While there are records of all-red setters in Ireland at the end of the 18th century, most experts believe that they came from breeding white and red dogs that had increasing amounts of red. Those red and white dogs were Irish Red and White Setters, a breed that should strike the observer as a white dog with red patches, and not the other way around.
Breed standards are good at explaining what is acceptable in a breed, but they don’t always indicate what is preferred, and that information usually falls in the “unwritten rules” category typically inherited from breed elders. The IRWS’s AKC standard has no stated rules about color beyond the necessity that the base color be “white with solid red patches (clear islands of red color), both colors showing the maximum of life and bloom” (“bloom” – what a marvelous word to use with regards to color!).
It is from other sources that we’ve gleaned a preference for both eyes to be surrounded by red. Why? Because a dog with one red patch (think pirate) looks out of balance, as does a setter with one side more heavily patched than the other. Placement of the red patches can play optical tricks on us (when, for instance, they are placed on a shoulder), but they can also heighten a dog’s lovely expression when framed by ears that are both red. Furthermore, author, Patricia Brigden, opines that a white flash down the center of the face that is too wide gives a dog an expression akin to a “deer in headlights” (our words) stare.
Equally important as those patches is color. The Reverend Noble Houston, credited with saving the breed from extinction, said of the breed’s red color that it should be, “the color of a freshly opened chestnut.” The white, meanwhile, should be a clear pearly white. Color was a point on which old Irish breeders were insistent for the reason that they felt it indicated pure pedigrees.