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11 Facts About Irish Wolfhounds You Need to Know

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."


Meet the Irish wolfhound, an imposing dog breed with an intriguing history and unique traits which make these dogs so special.

Along with the harp, the Celtic cross and the shamrock, when it comes to dogs, nothing is more Irish than the Irish wolfhound.

You won't typically stumble on these dogs much as they're a rather rare sight, but rest assured, one encounter will leave you fascinated and yearning to know more.

Yes, these dogs have been known to stop traffic as people stare with disbelief and they even earn funny remarks such as, "Do you have a saddle for your pony?"

Even if you have never encountered one, these dogs' histories and physical traits are surely worth discovering.

1. The Tallest of All Dog Breeds

The first thing that is impossible to ignore in this breed is height. The Irish wolfhound is the tallest of all the dog breeds categorized by the American Kennel Club.

Just think that, at 18 months of age, according to the standard for this breed, male Irish wolfhounds are expected to be at least 32 inches tall at the shoulder and at least 120 pounds, while females should be at least 30 inches and 105 pounds.

In general, the average male is 34–35 inches tall and weighs 140 to 180 pounds, while females are around 32–34 inches tall and weigh 115 to 140 lbs. When they stand on their legs, Irish wolfhounds can get up to 7 feet tall.

Training these dogs is important unless you don't mind being dragged down the street as you desperately attempt to wrap an arm around a tree or an electric pole to prevent forward motion!

Please note: Despite their sheer size, Irish wolfhounds are not meant to be ridden by children like a pony nor should they be pulling carts. Their joints and backs aren't built for the strain.

The Irish wolfhound is the tallest of all the dog breeds categorized by the American Kennel Club.

The Irish wolfhound is the tallest of all the dog breeds categorized by the American Kennel Club.

2. A Hunter of Wolves

As this breed's name implies, the Irish wolfhound is an Irish dog breed that was selectively bred for hunting down wolves.

According to Samuel Evans Ewing III (1967), it's due to this history as wolf hunters that almost always Irish wolfhounds exhibit a ruff around the neck that is thicker than any hair elsewhere.

Nature has designed the Irish wolfhound's coat to have a rough top coat for protection from the weather, terrain, and prey and a soft, downy undercoat for warmth.

3. A History as War Dogs

Irish wolfhounds were also used as war dogs. Indeed, these dogs were devotedly prized for their ferocity and bravery in battle.

Their main task was pulling men down from horses or chariots.

With the speed of a greyhound and the strength of a mastiff, it comes as no surprise how they must have excelled in the task, successfully dragging a fully-armored knight from a horses' saddle.

However, nowadays they look nothing like "ferocious," especially when they are laying on their bed with a lazy look on their face.

These dogs also make rotten watchdogs with poor territorial instincts. Just don't tell anybody about this! Yet, their sheer size alone is enough to deter intruders.

However, just because they're not very territorial, doesn't make them careless or non-protective; these dogs seem to have an innate predisposition to know the difference between friend and foe and are deeply loyal to their families.

4. A Gentle Giant

Despite this breed's imposing looks and history as war dogs and hunters of wolves, the amiable Irish wolfhound has a reputation for being a gentle giant.

Yup, beneath those shaggy eyebrows and furry body hide eyes with a sweet, gentle expression and a heart of gold.

A popular saying goes: “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.”

Indeed, The American Kennel Club's Meet the Breeds describes the Irish wolfhound as being blessed with a calm, affectionate and gentle nature.

Irish wolfhounds are said to be blessed with a calm, affectionate and gentle nature.

Irish wolfhounds are said to be blessed with a calm, affectionate and gentle nature.

5. Strong Chasing Instincts

Irish wolfhounds are ultimately sighthounds at heart, which means they were bred to chase animals at startling speeds using their keen eyesight.

On top of hunting wolves, Irish wolfhounds also chased deer, elks, boar, and the now extinct, gigantic Irish elk which stood six feet at the shoulder.

If you are interested in opening your heart and home to an Irish wolfhound it is therefore important to keep in mind that they may be prone to chasing (and potentially injuring and even killing) smaller animals.

While some Irish wolfhounds are fine with cats, especially if they were raised with them from an early age, others may not.

6. Predisposed to Health Maladies

Being a giant dog comes with some predispositions for medical problems.

Firstly, consider that this is a breed predisposed to rapid growth. Irish wolfhound puppies are born weighing one pound and reach an astounding 100 pounds at six months. Too rapid growth stresses the growth plates in puppies, which tend to close around 14 months.

A well-formulated diet is therefore fundamental for slowing down the growth rate and certain forms of exercise (like sudden stops and turns) need to be restricted.

"Do not encourage your hound to stand on his/her hind legs - this especially applies to young puppies. Aside from behavior problems later on, it can also cause stress on bones and muscles and possible injury," warns the Irish Wolfhound Club of America.

Secondly, this is a deep-chested breed, and deep-chested breeds are prone to a potentially life-threatening condition known as bloat.

Other health concerns are bone cancer (osteosarcoma) which is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths, cruciate ligament tears, liver shunts and heart problems.

