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The Irish Wolfhound, its history, form and function


The following is possibly one of the earliest known breed standards, dating as it does from the middle of the second century AD. This is from the Cynegeticus of Flavius Arrianus, usually known as Arrian although he liked to style himself "The Younger Xenophon". He was a native of Nicomedia in Bythinia (Asia Minor) and was a keen huntsman.

"There is nothing more beautiful to see, whether their eyes or their whole body, or their coat and colour. In those that are pied there is a wonderful variegation and the whole coloured ones are no less pleasing to the sight." He says they may be rough or smooth haired and the larger the better. "A good Celt should be long, length being regarded as indicative of speed and good breeding, and should possess wide, supple hips and shoulders, broad loins and firm, sweeping haunches. The legs, of which the hind pair should be the longer, are required to be straight and well knit, the ribs strong, the back wide and firm without being fat, the belly well drawn up, the thighs hollow, the tail narrow, hairy, long and flexible, with thicker hair at the tip; the feet round and strong and the eyes large and clear and strikingly bright. Flame coloured eyes are best, next to these dark; light eyes come last, yet a good dog may have light eyes. A light, well set on head is considered the hallmark of particular excellence but such a feature is by no means regarded as essential and a hound may have a head of any shape always provided it is not heavy, or with a broad muzzle, or with a hanging dewlap. A hound may have soft ears, that look as if they have been broken, or prick ears and still be a good hound to hunt. A good Celt should have a prominent brow (This is the only point on which this ancient standard differs from our own. We certainly do not want a prominent brow. However, we do like prominent eyebrows, so maybe this is what he meant) and a proud look, should not be afraid of people or of noise, should never stand still once it has been slipped, and should come back to the hunter without a call."

He strongly recommends that these hounds, particularly the males, should not be used for coursing until they are nearly two years old, presumably because of their size.

Although the following is not really germane to the physical standard, I thought I would include it to show how little the temperament of these hounds has altered, if at all. This is what Arrian has to say of his own hounds: "She is willing and spirited, swift and neat on her feet so that, when she was in her prime, she was able to take four hares in succession singlehanded. For the rest she is most gentle (she is with me still as I write these words) and most affectionate. I never had a dog so fond of me and of Megillus, who is my companion in hunting. She is so conversational that, whatever she wants, she will ask for it with her voice; and even if she has done nothing wrong, if you mention the whip she jumps up and clings about your neck until you cease from your anger. Her name is Horme (which means Spring)." Horme was blue-grey in colour and Arrian had reared her himself from a pup. He also says that: "Nothing is as helpful as a soft, warm bed. It is best of all if they can sleep with a person because it makes them more human and because they rejoice in the company of human beings. Also, if they have had a restless night or been internally upset, you will know of it and not use them to hunt the next day.

Another old approximation of a standard comes from MacNeill of Colonsay's article in Scrope's 'Art of Deerstalking'. This applies to both the Irish and Scottish hounds of antiquity:

"An eye of sloe with ear not low,
With horse's breast and depth of chest,
With breadth of loin and curve in groin,
And nape set far behind the head,
Such were the hounds that Fingal bred."


This was a somewhat free translation, to make it rhyme in English. The true translation is as follows:

"An eye of sloe and ear like a leaf,
With horse's breast and depth of chest,
With breadth of loin and thigh like a sickle,
And nape set far behind the head,
Such were the hounds that Fingal bred."

These two old 'standards' show how little the basic requirements of a good Wolfhound have changed over the centuries and the following quotation from the Saga of Burnt Njal (970-1014) shows how little the character of the dog has changed:

"I will give thee a dog which I got in Ireland. He is huge of limb and for a follower equal to an able man. Moreover he hath man's wit and will bark at thine enemies but never at thy friends. And he will see by each man's face whether he be ill or well disposed towards thee. And he will lay down his life for thee."


Some Dates & Quotes

From c. 600 BC — Colonization of British Isles by Goidelic Celts. (Ancestors of the Scots,  Irish and Manx).

From c. 400 BC — Colonization of British Isles by Brythonic Celts. (Ancestors of Welsh,    Cornish and Bretons).

63-21 BC — Strabo writes that "Britain produces corn, cattle, gold, silver and iron, together with skins, slaves and dogs of a superior breed for the chase. The Gauls used      these dogs in war."

19-9 BC — Grattius writes that "Whoever possesses a British hound will have made an        investment much more valuable than the money he spent on it."

