Many folks use the terms "red setter" and "irish setter" interchangeably when referring to the long-haired, long-tailed, drop-eared, solid auburn-haired pointing dog that originated in Ireland and was popularized in the United States by the Disney movie Big Red and by then-President Nixon's pet King Timahoe.
In fact these terms are not synonymous: Irish Setters may be the solid red dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club, or Irish Red and White Setters, a separate breed just recognized in the United States that are marked like the original red hunting dogs of Ireland prior to the selection of the pure red dog by the Irish Setter Club of America as its official standard bearer. A few Irish Red and White fanciers have imported some representatives of this breed to the United States, but they remain very rare.
Red setter is often used as a generic term for all primarily red-hued setter-type dogs. This term can be used for a traditional AKC show-type Irish Setter, a very heavily marked orange belton show or field English Setter, a Gordon Setter displaying the genetically dilute reddish coat color well-known in this breed, or a purposely field-bred dog that is predominantly - but not necessarily solely - Irish Setter in pedigree.
The AKC recognizes and registers 4 breeds of setters: English Setter, Gordon Setter, Irish Setter, and Irish Red and White Setter. If a setter is to be registered with the AKC he must have a documentable pedigree as one of these four. Many folks know that English Setters come in show and field varieties, not officially recognized by any American registry, but commonly called Laverack for show dogs and Llywellan for field dogs after the two nineteenth century Englishmen best known for creating these general strains.
A controversial split in the development of the Irish Setter breed occurred much later, during the middle part of the 20th century, and in some areas it is still ongoing: Dissatisfied with the field performance of the show-type Irish Setters, especially as they continued to be bred ever further away from their hunting instincts, with emphasis on size, copious coat, elegance of form, and flighty temperament, some field aficionados began to cross other high performance birddogs into their Irish Setter bloodlines. Resulting pups who looked quite like Irish Setters were kept for breeding purposes and usually bred back into the Irish lines. Here and there other crosses were made, and it is commonly accepted that five different breeds were used at various times, including English Setter, English Pointer, Vizsla, Brittany, and possibly some German Shorthaired Pointer. These cross bred dogs were initially registered with the American Field in their Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB), which does accept for registration "cross bred setters." After five generations of breeding back into the purebred stock, the American Field will consider these dogs purebred themselves. Although the American Field does register the dogs as Irish Setters, it became common parlance to refer to these dogs as Red Setters, to distinguish the specifically field-designed dogs from the show Irish.
Until quite recently, the American Kennel Club had a reciprocal agreement with the American Field registry by which a dog with a five-generation purebred pedigree that was registered in the one organization would automatically be granted registration by the other upon presentation of the appropriate paperwork and fees. Thus "Red Setters" who were five generations removed from any cross breeding became AKC registered Irish Setters, and are so to this day. Reciprocal registration of American Field-registered Irish Setters is no longer allowed by the Irish Setter Club of America nor by the American Kennel Club due to the questionable purity of the American Field dogs' pedigrees.
Red Setters were created to be and are primarily known as field dogs, and there is in fact a National Red Setter Club that sponsors American Field trials and championships. Although they are registered as Irish Setters, most persons with even limited observation of show Irish and field-bred dogs can easily spot the difference: Red setters are much smaller in stature, stockier and broader, more barrel-shaped through the body, not as deep in chest, shorter in neck and leg. They generally do not have a profuse coat, nor particularly long furnishings. Their ears tend to be short and high-set. Their heads are blockier, more broad and wedge-shaped in the backskull and shorter and pointier in the muzzle. Their tails are set very high on their backs and often tend to curl up over the back a bit at the tip. Their overall body color is lighter than most show Irish, and they often carry quite a bit of white hair on their chests and feet, and sometimes on their muzzle and legs.
The red setters are not so much beautiful to look at as they are beautiful to watch perform. Their run is snappier and more purposeful than many show dogs, and at times their range is far greater. They have strong pointing instincts and usually point with a high head and upright tail, as opposed to the show Irish, who may crouch and stand with shoulders higher than head and a tail level with the back. While their styles are different, a good working show-type Irish is every bit as esthetically pleasing afield as his red setter cohort; it's all in the eye of the beholder. Red setter advocates feel that the chance of one of their pups growing up to be a good working birddog is far greater than that of the average show Irish, and I would tend to concur. But the show Irish Setter is not to be written off entirely as competitive field trial material by any means!
A third type of Irish Setter exists in this country, and these dogs tread a mid-line between the show bred and field bred dogs. These are often referred to as old hunting stock Irish Setters, and go back to the same initial bloodlines as the show dogs, and the purebred portion of the red setters' pedigrees. No one messed with these dogs, however, in terms of breeding, and instead of selecting for show ring attributes, or mixing in genes from other breeds, their owners continued to breed good hunting Irish Setters to each other for generations, and have respectable working dogs today that are purebred Irish Setters but don't look much like show dogs. Since these breeders are not generally involved in show or field competition, and oftentimes their dogs are unsuitable for either, they are not as visible nor as readilly findable as breeders of more competitive strains. They tend to remain quiet, and not get in the middle of any of the verbal controversies between the other two camps, and continue to do their own thing with their dogs, primarily personal hunting.
It all comes down to what a person wants for him/herself. To a show person, the term red setter is a pejorative one, meaning crossbred little field dogs that couldn't walk into a show ring without being laughed right out of it. To many field trial persons, red setters are the next step in the development of the breed as a high class bird dog, and a show Irish is as worthless as the mutt next door for their purposes.
At Bright Star I started with an Irish Setter puppy who was a product of backyard breeding, three generations away from any seriously bred show lines, but combining a number of well-established lines with both show and field performance history. This pup proved to be exceptionally birdy and intelligent. with an excellent nose, trainability, desire to please, and easy-going temperament. She was not the best looker, however, neither in the show ring nor on point! Her best conformation attributes were excellent feet and shoulders and great coat color depth. She had a wide run, great nose, and excellent manners afield, but pointed with her tail flagging between her legs. My goal was both to improve her ring conformation and style on point, while retaining her birdiness, intelligence, and good disposition:
Five generations and twenty-five years later, we have produced Tempe, who is the 17th Dual (Show and Field Trial) Champion in the breed's history and only the second Dual Champion to also earn her Amateur Field Champion title. Tempe is not a mediocre dog who just happened to be able to eke out titles in both spheres, however, as is not uncommon among Dual Champions in many breeds: she earned her show points with back-to-back major Specialty wins under breeder judges from tough Bred by Exhibitor classes; and she is consistently the only setter to place against all pointing breeds in AKC field trials on both Coasts!
In conclusion, Bright Star Irish Setters are red setters in that they have red coats. But Bright Star Irish Setters are not red setters, in that their bloodlines are pure AKC Irish Setter as far back as records exist for them. Our dogs are registered as Irish Setters both with the AKC and the American Field, and we are proud of both the way they look and the way they work!