Keeping an Irish or Gordon Setter's coat in tiptop show condition is an ongoing project that falls under the heading of "Impossible Dream" for many of us! There is not a dog in the world who does not get the occasional bur, tangle, or mat, nor are there many dogs who have not gone through the terrible process known as "blowing his coat" at least once from seasonal changes in weather, illness, allergies, pregnancy, or sometimes - it seems - simple obstinacy!

When you know that you have done everything possible to care for a coat, remember that coat only represents about 5% of the judging standard, and for a while selectively show under "movement" judges who don't care how much hair there is: I'll never forget the judge who looked at Brett in the ring following a typical false pregnancy and said, "My dear, she's absolutely naked!" while nonetheless putting her Best of Winners for the points. So don't despair!

Some folks insist that the only way for a setter to grow hair is to live outside in a frigid climate. This may produce the desired quantity of hair, but the quality is apt to be dry, brittle, and unmanageable if no other care is given, and much of this coat will be left on the groomer's floor come show time.

Before considering caring for the coat externally and specifically, there are a few general rules to follow. Failure in any of these areas will result in a less than optimum hair coat, no matter how much time and what products are lavished on the coat itself:

Good quality nutrition is the first requirement, which means a top quality dog food with high protein and fat contents. Hair is protein and requires internal protein for growth and fat for gloss, shine, and manageability. This does not mean that you must buy the most expensive dog food available, but you should steer away from generics and anything that isn't labeled complete and balanced or is marked specifically for maintenance.

Maintenance means sustaining the necessities of life, such as respiration, circulation, and digestion. Such activities as reproduction and lactation are considered luxuries beyond the demands of mere maintenance of life, and a top quality haircoat is surely one of life's luxuries. Therefore, if your dog is to have more than a maintenance quality coat, one that will cover his skin and afford basic protection from the elements, you must feed him more than maintenance quality dog food!

This is not to say that all foods agree with all dogs. Some dogs can eat anything and thrive, others have more delicate digestions and even specific food allergies. If you dog's health checks out in all other aspects, and he is still doing and looking poorly, consider a change in diet. Some dogs simply metabolize different food bases, such as wheat or corn, better than others.

In addition to good food, there are some dietary supplements that will also assist in the production of a good quality and quantity of hair growth, including a general good quality multi-vitamin, extra vitamin C and E, and the right balance of animal and vegetable based fatty acids. A dog whose resistance is low from poor nutrition is more susceptible to all sorts of diseases, none of which is conducive to a good show coat; one of the first effects of many illnesses is the coat suddenly turning dull and dry, and this should always be a warning sign to you to have your dog's overall health checked out.

On the other hand, as Dr. Peter Ihrke, head of dermatology at U. C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told me, if a dog is eating a good quality food and receiving appropriate multiple vitamins, there is no need to spend a fortune on special dietary concoctions to condition his coat. Dr. Ihrke recommended 1 TB. daily of corn oil as the only specific supplement necessary for coat condition.  Lately I have been using canola oil to the same good effect.

Another internal factor to consider when assessing the condition of your setter's coat is the presence of parasites, which include such intestinal inhabitants as roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, tapeworm, coccidia, giardia, etc. A fecal sample examined by your vet should eliminate all of these possibilities except tapeworm; and you must medicate your dog and rid him of all parasites before expecting any improvement in his coat.

Tapeworm is indicated by the presence of clear or yellowish particles in the feces that resemble grains of rice, or by white wiggling egg cases (ugh!) in the skin or hair around his anus, both easily seen by a conscientious owner. Even if you don't see any signs, if your dog has harbored fleas in the past season, go ahead and treat him for tapeworm; he probably has it.

A dog that has heartworm is generally a very ill and often debilitated animal, and one would not expect to see good coat condition in such a case. With heartworm, however, you should be more concerned with your dog's survival than with his coat quality!  Treat him at once as your veterinarian prescribes.

A number of external parasites and other inhabitants can also destroy a show coat, and chief among these are fleas, since they sometimes seem omnipresent! Most of the older common means of flea control also have the undesirable side effect of drying and damaging the coat. See our article on Flea Control for full details; you should at least consider adding coat conditioner to any topically applied flea shampoo or dip, or regularly applying Advantage, Frontline, or any of the newer flea control products.

