by   David Hancock

For as much as we are credibly informed that wolves do much increase, and that some of the enemy’s party, who have laid down arms and have liberty to go beyond sea, and others, do attempt to carry away several such great dogs as are commonly called wolf-dogs, whereby the breed of them, which is useful for the destroying of wolves, would if not prevented speedily decay. These are, therefore, to prohibit all persons from exporting any of the said dogs out of this kingdom, and searchers and other officers of the Customs in the several ports and creeks of this dominion are strictly required to seize and make stop of all such dogs, and deliver them either to the common huntsman  appointed for the precinct where they are seized upon, or to the governor of the said precinct.” 

Dated at Kilkenny, 27th April, 1652.

Huge shaggy-coated hunting dogs were used by the Celts in their central European homeland in the eight century BC and these accompanied them on their migrations to Britain, Ireland and Northern Spain from the fifth to the first century BC. In his The Gentleman's Recreation of 1675, Nicholas Cox wrote: "Although we have no wolves in England at the present, yet it is certain that heretofore we had routs of them, as they have to this very day in Ireland; and in that country are bred a race of greyhounds which are commonly called wolfdogs, which are strong, fleet and bear a natural enmity to the wolf. Now in these greyhounds of that nation there is an incredible force and boldness..." Behind the Irish Wolfhound there are at least three distinct types: Just over one hundred years ago, Fitzinger identified "...The Irish Greyhound, next to the Indian and Russian Greyhound, is the largest specimen of the greyhound type, combining the speed of the Greyhound with the size of the Mastiff. The second type is the Irish coursing dog, a cross between the Irish Greyhound and the Mastiff or bandogge. He is shorter in the neck, with a coarser skull, broader chest and heavily flewed lips. " The third variety he described as a cross between the Irish Greyhound and the shepherd dog, being low on the leg and having a shaggy coat. The latter sounds like a shepherd's mastiff or native flock guardian, a bigger version of the Irish Beardie or hirsel.

In his Animated Nature of 1770, Goldsmith wrote: “The last variety, and the most wonderful of all that I shall mention is the great Irish wolfdog…is bred up in the houses of the great, or such gentlemen as choose to keep him as a curiosity, being neither good for hunting the hare, the fox, nor the stag…The largest of those I have seen…was made extremely like a greyhound, but rather more robust…his nature seemed heavy and phlegmatic. This I ascribe to his having been bred up to a size beyond his nature…The greatest pains have been taken with these to enlarge the breed, both by food and matching. This end was effectually obtained, indeed, for the size was enormous; but, as it seemed to me, at the expense of the animal’s fierceness, vigilance and sagacity.” Three and a half centuries later, we are surely wise enough, and better scientifically advised, not to repeat Goldsmith’s concerns. Breeding giant dogs demands knowledge and skill.

European man has long utilized huge white rough-haired dogs in their age-old campaign to protect their livestock from wolf attacks, as the Pyrenean flock guarding breeds illustrate. There are a number of depictions of such big white wolfhounds in antique art, in the work of Oudry, Desportes and Snyders, for example. It is rare nowadays to see a pure white Irish Wolfhound however, despite this coat colour actually being permitted in the breed standard. In 1585, the Lord Deputy Perrott sent to Lord Walsingham ‘a brace of good wolfdogs, one black and one white’. In 1623, the Duke of Buckingham asked the Earl of Cork for some white ones, claiming that this colour was the most in favour when given as presents to monarchs. Wholly white dogs can feature accompanying problems, such as albinism, deafness and sometimes eye complaints too. The pied colouration was shown in Lord Altamont’s Irish ‘wolfdogs’ of the late 18th century but like pure black, has perhaps been overwhelmed by the main coat colours: grey brindle, red, fawn, wheaten and steel grey. Perhaps the Deerhound, Great Dane and Tibetan Mastiff infusions have dwarfed those from the Greyhound and the Borzoi. ‘Irish spotting’ or white feet and throat on a solid colour is frowned on in this breed, whatever the merits of the carrier. A wide-ranging coat colour presentation in a breed must always be healthier than a restrictive one. Pure white Deerhounds are no longer wanted despite their featuring in Victorian paintings. Huge pure white flock guarding breeds are welcomed by kennel clubs, featuring from Poland and Hungary in the north to Italy and Greece in the south.

