The Irish Wolfhound is a majestic dog breed originally bred to hunt wolves and other large beasts. However, modern Wolfhounds are revered as gentle giants and make excellent companion animals for the right owner. Discover the traits of this unique breed before deciding whether to bring one home.
Origin and History of the Irish Wolfhound
As their name implies, the Irish Wolfhound is a product of the Emerald Isle. In the breed's first incarnation, the Celts used these dogs in warfare to attack Roman riders during battle. These dogs were bred for size, fierceness, and loyalty to their masters, and were said to strike terror into the hearts of any opponent they turned their eyes upon.
In addition to their use in warfare, the Celts also used these enormous dogs as hunters in the field, mainly when pursuing wolves and wild boars. In fact, the pursuit of wolves is what gave the breed their identity and name. They were so adept at hunting their canine ancestors that they literally wiped out wolves in Ireland.
The breed created such fascination they were deemed only fit for royalty, and as such, many of these dogs were exported to other kingdoms as gifts of state. At one point, the breed was depleted to near extinction; they might have disappeared if not for the efforts of one Scotsman, Captain George Augustus Graham.
Captain Graham, lacking a viable breeding population, began breeding some of the remaining Irish Wolfhounds with other dog breeds, such as the Borzoi, Great Dane, and Scottish Deerhound. Gradually, the Irish Wolfhound was repopulated, but they now looked different due to the influence of the breeds used to sustain the population.
As we know them today, Irish Wolfhounds are quite different creatures from those who terrorized the Romans so many centuries ago. Today's Wolfhound is far more likely to be a cherished family companion who loves to accompany their special people on a cross-country hike or the occasional hunt.
Members of this breed are generally very calm and easygoing. They do well with children and are fiercely loyal. Like most members of the Hound Group, Wolfhounds like to chase any moving object. This makes them great ball-players, but may make it challenging to introduce them to cats or other quick animals.
Although not technically the largest dog breed, the Irish Wolfhound does carry the distinction of being the tallest. Male members of the breed typically reach 32 inches tall at the shoulder, and may weigh 120 to 155 pounds, while females are 30 inches tall at the shoulder, weighing 105 to 135 pounds.
Despite being tall, Wolfhounds are very sturdy dogs. They have a build similar to most other hounds, with long legs, a deep chest, narrow waist, and a long tail. This enables them to reach high speeds.
Their coats are medium-length, rough, and extra wiry over the eyes and muzzle. Wolfhounds come in a variety of colors, including black, gray, red, brindle, fawn, and white.
Dogs of this breed are fondly referred to as "gentle giants," and that should tell you something about their character. They are very loving and loyal to their families, but protective around outsiders who haven't been properly introduced. This makes them exceptionally good companions for children. Wolfhounds can do well with other dogs and cats if introduced slowly, though many prefer to be the only dog in the household.
These dogs are incredibly intelligent and can therefore become bored easily. They need plenty of physical and mental stimulation, like training or games. Like most large breeds, Wolfhounds have a very long puppyhood period (up to 18 months), so they can be incredibly boisterous for the early part of their life.
These large dogs require ample living space and adequate exercise. Wolfhound puppies should not be taken on long walks, hikes, or runs until they are done growing to avoid musculoskeletal development issues. Allow puppies to play and rest as they please, but avoid high jumping or repetitive impact stress. Some Wolfhound organizations suggest avoiding even short leash walks until a puppy has reached 9 months old, although training with a leash is recommended before then.
Adults should be exercised regularly. Take your Wolfhound for long walks and allow them to romp around in a large, fenced yard to expend extra energy. If allowed to do so, an Irish Wolfhound will easily become a lazy couch potato, which can have negative effects on their joints and health.
Given their high intelligence, Irish Wolfhounds do very well with training. They learn cues quickly, though some individuals of the breed can be stubborn and may be resistant to commands. Begin training and socializing as early as possible.
Many of this breed's health issues related to their growth cycle. The Wolfhound tends to grow quite rapidly as a pup, giving them the appearance of maturity long before they truly reach that level. For this reason, it is important to treat Irish pups as puppies until they are about 18 months old.
These dogs should be kept on puppy kibble, formulated specifically for large breeds, for the first 18 months of life. This will help assure they receive adequate nutrition to help their framework grow strong, but not allow them to gain weight too rapidly. Excess weight on new bone growth puts too much stress on the joints, leading to problems with arthritis and hip and elbow dysplasia later on. At 18 months, you can begin switching over to an adult diet, but stay with a mix meant for large breeds.
