ABOUT THE IRISH WOLFHOUND:
THE GENTLE GIANT FROM IRELAND
by Marcella Grassi
(taken from Mon Ami – April 2000, issue 3 and subsequent additions)
Any reproduction of the following article is forbidden without prior consent of the author
Decline and Revival
The long history of these giant hounds has been close to its end for several times: keeping in life dogs who need a large quantity of basic proteins isn’t an advantage in any case anywhere. The ancient legendary hound of the Celts was used to chase great ungulates and myth passed down the deeds of this unrelenting wolf hunter.
In the XVII Century, when wolves became extinct in the British Isles, wolf hunting dogs were of no use any more, thus the breeding if an authentic rarity such as an Irish Wolfhound was abandoned in favour of smaller, less demanding dogs which started being reproduced instead. As a consequence the breed very quickly dwindled, and almost reached its extinction.
The breed resuscitation of the giant hound of Ireland and its modern development goes back to the end of the XIX Century, thanks to gentlemen full of passion and personal resources.
Traces of the ancient wolfhound were easily found in sagas, epics and ancient texts; illustrations and portraits from the XVI to the XVIII centuries showed greyoid type of dogs of the most varied kinds, with either brindle coats or one-colour, either rough-haired or smooth-haired, very often described as the last living specimens of Irish Wolfhounds.
To rebuild the old breed, breeders worked on a few specimens still present in the countryside areas, a heterogeneous group of large-sized rough-coated sighthounds that were mated to snatch from extinction both Wolfhounds and Deerhounds.
In order to increase the size and power of this massive Wolfhound, they paired for repruduction Great Danes, Borzois and what were described as the Great Hounds of Tibet Tibetan Mastiffs, that are responsible up to today for the sporadic incurrence of unwanted thick softly-coated dogs. One of the best known breeders in this pioneering phase was Capt. George Augustus Graham, (1833-1909), a Scotsman often pointed at as the resuscitator of the breed, doubtlessly one of the most authoritative experts of the history and myth of the Irish Wolfhound.
Capt. Graham’s personal events coincided with the foundation of the English Kennel Club, with the consequent positive development this fact implied for almost all dog breeds bred in Great Britain. Capt. Graham also contributed to the formation of the first Irish Wolfhound Club of Great Britain and Ireland in 1885 and compiled the first Standard of Points, together with Colonel J. R. Garnier. When in 1884 the first Irish Wolfhound was officially entered in the English Kennel Club Stud Book under the section ‘Foreign Breeds’, the Irish Wolfhound had conquered its full title to purity breeding as we know it today.
A Controversial Start
As happened to almost all breeds known in those times, the official recognition by the English Kennel Club and then by the Irish Kennel Club was soon followed by controversial polemics between supporters and detractors of the breed’s alleged purity. An accurate study of the first dogs registered shows that the hounds’ ancestors entered as Irish Wolfhounds not infrequently could be searched in the Deerhound Stud Book and viceversa.
In order to better define the characteristics of the Irish Wolfhound, Graham published such an accurate Standard that was kept unchanged for one hundred years. The Irish Wolfhound described by Graham in the first years of the Twentieth Century bears no difference from the ideal model we consider today.
The Irish Wolfhound had to be then, and must be today, a giant-sized sighthound, more powerful and massive than a Deerhound, but less so if compared to the Great Dane. The breed must show its affinity to its sighthound ancestry by the smooth flowing of its back line and breast line, by its head long but never too broad, by its ears carried like a rose.
Like any sighthound worth its name, the Irish Wolfhound must be able to move in suppleness, to gallop engaging its back, to trot in long skimming strides, without the excessive extension of a trotter, but with the agile flexible gait due to a well-balanced structure and elongated tonic muscles.
A sweet natured temperament
Despite its giant size, the Irish Wolfhound is perfectly adaptable to town life, as long as its owners are willing to accept any unavoidable inconvenience caused by the presence of a large-sized dog. However, either the Wolfhound spending its life on a soft carpet in a town condominium or its rural counterpart, the Wolfhound living in the countryside, both need long regular walks.
One of the main characteristics of this gentle giant is its sociable tolerant temper. It won’t take long before it recognizes and gets affectionate to all the neighbouring dogs, especially the small-sized ones, but its owner must be careful not to underestimate its temper. Your Irish Wolfhound won’t look for a fight, but it just can’t stand being treated disrespectfully.
Longevity, its Achilles’ heel
Like all large-sized dogs, the Irish Wolfhound is not a very long-lived animal. Its life expectancy usually reaches the age of 8 years old, even though some of them can triumphantly get to the age of 11- 12 years old in excellent health conditions. The most responsible breeders have been making use of advanced reproduction techniques to identify and select the most long-lived bloodlines and possibly to fix their genes in the hope of assessing their existence in relation to longevity. The breeders’ efforts are necessary but certainly not very easily performed, since very old Irish Wolfhounds are far and few between; in addition, a series of pathologies arising in their late mature age, when between 6 – 7 years old, further act as a negative factor reducing their life span. This is the reason why it is fundamental to try and limit as much as possible the expansion of these diseases. In addition, both breeder and owner must consider the relevant contribution to longevity provided by healthy food, exercise and a correct socialization helpful in reducing the dog’s state of stress. My great joy is being successful in bringing up my dogs to healthy old age. And I love their patient care for their puppies and their calm behaviour. After the anxiety for their healthy growth is over, after their show career and reproductive phase is finished, I feel free from the pulse of having to demonstrate how best-of-all beautiful dogs they are: finally, my old dogs are living their just-dog lives! Every extra day spent with them is a small present for me and a small success!
I give to those breeders and veterinarians who want to deepen this topic to read the following researches:
“Lifespan and Causes of Death in the Irish Wolfhound: Medical, Genetical and Ethical Aspects”
Urfer, Silvan; Paperback
Inbreeding and fertility in Irish Wolfhounds in Sweden: 1976 to 2007
Silvan R Urfer
Published: 6 May 2009 Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 2009
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licensee BioMed Central Ltd.
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