Irish Wolfhound

Common Nicknames: Cú Faoil

Origin: Belgium and Ireland

 

The Irish wolfhound was originally a war dog, used to drag men out of chariots or off horseback, but was also used as a hunting hound and as a guard. There are numerous references in Irish mythology to its prowess in all these fields. It was used to hunt the Irish elk and the wolf and was used singly or in pairs rather than in a pack, hence the need for great size. When the last of the wolves in Ireland was killed (the elk had become extinct long before), the breed dwindled and almost died out. The process was not helped by the demand for this magnificent hound around the world. It was given as a gift to kings and princes, but this was eventually stopped by Oliver Cromwell who brought out a law banning its export

In the middle of the Nineteenth century, Capt. George Augustus Graham undertook the resuscitation of the breed, which he did by collecting what he considered to be the last specimens of the breed and breeding them with Deerhounds, Great Danes, and a Borzoi and Tibetan Mastiff in order to regain the size and type of the original hound. It was Capt. Graham who founded the Irish Wolfhound Club in 1885, and a later doyenne of the breed, Mrs. Florence Nagle, who founded the Irish Wolfhound Society in 1981. Club and Society both hold an Open and a Championship show each year, and a Rally.

 

The Irish wolfhound comes in various colours, from cream to black. Wheatens, reds of various shades, and greys from pale silver to slate are included, either with or without brindling. White on tip of tail and feet (and legs) is acceptable, but excess white spotting (blaze or collar) is not.

 

There is also a *colour* in the breed which is considered impermissible, although there is nothing in the Standard that prevents it, and there has been much misinformation about this *colour*, which is blue. In the past, if this colour occurred the affected puppies were put down at birth or as soon after as their colour became obvious. This was because the colour was said to be deleterious - that any affected hounds would be sickly and could not live long, also that they could be deaf and blind. This is a complete misconception. It appears that the colour was believed to stem from the merle gene, which is deleterious (and even lethal) to puppies which inherit it from both parents. However, blue is more properly known as blue dilute and it is a colour paling effect (as its name suggests) which has no known ill effects. Indeed, whole breeds (e.g. the Weimaraner) have blue dilute as part of their colour inheritance. The blue in Greyhounds and Great Danes is also due to this trait. Merle is a dominant genetic trait, while blue dilute is a recessive genetic trait.

 

It also used to be considered that blues were always basically grey, so that their colour would be a slate grey with a bluish tinge to the ears, but this is not the case. Blue dilute can be inherited with any colour. The most obvious sign of this colour is in the eyes, which turn colour later than in other puppies, and to a light colour usually referred to as grape colour. Also, the nose and other areas of normally black pigment can at best only be dark grey and are more often a liver colour. In a litter of seven, we had four blue dilutes (which is what got me researching the whole thing!), whose basic colours ranged from cream through wheaten to red. The cream was very difficult to spot because his black pigmented areas were very dark grey and the only real giveaway was the colour of the eyes. One wheaten puppy was the colour of a Weimaraner; the other two are pictured here. As to health, they were all fit and healthy and lived to a ripe old age, one even living to 14.

 

Temperament & Behaviour

The Irish wolfhound should be, and usually is, sweet natured and friendly. Obviously early socialisation is important in order to allow the puppy to become able to accept any amount of changes in its environment without becoming nervous and jumpy, but basically the temperament should be sound and the breed should be good with people and with other dogs. All the wolfhounds we have had have adored children. However, they are not always good with other animals and that is something that should be borne in mind.

It is important to understand that the Irish wolfhound, like all the Sighthounds, is historically a hunting dog. Dogs are descended from the wolf and all the different breeds have been brought about through selection for desirable characteristics but the different requirements for each breed or type of breed are merely modifications of the natural behaviour of the wolf. Although the Irish wolfhound is nowadays known as “The Gentle Giant” that term has to be put into perspective with their natural instincts. All the wolfhounds I have lived with have been wonderful with people and (especially) children, but most of them have not been “wonderful” with other animals, especially small animals. But that is something that has to be accepted in a Sighthound (or any other hunting breed) and, if it is unacceptable, then another breed should be selected.

Our first wolfhound grew up with kittens and was fine with cats throughout her life, although she would chase them as a game. The next additions to our wolfhound family also grew up with cats but their behaviour towards them in adult-hood differed markedly, and some, although okay with our cats, would chase other cats and, I am sure, would have killed them if caught. And all but one of our hounds considered rabbits natural prey.