Other external buggers include ticks, which can leave nasty little bald patches, demodectic and sarcoptic mange mites, which can make a great deal of hair fall out and permanently damage the follicles, and lice. In all of these cases elimination of the pests is required for your dog's overall health, as well as the growth of a respectable show coat.

Now let us consider the dog's environment: does he have animal or human playmates who pull at his ears and tail, tangling, matting, or removing hair as they do? Does he come into physical contact with rough, sharp, or abrasive surfaces that can poke holes in his coat or cause it to break off? This includes sandy surfaces, nylon carpeting and upholstery, and concrete floors.

Are there shrubs or grasses in his yard that have tangling burs, or sticky seeds, or sharp thorns, all of which will take a little bit of hair with them as they are removed from the coat? If there is regular hair loss in specific limited areas, check the dog's living quarters for a rough splinter of wood or broken piece of fencing that may poke or tangle each time he takes a drink or relieves himself.

What type of daily activities does your dog engage in? Is he exercised or hunted in an area of rough brush? If you can't change his surroundings, protect the coat by dressing him in a cotton t-shirt while he exercises. What about mealtime? Do his ears drag through his food, breaking off the edges of the hair and matting the rest? Teach him to wear a snood whenever he eats - if you start him at a young age, he won't mind it at all, and it's a good habit for show dogs to get into early, so it will be an automatic habit for both you and him when his coat is finally long enough to need real protection.

A snood is a cloth tube with elastic at one or both ends that the dog wears on his head. It should be long enough to hold the ears inside, so they don't fall into his food or water bowl. Dogs tend to be more comfortable wearing them pushed rather far back on the skull, rather than right above the eyes. Some dogs are happier with a non-elastic bottom edge; this is fine as long as the snood is long enough to contain the ears. 

Snoods may be bought at dog shows or made from any old piece of scrap fabric and length of elastic, and they are often dressed up with bright colors, brims, and appliques. Some folks call them hats. If you tell your dog he is adorable and wonderful for wearing his, he will be less likely to try to pull it off or sulk than if you yell at him for his attitude while wearing it!

The type of tools that you use to groom your dog, and the frequency of those groomings can also make a tremendous difference in how his coat responds. What works for one dog will not necessarily do the trick for another. You must always be ready to change techniques and equipment if you are not satisfied with the results. There are 3 basic types of brushes: bristle, slicker, and pin. The bristle brushes, whether natural or synthetic, are generally the softest and do the least damage, but they are useful only on the dog's back and other areas of short hair. They will not straighten out a tangle and may actually reinforce a mat by brushing hair over and into it.

Slicker brushes have square or rectangular bases, with a handle protruding at an angle. Their surface is covered with close-set, short pins that bend at a sharp angle. While they will smooth down a tousled coat, they will also rip out any mats and tangles, leaving bald spots behind. They should only be used when the coat is completely combed out, just to smooth the very surface as you are running into the show ring.

Pin brushes are generally oval, with the base and handle all of one piece. The base usually has a rubber surface that is embedded with rows of short straight pins, usually more widely set than a slicker. Pin brushes are useful for feathering and long hair, but you can't just start brushing anywhere with them. If the coat is tangled, separate it into small sections as you brush, and begin from the outer end of the hair, brushing from just below the tip to the tip itself at first, then go a little farther down the hair for the next stroke, and continue until you are finally at skin level and brushing the whole length of hair. This will minimize coat loss and breakage, because hair that is caught in a tangle is more apt to break off and pull out than to straighten out unless you are working very close to the tangled part itself.

Combs of varying closeness of teeth can also be useful. They can be used like a pick to work small bits of hair at a time out of mats that have been soaked down with coat oil. Whenever you are working a mat, however, remember that there is going to be some inevitable hair loss; your job is to minimize it now, since you didn't prevent it in the first place!

I'd suggest brushing your dog out thoroughly with a pin brush first, then combing him with a medium textured comb to make sure that every little tangle is gone. Be careful not to brush your dog out when he is very matted and dirty or wet. Wet hair stretches and breaks much more easily than does dry hair, so it is wise to shampoo him first, load his coat with coat oil/conditioner, (putting an extra heavy dose on the tangles - the newest product in vogue for mats is sold as Cowboy Magic, detangler for horses' manes and tails) and then brush him out when he has dried. Once he is completely combed out and in oil, daily brushings and weekly baths and oil changes should keep him in top shape unless he gets into burs or serious dirt; obviously you must keep him clean and brushed out after every such outing.