43 AD — Coin struck for King Cunobelin (Latin version, Cunobelinus), which depicts the Goddess Epona riding a gigantic hound. Cunobelin reflects Celtic custom of husing 'Hound' (Cu) as part of a proper name. Cunobelin=Hound of the God Bel. This was the year of Cunobelin's death and also the date of the invasion of Britain by Aulus Plautius with four Legions and thousands of mercenary auxiliaries, sent by the Emperor Claudius.

c. 50 AD — Sons of Uisnech flee from Ulster to Scotland taking 150 hounds with them.

Mid-2nd Century AD — Arrian writes of the Celtic hounds.

283-284 AD — Olympius Nemesianus, who was probably African, wrote "Britain, divided from their continent by seas, sent the fleetest hounds, the best the wide world over for the chase."

4th Century AD — Symmachus, who was a Roman Consul, thanks his brother for "...the present you have made me of 7 Scottish dogs. They were shown at the games in the circu to the great astonishment of the people, who could not believe that dogs of such ferocity could have been brought to Rome except in iron cages, like lions and tigers."

Before the end of the Roman occupation, there was a special official, stationed at Winchester, called the Procurator Cynegii, whose duty it was to oversee the collection of Celtic hounds and their export to Rome. Well-known Roman saying:- "The best things about the British are their dogs."

c. 800 AD — Pictish huntress with hounds portrayed coursing deer at the Hilton of Cadboll Slab, Scotland.

930 AD in Wales, where the Celtic hounds were much loved, they were mentioned in the Laws of Howel the Good, as follows:-

The Gel-Gi (or Great Hounds) were valued highly. Adult hound, trained, property of the King, 240d (£1); untrained 120d (10/-); pup under one year, 60d (5/-); still in the yard, 30d (2/6d); under 9 days old, 15d (1/3d); the Mil-Gi (Swift Hounds - Greyhounds) were worth half these values. The fine for injuring the foot of a Gel-Gi was £1 and for the eye, 2/-.

c. 959 — King Lud of Cambria pays King Edgar a tax of 300 wolves annually. At the end of four years he reports wolves as extinct. (Early case of tax evasion?)

1206 — Henry de Neville pays 10 marks a year for having charge of Royal Wolfhounds.

1335 — Edward III imports Irish Hounds.

1371 — Traditional date for combat between Aubrey de Montdidier's Wolfhound and his master's murderer, Macaire.

1682 — Last wolf on mainland killed. Different sources give the site as Durham and Scotland but agree on that date.

c. 1770 — Oliver Goldsmith says that Irish Wolfhound are now rare. The largest he has seen "is about 4 ft. high".

1786 — Last wolf in Ireland killed by Mr. Watson at Myshall, Co. Carlow.

1790 — One of the "eight remaining Irish hounds" is measured by A.R. Lambert, who records it to be '30" from hind toes to hind shoulders and 28½" from toe to foreshoulder.'

1803 —William Taplin declares the Irish Hound is probably extinct.

1859 — First dog show, held in Newcastle.

1862 — Captain Graham and others start to revive the breed.

1873 — Kennel Club set up

1885 — Irish Wolfhound Club of Great Britain founded.

1925 — Irish Wolfhound Club of Ireland founded.

Some early crosses used to revive the breed

(Bearing in mind that the I.W. reputedly went into the making of the Borzoi, the Deerhound and Wolfhound are but branches from the same root and that the Glengarry and Applecross Deerhounds used by Graham had themselves been crossed with Wolfhounds some generations earlier to improve size and stamina. One source even suggests that the Great Dane resulted from crossing the old German Boarhound with Wolfhounds).

Deerhound Ella 25½"
Deerhound Young Torrom (Old Torrom x Braie)
Great Dane, Cedric the Saxon, 33½"
Great Dane, Blucher, 32" brindle
Deerhound Keildar
Borzoi/Deerhound cross, Moscow - jet black
Borzoi, Korotai, white with v. pale blue brindle patches
"Great Dog of Tibet", Wolf (definitely NOT a Tibetan Mastiff as we know them - probably more of an Owtscharka type).
Great Dane, Nero, brindle
Great Dane, Leon (Cid x Rita), 33"
Deerhound, Fly II
Great Dane, Earl of Warwick - Harlequin, v. houndy shape
Deerhound, Rob the Ranter. Last known cross to put progeny into the breed.


The Irish Wolfhound Standard has changed very little over the years from the one originally drawn up in 1885 by the Irish Wolfhound Club. However, it might be of interest to compare the Standard with Captain Graham's word picture of the breed, compiled in 1879.

Form — That of a very tall, heavy, Scotch Deerhound, much more massive and very majestic looking, active and fast, perhaps somewhat less so than the present breed of Deerhound; neck thick in comparison to his form and very muscular; body and frame lengthy.

