Irish Wolfhound - description of the breed


Irish Wolfhound was originally a war dog – used not exactly in combat but for pulling lighter carts with supplies.  Naturally Wolfhounds were mainly used to hunt game and protect cattle and sheep from animal and human marauders – as well guard homesteads where their imposing stature was often enough to deter any intruder.

Celtic mythology has many a tale about Wolfhound agility and employment for all the above purposes. When hunting game – moose, elk or wolf – a single brace of dogs was sufficient to bring it down quickly as seldom more than two Wolfhounds were needed to do the task. These times of glory however came to an end with introduction of guns and gunpowder which reduced number of Wolfhounds needed for successful hunt.  Along with extensive logging of ancient forests and development of agriculture quickly caused their population to plummet. Soon only remnants of once magnificent and plentiful breed were seen mainly as status symbol of the wealthy and function only as impressive guard dogs on their estates.

Decline in numbers soon has been followed by decline in not only their formidable physique and size but as well general disposition as fierce big game slayer. Sadly yet inevitably the breed faced total extinction. Whatever was left of the population has been further reduced because of their increasing rarity – considered an expensive curiosum, number of exceptionally valuable dogs was given away as esteemed gifts to continental royalty and subsequently lost to breeding on the Isles. Realizing incoming complete obliteration of this proud and ancient breed, Lord Olivier Cromwell forbade exporting IWs in 1652 but their population at best still remained in low numbers. Mid-XIX century has brought a ray of hope for rebuilding Irish Wolfhounds and a chance for their comeback. Key person in this turn of events was Captain George Augustus Graham (1833-1909) who with assistance of his friends and fellow IW fanciers has initiated a very enlighten for their times and practical program to save dying breed. They’ve started by acquiring number of surviving Wolfhounds with best characteristics and started selective breeding targeting qualities these dogs were renowned for – great size, strength, tenacity and strong prey drive making IWs so successful in hunting. Aside from desirable looks just as important to Capt. Graham was typical IW disposition – their intelligence and exceptionally strong bonding with their masters. Certainly due to obviously small number of truly purebred IWs  some out-breeding was necessary using Scottish Greyhounds specifically from ancient and famous Glengarry line, Russian Wolfhounds, Great Danes, Tibetan Mastiffs and Great Pyreneans. Soon – in 1885 – first Irish Wolfhound Club has been established and a year later, proper breed standard issued soon followed by an official recognition of the breed by British Kennel Club in 1897. IWs received an outstanding tribute when Irish Guards created in 1900 chose an IW as their mascot in 1902. Since then every Irish Guards Wolfhound receives army ID number, free travel and veterinary care being considered as military employed.

In Poland IW were known since XV century – times of kings Vladislaus Jagiello and Jan Casimirus - but were not widely popular just yet. We can imagine that these unusual dogs came to our country most likely as cherished and valuable gifts to royal dignitaries and considered too precious to be bred and used for anything but display.  

It took good few centuries to introduce this breed to Poles again: in 1977 first IW litter has been born in “Z Hubertowego Dworu” Reg. Kennel (in area of Walbrzych, Silesia) and started strong following in entire country ever since. Between 1977 and 2012 as many as 240 IW litters have been born and 95 brood dogs were imported from abroad clearly showing Poles have had fallen in love with them.


It has been noted that in matters of maintenance and overall health modern IWs retained gritty stamina and high pain threshold of their ancestors as well as resilience to adverse weather conditions, particularly cold which they withstand better – even enjoy- then hot temperatures. In fact, in summer heat it is recommended to limit their physical activity and schedule daily walks and exercise to very early mornings or late in the evening. Due to their natural ability to withstand cold, IWs do very well kept outdoors in winterized kennels all year long. Sturdy, properly insulated doghouse with plenty of straw for bedding, equipped with generous overhang and deck makes for very comfortable IW housing – in fact, outdoor dogs seem to have better coat and muscle tone then IWs confined in warm quarters at their owners homes. However, kenneled dogs can’t be isolated from their people as this breed must have a lot of interactions and mental stimulation since it thrives on human contact when their lovely disposition simply shines. IWs locked up alone in their pens for long hours would not properly develop mentally or physically – as any social and gregarious breed IWs certainly are. Should an IW live in the house he needs a quiet spot from where they can participate and observe comings and goings in the family yet have a comfortable retreat without being constantly underfoot. IWs by nature are very laidback and enjoy dozing off on their beds for extended periods of time, waking up only for their meals and walks. At that point their transformation is remarkable – placid and composed dog would to start a “happy dance” – jumping up and down, skittering about, wagging long tail and wiggling his enormous body in excitement.

