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Wolfhounds

 

Introduction

The Irish wolfhound (Irish: Cu Faoil, pronouced: Ku: fil) is of the breed of dogs known as “sighthounds”.  The name originates from its purpose (wolfhunting) rather than from its appearance.  In the following paragraphs I will try to give a brief summary of this breed but its history is truly an ancient one and is impossible to address it all here.

 

History

As I have previously mentioned the Irish Wolfhound breed is an ancient one.  There are writings that suggest is was brought to Ireland around 3500 BC by early settlers.  These dogs are mentioned as the “Cu” and can be found in Irish laws which predate Christianity, in Irish literature dating 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 Irish warriors and 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 Tectosages and Tolistobogii 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 the Roman Consul, Quintus Aurelius, who received seven of them as a gift to be used for fighting lions and bears, that in his words, “all Rome viewed with wonder.”.  Bred as war dogs by the ancients, who called them Cu 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.  Cuchulain, a name which translates literally as “hound of Culain”, gained his name when as a child, known as Setanta, he slew the ferocious guard dog of Culain forcing him to offer himself as a replacement.

Their astonishing size, speed and intelligence made them ideal animals for both boar and wolf hunting.  They were perhaps too ideal, as the boar and wolf are now extinct in Ireland.  Unlike the Borzoi (Russian wolfhound), 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.  Irish wolfhounds have been recorded as being exhibited in Rome and during the English conquest of Ireland, wolfhounds were trained by the Irish for war.  Their job was to catch armoured knights on horseback and separate them from their horses.

Only kings and nobility were allowed to own the great Irish hound.  They were much coveted and were frequently given as gifts to important personages and foreign nobles.  Wolfhounds were the companions of the regal and were housed alongside them.  King John of England, in about 1210 presented an Irish hound to Llewellyn, a prince of Wales.  Due to their popularity overseas many were exported to European royal houses leaving numbers in Ireland depleted.  This led to a declaration by Cromwell himself being published in Kilkenny on April 27, 1652 to ensure that sufficient numbers remained to control the wolf population.  References to the Irish wolfdog in the 1700s tell of its great size, strength and greyhound shape as well as its scarcity.

The last wolf in Ireland is thought to have been killed at Myshall, Co Carlow in 1786 by a pack of wolfhounds kept by a Mr Watson of Ballydarton.  The remaining hounds in the hands of a few families who were mainly descendants of the old Irish chieftains, were now symbols of status rather than hunters.  They were said to be the last of their breed.

An Englishman, Captain George Augustus Graham is responsible with a few other breeders for reaffirming the dogs existence.  In 1879 he wrote: “It has been ascertained beyond all question that there are few specimens of the breed still left in Ireland and England to be considered Irish wolfhounds, though falling short of the requisite dimension.  This blood is now in my possession.”  Captain Graham devoted his life to ensuring the survival of the Irish wolfdog.  Owing to the small numbers of surviving specimens outcrossing was used in the breeding program.  It is believed that Great Dane, Scottish Deerhound and Mastiff dogs all played their part in Graham’s creation of the dog we currently know.  In 1885 Captain Graham with other breeders founded the Irish Wolfhound Club, and the Breed Standard of Points to establish and agree the ideal to which breeders should aspire.

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 of Ireland.  This made it unpopular as a national symbol and the Kerry Blue Terrier was adopted by Irish Nationalists such as Michael Collins.  However, in recent years, the wolfhounds has been adopted as a symbol by both rugby codes, which are organized on an All-Ireland basis.  The national rugby team are nicknamed the wolfhounds, and the Irish Rugby Football Union, which governs rugby union, changed the name of the country’s “A” national team in that code to the Ireland Wolfhounds in 2010.

 

Appearance

(From the North American Standard of Excellence) “Of great size and commanding appearance, the Irish Wolfhound is remarkable in combining power and swiftness with keen sight.  The largest and tallest of the galloping Hounds, in general type he is rough coated, Greyhound-like breed; very muscular, strong though gracefully built; movements easy and active; head an neck carried high, the tail carried with an upward sweep with a slight curve towards the extremity.  The minimum height and weight of dogs should be 32 inches and 120 pounds; of bitches 30 inches and 105 pounds; these apply to hounds over 18 months of age.  Anything below this should be barred from competition.  Great size, including height at the shoulder and proportionate length of body is the desideratum to be aimed at, and it desired to firmly establish a race that shall average from 32 to 34 inches in dogs, showing the requisite power, activity, courage and symmetry.”

Its head is long with little indentation between the eyes  and tapers to a medium point.  Ears are small and stay close to the head “rosed”, except during moments of intensity.  Their shoulders are strong, necks long but muscular, chest deep with retracted abdomens give the dog it characteristic body shape.  Paws are large and round.  The coat is rough, shaggy, wiry with longer hairs over the eyes and under the jaw.  The Irish wolfhound is graceful and has an easy yet powerful gait.  Historically these dogs had to possess not only speed, but also endurance, allowing them to follow their prey and hunt it down.  They had to be hearty enough to withstand being injured while using their own brute force to bring the prey down.  The recognized colours are gray, brindle, red, black, pure white, wheaton or any other colour that appears in the Deerhound.

