In honor of St. Patrick’s Day I thought I’d touch on one of my favorite Irish breeds, and one of the most distinctive and storied canine in all the world. The Irish wolfhound.
There are several other breeds the Irish have created, such as the Irish setter, which I always liked as a child, probably due to reading the Jim Kjelgaard novel “Big Red” and the collection of stories in “The Big Book of Favorite Dog Stories” my great-grandmother gave me when I was nine years old (which had an Irish Setter on the cover).
The Irish wolfhound, however, has always intrigued me. It’s the tallest dog in existence, standing approximately 30 to 34 inches at the shoulder. The wire-haired hound isn’t exactly pretty; you could probably call it ugly and not offend or hear a disagreement except from one of the canine’s owners. That hasn’t always been the case.
Wolfhounds have been given as gifts to royalty since Roman times. In fact, kings and queens of neighboring or opposing nations would present the dogs to each other as a sign of allegience and peace (this could have been a way to try and break the royal coffers, too, as feeding a pack of wolfhounds can’t be inexpensive!).
The poet-philosopher Alexander Pope had several wolfhounds that lived in his home and laid at his feet while writing some of the most influential and often-quoted lines in the English language. Later in life Pope preferred the company of his hounds over friends and secluded himself away with only their company, which doubtlessly spawned the man’s following quote:
“Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends.”
By looking at the history of the Irish wolfhound, you can doubtlessly see why they were so important to people. Their sheer size is comforting for those desiring a guard dog. Not surprisingly, the wolfhounds were used in battle by the Romans as they fought alongside their owners. If you watched the 2000 Russell Crowe movie “Gladiator” you’ll see a wolfhound in an early battle scene (hat tip to director Ridley Scott for the small but authenticating detail).
But mass and ferocity are only two attributes contained in the Irish canine package. Wolfhounds are also long-legged endurance runners and are similar to coursing dogs like greyhounds. While used to guard castles and in battle, the dogs were also used for hunting. Again, their size allowed them to take on prey as dangerous as wolves and their endurance allowed them to chase big game (mainly stag) across the countryside for hours before bringing it down.
Gentle giants, wolfhounds have always, even during the height of their guarding/hunting era, been family companions. An old Irish proverb describes them as: “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.”
If you’re thinking about adding a wolfie to your household, you better be ready for it. One of the giant breeds, it requires special nutritional needs when growing and care must be taken during play and exercise when young so as to not damage joints. And speaking of play and exercise, you better have plenty of room to let the big dog run. As you can imagine, the longest-legged coursing hound on earth requires ample exercise and room in the house!