Providing the proper nutrition for your Irish is just one step in giving them the best chance of enjoying good health. Don't let their size fool you -- a puppy that has reached their full height is not necessarily ready for the type of running that is involved in coursing and hunting. Start your pup too soon, and joint damage will surely follow.
In addition to health issues connected to growth, the breed is also prone to some congenital health problems.
- Gastric torsion: Also known as bloat, this condition causes a painful twisting of the stomach. This traps the gastric contents inside, and the situation cannot resolve itself without surgical intervention. A gastropexy or "tacking" of the stomach can help prevent this life-threatening complication and is often recommended for deep-chested dogs like the Wolfhound.
- Dilated cardiomyopathy: This condition is commonly referred to as an enlargement of the heart, caused by overwork; not necessarily a surprise considering the Irish Wolfhound's great size. Once enlarged, the heart is no longer able to pump efficiently, and eventually becomes completely worn out.
- Liver shunt disease: This is a congenital condition where the circulatory system bypasses the liver by way of a blood vessel. Without proper blood filtration, affected dogs usually begin showing signs by 6 months of age. Symptoms can include weight loss, bladder stones, and seizures.
- Bone cancer: Osteosarcoma is prevalent in many large and giant breed dogs like the Irish Wolfhound. These malignant boney tumors form in the soft connective tissues between the bones, weakening them and causing severe pain. Dogs are very stoic and may not show signs of discomfort until the cancer has spread, although one of the first signs is limping.
As with so many giant breeds, the Irish Wolfhound has a relatively short life span, averaging about 6 to 8 years. Of course, there are individuals who defy the odds and live as long as 10 years, but they are in the minority. With proper care, you and increase your Wolfhound's chances of living to a ripe age.
Irish Wolfhounds have a double coat, meaning their coat consists of two layers: a dense undercoat and a wiry, longer top coat. However, unlike most double-coated breeds, Wolfhounds don't have a distinct shedding season. They shed mildly throughout the year and benefit from once or twice weekly brushings to remove any loose hair.
Fun Facts About the Breed
- The Irish Wolfhound is the tallest dog breed in existence.
- The breed neared extinction in the mid-1800s but was revived through breeding efforts. This explains why the modern Irish Wolfhound breed looks so different.
- The breed dates back as far as 1500 B.C.
- Ancestors of modern Irish Wolfhounds were used in battle and reportedly pulled soldiers off horseback or chariots.
- Wolfhounds have served as First Dogs. President John F. Kennedy had one named Wolf, and President Herbert Hoover's Wolfhound's name was Cragwood Padraic, or Patrick I for short.
Where to Buy or Adopt an Irish Wolfhound
If you are looking for an Irish Wolfhound puppy, the Irish Wolfhound Club of America (IWCA) has abundant resources. There, you can access a breeder directory and discover methods to find a reputable breeder. There are distinct clubs for each country, like the Irish Wolfhound Club of Canada, United Kingdom, Switzerland, etc. The AKC Marketplace is also a good resource for available puppies from breeders across the United States. You can expect to pay somewhere between $1,400 and $2,500 for a pure-bred Irish Wolfhound puppy.
Adopting an Irish Wolfhound
If you'd prefer to adopt a Wolfhound, there are several rescue organizations that work solely with this breed.
- IWCA: The club has a Rescue Committee with volunteers all over the U.S. They can advise on available Wolfhounds who are awaiting adoption.
- The Irish Wolfhound Rescue: This group helps place dogs in need of a home.
- Gentle Giants Rescue: This rescue helps find homes for 45 different giant breeds, including the Irish Wolfhound.
The online platform, Petfinder, also allows you to search dogs by breed. If you're looking to adopt a Wolfhound, you can find available dogs in your area or across the county.
Is This Gentle Giant the Right Breed For You?
The Irish Wolfhound is a sweet and calm dog who would make a great companion in the right home. Special care must be taken for Wolfhound puppies due to their large size and rapid growth, so potential owners must be aware of these restrictions. Prompt training and a regular exercise regimen must also be implemented. If you're ready for a huge bundle of love, the Irish Wolfhound might be the perfect breed for you.