Irish Wolfhound

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Irish Wolfhound

This canine embodiment of Irish nationalism is the tallest of all the modern breeds, having the stature and power to bring down a range of large prey. Having been bred by the Celtic race for millennia, its success in exterminating the wild wolves of Ireland and other areas of Europe almost brought about its extinction in the seventeenth century. Despite its imposing appearance, this is amongst the most gentle of all the breeds, and is far removed from its ancestors who were called into battle against the Romans and Greeks by Celtic warriors. Beneath its bushy brows lies a pair of eyes that conveys everything about the breed’s intelligent and placid nature. While their enormous size is often enough of a deterrent to intruders, they are non-aggressive, often welcoming strangers onto their property, and are not useful as guard dogs. However, the breed motto “gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked”, refers to the Wolfhound’s willingness to protect its family, especially children, to whom it is most devoted.

Though the Irish Wolfhound is correctly classified as a sighthound, it does not pursue smaller animals indiscriminately, being on the lookout for much larger prey, so it can live happily with cats and other pets. Because of the enormous range of its long legs, it needs a reasonable amount of walking each day, but it is an extremely laid-back and relaxed character when at home. It is so relaxed, in fact, that it may have little interest in being trained by its owner. Thankfully, however, it comes with good manners as standard, and while it may not excel in the obedience arena, it is always a pleasure to be around. Unfortunately, like many of the giant breeds, the Irish Wolfhound is not long-lived; the high incidence of heart disease and cancer endemic to the bloodline means it has a life expectancy of only 6 to 8 years.

About & History

According to some accounts, the Celts, ancestors of the modern Irish, had dogs matching the Irish Wolfhound’s description as long as 7000 years ago. The Romans encountered these enormous war dogs in battle, with Julius Caesar himself writing of their exploits. The breed was first definitively recorded in Ireland in the fifth century, and it features heavily in early Irish folklore and mythology. Like any of the primitive breeds, the Wolfhound was a working dog; apart from fighting alongside its owners, it was tasked with protecting them from the abundance of wild predators in the country at this time, as well as actively hunting them. Following the English occupation of the thirteenth century, only the ruling class were permitted to own these dogs, which were often gifted to foreign dignitaries, and were highly prized. Many found their way to the nobles of Scotland, where they were subsequently used to establish the Scottish Deerhound.

The Wolfhound hunted its prey by sight, frequently roaming far from its master to scour the landscape with its head raised on its long neck. Its speed, strength, and courage were such that the Irish wolf population plummeted over the course of several centuries, and demand for its services therefore dwindled over time. In 1652, Oliver Cromwell, concerned that the breed might disappear and that the wolf population might become resurgent, decreed that each county of Ireland must keep 24 Wolfhounds in order to keep the wolf at bay. In a fitting, but sad, episode, the last Irish wolf was killed by a pack of Wolfhounds in County Carlow in 1786.

A century later, the Scotsman Capt. G. A. Graham wrote of the near-extinction of the breed, and undertook, along with several other concerned individuals, to resurrect the Irish Wolfhound from the few surviving specimens they managed to gather. This initial number of dogs was so low that it required considerable out-breeding with other breeds, primarily the Deerhound and Borzoi, to establish a sustainable breeding population, and it took some years before the “new” Wolfhound was determined to be a true representation of the ancient breed, and was breeding “true” across generations. The Wolfhound’s enormous size means that it will only ever appeal to a small proportion of the dog-owning public, and it is far from a common breed, but a healthy population and devoted following exist, meaning its future is assured.

Appearance

Irish Wolfhound Large Photo

This imposing and regal dog has a large, long, and flat head, with a subtle furrow running between the eyes. It has a tapering muzzle, and fine lips, with huge teeth contained in its strong jaw. Its dark eyes are sweet and expressive, and its small, folded ears are almost hidden in the tousled hair at its temples. The Wolfhound’s neck is long, and arched due to its heavy muscling. Its back is long, and not overly broad, while its chest has great depth and reasonable breadth. The abdomen is well drawn up, and the overall impression is one of height and strength without excessive bulk. The eternally slow-wagging tail is carried low, with an upward sweep, and the limbs are well angulated, strong, and heavily boned.

This imposing and regal dog has a large, long, and flat head, with a subtle furrow running between the eyes. It has a tapering muzzle, and fine lips, with huge teeth contained in its strong jaw. Its dark eyes are sweet and expressive, and its small, folded ears are almost hidden in the tousled hair at its temples. The Wolfhound’s neck is long, and arched due to its heavy muscling. Its back is long, and not overly broad, while its chest has great depth and reasonable breadth. The abdomen is well drawn up, and the overall impression is one of height and strength without excessive bulk. The eternally slow-wagging tail is carried low, with an upward sweep, and the limbs are well angulated, strong, and heavily boned.

