Throughout history, the Great Hound of Ireland has been a marvel wherever he went. Roman consul Aurelius wrote in 391 AD that “all Rome viewed with wonder” the seven Irish Wolfhounds that had been sent to him as a gift.
And no wonder! The dog’s great size made him fearsome in battle and capable of pursuing the Irish elk, which stood six feet at the shoulder — double the Wolfhound’s height — as well as the wolf, the predator from which the Wolfhound eventually took his name.
Before that, he was known simply as Cu, a Gaelic word that probably meant hound, wolf dog, or war dog. There are many mentions of the great dog in Irish literature over the centuries.
He was used as a war dog, his job being to pull men down from horses or chariots. They were also used for hunting elk, boar, and wolves as well as guarding homes and livestock. The Irish Wolfhound was prized for his ferocity and bravery in battle.
Irish law permitted only kings and nobles to own the Irish Wolfhound, and the number of dogs owned was related to the prestige of the title held. For example, members of the lesser nobility were limited to two Wolfhounds. Irish legends say that folk hero Finn MacCumhaill had 500 Irish Wolfhounds, with his two favorites being Bran and Sceolan, who were of magic birth.
The Irish Wolfhound was a popular gift between rulers and other important people. Often they arrived wearing chains and collars made with silver and gold. A favorite tale is that of the Irish Wolfhound sent to the Prince of Wales, Llewellyn, by England’s King John in 1210. The hound was named Gelert, and Llewellyn loved him more than life itself.
One day, Llewellyn went hunting and charged Gelert with guarding his baby son while he was gone. When he returned, he found the baby’s crib overturned and Gelert covered in blood. Mad with grief, he slew Gelert, but as the faithful dog lay dying, Llewellyn heard the cry of his son. He searched further and found the child, alive, next to the body of a wolf that Gelert had killed. Llewellyn mourned his dog forever after and erected a tomb in Gelert’s honor, which can still be seen in Caernarvon, Wales.
Despite his fame, the Irish Wolfhound’s numbers declined over the years, especially after the elk and the wolf in Ireland were hunted to extinction. Irish Wolfhounds were kept by only a few families as ornamental dogs and rarely saw use in the field.
The breed might have disappeared had it not caught the interest of Major H. D. Richardson. In the mid-1800s, Richardson wrote a book suggesting that the Irish Wolfhound and the Highland Deerhound were the same breed. He began breeding Irish Wolfhounds, basing his breeding program on the Glengarry Deerhounds.
Another advocate of the Irish Wolfhound was a Captain George Augustus Graham, who used Glengarry Deerhounds, Borzoi, and a Tibetan Mastiff to revitalize the Irish Wolfhound breed. He also used Irish Wolfhounds that were crossed with Great Danes, including a Harlequin Great Dane.
Graham founded the Irish Wolfhound Club in 1885 and Kennel Club(UK) recognized the breed in 1925. The first Irish Wolfhound registered with the American Kennel Club was Ailbe in 1897, and the Irish Wolfhound Club of America was founded in 1927. Today, the Irish Wolfhound ranks 77th among the 155 breeds and varieties recognized by the AKC.
The Irish Wolfhound is a very big, rough-coated Hound with proudly carried long, narrow head and small, Greyhound-like ears. His back is quite long, with loins well arched. His coat is rough and hardy on body, legs and head being particularly wiry, and longer over eyes and under-jaw. His coat comes in colours of grey, brindle, red, black, pure white, fawn, or any colour that appears in the Deerhound.
DOG BREED GROUP – Hound.
HEIGHT – General: 2 feet, 8 inches to 2 feet, 11 inches tall at the shoulder
WEIGHT – General: 115 to 180 pounds; Female: Up to 127 pounds
LIFE SPAN – 6 to 8 years
If you’re buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy’s parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been clinically tested for and cleared of a particular condition.
