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The Irish Wolfhound ( ) is a breed of domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris), specifically a sighthound. The name originates from its purpose (wolf hunting) rather than from its appearance. Irish Wolfhounds are the tallest dog breed on average, though Great Danes can exceed their height.


A female wolfhound
The most distinguishing physical feature of the Irish Wolfhound is its great size. Built like a very muscular greyhound, the Irish wolfhound male can attain the stature of a small pony. Its large, long head tapers to a medium point and is held high. Ears are small and stay close to the head except during moments of intensity. Strong shoulders, a muscular neck, a deep chest and a retracted abdomen give the dog its characteristic body shape. Paws are large and round. The tail is carried between the legs, curving slightly upward. The coat is rough, shaggy, wiry and especially bushy over the eyes and under the jaw. The Irish Wolfhound is graceful with an easy yet powerful gait. Historically these dogs had to not only possess speed but endurance, allowing them to follow their prey and hunt it down. They had to be hardy enough to withstand being injured whilst using their own brute force to bring the prey down. The modern representation of the breed appears to be a dog capable of doing just that. Generally breeders aim for a height range of 85 to 95 centimeters (33 to 36 inches) at the withers in males, 50 to 80 centimeters (30 to 34 inches) for females. Generally acceptable weight 46–70 kg (101–154lbs). The recognized colors are gray, brindle, red, black, pure white, fawn or any other color that appears in the Deerhound.


The Irish Wolfhound has a very peaceful personality and is good with children. An easygoing animal, they are usually quiet by nature. They should not be territorially aggressive to other domestic dogs but are born with specialized skills and it is common for hounds at play to course another dog. This is a specific hunting behaviour, not a fighting or territorial domination behaviour. The Irish Wolfhound is relatively easy to train. They respond well to firm, but gentle, consistent leadership. The Wolfhound of today is far from the one that struck fear into the hearts of the Ancient Romans. It is a wonderful family pet that is good with other large dogs and children. Irish Wolfhounds are often favoured for their loyalty, affection, patience and devotion. Although at some points in history they have been used as watchdogs, unlike some breeds, the Irish Wolfhound is usually unreliable in this role as they are often friendly towards strangers. That said, when protection is required this dog is never found wanting. When they or their family are in any perceived danger they display a fearless nature.


A puppy
Irish Wolfhounds do not live long lives. Published lifespan estimations vary between 5 and 10 years. Dilated cardiomyopathy and bone cancer are the leading cause of death and like all deep-chested dogs, gastric torsion (bloat) is also common; the breed is also affected by hereditary intrahepatic portosystemic shunt.

In a privately funded study conducted under the auspices of the Irish Wolfhound Club of America and based on an owner survey, Irish Wolfhounds in the United States from 1966 to 1986 lived to a mean age of 6.47 and died most frequently of bone cancer.

By the age of 8 months, Irish Wolfhounds appear adult, and many owners start stressing them too much. Outstretched limbs and irreparable damage are the result. Wolfhounds need at least 18 months to be ready for lure coursing, running as a sport, and other strenuous activities.

Wolfhounds should not receive additional supplements when a good dog food is used. It is generally accepted that they should be fed a large breed puppy food until 18 months old and then change to a large breed adult food. Most breeders today recommend that they not be supplemented in order to slow their rapid growth. Wolfhound puppies around 10 weeks old grow about 2 cm a week and put on one pound a day.

Irish Wolfhounds are the tallest of dog breeds so they are well suited to rural life, but their medium energy profile allows them to adjust fairly well to suburban and urban life as well, provided they receive appropriate exercise.


Irish Wolfhound running
The breed is very old; there are suggestions it may have been brought to Ireland around 3500 BC by early settlers, further genetic testing may help clarify a point of origin. These dogs are mentioned, as cú (variously translated as hound, Irish hound, war dog, wolf dog, etc.) in Irish laws, which predate Christianity, and in Irish literature which dates from the 5th century or, in the case of the Sagas, from the old Irish period - AD600-900. The word "Cu" often became an added respected prefix on the names of warriors as well as kings denoting that they were worthy of the respect and loyalty of a Cu. Ancient wood cuts and writings have placed them in existence as a breed by 273 BC. However there is indication that they existed even as early as 600 BC when the Celts sacked Delphi. Survivors left accounts of the fierce Celts and the huge dogs who fought with them and at their side. They were mentioned by Julius Caesar in his treatise, the Gallic Wars, and by 391 BC, they were written about by Roman Consul, Quintus Aurelius, who received seven of them as a gift to be used for fighting lions, bears, that in his words, "all Rome viewed with wonder." Wolfhounds. Bred as war dogs by the ancients, who called them Cú Faoil. The Irish continued to breed them for this purpose, as well as to guard their homes and protect their stock. Regular references of Irish Wolfhounds being used in dog fights are found in many historical sagas—Culain's favourite dog, Luath, was slain by a southern chief's hound, Phorp. Cúchulain, a name which translates literally as "hound of Culain", gained his name when as a child, known then as Setanta, he slew the ferocious guard dog of Culain forcing him to offer himself as a replacement. Only kings and the nobility were allowed to own the great Irish hound, the numbers permitted depending on position. They were much coveted and were frequently given as gifts to important personages and foreign nobles. Like the nobility they served, the hounds were often bejeweled with chains and collars studded with precious gem stones and metals. Wolfhounds were the companions of the regal, and housed themselves alongside them.

Irish Guards mascot in parade dress
While many modern texts state Irish Wolfhounds were used for coursing deer, contemporary pre-revival accounts such as Animated Nature (1796) by Oliver Goldsmith are explicit that the original animal was a very poor coursing dog. Their astonishing size, speed, and intelligence made them ideal animals for both boar hunting and wolf hunting, and many were exported for this purpose. They were perhaps too ideal, as the boar and wolf are now extinct in Irelandmarker. Unlike the Russian Wolfhound (Borzoi), who were bred to keep a wolf at bay until the hunter arrived, the Irish Wolfhounds were bred not only to hunt the wolf down, but to go in for the kill. They killed wolves in the same way a cat kills a rat, by shaking it until its neck snapped. The Irish Wolfhound has been recorded as being exhibited in ancient Rome to some excitement, and mention is made that they so amazed and terrified the Romans that it was seen fit to only transport them in cages. During the English conquest of Ireland, Wolfhounds were trained by the Irish for war, their job was to catch armoured knights on horseback and seperate them from their horses.

The Wolfhound is sometimes regarded as the national dog breed of Ireland but in fact no breed has ever been officially adopted as such. The Wolfhound was historically a dog that only nobles could own and was taken up by the British during their rule in Ireland. This made it unpopular as a national symbol and the Kerry Blue Terrier was adopted by Irish Nationalists such as Michael Collins.


Further reading

  • McBryde, M. (1998). The Magnificent Irish Wolfhound, Ringpress Books, Dorking. ISBN 1860540937, ISBN 978-1860540936.

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