In 1840, Colonel Hamilton Smith wrote, in his Naturalists’ Library: “Of the specimens we have seen, and the figures published of the Irish wolfdogs, no two appear to be exactly alike in structure and colour, so that mastiff, staghound, and bloodhound, may have been crossed with the ancient species. This dog is the largest in Western Europe.” This is unsurprising; the Mastiff of England was recreated in that same century using far more mixed blood. Lord Altamont wrote to the Linnaean Society in 1800 to state that: "There were formerly in Ireland two kinds of wolfdogs - the greyhound and the mastiff. Till within these two years I was possessed of both kinds, perfectly distinct, and easily known from each other. The heads were not so sharp in the latter as the former; but there seemed a great similarity in temper and disposition, both being harmless and indolent." He stated that the painting held by the Society was of the mastiff wolfdog; it was 28 inches at the shoulder.

The Countess of Blessington in Ireland was presented with a giant Suliot Dog by the King of Naples. Lady Blessington was one of the Powers of Kilfane, who at one time were the only people who patronised the Irish Wolfhound. Suliot Dogs came from Epirus in Greece, location of the Molossian people, and were giant hounds, used as outpost sentries in the Austrian Army and as 'parade dogs' or mascots of German regiments. They were used to give added stature to German boarhounds (the hunting dogs being nearer to 26 inches at the shoulder than the 30 inches minimum of today's Great Danes). Lady Blessington's Suliot Dog is likely to have been used as a sire at Kilfane. This dog was the subject used by Landseer in his ‘Waiting for the Countess’ sketch.

The Irish Wolfhound was all but lost to us in the latter half of the 19th century. Then, in 1863, an Englishman, Captain George Augustus Graham, a Deerhound breeder, noted that some of his stock threw back to the larger type of Irish Wolfhound. He obtained dogs of the Kilfane and Ballytobin strains, the only suitable blood available in Ireland at that time. He then interbred these with Glengarry Deerhounds, which had Irish Wolfhound blood in their own ancestry. In due course he produced and then stabilised the type of Irish Wolfhound which he believed to be historically correct. Outcrossing continued, with Capt Graham using the blood of a 'great dog of Tibet', called Wolf, bought from a livestock dealer and of uncertain parentage, which was used at stud to Champion Sheelagh’s daughter Tara. The resultant progeny, Nookoo and Vandal, can be found in the pedigree of every modern Irish Wolfhound. Then, between 1885 and 1900, seven Great Dane crosses were conducted, and Borzoi blood used several times in the 1890s. In his The Twentieth Century Dog of 1904, Compton wrote that Graham obtained bitches from Power of Kilfane, Baker of Ballytobin and Mahoney of Dromore, adding “…from a cross between the deerhound and the Great Dane, with a dash of borzoi blood (the noted Karotai), and an outcross with a huge shaggy dog, stated to be a Thibetan mastiff (though I doubt the description being correct, having seen a photograph of the dog in question), the modern breed has been literally built up.”  This is of course how all hounds were once bred, good dog to good dog, irrespective of breed titles. Closed gene pools are a modern phenomenon.

In her The Irish Wolfhound of 1928, Phyllis Gardner wrote: “About two or three generations of hounds after Graham’s experiments, Mr IW Everett obtained a cross of a golden brindle Great Dane dog and a blue deerhound bitch. They had a bitch puppy whom he named ‘FELIXSTOWE SHEELAH’, and he mated her with the best Irish Wolfhounds he could find at the time. She had some puppies by a hound called KENMARE…KENMARE’S dam also had some Dane blood. The Dane type occasionally crops out a little even now in some lines, though the most recent infusion of Dane blood is by now at least eight generations into the background, and was never bred in to as the borzoi and Tibetan crosses were. But of course there were several different infusions of Dane, as against only one of these other breeds.” You can occasionally spot this 'Dane-blood' sometimes in show ring exhibits today.