Head — Long but not narrow, coming to a comparative point towards the nose; nose rather large and head gradually getting broader from the same, evenly up to the back of the skull - not sharp up to the eyes and then suddenly broad and lumpy, as is often the case with dogs bred between Greyhound and Mastiff.

Coat — There can be little doubt that from the very nature of the work the dog was called upon to do this would be of a rough and probably somewhat shaggy nature and to this end points the evidence gained from Arrian - second century - who leaves no doubt in our mind that the great Greyhound of his day was rough in coat; also from the ancient Irish harp, now preserved in Trinity College, Dublin, which is ornamented with a figure of the Irish Wolfhound, rough coated. (Here Captain Graham lists dogs belonging to several people, all of which were rough coated). ...So it is with justice concluded that the coat was thoroughly rough; hard and long all over the body, head, legs and tail; hair on head long and rather softer than that on body, standing out boldly over eyes; beard under jaws being also very marked and wiry.

Colour — Black, grey, brindle, red and fawn, though white dogs were esteemed in former times as is several times shown us - indeed they were often preferred - but for beauty the dark colours should be cultivated.

Ears — Small in proportion to size of head and half erect as in the smooth Greyhound. If dark in colour it is preferred.

The Tail — should be carried with an upward curve and not be curled, as is the case with many Greyhounds.

Size — It will be seen that the Deerhound dog had considerable trouble in despatching the she-wolf, as narrated before, she being inferior in size; so putting the matter ont he grounds of simple necessity, we cannot but conclude that the dog should be not less than 2 to 3 inches taller than the wolf. Now, the usual height of the wolf would range about 30 inches, therefore we get the height of from 32 to 33 inches in the dog. Also arguing from the skulls, the dog would have stood from 32 to 34 inches and even 35 inches in the dogs, probably from 29 to 31 inches in the bitches. The other dimensions would naturally be about as follows for well shaped and trueformed dogs: Girth of chest — dogs, 38 to 44 inches; bitches, 32 to 34 inches. Weight in lbs. — dogs 115 to 140; bitches 90 to 115. Girth of forearm — dogs 10 to 12 inches; bitches 8½ to 10 inches. Length of head — dogs 12½ to 14 inches; bitches 11 to 12 inches.

Standard of Excellence

General Appearance
The Irish wolfhound is the largest and tallest of the galloping hounds. It combines power and swiftness with keen sight and in general type is a rough coated greyhound-like breed. Of great size and commanding appearance, very muscular, strongly though gracefully built, movement easy and active; head and neck carried high; the tail carried low with a slight upward sweep towards the extremity.

Head and Skull

Long, the frontal bones of the forehead very slightly raised and very little indentation between the eyes. Skull not too broad. Muzzle long and
moderately pointed.



Small and Greyhound-like in carriage.

Scissors; level is, however, permitted.

Rather long, very strong and muscular, well arched, without dewlap or loose skin about the throat.

Shoulders muscular, giving breadth of chest, set sloping. Elbows well under, turned neither inwards nor outwards. Leg, forearm muscular and the whole leg strong and quite straight.

Chest, very deep. Breast wide. Back, rather long than short. Loins arched. Belly well drawn up.

Muscular thighs and second thighs long and strong as in the Greyhound, hocks well let down and turning neither in nor out.

Moderately large and round, turned neither inwards nor outwards. Toes well arched and closed. Nails very strong and curved.

Easy and active.

Long and slightly curved, of moderate thickness and well covered with hair.

Rough and hard on body, legs and head; especially wiry and long over eyes, under jaw.

The recognised colours are grey, brindle, red, black, pure white, fawn or any colour that appears in the Deerhound.

Weight and Size
The minimum height and weight of dogs should be 31 inches and 120 lbs; of bitches, 28 inches and 90 lbs. Anything below this should be debarred from competition. Great size including height at shoulder and proportionate length of body is the desideratum to be aimed at and it is desired firmly to establish a breed that shall average from 32 to 34 inches in dogs, showing the requisite power, activity, courage and symmetry.

Too light or heavy a head, too highly arched frontal bone; large ears, ears hanging flat to the face; short neck; full dewlap; too narrow or too broad a chest; sunken, hollow or quite straight back; bent forelegs; over-bent fetlocks; twisted feet; spreading toes; too curly a tail; weak hindquarters and a general want of muscle; too short in body; pink or liver coloured eyelids; lips and nose any colour other than black; very light eyes; coat soft, silky or woolly.

Male animals should have two apparently normal testicles fully descended into the scrotum.

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