It's therefore important to source Irish wolfhounds only from ethical, responsible breeders who health test their breeding dogs and ensure they have stable temperaments.

7. Ready for New Homes at 12 Weeks

In many dog breeds, puppies are ready to go to their new homes at 8 weeks of age, but the Irish wolfhound is not one of them.

According to the Irish Wolfhound Club of America, Irish wolfhound puppies do best if they are sent to their new homes anywhere from 10 to 12 weeks of age.

The reason for this is that Irish wolfhounds tend to develop at a slower rate compared to other dog breeds. Placing them too early causes them to miss out on important life lessons such as learning how to get along with other dogs, deciphering body language, gaining bite inhibition, and learning how to deal with novelties.

Failure to wait those extra weeks may lead to puppies predisposed to separation anxiety, lack of confidence and challenges interacting with other dogs. Breeders may also fail to get acquainted with their pups which puts a dent in their abilities to match their personalities with the right home.

On top of this, consider that Irish wolfhound puppies need to be tested for liver shunt (through a bile acid test) and this is best done around 9 to 10 weeks of age for more accuracy.

The Irish Guards' mascot was an Irish wolfhound.

The Irish Guards' mascot was an Irish wolfhound.

8. Sensitive to Anesthesia

As with other sighthounds such as whippets, Italian greyhounds, borzois, and Afghan hounds, Irish wolfhounds metabolize drugs differently. Their liver is less efficient in metabolizing drugs, causing them to stick around for longer with harsher effects.

This makes Irish wolfhounds more sensitive to anesthesia and therefore it should be administered at a lower dose compared to the average dog.

It is therefore important to select a veterinarian familiar with this breed's sensitivities or consult with a specialist as an added safety precaution (like a board-certified diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Anesthesia and Analgesia.)

9. Rather Expensive to Maintain

While living with a big dog with a big heart is priceless, (they give us so much unconditional love!) something to consider before bringing an Irish wolfhound into your life is cost.

Being on the larger side means increased costs. For example, costs for boarding or hospitalizing large dogs will be greater. They'll also need more medications (including heartworm preventative), they'll eat more, and you'll need an extra-large crate, a large vehicle and an oversized sofa!

Pet insurance policies may also be on the higher end considering this breed's health issues. And even the price tag for a puppy is quite hefty. A good breeder will typically ask $2,000–$3,000 or more per puppy.

While this may seem a lot, it is not, considering the amount of work and money breeders put into producing healthy dogs with a solid temperament.

Breeding dogs have hips and elbows X-rayed, their eyes are screened and cardiac testing is done. Even temperament needs to be taken into account. And when puppies arrive, it leads to sleepless nights and further expenses.

10. In Need of Proper Fencing

All dogs need good fences, that's a known fact, and we all know how good fences make good neighbors, but with this breed, it cannot be emphasized enough how a proper fence is crucial.

Breeders may inquire about fencing when interviewing candidates for purchasing their puppies. And being that this is not a very common breed, good breeders often have long waiting lists of potential puppy owners they will have to carefully screen.

The ideal Irish wolfhound owner must have sufficient space for his dog to romp around and must have a secure, sturdy above-ground fence.

This is a breed selectively bred for galloping. The legs are long for covering ground quickly and the chest is deep to accommodate the heart and lungs.

With an ingrained tendency to hunt by sight and being blessed with an athletic body, it's therefore not surprising if the Irish wolfhound is prone to escaping flimsy fences.

And don't assume the shock from an electric in-ground fence (which I never recommend) will stop this breed. The strong instinct to chase will override the temporary pain.

Irish wolfhounds are prone to chasing (and potentially injuring and even killing) smaller animals.

Irish wolfhounds are prone to chasing (and potentially injuring and even killing) smaller animals.

11. A Short Life Span

Sadly, Irish wolfhounds have a very short lifespan. They are estimated to live up to 6 to 8 years.

For a good reason, the French use the term lèvrier crève-coeur when talking about this breed. Translated to English, it means "heartbreak hound" and it's meant to refer to their short life spans.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 10, 2021:

Pamela, it's sad, but most of the larger breeds live shorter lives. Great danes, mastiffs, Saint bernards and Irish wolfounds are notorious for short lifespans. It has been speculated that it's because they age quickly and their bodies just tend to wear out faster.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 10, 2021:

Hi Peggy, how exciting! They are not a very common breed. What a coincidence seeing them and then reading this article on Irish wolfhounds!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 08, 2021:

It took me a while to find this in the feed, but I am glad that I did. Just yesterday in our neighborhood, we passed a couple walking their 2 Irish wolfhounds! They are magnificent-looking creatures. I learned a lot about them by reading your article. Thanks!

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 08, 2021:

Heartbreak hound indeed but they are beautiful. Having one is out of the question for me but I admire them from here and enjoyed learning about them.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 07, 2021:

I wonder why these dogs have a shorter lifespan. Maybe, because they are so large. They are beautiful dog, and I enjoyed your article, Adrienne.