Scottish Deerhound

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Scottish Deerhound

Long known as the “Royal Dog of Scotland”, the Scottish Deerhound has roots back in the misty, murky Scottish highlands, where it was kept first by the clans to aid them in hunting a range of animals for food, then by the nobility for the sport of deer-hunting. The breed’s noble bearing may explain how it came to acquire its unofficial title, but nobody has ever accused a Deerhound of being stuck up. Eager to please and friendly toward anyone they meet, they really are gentle giants, and are especially fond of children.

Though they can be a handful as puppies, displaying all the typical foolishness and boisterous behaviour one would expect, they mature into mellow adults, content to spend most of their time snoozing. However, their resemblance to a very large Greyhound is no coincidence; the Greyhound is likely to have been instrumental in saving the breed from extinction at various points over the last two centuries, and like any sighthound, the Deerhound needs space and the opportunity to stretch its legs.

Though a Greyhound may have the edge in terms of speed in a sprint on the flat, the Deerhound comes into its own on uneven ground, where its stronger bones and extremely large paws give it the strength and stability to surge after its prey (or a tennis ball). The breed unfortunately has more than its fair share of health problems, and Scottish Deerhounds have a life expectancy of only 8–9 years.

About & History

The ancient Scots, and the Picts before them, always kept large sighthounds as aids to hunting and for protection. Written evidence for this comes from the Romans who were aware of native dogs kept in the wild north at the time of their invasion. Though the Scots themselves have not recorded the early history of the breed, it is believed that some of Roman dogs, which would have been of a much heavier type, are likely to have interbred with these natives, so establishing a legacy in the highlands that their masters failed to emulate. It is unclear whether the breed was originally used primarily for bringing down game or for keeping wolves at bay from livestock and people, but it eventually was seen primarily as a hunting dog from the sixteenth century, when each clan would have had its own strain of Deerhound.

With the collapse of the clan system in the eighteenth century, the nobility took ownership of the breed, and, wishing to control and monopolise the sport of hunting, made it an offence for any person below the rank of earl to own one of these magnificent dogs. Such a restriction served to inflate the status of those who could keep Deerhounds, and so a healthy population was maintained on estates across the country. However, with a trend towards smaller estate sizes, as well as the widespread introduction of the rifle for hunting, the breed suffered a drastic decline late in the nineteenth century, and the small remaining stock was maintained by a few Scottish enthusiasts. Although records are scarce, it seems that the Greyhound was used at various points over this period of time to sustain a healthy breeding population. Like many giant breeds, the World Wars of the twentieth century also took their toll on its popularity, and it remains something of a rarity even today.


Scottish Deerhound Large Photo

The Scottish Deerhound strongly resembles a Greyhound in outline, but is far larger and more heavily boned. Its rough, shaggy coat, developed as an adaptation to the harsh climate of its homeland, is its other main distinguishing feature. The combination of long legs, enormous chest, and strong boning reflect its unique combination of power and speed, and it is not difficult to imagine one bringing down a deer of far greater size. Its flat, long head has a slight rise to the crown just above the eyes, but then runs down smoothly to the muzzle with no stop. The muzzle itself tapers, and is quite refined despite its bulk. It has strong jaws and a perfect scissor bite, and the face is covered in relatively long, silky hair that forms a generous moustache. The eyes have black lids, are brown in colour, and have a soft look. The ears are set high on the head, and usually held folded back, though they are mobile.

The neck is strong and quite long with a good covering of hair in a mane. The back is similarly strong, and far from flat, with prominent withers and an arched loin dropping to the broad, powerful croup. The chest is extremely deep, with the curved sternum sweeping up to meet the well-tucked abdomen. The tail is thick at its base and tapers along its great length. When relaxed, it reaches almost to the ground, and is covered with long hair. The fore legs of the Deerhound are quite upright, though should not be straight. The lower limbs are broad, with strong bone structure. The hind limbs have slightly more angulation in the stifle, again with heavy bones. The well-developed musculature of the loin and croup continue into the thighs.

The coat is shaggy, almost unkempt, in appearance. It is thick and lies close to the skin, and is approximately 8–10 cm in length over most of the body. Longer fringes on the backs of the limbs are seen in most dogs. The coat colour varies, and can be one of the following:

  • Blue-Grey
  • Brindle
  • Yellow
  • Sandy-Red
  • Red Fawn

Male Deerhounds are between 76 and 81 cm (30–32 in) tall at the withers, and can weigh between 39 and 50 kg (85–110 lb). Females are usually 71–74 cm (28–29 in) in height, weighing 34–43 kg (75–95 lb).

Character & Temperament

A huge array of positive attributes can be ascribed to the Scottish Deerhound. It is a friendly, loyal, affectionate, cheerful, outgoing dog that believes it exists to befriend everyone it encounters. Unsurprisingly, it is not a good guard dog, although its appearance might be a deterrent for some. It is extremely gentle with children, though it can also be very awkward as a puppy while it struggles to master the use of its rapidly growing limbs.