IWs with an access to outside like a yard readily take charge as effective watch and guard dogs, announcing any visitors with their deep, distinct barking. Some of them more then others possess  better developed guarding instinct and employ it in various ways to deter intruders – it could be by blocking access to entrances with their bodies or “showing off” with furious roaring bark and mock charges  -any of this entirely sufficient to make interlopers to change their mind in an instant. Yet still some IWs would restrain themselves to only semi interested glance at newcomers and complete and genteel indifference to the entire situation, performing their guard dog duty exclusively by appearance which many a time is perfectly sufficient to do the job. As I remember my first reaction to real IW – I was scared out of my wits with this huge, hairy and armed with a lot of teeth creature and would not touch it for all the money in the world! But that was then…

Despite their low indoor activity IWs need fair amount of exercise each and every day. This translates into few brisk walks daily with at least one extra for off leash time in safe area for running and playing, preferably with other dogs. IWs are excellent companions for horseback rides but need to be on different trails often – as it has been observed, these dogs memorize each route quickly and get bored; in that instance they would just wait in chosen spot for their master on horseback to complete his ride and pick them up after. This behaviour has nothing to do with the dog being not well or tired – it merely indicated the dog being bored and in need of mental stimulation. A good substitute to horseback excursions are bicycle rides or jogging which encourage IWs natural inclination to chase and pursue. It is important to keep these running sessions to distances no longer then only a few kilometers daily as modern dogs are not as athletic as working lines ages ago. As well only dogs in perfect health and condition, particularly in aspect of cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal systems, can be allowed to run regularly these distances. Others would be better off exercising by playing and running about at will.

Raising an IW is a great pleasure and satisfaction as they love to learn tricks to please their masters, with however one exception – fetching… For best results training to fetch must be initiated early, before 6 months of age when they completely lose any interest in it, seemingly like feeling this is being beneath their rank and a sign of excessive servitude. IW can learn basic obedience and different tricks reasonably quickly and well provided they receive well-timed refreshers and some practice until dog matures and retains firmly what he has been taught.

Wolfhounds travel well and enjoy car, coach or buggy and often boat rides. They can be taken even on a passenger train or other transit vehicle and would remain friendly when people would approach and pet them.

Essentially IW has two different traits in their disposition – first is devotion to his master, second – instinct to chase prey. To control strong prey instinct in IW, a puppy must be trained early in obedience, most importantly in “come back” and “stay” commands. Just as important is consistent introduction and exposure to different stimuli such as strangers of different age and gender, street traffic, noise and smells. Desensitizing him to so many physical experiences and distractions makes for much better behaving dog – better, more trustworthy and enjoyable companion and well-adjusted canine citizen.

Many IW have a special quality very much endearing them to many – their fondness of young children. They seem to feel responsible for their family’s little ones and “babysit” them at every opportunity. I am certain there are many human babies around who’s learned to walk by holding fast with their little fingers to their IW ‘nannies” shaggy fur!

 IWs are also very patient with family pets and many say comprehend more that can be expected from an ordinary dog. It seems they are capable of making connections between events and solve problems better that many other breeds. This peculiar quality gave origin to saying “Irish Wolfhounds are people, too” cited by many fanciers of the breed. Having said that, it is extremely important to keep in mind that IWs remember for life all wrongdoings and hurts experienced in even very young age and it takes a very long – sometimes almost lifetime- to regain their trust, if ever. They are more susceptible to psychological trauma in their youth, during phase of changing milk to permanent teeth – some IWs can regress and suddenly become timid or skittish needing careful and gentle guidance to overcome such setback. It helps a great deal to expose regressed dog to increasingly stronger but invariably positive experiences – even if puppy is shy at first. Regression unfortunately will not resolve on its own if puppy or juvenile is sheltered from any stress as only way to resolve this situation is to ease him back into the world slowly and gently: persistence and time is the key. Good examples of such remedy is taking affected puppy for walks to socialize and observe traffic and people at first without any interactions and initially from a distance or visiting friends known to him in their homes or familiar surroundings, etc.

Contrary to first impression these canine giants with formidable looks often show sensitivity and affection not quite expected in such grand creatures thus making them so much more charming to many then any other dog breed. But despite their delightful disposition one must remember not to anthropomorphize them and respect for what they truly and proudly are – wonderful, majestic animals with great potential to become our trusted and beloved life companions.