Graham himself, writing in Vero Shaw’s The Illustrated Book of the Dog of 1879-81, gave this view: “That we have in the Deerhound the modern representative of the old Irish Wolfdog is patent. Of less stature, less robust, and of slimmer form, the main characteristics of the breed remain; and in very exceptional instances specimens occur which throw back to and resemble in a marked manner the old stock from which they have sprung. It is not probable that our remote ancestors arrived at any very high standard as to quality or looks. Strength, stature, and fleetness were the points most carefully cultivated – at any rate, as regards those breeds used in the capture of large and fierce game. It is somewhat remarkable that whilst we have accounts of all the noticeable breeds from a remote period, including the Irish Wolfdog, we do not find any allusion to the Deerhound, save in the writings of a comparatively recent date, which would in a measure justify us in supposing that the Deerhound is the modern representative of that superb animal.”

Graham wrote similarly in The Kennel Encyclopaedia of 1908, Volume 2, and without enlarging on what he meant by ‘comparatively recent date’, it is hard to think that such a knowledgeable a man was so unfamiliar with Deerhound references of the 17th and early 18th centuries. But the loose nomenclature used by writers in past centuries to refer to types of hounds used on deer and wolf is very confusing for even the most diligent researcher. But in a critique on the Irish Wolfhounds shown at the Birmingham Dog Show of November 30, December 2, 3 and 4 by the judge, Arthur Maxwell, as reported in The Kennel Gazette of  December, 1889 it was stated: “Surely Captain Graham, with all your experience, is it not high time you gave up breeding (or at least exhibiting) such things as these? I at least cannot say anything in their favour, so I must leave it in your hands to sing their praise.” Sounds like an advocate of pure-breeding at work here!

In his book Dogs since 1900, published by Dakers in 1950, Croxton Smith wrote: “…at the beginning of this century Mr IW Everett, whose Felixstowe Irish Wolfhounds obtained a dominant influence for many years, resorted to a cross with a brindle Great Dane. This alien blood was apparent for some time in the flatter skulls of the Felixstowe Wolfhounds, but it disappeared, and for a long time now the breed has been kept in its purity.” I have talked to Irish Wolfhound breeders of the present time who are still very anxious to avoid shaggier coats and the flatter skull because of this background to the breed. Those words of Croxton Smith about purity very much typify twentieth century thinking about recognized breeds of dog, often placing purity ahead of soundness and health. In the 21st century slowly but surely attitudes are changing, so that coefficients of inbreeding and genetic health are to the fore. Fitness for function is becoming fashionable once more!

Against that background, it is surely important for us to respect past function, which bequeathed us the wolfhound breeds, and breed to reflect that heritage. Russian Wolfhounds bred purely for beauty of form and Irish Wolfhounds bred mainly for shoulder height shows little respect for their distinguished past service to man and little regard for historical honesty. It is sad to read, in show critiques on Irish Wolfhounds, such judges's comments as these: "I was very shocked at the terrible soft condition of some of the hounds..."  "Movement should be a cause for concern, both for breeders and owners...Many hounds lacked strength and muscle particularly in hindquarters..."  "...the most prevalent fault in the entry was deviation from true in front action." And why do Irish Wolfhounds need legs like tree-trunks when Russian ones do not?

It is worth noting that in 1926 176 Irish Wolfhounds were registered with the KC; in 1980 it was 794, 601 in 2000 and down to 352 in 2010, then 256 in 2016. For a comparable breed, like the Great Dane, the figures contrast: between the two World Wars 86 quality Great Danes were imported into Britain to improve stock; in 1950 540 were registered with the KC, in 1970 it rose to 2174 then in 2010 it fell to 1,429, then 909 in 2016. In the 1950s, Irish Wolfhound registrations went into a trough: 33 in 1952 and only 13 in 1954. The breed may have recovered from the dire days of the fifties, but does it have the ‘essential greyhound’ or sighthound characteristics to restore type and favour? A judge’s critique in 2010 read: “I last judged them at the Society’s show in 2007 and many of the same failings are still in evidence and the breed is certainly not going through a purple patch at the moment. Once again it was rare to find ‘great size and commanding appearance’ and I tried where possible to go for the shapely sighthound look plus substance, movement and temperament, but it wasn’t that easy to find all of those attributes in the same animal.”