We won't deal completely with equipment in this article, but you should be aware of the existence of the stripping knife and the pressed glass block as useful for removing dead hair without damaging the remaining good coat.  There is one relatively new grooming aid now available that is quite remarkable.  It is called a Mars Coat King, and consists of a wooden handle with a number of blades set across the top.  The various sizes of coat kings are named by the number of blades across the top of each.  The best sizes for a setter are #20 and #30.  The #20 has 20 blades set across the top of the instrument, and the #30 is half again as wide as the #20 with 30 blades, so the distance between the blades is the same as the #20.  The #30 just covers more area with each pass.

The coat kings are used rather like a rake.  You grasp the handled and pull the blades through the top surface of the coat.  They can be used on any part of the body, but the most effective use of them is down the back, neck, and sides.  The blades cut through the old dead hair and the stroke of the entire instrument removes this hair from the coat.  This is especially useful for bitches with the profuse, fuzzy, straw-like hair that often results after spay surgery.  It is also commonly found in both sexes with low thyroid or other metabolic irregularities.  Or in dogs that just haven't been groomed for awhile, especially after a cold winter season.  An Irish Setter with a fuzzy yellowish-orange coat will once again be red after a thorough session with a coat king.  Gordons will once again look sleek instead of like wooly bushes.

The Mars Coat King can be ordered online by going to and clicking on the link for Mars Coat King.  The popularity of these grooming devices has been such that I have recently noticed Oster and a couple of other companies that make grooming products offering similar tools, but I have never tried any of them nor had any reports from anyone who has.

You should thoroughly go over your dog's coat with a Coat King before starting to use any brushes on him if he is covered with dead, dry, cottony hair.

While your pup is a youngster, it is sufficient just to bathe him when he gets dirty or shows evidence of the presence of fleas. We like the shampoos that contain d-Limonene as the active flea-killing ingredient, since it doesn't seem to dry out the coat as severely as some others, and the companies using it tend to add coat conditioners to their products. 

Stay away from the coal tar preparations; these will murder a coat! If your dog has mild skin irritations, bathe him in an iodine or oatmeal shampoo or one containing benzyl peroxide (the active ingredient in Oxy-10 human acne preparation.) If his coat is very dry, use an oatmeal conditioner after the bath as well.  If he has serious skin irritations, take him to your vet before attempting any intense home remedies!

Whenever you must use any strong shampoo product, be it for fleas or skin conditions, always complete the procedure by a final rinse of about 1 ounce of Alpha Keri Bath Oil (or generic version) in a quart of water. Pour it over the dog and allow it to remain on the coat as he dries. This will do a lot to counteract the drying properties of the other chemicals or medications.

You may also make up a spray bottle containing one part Alpha Keri Bath Oil to three parts of water. Use this to spray on your dog's feathering before you take him out for a run anyplace where there are burs or dense brush. Work it in well, and then respray any individual bur or tangle directly or work in a small amount of Cowboy Magic as you are brushing him out after his run; this will greatly minimize hair loss as the burs come out.

If you happen to encounter a sticky type of vegetation, such as tar weed, spray the dog with Pam vegetable coating prior to the run, and almost nothing should stick to him. If you are unaware of the sticky growth ahead of time, spray all hair covered with vegetation after the run and the matter will come out easily, with almost no coat loss. If you are unable to find a can of Pam, you can use waterless hand cleaner or other silicone or lecithin-based product, but be certain that you wash any of these substances out of the coat as soon as possible and condition it well afterwards.  Sometimes it is better to let the coat dry out before starting to work the sticky things out, because as they dry out a lot of the vegetation will lose its stickiness and fall right out of the coat.  If irritating burs, thorns, etc. are all the way down to the skin and the dog is obviously in a great deal of discomfort, you should more than likely start to work on his coat at once to bring him relief.

Our standard recommendation has been to use the Alpha Keri Bath Oil and water mixture as a finale to your dog's regular bath. We apply it all over, especially heavily to all areas of long hair, and let the dog dry with it on his coat. It has no odor, and although the dog will appear wet long after he has actually dried, it will not leave a residue of any sort on upholstery or carpet when mixed with three parts of water. The principle behind this treatment is to coat each individual hair for protection against abrasion and breakage, so that all hair that exists reaches maximum length, resulting in fullness of coat as well as length.