 

Temperament

Irish wolhounds are usually an easygoing animal and quite by nature.  They often create a strong bond with their family and can become quite destructive or morose if left for long periods.  Left entirely alone, wolfhounds can annoy the neighbourhood by “singing” at length, loudly and mournfully.  A canine (or feline) friend will be accepted readily as a substitute for your company if your lifestyle necessitates leaving one regularly for lengthier periods.  Your wolfhound needs to be with you, likes to “help” with whatever you are doing and be included in everything and will put up with discomfort or inconvenience to achieve this.  Often known as the “gentle giants”, wolfhounds are very gentle with children and are aware of their size and power.  They are relatively easy to train and respond well to firm, but gentle, consistent leadership.  Today 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 toward strangers, although their size can be a natural deterrent.  However, 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.  The late wolfhound breeder Linda Glover believed that the dogs’ close affinity with humans makes them acutely aware and sensitive to ill will or malicious intentions leading to them excelling as a guardian rather than a guard dog.  From over 24 years experience of being owned by this breed I have to concur.

 

Health

As with most of the giant breeds, Irish wolfhound life spans vary.  Unfortunately, Wolfhounds do not live to a great age though there are exceptions.  I myself met a 15 year old, when in my twenties.  The average age appears to be 8 years, with most of their lifetime spent growing up.  There are some bloodlines that seem to live longer than others, but no difference has been found between dogs and bitches.  I and many other breeders agree that one should not underestimate the effect of too much stress in our wolfhounds’ lives and how it affects their health.  I believe that the constant travel and showing constitute one of the greatest strains and over the past few years have cut back on unnecessary showing.  Once my dogs become “Champions” I semi-retire them and only show occasionally at the Irish Wolfhound Specialties.

The medical conditions faced by the Irish Wolfhound are few but life threatening/changing.  Dilated cardiomyopathy and bone cancer are said to be the leading causes of death.  I would like to take this time to point out that the statistics now show that cancer is actually the cause of death in fifty percent of household pets.  Forty-four percent of people are developing cancer as well.  As cancer has now been acknowledged as the number one cause of death in people,  it becomes obvious how living so closely with us has affected our hounds.  Like all deep-chested dogs, gastric torsion (bloat) is also a concern.  I have had a mix breed in the past who survived this condition but have been fortunate none of my wolfhounds have had this problem.  The breed is also affected by hereditary intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (liver shunt).  There are two schools of thought about the hereditary inclusion but I myself believe it is a rare type of recessive gene that would be difficult to remove from all bloodlines. 

By the age of 8 months, Irish Wolfhounds begin to appear adult, and many owners start stressing them too much.  Outstretched limbs and irreparable damage may result.  Wolfhounds need at least 18 months to 2 years to be ready for lure coursing, running as a sport, and other strenuous activities.

Irish Wolfhounds are one of the tallest of the 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.

I do heart test my dogs around 2 to 3 years of age.  They are then re-certified, yearly.  This procedure is now mandatory in Europe.  An EKG by itself is not by itself sufficient (in my opinion) though the OFA apparently will now accept it.  In my opinion an EKG of the heart in a young wolfhound is alright but as they age it would not hurt having an ECHO to show the heart itself.  Unfortunately these results can only be considered good for approximately a few years and an EKG result is only good for the time it takes to do it.  I’ve had patients who had EKG’s showing normal sinus rhythm go into cardiac arrest an hour later.  Hence the need for an Echocardiogram and even this should be repeated every few years though it is not mandatory in Canada or the USA.  Myself I only do so during the breeding time of my animals.  When no longer being bred I do not subject them to the stresses of being tested.

I would like to take this time to voice a few of my thoughts concerning the unnecessary exposure of our animals to x-rays.  Actually this could also apply to anyone including ourselves.  X-rays are radiation and have become so common to our everyday lives that we have forgotten that they should be used only as diagnostic tools and even then sparingly.  To understand the dangers involved with the use of x-rays I’m providing a link to the American Cancer Society.  I found their article quite easy to understand and informative.  It is time to take a stand and I will no longer bow to the pressure of the public or fellow breeders regarding the need to put a few initials after my Wolfhounds names.  I am fully confidant that all my hounds can measure up to any other dog or bitch out there in regards to the health of their elbows, hips or any other part of the anatomy someone might question, without the use of harmful radiation exposure!!  I would also like to mention that using xrays to determine pregnancy in our dogs or confirm the number of puppies is just not right.  Do you see human pregnant women having xrays?  Even young women are given lead aprons to cover their abdomens to protect their ovaries.  You will not see it because though not a lot of studies have been done those that have been show that real damage it done to the fetus’ and the incidence of cancer is higher in such children.  Our dogs no matter what breed should not be exposed unless there is a life threatening condition!  When checking into having hips done I noticed that the testes of the males were not protected from being radiated and the ovaries of the bitch as well.  Even humans have these organs covered and protected, even we middle aged women.  Recently in fact it has been proven that not providing neck coverage to people by dentists has caused increased cases in thyroid cancer.  Now when x-rayed the dentist (if competent) will provide their patients with neck protections.  So in closing, like everything in life, I leave it up to individuals to make their own choices, as I have.  Please see new update just below.

http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/OtherCarcinogens/MedicalTreatments/radiation-exposure-and-cancer

 

Update:  Well we now have entered the age of digital x-rays and I am glad they are here.  Where they decrease (so claimed) the exposure to radiation is in the amount of time you are exposed.  It takes apparently around 80% less time, therefore 80% less exposure which is great in my opinion.  Does this mean I will run out and now x-ray my pregnant bitches.  Hell no!  That is still not safe for the fetus’.  However, if I can now find a competent vet who will properly protect my dogs/bitches then I just might allow them to x-ray hips/elbows.  Nothing else however because you still accumulate over a lifetime radiation exposure.  Myself I’ve had way too many and am very happy for this digital age.  All I can do as a caring owner/breeder is to continue to protect my dogs and produce healthy wolfhounds for new owners to enjoy as much as I have these many years

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