A setter is a type of dog bred to locate gamebirds by using their keen sense of smell. The setter shows a hunter he’s found birds by “setting” down on his belly. Before the invention of firearms, setters worked in tandem with trained falcons and hunters using nets. Today, setters are gundogs, that is, they work with a hunter toting a rifle.
Irish huntsmen of the 1800s bred their sleek, rangy “Red Setters” to move freely and swiftly, the better to cover ground in the wide, flat countryside of the Emerald Isle. By way of contrast, the Irish Setter’s kinsman from Scotland, the Gordon Setter, was built to flush and retrieve game on rocky, punishing terrain and is therefore a heavier-bodied dog that moves at a more deliberate pace.
The Irish Setter earned a reputation as an energetic but efficient worker in the bird fields, and, thanks to its eye-catching good looks and graceful gait, has been a big winner in the show ring since the sport’s beginnings in the 1870s. Eleven Irish have won the Sporting Group competition at the Westminster Kennel Club show over the years. The most famous Irish Setter of all time, however, was fictional, the title character of Jim Kjelgaard’s 1945 novel “Big Red.” President Richard Nixon’s Irish Setter, King Timahoe, was named for a small town in Ireland that was the homeland of the president’s ancestors.