The exception was Goldie who appeared to have a strong sense of fair play. When the pack was let out for a run, they would all hurtle off across the fields after rabbits but Goldie would follow slowly in the rear looking for the rabbits that had simply “gone to ground”. When she found one, she would push it with her nose and, if it didn’t move, would then stamp her forefeet on either side of it. If it still stayed where it was, she would go off and look for another one. If it ran she would chase it but never attempt to grab it. When we had a particularly bad bout of myxomatosis in the local rabbit population, she would pick up the sick rabbits and carry them to her bed. She had a very soft mouth and they were completely unharmed. We often found her lying beside the bed with four or five rabbits sitting in it. However, even such an apparently trustworthy hound killed one of our chickens one day, completely out of the blue.

 

Moppet was at the other end of the spectrum. Although having been reared with cats, once she reached fourteen months she became a dedicated cat chaser, and a killer of anything else she could catch. Luckily she did not actually kill a cat, but it was a pretty close shave often enough. Her hunting/killing instinct was so powerful it pretty well ruled her life. She was also an “alpha”, which made life pretty difficult all round as she was intent on being top dog. Her other talent was stealing and that she had down to a fine art. She would steal tins of cat food, puncture both ends, and squeeze the middle so the contents oozed out of the holes. Jars of jam or marmalade would have their lids unscrewed and their contents removed. She could eat a dozen eggs without leaving a trace of shell or white to show that there had ever been any. Although not at all a good specimen of a wolfhound she was always the one to make the catch on a hunting trip, since the other hounds knew better than to try to take what was rightfully hers! I should say here that I have never hunted with the dogs, but when they are allowed to run free (as they should; that’s what they are for) they hunt. That is their natural behaviour. It would probably be a lot more comfortable in this modern age to have wolfhounds without the hunting instinct, but that may well be impossible to achieve.

 

Certainly, though, anyone who cannot accept the possibility of their pet chasing, catching, and probably killing something should not have a wolfhound or any other of the hunting breeds. Even small breeds of dog could be at risk - to a wolfhound intent on the chase, there may not appear to be much difference from a distance between a rabbit and, say, a West Highland White Terrier. This is not to say they are awful dogs; they were bred to hunt. Man produced the hunting breeds (and all the others) for his own ends, so there is no point blaming the dog for how it was modified by Man.

So, not all wolfhounds have strong hunting instincts but many of them do and certainly it would be wrong to expect to be able to run them free amongst livestock as a matter of course. There have been hounds who have been excellent with other animals of all kinds, but they are not the norm. It is important to be aware of this trait in the breed (or any sighthound breed), because they were bred for hunting and killing, after all , and cannot be expected to understand that some animals are okay to hunt but others are not. However, we can train them to behave differently with different animals, just as we can train them to modify other natural instincts and behaviours, although it may not be possible to train some hounds in this way because of their very strong hunting instinct.

If you want to give your hound a chance to chase without actually going after another animal, then try lure coursing, in which hounds are paired and released to chase a lure.

 

There were two wolfhounds, Orla and Finn, who used to herd sheep in Scotland. They were introduced to sheep through sharing the kitchen with a pet lamb and had learned from the start that sheep were family, not prey. Then they had gradually started to participate in the herding until eventually the Border Collie that had done all the herding was retired.

And just to show that wolfhounds can excel at Working Trials, this is Tara (registered name Marhaba of Berryfield) who gained every Working Trial title and frequently trounced top Police dogs, besides astonishing the judges by losing very few points at most Trials. Here Tara is doing the track, at which she was particularly good (although the breed is not usually noted for its scenting ability). Her titles were U.D.Ex, W.D.Ex, T.D.Ex (she scored “excellent” in Utility Dog, Working Dog, and Tracking Dog) .

 

In the working trials there is an event called the square search, where an area is delineated simply by flags at four corners. Objects are dropped in the area and the dog has to find the objects within a certain time while not leaving the designated area, and the handler has to stay outside the area. Tara used to have great fun with this one. She would wander around, sit down and have a scratch, gaze up at the sky, wander around some more, while her handler stood, frustrated but impotent. At almost the last minute, Tara would suddenly be galvanised into action and would race round collecting the articles and taking them to her handler.

 

Article from "The Irish Wolfhound Club & The Irish Wolfhound Society"