The Irish Wolfhound (Irish: Cú Faoil, Irish pronunciation: [ˈkuː ˈfˠiːlʲ]) is a breed of domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris), specifically a sighthound. The name originates from its purpose (wolf hunting with dogs) rather than from its appearance. The breed was originally developed from war hounds to one used for hunting and guarding. Irish Wolfhounds can be an imposing sight due to their formidable size; they are the tallest of all dog breeds.
The standard of The American Kennel Club describes the breed as "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 a rough-coated, Greyhound-like breed; very muscular, strong though gracefully built; movements easy and active; head and neck carried high, the tail carried with an upward sweep with a slight curve towards the extremity". In actuality, the Irish wolfhound is the tallest of the galloping hounds as well as the tallest of any dog in any of the seven AKC dog groups (sporting, non-sporting, herding, hound, working, terrier, and toy). The average height of an Irish wolfhound should be taller than that of a Great Dane. However, the wolfhound is not to be confused with being the heaviest, as its structure should be similar to that of a Greyhound, or any sight-hound for that matter (examples being whippets and Afghan hounds). The hound should have a very broad and deep chest that tucks up. The colours allowed by the American Kennel Club are "grey, brindle, red, black, pure white, fawn, wheaten and steel grey". The Irish wolfhound was bred for long solitary hunts based solely off of the dog's ability to visualize its landscape and perceive, unlike scent hounds (such as Bloodhounds and Beagles) who rely on scent rather than sight. For this reason, the neck of an Irish wolfhound should be long with the head held high the majority of the time. The Irish wolfhound should also appear to be longer than it is tall. Once used to hunt wolves, an Irish wolfhound’s structure should appear as if it is “fast enough to catch a wolf, and strong enough to kill it”. The American Kennel Club allows "any other color that appears in the Deerhound". The size as specified by the AKC is "Minimum height for mature males: 32 inches, females: 30 inches. Minimum weight: 120lbs for males, 105 lbs for females. It is not rare to see modern day female hounds reaching the minimal height requirements of those of male hounds; most females are well over 30 inches and in most AKC conformation shows a wolfhound’s height is looked at with as much importance as the hound’s head and face structure. Great size, including height of shoulder and proportionate length of body is to be aimed at, and it is desired to firmly establish a breed that shall average (minimum) from 32-34in. in dogs". The height/weight standards in Ireland and England are slightly different.
Unlike many other breeds, Irish wolfhounds have a varied range of personalities and are most often noted for their personal quirks and individualism. An Irish wolfhound however, is rarely mindless, and despite its large size, is rarely found to be destructive in the house or boisterous. This is because the breed is generally introverted, intelligent, and reserved in character. An easygoing animal, Irish Wolfhounds are quiet by nature. Wolfhounds often create a strong bond with their family and can become quite destructive or morose if left alone for long periods of time. An Irish wolfhound is not a guard dog and will protect individuals rather than the house or the owner’s possessions. However independent the wolfhound is, the breed becomes attached to both owners and other dogs they are raised with and is therefore not the most adaptable of breeds. Bred for independence, an Irish wolfhound is not necessarily keen on defending spaces. A wolfhound is most easily described by its historical motto, “gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked”. Despite the need for their own people, Wolfhounds generally are somewhat stand-offish with total strangers. 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 behavior, not a fighting or territorial domination behavior. Most Wolfhounds are very gentle with children. The Irish Wolfhound is relatively easy to train. They respond well to firm, but gentle, consistent leadership. However, historically these dogs were required to work at great distances from their masters and think independently when hunting rather than waiting for detailed commands and this can still be seen in the breed. The Wolfhound of today is far from the one that struck fear into the hearts of the Ancient Romans. Irish Wolfhounds are often favored 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. 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. Author and Irish Wolfhound breeder Linda Glover believes the dogs' close affinity with humans makes them acutely aware and sensitive to ill will or malicious intentions leading to their excelling as a guardian rather than guard dog.
Like many large dog breeds, Irish Wolfhounds have a relatively short lifespan. Published lifespan estimations vary between 6 and 10 years with 7 years being the average. Dilated cardiomyopathy and bone cancer are the leading cause of death and like all deep-chested dogs, gastric torsion (bloat) is common; the breed is 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. A more recent study by the UK Kennel Club puts the average age of death at 7 years. Irish wolfhounds should not receive additional supplements when a good dog food is used. It is generally accepted that they should be fed a low protein adult dog food (19 to 21% protein) from puppyhood onward. Most breeders today recommend that they not be supplemented to slow their rapid growth. Irish wolfhounds are the tallest of all dog breeds, sometimes reaching 7 feet tall on their hind legs. 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. Genetically, the Irish wolfhound as a breed is threatened by a bottleneck related to the over-use of a popular sire.
The breed is very old; there are suggestions it may have been brought to Ireland as early as 7000 BC. These dogs are mentioned, as cú (variously translated as hound, Irish hound, war dog, wolf dog, etc.) in Irish laws and in Irish literature which dates from the 5th century or, in the case of the Sagas, from the old Irish period - AD 600-900. 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.
Pre-19th century Ancient wood cuts and writings have placed them in existence as a breed by 273 BC. However there is indication that huge dogs 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 AD, they were written about by Roman Consul, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who received seven of them, "canes Scotici", as a gift to be used for fighting lions, bears, that in his words, "all Rome viewed with wonder". Wolfhounds were bred as hunting 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. 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.
During the English Conquest of Ireland, only the nobility were allowed to own Irish Wolfhounds, the numbers permitted depending on position. 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 themselves alongside them. King John of England, in about 1210 presented an Irish hound, Gelert to Llewellyn, a prince of Wales. The poet The Hon William Robert Spencer immortalised this hound in a poem. In his Historie of Ireland completed 1571, Blessed Edmund Campion gives a description of the hounds used for hunting the wolves on the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. He says: They (the Irish) are not without wolves and greyhounds to hunt them, bigger of bone and limb than a colt. Due to their popularity overseas many were exported to European royal houses leaving numbers in Ireland depleted. This led to a declaration by Oliver Cromwell himself being published in Kilkenny on 27 April 1652 to ensure that sufficient numbers remained to control the wolf population.