Irish Wolfhound History

The Kennel Encyclopædia

by Frank Townend Barton, M.R.C.V.S.

First published 1903

Wolfhound, Irish, The - This variety, referred to in the "Sportsman's Cabinet" (1803) as the Irish greyhound, was for a great many years altogether unheard of in the Kennel Circle, but during recent time, viz., not more than ten years since, has again come to the front, and we now find some really tip-top specimens at the leading shows. Certainly this is a variety mainly controlled by a few kennels, nevertheless the writer believes that the breed has now come to stay; at any rate, he hopes so.

The dog depicted by Reinagle in the "Sportsman's Cabinet" is very similar in type to the present Irish wolfhound, so that there is uncontradictory evidence that a settled type of Irish wolfhound existed over 120 years since, although for centuries prior to this the breed is known to have been in existence. At the date when the "Sportsman's Cabinet" was published, these hounds were apparently uncommon, as denoted by the following paragraph:-

"The dog originally distinguished by this appellation is, in the present age, so rarely seen that it is a matter of doubt whether one of the pure and unmixed breed is to be found, even in the mot remote part of the country from whence, in the first instance, they are supposed to have derived this name."

It is affirmed by the best and most respected authorities that the Danish dog, the Irish greyhound, and the common greyhound of this country, though they appear so different, are but one and same race of dog. The Danish dog is said by Buffon to be a more corpulent Irish greyhound, and that the common greyhound is the Irish greyhound rendered thinner and more fleet by experimental crosses and more delicate by speculative culture; for these three different kinds of dogs, though perfectly distinguishable at first sight, differ no more comparatively from each other than three human natives from Holland, Italy, and France; and by the same mode of argument he justifies the supposition that had the Irish greyhound been a native of France, he would have produced the Danish dog in a colder climate and the common greyhound in a warmer one, and this conjecture, he observes, is absolutely verified by experience, as the Danish dogs are brought to us from the North and the greyhound from the Levant.

Although the engraving depicts a dog similar to the Irish wolfhound, a further description of the breed would appear to be that of the great Dane; in fact, the term "harlequin Dane" is referred to, whilst the coat is a smooth one; but the coat of the dog depicted by Reinagle is not mentioned beyond its colour of sandy-red or pale yellow. In Ireland, wolves were in existence longer than in Scotland, and when these animals ceased to exist in the former country, the wolf-dog's occupation, like that of the Dalmatian, gradually sank into oblivion. That these Irish dogs were imported into Scotland is obvious from the following paragraph, which is a copy of a letter addressed by Deputy Falkland to the Earl of Cork in the year 1623:-

"My Lord, I have lately received letters from My Lord Duke of Buccleugh and others of my noble friends, who have entreated me to send them some greyhound dogs and bitches out of this kingdom, of the largest sort, which, I perceive, they intend to present unto divers princes and other noble persons, and if you can, possibly, let them be white, which is the colour most in request here. Signed 'Falkland'."

Sir William Betham, Ulster King-at-Arms, has stated that his conviction is that the Irish wolf-dog was a gigantic greyhound, not smooth skinned like our greyhounds, but rough and curly-haired. Ray (1697) described the Irish wolf-dog as a "tall, rough greyhound". In a code of Welsh laws, the Irish greyhound is spoken of under the title of "Canis Graius Hibernicus". The Irish wolf-dog has always been described as a tall, rough dog, of the greyhound type, but far stronger, similar to the deerhound, but bigger. With the latter breed it has frequently been crossed, and in all probability to the mutual advantage of wolf and deerhounds. The wolfhound is distinctly a heavier framed dog than the deerhound. The wolfhound as it is is a muscular, gracefully built dog, weighing about 120 lbs. and standing 31 in., as measured at the shoulder. Bitches are usually a few pounds less and not quite as tall as the dogs. These hounds ought to be as tall as possible and big in the frame, but should not lose any symmetry in the general make up of the animal. When standing side by side with the deerhound, the difference in the size of the frame is very pronounced, and this feature must be enhanced, not diminished.