Irish Wolfhounds move with an easy, long, lolloping gait on their large feet, and carry their heads high. They are covered in an extremely wiry coat that is particularly hard around the eyes and mouth, creating an obvious beard and bushy eyebrows. The colours recognised by the breed standard are

  • Grey
  • Brindle
  • Red
  • Black
  • White
  • Fawn
  • Yellow

The Wolfhound’s breed clubs place great importance on the height of their dogs, and males should be a minimum of 79 cm (31 in) tall, with the smaller females measuring at least 71 cm (28 in) to the top of the withers. Males are also significantly more bulky, weighing 55–90 kg (110–198 lb), while females weigh 40–62 kg (88–136 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Irish Wolfhound has a gentle and placid demeanour that belies its history as a fierce predator and dog of war. While these traits are universal, each Wolfhound is an individual, and will have its own subtle quirks and characteristics. This is a sociable and friendly breed that approaches everyone as a friend, even complete strangers, and it has virtually no territorial instinct. As such, it is worthless as a guard dog, and rarely barks. However, it has a physical presence like few others, and is bound to act as a visual deterrent to would-be intruders or burglars.

The Wolfhound forms strong bonds with its owners, and while it will not defend its property, it will fearlessly protect its family. This is particularly true for children, and the breed is suitable for all ages, with the caveat that its size means it can inadvertently bowl over adults, not to mind toddlers! Although one should always take care when introducing dogs to other pets, the breed is likely to accept cats and smaller animals, especially if it is raised with them.

Trainability

Photo of Irish Wolfhound puppy

The Wolfhound is far too laid-back to pay too much attention in training, but its calm nature means it is generally very well behaved. Obviously, an unruly Wolfhound would be impossible to walk on a lead, and this is one area that owners should work particularly hard on during puppyhood lest they themselves end up being helplessly dragged around when the dog is a colossal adult.

Health

Unfortunately, a relatively large proportion of Irish Wolfhounds do not enjoy good health over the course of their short lives. Inherited problems are common, and anyone considering the purchase of one of these wonderful dogs should research their chosen breeder and dogs very carefully. The following are some of the conditions commonly encountered:

  • Atrial fibrillation – Often associated with dilated cardiomyopathy (see below), this is an abnormal heart rhythm that reduces cardiac output and can manifest as weakness or fainting. Detection requires thorough investigation, and treatment must be instigated early to attempt to correct the problem.
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy – A serious heart condition, in which the muscular walls of the heart weaken and subsequently stretch, leading to vastly reduced function and signs of heart failure, which can include weakness, lethargy, coughing/breathlessness, and abdominal distension. It is a progressive disorder, and requires a great deal of medical management to maintain the dog’s quality of life over its course.
  • Osteosarcoma – The most common form of bone cancer in dogs, it is prevalent in many giant breeds, but none more so than the Irish Wolfhound. Several studies have reported this as being the leading cause of death within the breed. Early signs relate to bone pain, but this stoic dog may hide such signs until the disease is advanced.
  • Portosystemic shunt – An anatomic disorder, wherein an abnormal blood vessel shunts blood returning from the gastrointestinal tract away from the liver. This bypassing means that the liver does not have the opportunity to cleanse this blood, which is laden with toxins and bacteria. Signs of ill-thrift and mental dullness predominate in affected pups that require surgical intervention to ligate the offending vessel. This is, unfortunately, a costly and risky undertaking.
  • Gastric dilatation/volvulus – As opposed to the slow abdominal distension that may be seen with heart failure, rapid bloating is more likely a sign of a twisted stomach. With its deep chest, the Wolfhound is at particular risk of this condition, which requires rapid surgical correction.
  • Immunodeficiency – A breed-specific susceptibility to infection has been identified, which is thought to be due to low levels of immunoglobulin production.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Although the Irish Wolfhound is rarely a high-energy dog, the sheer length of its legs means it needs to walk a considerable distance each day to receive sufficient exercise, and owners should plan to devote around an hour daily to walks. In addition, this is a dog that was bred to live in wide open spaces, and should have access to a large garden at a minimum.

Grooming

Besides the fact that one must cover a very large surface area when brushing, grooming the Irish Wolfhound is really a pretty straightforward task. Its wiry coat does not matt easily, but it does shed, and needs some attention from a brush or comb twice a week. Occasional professional hand stripping will help to keep it looking its best, but only needs to be done two to three times a year. The Wolfhound has very strong nails that are rarely sufficiently worn down by walking, and these need to be cut with very strong clippers around once a month.

Famous Irish Wolfhounds

The breed has a few celebrity fans, with some of its more notable owners including:

  • Sting
  • Lily Allen
  • Zachary Quinto

Cross-Breeds

There have been many attempts to create cross-breeds in the Wolfhound’s image, but of a more manageable scale, with the following being just a few:

  • Black Russian Wolfhound Terrier – Cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Black Russian Terrier
  • German Wirehaired Pointing Wolfhound – Cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a German Wirehaired Pointer
  • Giant Irish Wolf Schnauzer – Cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Giant Schnauzer
  • Irish Dane – Cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Great Dane
  • Irish Mastiff – Cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Mastiff
  • Irish Wolfoodle – Cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Poodle

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