We have been using a line of products called #1 All Systems almost exclusively for coat care for all of our dogs, although in different combinations and frequencies for the ones being actively shown, the ones on hiatus or in field training, and the youngsters. It is important to realize that the quantity of coat necessary to win points in the show ring is far less than that required for Best of Breeds, Specialty wins, and Group placements. Nevertheless, the quality of haircoat should be excellent on any animal in the show ring. While in many cases, time and genetic factors are the ultimate makers of quantity, you as owner can directly affect the quality of the coat (and in some cases the appearance of great quantity) through the time that you spend and the products that you use!

The products that we recommend are manufactured by #1 All Systems, Ken Alta, Inc., P. O. Box 1330, Ojai, CA 93023; (805) 525-7998. You can write to them for a listing of their products and prices, or you can call, especially in an emergency, and they will be happy to ship them directly to you. They are also available by telephone to answer specific questions about their products and usage on individual animals.

There is usually a #1 All Systems booth set up, either by itself, or as part of another vendor's line at most major dog shows in California. They are often found also in OR, WA, and B.C. If you purchase the products at a show, you will save the shipping and sometimes save a bit on the merchandise itself.

The name of the line, by the way, refers to the fact that there are several different systems in use for ranking dogs nationally, some by specific breed, others by Group, and some for AKC all breed competition, all based on a dog's performance and record in the show ring. I suppose the inference is that if you use these products, your dog will become ranked #1 by all possible systems! I only wish it were that easy! But these products do definitely make a difference in coat!

There are currently eight items in the #1 All Systems line that directly relate to coat condition and quality. I was told that some of the original formulations were developed over time by well-known professional handlers, and were guarded as "tricks of the trade" until this company prevailed upon them to go public. This is a great selling device, since we all have admired the condition that most professionally handled dogs display in the ring, and it matters little whether there is any truth behind it: the pros have to use something; perhaps the most important factor is that they use whatever they use consistently and regularly.

I have also been told that the basic shampoo is Neutrogena, whether in human formulation or adapted for dogs I am not certain. I believe that the pH factor of dog hair is slightly different from that of human hair, so a special formulation may have been developed for dogs. There was a specifically labeled Neutrogena for Dogs shampoo marketed briefly several years ago, but I don't have too much information on these details, and they don't much matter, since the products work so well.

I am first going to list all eight #1 All Systems products with their complete product line names followed by the common name by which we refer to each one. Then I will briefly explain the use of each one as we recommend, and conclude with a few examples of specific usage. If you wish to try these products, the company makes what they call a Starter Pack, which consists of one-quart sizes of each of the first three products.  Most of the products are also available in one gallon sizes, which is far more economical if you will be using them over a period of time, especially the shampoos.

#1 All Systems Product List

  1. Super Cleaning & Conditioning Shampoo ("Shampoo")
  2. Super Rich Protein Lotion Conditioner ("Conditioner")
  3. Pure Lanolin Plus Skin & Hair Emollients ("Lanolin")
  4. Self Rinse Conditioning Shampoo & Coat Refresher ("Self-rinse Shampoo")
  5. Professional Formula Whitening Shampoo ("Whitening Shampoo")
  6. Professional Cosmetic Quality Coat Dressing ("Coat Dressing")
  7. Lanolin Stabilizer & Coat Re-Texturizer ("Stabilizer")
  8. Professional Formula Natural Flea & Tick Shampoo ("Flea Shampoo")

1. Shampoo - This is our basic everyday shampoo. Never use it straight since you will then need to add a great deal of water to the coat to make any suds at all. Then you will wind up having too much shampoo in the coat and have a very difficult time rinsing it all out! Fill a one-quart bottle almost full with warm water and add 1-2 TBS of shampoo and mix well. Use this mixture to bathe the dog, giving him one shampoo for normal care, two washes if he is very dirty.

2. Conditioner - As a conditioning pack on clean dog: wring out excess water & towel dog lightly; put 1-2 tsp. on hands and work into coat all over, add more conditioner to hands until all hair is coated; leave on at least 5 minutes, if possible add heat, like w/crate drier; rinse off, okay if some stays on coat. Don't do this just before a show, since coat will dry greasy. Not necessary for dogs kept in oil. Use for very dry, damaged, brittle coats as extreme restorative measure, like w/over-processed human hair. Also is mixed w/lanolin.