The judge of Irish Wolfhounds at the Crystal Palace show of 1890, made some interesting observations on the breed, which are still of value to the breeders of today: “In conclusion I may perhaps be allowed to draw the attention of Irish Wolfhound breeders to a few points of practical importance. Size, and the power which usually accompanies it, is everything in this breed, for without it its existence would be unmeaning, and a really good muscular deerhound would not only possess all the principal characteristics, but also be in appearance , power, speed and utility, in every respect superior to a wolfhound of no greater size; for the comparative power of a dog of pure greyhound type exceeds that of every other breed, surpassing even that of the wolf itself. Size, however, has in a great measure been obtained, but the breed is still, I think, deficient in character. The Irish wolfhound was, before everything, a greyhound, and it was the great nervous power and muscular energy peculiar to the greyhound which, with its size and the stately beauty also peculiar to the greyhound, made it of such remarkable value all over Europe both for ornament and for the destruction and capture of swift and powerful wild animals. Without the essential greyhound characteristics the breed is of little practical utility now, neither can it have the symmetry of form which accompanies those characteristics. Wanting these, it has no quality calculated to bring it into public favour which is not possessed in an equal or superior degree by other large breeds.” Those last few words make a point about essential breed type in the Irish Wolfhound.

In his wide-ranging book How to Breed Dogs of 1947, the American vet and experienced dog breeder, Leon F Whitney, wrote: “…suppose you are a breeder of Irish Wolfhounds. You have been breeding within your own strain now for twenty years. You have tried all methods of feeding and have never been able to produce a dog weighing over 146 pounds. You would breed to dogs belonging to another breeder whose dogs get to weigh 190 pounds, and size is what you really desire, but your dogs have been of such fine quality with the exception of size, that you intensely dislike breaking your charm and going outside to breed. But how else can you get greater size in your strain? That strain is to you what a pure line is to the geneticist to all intents and purposes. You have come up against a barrier…if you are wise you will breed to some giant dog outside of your own strain, and be sure that this dog comes from a strain the members of which are all very large.” It is vital to keep in mind however that unsoundness is much more apparent in huge dogs than small ones. Size, for its own sake, is no substitute for quality in the bigger breeds. Selecting the soundest breeding stock, wherever from, will always be paramount.   

When attending World Dog Shows in places like Helsinki and Vienna, I do see some outstanding Irish Wolfhounds. In Slovakia, for example, Petra Tomasovicova has some excellent stock, with her dog Champion Absolut Roan Inish Tullamore Good Stuff rightly winning well, becoming an international champion of champions. Just as the importation of quality Great Danes between the wars set up that breed here for half a century, do we now need an infusion of blood from overseas to resuscitate this superb breed here? Or would this just recycle old genes? At last both in Britain and in Ireland we are taking more interest in the future of our native breeds. Perhaps this new emphasis will inspire Irish Wolfhound breeders to greater heights. It would be such a joy to witness that.

In North America, Dr Urfer has conducted studies into the genotype of this breed and concluded that it is extremely inbred. (According to Professors Ostrander and Kruglyak of the Cancer Research Center in Seattle, the modern breed of Irish Wolfhound probably arose from just six animals.) Dogs born after 1980 were found to have a significant decrease in mean lifespan compared to those born in the 1960s. Dr Urfer found four distinct genetic bottlenecks in the breed that need to be remedied. It would be so uplifting if that remedial work could be launched in the British Isles, with out crossing to other breeds not ruled out by unsupportive kennel clubs. In the end it is this outstanding breed that has to survive not its show fanciers. To be fair, the three breed clubs in the UK have formed a Health Group to look at inherited defects, including the shortening lifespan, and I commend them for this. The blood of competent hounds still used in the hunting field could provide out-cross material.

A judge’s critique on the entry at the Kennel Club’s 34th show, at the Agricultural Hall, in April, 1890, read: “The Irish Wolfhounds, judging from the classes, have made a decided advance in point of character, and show distinct type of their own. The Great Dane or Deerhound types are disappearing, and the mongrel element was entirely absent in the exhibits. I may here state that this breed of dogs is very much enquired after for their original use – wolf and coyote hunting in different parts of North America and Canada, especially in the Rocky Mountains.” In North America they still use what they call 'staghounds' on a wide variety of prey, as do the Australian hunters on kangaroo; the Irish Wolfhound type is still being used in the hunting field and the successful American and Australian hounds should be looked at by all those wishing to see this ancient distinguished breed prosper as a functional animal.