Bloat refers to two conditions. The first is gastric dilatation, where the stomach distends with gas and fluid. The second is volvulus – or torsion, where the distended stomach rotates. The spleen is attached to the wall of the stomach, and therefore rotates with the stomach. If not corrected quickly, the blood supply is cut off and the tissue of the stomach wall will die. Bloat develops suddenly, usually in a healthy active dog and in all circumstances the dog must be taken to the vet quickly.
(Atrial Fibrillation, Dilated Cardiomyopathy)
Irish Wolfhounds have a high prevalence of cardiac dysfunction, some of which is inherited. This is why it is important to test regularly from the age of two, or before being used for breeding. If you are aware of a heart condition before your dog shows symptoms, you are in the best possible position to preserve its quality of life.
The most common abnormality is atrial fibrillation (AF). Not all cases of atrial fibrillation will progress to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), but most will. Most Wolfhounds with DCM will progress to congestive heart failure.
This is a heritable condition in which the thighbone doesn’t fit snugly into the hip-joint. Some dogs show pain and lameness on one or both rear legs, but you may not notice any signs of discomfort in a dog with hip dysplasia. As the dog ages, arthritis can develop. X-ray screening for hip dysplasia is done by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program (PennHIP). Dogs with hip dysplasia should not be bred. If you’re buying a puppy, ask the breeder for proof that the parents have been tested for hip dysplasia and are free of problems. Hip dysplasia is hereditary, but it can be worsened by environmental factors, such as rapid growth from a high-calorie diet or injuries incurred from jumping or falling on slick floors.
This is a heritable condition common to large-breed dogs. It’s thought to be caused by different growth rates of the three bones that make up the dog’s elbow, causing joint laxity. This can lead to painful lameness. Your vet may recommend surgery to correct the problem, or weight management or anti-inflammatory medication to control the pain.
A liver shunt is an abnormal blood flow between the liver and the body. That’s a problem, because the liver is responsible for detoxifying the body, metabolizing nutrients, and eliminating drugs. Signs can include but are not limited to neurobehavioral abnormalities, lack of appetite, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), intermittent gastrointestinal issues, urinary tract problems, drug intolerance, and stunted growth. Signs usually appear before two years of age. Corrective surgery can be helpful in long-term management, as can a special diet.
OSTEOCHONDROSIS DISSECANS (OCD);
This orthopedic condition, caused by improper growth of cartilage in the joints, usually occurs in the elbows, but it has been seen in the shoulders as well. It causes a painful stiffening of the joint, to the point that the dog is unable to bend his elbow. It can be detected in dogs as early as four to nine months of age. Overfeeding of “growth formula” puppy foods or high-protein foods may contribute to its development.
Generally affecting large and giant breeds, osteosarcoma is an aggressive bone cancer. The first sign of osteosarcoma is lameness, but the dog will need x-rays to decide if the cause is cancer. Osteosarcoma is treated aggressively, usually with the amputation of the limb and chemotherapy. With treatment, dogs can live nine months to two years or more. Luckily, dogs adapt well to life on three legs and don’t suffer the same side effects to chemotherapy as humans, such as nausea and hair loss.
PROGRESSIVE RETINAL ATROPHY (PRA);
This is a degenerative eye disorder that eventually causes blindness from the loss of photoreceptors at the back of the eye. PRA is detectable years before the dog shows any signs of blindness. Fortunately, dogs can use their other senses to compensate for blindness, and a blind dog can live a full and happy life. Just don’t make it a habit to move the furniture around. Reputable Irish Wolfhound breeders have their dogs’ eyes certified annually by a veterinary ophthalmologist and do not breed dogs with this disease.
Sighthounds, including Irish Wolfhounds, are sensitive to anesthesia and some other drugs that can lead to the death of the dog if it is administered a regular dose. This sensitivity is probably related to the lower percentage of body fat in this breed than other breeds. A regular dose for a dog the size of the Irish Wolfhound is generally too much for the low-body-fat Irish Wolfhound.