3. Lanolin - Mix w/conditioner for process called "holding coat" or "keeping dog in oil," "putting down in oil," etc. In 1 quart spray bottle fill 1/2 full of very warm water, put in 2 Tbs conditioner and 2 Tbs lanolin, shake very well to mix, top off w/warm water. For use between shows ONLY: shampoo dog, wring out, and spray this mixture into coat all over, dry with heat if possible, in any case allow to dry thoroughly before letting dog out into sandy, dirt, or concrete areas to keep hair from being abraded; NEVER use before a show, will leave dog very greasy. Dog will appear greasy first day, but won't stain furniture or carpet & will be absorbed by 2nd day. If dog is especially dry down his back, put 2 tsps pure lanolin in hand and rub into back from loin to tail after spraying w/mixture. Dogs in holding coat process will tend to be flea free, since the lanolin has repellent effect.

4. Self-rinse Shampoo - For use on a clean, show-ready dog, to clean up small areas on body or in feathering, or between shows on a two or more day circuit. Makes dog look freshly bathed if you blow the areas dry that you've used it on. Put in spray bottle and dilute it 1:5-10 times depending on nature of dirt. Spray it on small area at a time, such as an ear, brush it through, and blow it dry, then go on to another area.

5. Whitening Shampoo - For use in place of "1." for white dogs. We don't use this! Removes stains from dirt, saliva, urine, newspaper, etc.

6. Coat Dressing - Mix 1/4 tsp. w/12 oz. spray bottle of warm water. Mist down back & sides just before showing dog to lay any stray wisps and flakiness; in place of Ring 5 aerosol spray.  #1 All Systems also makes an aerosol spray for use just before going into the ring.

7. Stabilizer - Use once every 1-2 per month following shampoo as rinse to remove excess lanolin residue from coat if there is a build-up. Mix 1-2 oz. w/1 qt. water. May be used prior to showing or to putting dog back in oil.

8. Flea Shampoo - Use full strength as necessary for flea control. Will not dry the coat as just about every other flea shampoo or dip will. Follow with light second wash in regular shampoo.

Sample Cases:

1. 6-12 month old puppy: if coat is dry, give initial condition pack treatment. Rare for pups to have dry coat. Then continue with every other week shampoo and conditioning as above; mix in ratio of 2 tbs Conditioner & 2Tbs lanolin in 32 oz. water.

2. 2-3 year-old getting ready to start serious showing: same as case 1, but older dogs generally have drier coats, so use conditioner mix ratio of 2 tbs conditioner & 3 tbs lanolin in 32 oz. water, especially in summer months. For first 1-2 months shampoo and condition coat weekly to control dryness and correct any damage, then reduce frequency to every other week. If hair is long, work more conditioner mix into coat, respray every 3 days if coat seems to dry out. If ends are brittle, apply more to ends for coating.

3. Fully coated dog who is used for hunting in dense cover while maintaining a show coat & career: Use conditioner in 2:2 ratio as above, spraying coat heavily before taking dog into field, emphasizing it on feathering & chest & undercarriage more than back, daily if necessary. If dog picks up burs, sticks, debris, or the coat tangles spray heavily onto tangled area and pick out carefully with fingers because brushing will tear coat out. T-shirting also helps.

#1 All Systems also makes a line of grooming products that are excellent quality.  They are somewhat costly, but the effects you'll get from using them are well worth their purchase price.  Among the line are pin brushes, some with extra-long pins, slickers, and combs.

There are also a few other products that we like to use specifically for the show ring.  Pantene Shampoo and Conditioner are used by a lot of folks to bathe their dogs the morning of or night before a show.  A company called Crown Royal has a couple of products that work well just before going in the ring.  Both their Bodifier and their Magic Touch can be mixed with water and misted into the coat to reduce static, smooth, and add body to the coat.  We lightly spray the dogs with one or the other of these products after he has been brushed out completely, and then we blow him dry with a hand-held dryer (the human kind) and a brush just before ring time.  Another line of products that is sold at most dog shows and used by a lot of exhibitors is Traleigh.  It is another top quality line and worth investigating if you are not satisfied with the performance of #1 All Systems products on your dogs or you find them difficult to obtain.