The national dog of Ireland and probably one of the best known breeds in the world today, the Irish Wolfhound has been around since ancient times, and belongs to the grayhound family. It was originally bred by the Celts for hunting wolves and elk. It had quite a ferocious reputation as wolf hunters, attacking wolves straight-out, seizing them by the scruff and shaking them as easily as if they were rats until the neck snapped. Irish Wolfhounds also accompanied their perpetually warring masters into battle, and displayed exemplary courage there too. In fact, their courage so impressed the Romans that they specifically mentioned them in their writings―they are mentioned in Julius Caesar's 'Commentaries on the Gallic Wars', and there is a mention in 391 A.D. of seven Wolfhounds being presented to the Roman Consul Quintus Aurelius that filled 'all Rome with wonder'. Soon, they were regularly finding their way to Imperial Rome, and entertaining crowds by fighting death duels at the Circus Maximus. Later, along with the Celts fleeing Roman domination, they came to the British Isles and Ireland, and flourished for many centuries.
After the wolves became extinct in Ireland, the breed fell from favor, and by the mid-nineteenth century, had more or less died away. It was revived only through the dedicated efforts of enthusiasts like the Scotsman from Dursley in Gloucestershire, Captain George A. Graham of the British Army. In the 1860s, he gathered the few remaining specimens and bred them with Great Danes and Scottish Deerhounds. Since then, the breed has had a popular following.
The Irish Wolfhound, as we know it today, is the world's tallest dog breed. Adult males usually stand 32 to 35 inches at the shoulder, weighing 120 to 180 pounds; Females have a height of 30 to 34 inches, and can weigh from 105 to 140 pounds. They have a thick, shaggy double coat―a wiry outer one and a softer inner one―that comes in varied colors―gray, black, white, fawn, brindle, red, russet, and brown. The coat is shed all year round, and requires weekly grooming in order to be kept in good condition. These dogs are slim, graceful, and powerful, with long, pointed muzzles and small ears. They have an erect, almost regal long-necked stance, and a long feathery tail that is held in a sweeping upward curve.
While the commanding size does make them seem intimidating, they are as a rule gentle and non-aggressive dogs―they are not guard dogs, rather, a companion that loves and needs to be around their family. They do not adapt well to be tied out in the yard, and as much as possible should be allowed inside. They are very intelligent and can be quite easily trained. They should be trained by Positive Training Methods, as they are a sensitive breed and can shy away from any harsh treatment. Like most of the large breeds, the puppies too take a long time growing up, and can be pretty destructive, even unintentionally. This can be controlled to an extent by allowing them to romp freely in a well-fenced yard. Under no circumstances must the dogs be allowed to run free in public spaces―apart from the chance of accidents, they are liable to chase other animals, and as they are swift and keen-sighted, they are as liable to catch them.
Irish Wolfhounds are generally very good with children, but, given their size, it would only be commonsensical to supervise their interaction, especially if the children are very young.
Their average lifespan is 6 - 8 years, but they are known to live longer. They are unfortunately prone to quite a number of health problems, the major one of these being heart disease. Other problems include bloat and gastric torsion, cancer, Von Willebrands disease, hypothyroidism, osteochondrosis, liver shunt, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, megaesophagus, progressive retinal atrophy, fibrocartilaginous embolic myelopathy, and seizures. So, apart from ensuring that the puppy is obtained from a reputable and responsible breeder, yearly health checks are highly recommended.
Given the health issues, the size, which, of course, dictates a large appetite as well as a large living area, and the high prices of pedigree puppies, the Irish Wolfhound is an expensive sort of pet to have. Few people, however, once they have experienced the loyal, affectionate companionship would grudge the expense. The Celtic charm is hard to resist.