The Irish wolfhound 
 The Irish wolfhound

The head is long, the muzzle long, and the jaws very strong; skull almost flat, and the ears small, carried like those of the greyhound. A long neck (free from loose skin), a deep chest - the greater its depth, the better - a long, strong, well-arched neck, arched strong loins, with belly well drawn-up at the flanks and tail moderately thick and slightly curved are essential points of beauty. Both fore and hind limbs must possess great strength, be large in amount of bone, and end below in strong, compact feet. The hocks must be set low down, and neither too close nor too open. If the former defect, the hound becomes turned out at the toes, and if the latter, shows too much daylight under it. Straightness of limbs cannot be too strongly insisted upon, but unfortunately there are some men who judge dogs at shows which frequently overlook this essential quality, awarding prizes to animals with some of the worst defects of conformation it is possible to have. To the student of anatomy, errors of this kind would be hardly likely to be overlooked. The texture of the hair on the body and limbs should be hard and long, but particularly wiry over the eyes and beneath the jaws. As to colour, brindle is the commonest, but black, grey-brindle, red, fawn, white, and grey are regarded as orthodox, and correct in accordance with the Wolfhound Club's standard. White hounds are certainly very uncommon, but it has always been considered a sign of purity of breed, as may be gleaned from the earlier history of these hounds. The general faults have already been described.

As the occupation of these dogs no longer exists, their sole use is for companionship; therefore it is necessary that one should say a word or two regarding the temperament of the breed. This must be considered good. They are handsome, stately dogs, but inclined to be lazy unless given regular exercise. As the breed is in the hands of a few, puppies are expensive to purchase, and one cannot expect much of quality under twenty guineas, say for a puppy from six to nine months old, or thereabouts. Select a big framed, well-grown, straight-legged dog or bitch, according to the purpose for which it is required. In order to possess an animal sufficiently meritorious, the reader is recommended to apply to a breeder of repute, and the addresses of these doubtless could be obtained through the Secretary of the Kennel Club.

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Because much is said about the wolfhound in the deerhound article in The Kennel Encyclopædia, that article is also given here:

Deerhound, The - This variety of hound has a great deal of the mythical relating to its origin, exactly as in the case of the wolfhound. Apart from this matter, however, the deerhound has been well preserved as a distinct variety all through its history, and a great deal of matter has been written relating to it both in the form of legend and in fact. Scrope, in his "Deerstalking Notes", says: "To determine when the deerhund was first called by that name is not in our power." G.R. Jesse (1858), in his "Researches into the History of the British Dog", refers to the deerhound under the titles of "buckhound" and "staghound", but has nothing to say regarding the origin of the breed, about which there has always been considerable doubt.

Many believe that the deerhound has come from the wolf dog, but the author of the present work does not entertain that theory. In spite of the similarity of the wolfhound and the deerhound, they both possess, in perpetuation, a degree of prepotency in relation to size, and this mainly in the matter of bone. Had the two breeds been intermingled ab initio, this power would not constantly and consistently reassert its activity. If otherwise, one would naturally expect reversions, which, so far as the writer is aware, but seldom occur A Staffordshire antiquary - the Rev. T.W. Sneyd - searching through ancient manuscripts, discovered that (circa 800) "a murder was committed in King Solomon's Hollow, and the culprit was ordered to pay a fine of 200 marks, 100 deerhounds, and 10 hawks."

There is no difficulty in tracing the deerhounds in historical notices for several centuries, and they were for a long time recognised as the grand old watch-dogs of Scotland. Those who have devoted special interest to the literature concerning the breed have been Captain McNeil of Colonsay, E.W. Bell, George Cupples, Mr. G.W. Hickman, and Mr. Hood Wright. Two monographs of importance are the one by Edwin Weston Bell (1892) and the other by George Cupples (1894). It is rather singular that these two monographs devoted to the breed should have appeared within two years of each other.

There are good reasons for believing that deerhounds have always been highly esteemed by the chiefs of the Scottish clans, and used by them in the Highlands for hunting the deer. As recently - approximately - as forty years since, the breed had fallen in numbers, and its revival was mainly due to the efforts of Mr. Hood Wright. The establishment of the Deerhound Club placed the breed upon a sure foundation, and has been the medium of establishing the present type of hound, which, doubtless, so far as conformation is concerned, is now a better dog than ever it has been in its history.

The next question is, "Is the deerhound a popular dog?" To this there can only be one answer, and that is "Yes," but only to a very limited extent. In the ordinary acceptation of the word "popularity", the latter could not apply in the same sense that it would do to such dogs as the fox terrier, Airedale, etc. Its occupation is defunct or practically so. The sporting rifle is responsible for this. The sole use of the breed in Great Britain is for companionship. The reader will ask, "Are they good for this purpose?" Yes, but no better - and not as good - as some other varieties. They are hardy, docile, intelligent, and good coursers when trained for the purpose. As a rule they are perfectly quiet with children; in fact, it is exceptional to find them bad-tempered.