IWs - like any other cultured breed - is affected by some congenital and other ailments from which most worrisome is bone cancer (sarcoma) and heart diseases, chiefly cardiomyopathy. Caring owner and/or breeder should check their IWs at 18 months of age for heart function and after that test once a year.

All puppies and adolescents need to have their exercise monitored and not allowed to exert themselves playing or running around as often this is a cause for permanent heart damage or worsening their condition if and when congenital susceptibility is possible. Re-testing for cardio should be absolutely essential when the dog is to be bred.

 IWs in certain blood lines can be also prone to epilepsy (congenital or acquired), osteodystrophy, osteochondrosis,  and Wobbler Syndrom, PRA and retinal dysplasia.  Gastric torsion is noted as immediate threat to life and not unusual in tall breeds such IWs. Thus it is highly recommended twice-a –day feeding, limited watering and resting right after each meal. It have been as well observed in IWs occurrences of liver shunt (congenital abnormality of circulation), FCE (infantile paralysis) and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).

It is worth noting that this breed also presents unique opportunity to DNA research. Using samples of hair follicles or blood cells genetic research has been developed by LUPA, European initiative utilizing canine genome to analyze complex genetic defects in both dogs and humans. As both species suffer from the same or similar ailments such as cardiomyopathy, osteosarcoma or epilepsy, dog breeds can be successful subjects to trace responsible chromosomes and used as adequate models for comparative genetics. These findings will help to decipher and follow connections between specific genes and diseases in dogs and men. Using modern scientific methods of research we can now detect different associations between genes, chromosomes and actual congenital diseases in specific dog breeds. Research by LUPA project brought very interesting results in precise mapping of individual “letters” in DNA double helix. As a result causative mutations were discovered which are responsible for 4 hereditary disorders. Well under way are other advanced studies hopefully allowing us to understand and remedy other complex and potentially crippling ailments in humans as well as in their best canine friends.


Grooming requirements for IW are very modest compared to many other breeds. Good, thorough brushing once or twice a week is sufficient to keep their coat shiny and healthy. In springtime or early summer just before they start shedding their winter coat, hand stripping is recommended, especially for show dogs, as it removes dead and tangled up hair, improves air and  blood circulation. Stripping helps to achieve an elegant silhouette necessary for show dogs, maintains correct rough fur texture and allows skin to “breathe” by removing excess and falling out undercoat.

A Wolfhound used from early age to gentle handling and regular grooming would obligingly cooperate and even very much enjoy all that primping and pampering, some would even be racing to be first in line for their beauty session. Bathing every few months or when soiled is all what’s needed to keep a Wolfhound’s coat in top condition as dogs regularly brushed and stripped would remain naturally fresh and clean without any other interventions. .


Those who are thinking about acquiring a Wolfhound should seriously consider few important aspects of sharing their life with one of these charming dogs. It is very important for prospect owners to realize sheer necessity for appropriately large living space as well as exercise for an IW. This breed does not do well in noisy, rushed environment such as urban settings or cramped quarters often seen in apartment buildings unless can be given enough time and ample access to large park or green area for exercise. Apart from proper location, Wolfhounds need physically active, energetic and able-bodied owner enjoying long walks and runs outdoors with them. This breed needs a lot of sensory stimulation and workouts to really flourish both mentally as physically.

Another issue is cost of puppy or mature IW and subsequent up-keep: food, veterinary bills, accessories and training. IWs need a quantity of wholesome nutrition for their entire lives– premium commercial kibble or home-made food which should contain quality meat, fresh eggs, fruits, vegetables etc. plus some vitamins and mineral supplements for a growing or aging dog. Aside regular expenses for a healthy IW there are costs of disease prevention such as vaccinations as well as possible veterinary interventions which always are a lot more expensive for a large dog. On top of that a price tag for an IW puppy can also be a substantial expense.

IWs age faster that majority of smaller breeds – like all super giant dogs they don’t see their 10th birthday often so one must realize that saying last “good-bye” will come to them sooner. As sad as it is however – as it says in letter from 2009 world renowned and respected owner/breeder of Fleetwind Kennels Reg. Est. 1948, California, U.S.A., Mrs Lois Thomasson – “This surely is a heartbreak breed  but it is well worth to live and lose them then never share a life with an Irish Wolfhound”.


 Barbara Strzałkowska, Prof.dr.hab.Ewa Słota
translated by Margaret Kaminska,Canada