily and successfully. Rapport is usually established quickly, especially if the Irish likes the job itís learning. Few trainers are willing to accept Gordon Setters, since they must first establish a personal relationship with the Gordon before he will even acknowledge the trainer, and this can take months.
Not everybody can deal with the energy, and need for exercise and intellectual stimulation of an Irish Setter. Not everybody can deal with the protectiveness and emotional intensity required by a Gordon Setter. Both breeds are excellent foils for one another and are very complementary companions. Whether one is the breed for you will depend upon your own particulars, your personal style and your basic personality.