Anyone wishing to breed deerhound should have plenty of space available for exercise, because puppies must, in order to grow properly, be able to extend themselves, otherwise they will grow defects. It is only at the principal shows that these dogs make their appearance, and even then the classification cannot be regarded as a strong one.

Conformation and defects relating thereto are briefly considered at the commencement of the wolfhound article, and most of the statements therein given apply with equal force to deerhounds. The modern improvements that have taken place in the breed are entirely due to selection which is based upon the elimination of faults and the perpetuation of those features which are recognised as orthodox and in conformity with the Deerhound Club standard of points.

If it were not for the large number of specialist clubs, it is reasonable to assume that many varieties of dogs would pass into oblivion, more especially when the animals are no longer required to perform some particular service to man. It is this spirit of enthusiasm amongst British fanciers which has kept the nation ahead of any other, not only as regards the dog, but every other form of livestock, either in connection with rural husbandry, or else purely from a fancier's standpoint. This, however, has no bearing upon the deerhound, the points of which we will now consider.

In colour they are commonly brindle - either light or dark - but some are fawn; in fact, in the olden days the light fawn coloured dog was the most popular one, as it could be much easier seen on the hillside than the darker coloured dog. Blue brindle, grey brindle, fawn brindle, and red brindle are the prevailing colours, the brindles being, as stated elsewhere, the most popular. White specimens have been seen, but such are not favourable, as it seems quite probable that this is due to the influence of the Russian wolfhound. The coat should be long and wiry in texture, and the texture of the hair on the limbs should correspond to that on the body. It may be either flat or slightly shaggy, but the dog must possess an abundance of coat. Some deerhounds are deficient in this quality. The hair should be from 3 to 4 in. in length. Bitches are usually lighter in weight than dogs, which latter ought to weigh from 95 to 105 lbs., or thereabouts; and stand not less than from 28 to 30 in. in height as measured at the shoulder. The weight of bitches ranges from 65 to 80 lbs. The head ought to be long, rather flat on the skull, with small, semi-erect ears, thin in texture, and covered by fine, soft hair. In giving a detailed description of the deerhound, mention must be made of the carriage of the stern, which should hang down a little below the hocks and have a slight curve towards its point; it must never curl over the back. The chest should be deep and gradually fall away to the loins, which latter must be strong and slightly arched, pass into long and strong well-muscled first and second thighs; and these in their turn must end below in compact feet in which the toes are well arched and the claws strong. Many deerhounds are very defective in the hind-quarters, especially from the points of the hocks to the toes. In the forequarters the shoulders must be long, of good slope, well muscled, but not overloaded; a coarse-shouldered dog will never be a good one. Neck long, gracefully arched, and covered by an abundance of coat. Straightness of forelimbs, with plenty of bone in them; compactness of feet are other qualifications requisite in this breed. It is in the regions of the pasterns, both before and behind, in the loins, in the depth of chest, and in the weakness of the muscle, where defects are most commonly found. Some deerhounds have a little white about them, usually on the chest or feet, though there can be no doubt they are better without any white hair at all. A blaze on the head, or a white collar, is looked upon with great disfavour by the cognoscenti. must be long, of good slope, well muscled, but not overloaded; a coarse-shouldered dog will never be a good one.

 Scottish deerhound
 The Scottish deerhound

As long as there is a club to watch over the interests of the breed, it is reasonable to assume that the present standard will be maintained, and the question is, "Can the deerhound be improved any more than what has already been done?" We think it can, in the matter of remedying or trying to remedy the prevalence of cow-hocks and splay-feet - the bugbear of the breed, but by no means confined to it. If breeders will always bear in mind the hereditary nature of such defects, much more may be done for the deerhound of future generations.

Supposing that the reader is anxious to establish a kennel of deerhounds, he should proceed by writing to two or three breeders of repute, fix up an appointment, view the dogs in the kennels, and select a bitch at nine or ten months old from each kennel, so that he will, when he starts mating his animals, have different strains as the nucleus for future breeding operations. It is very much better to follow this plan than to buy from one kennel only. Before, however, starting a kennel, visit some of the principal shows where there is a class or classes for deerhounds, and take particular note of the movement of these animals whilst they are in the ring and, if possible, see the dogs at exercise. In this manner various kinds of weaknesses will be observed which a little practical knowledge will render discernible. If, however, a fancier contemplates making money out of his dogs, the writer does not feel justified in recommending him to take up a breed of this kind. As a hobby, a kennel of deerhounds should be a source of pleasure, but from a financial standpoint there is not much in it.

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