While most are giddy, even skittish, as adolescents, they grow into very relaxed adults, though this process can take several years in this slow-maturing breed. Like any dog, the Deerhound needs plenty of positive social experiences when young; though they are never aggressive, they can sometimes be shy and nervous without socialisation outside the family circle. Scottish Deerhounds enjoy the company of other large dogs, but anything smaller than a Beagle may run the risk of being mistaken for prey. For the same reason, this may not be a good choice of breed for those with cats or other smaller pets.


Training is challenging with the Deerhound, as most are uninterested in paying attention for the requisite length of time. However, with patience and persistence, most will reluctantly learn the basics of “sit” and “stay”; anything more complicated is likely to be difficult to accomplish. House training can also be a slow process, and crate training is highly recommended – just be sure to buy a big enough crate, as Deerhound pups grow at an astonishing rate!


The Scottish Deerhound suffers from several significant health problems, and anyone considering the purchase of a pup should carefully research the family history before committing to a particular breeder.


This is one of many breeds predisposed to developing cataracts, which are pale crystalline deposits in the eye that can cause significant visual impairment. Can be seen to develop from 2–3 years of age in some dogs, and may be surgically removed if causing problems – though this is an expensive specialist procedure.


Cysteine is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of dietary and bodily proteins, which is normally broken down into simpler components before being excreted. However, some Deerhounds excrete it intact (in fact as pairs of molecules) in their urine, with the result that it can form crystals and stones in the bladder and urethra.

Signs of urinary discomfort ensue, and may be seen in any Deerhound from one year of age. Males are more likely to show symptoms due to the narrower urethra, which is more likely to obstruct.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy

This form of heart disease is prevalent in many giant breeds, and is marked by progressive weakening of the muscular walls of the heart. This weakening allows the four chambers of the heart to dilate, preventing normal function, and causing the signs of weakness and fluid accumulation.

Depending on whether the fluid primarily builds up in the chest or abdomen, coughing or abdominal bloating may be the first noticeable signs. Though medication can be used to manage the symptoms, the condition is a progressive one, and can have quite a short course in some unfortunate individuals.

Gastric Dilatation & Volvulus

Because of the Deerhound’s massively deep chest, it is at risk of developing this condition, commonly known as bloat. The orientation of the stomach is such that it can rotate around its long axis, resulting in a rapid and dramatic build-up of gas and liquid, compressing the large blood vessels of the abdomen, and causing severe shock.

Prompt recognition and immediate veterinary attention are essential to prevent this dramatic disorder from having fatal consequences.

Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy

High fever, bone pain, and lameness are the main features of this condition, which is due to severe inflammation in the ends of the long limb bones in young, rapidly growing pups. Suspected, though not proven, to be a response to vaccination, this can be quite debilitating in the short term, but treatment with anti-inflammatories usually gives rapid relief.


Tumours (cancers) of the limb bones are not uncommon in the breed. These usually occur in older dogs, and are first noticed as lameness. Veterinary examination may localise the pain to one of several common sites: the top of the forearm, the wrist, and either side of the stifle joint.

X-rays reveal signs of mixed bone loss and new bone formation, but definitive diagnosis relies on biopsy. Despite some advances in chemotherapy for osteosarcoma over recent years, the prognosis remains poor, even after amputation of the affected limb.


Another cause of lameness in growing Deerhounds, panosteitis also involves inflammatory bone changes, but is distinct from hypertrophic osteodystrophy in that any elevation in temperature is usually mild, inflammation affects different areas of the bone, and it can persist, in a waxing and waning manner, for several months. Affected dogs will outgrow this problem by 18 months of age at the latest, and respond well to anti-inflammatories when needed.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Deerhounds, though not highly energetic for most of the day, are not indoor dogs, and need a large space in which they can run around for several short spells during the day. They ideally belong in a rural setting where the owner privately owns land in which their dog can roam, for allowing them off-lead exercise in a public space runs the risk of the Deerhound mistaking somebody’s beloved Papillon for a hare, and taking off in pursuit. Apart from these bursts of energy, most of the Deerhound’s activities for the day can be squeezed into the confines of a comfortable sofa!


Coat care is very straightforward, as the wiry hair needs only to be brushed once or twice a week to loosen dirt and distribute oils. Most Deerhounds manage to keep themselves very clean, and bathing is rarely required, unless indicated for a skin disorder. The breed’s large nails do need to be clipped quite regularly, and the clippers should be introduced to puppies from a young age in order for them to be accepted without panic or resistance.

Famous Scottish Deerhounds

The most celebrated member of the Deerhound clan was a female named Hickory, who was the first of the breed to take the coveted Best in Show title, as a five-year-old, at the Westminster Kennel Club Show in 2011.


The Deerhound is a relatively rare breed, and as such, owners rarely choose to allow cross-breeding, though accidents do sometimes happen. In addition to the Old Deerhound Sheepdog (a cross between a Deerhound and an Old English Sheepdog), the breed is occasionally mixed with other large sighthounds, such as Salukis and Greyhounds.

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