The most distinguishing physical feature of the Irish Wolfhound is its great size. Generally breeders aim for a height range of 85 to 90 centimeters (33 to 36 inches) in males, 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) less for females. Generally acceptable weight 46-70kg (101-154lbs)
Irish wolfhounds do not live long lives. Published lifespan estimations vary between 4.95 and 8.75 years. Dilated cardiomyopathy and bone cancer are the leading cause of death and like all deep-chested dogs, gastric torsion (bloat) is also common. The breed is also affected by hereditary intrahepatic portosystemic shunt.
By the age of 8 months, the dogs appear adult, and many owners start stressing them too much. Outstretched limbs and irreparable damage are the result. Wolfhounds need at least 18 months to be ready for lure coursing, running as a sport, and other strenuous activities.
Wolfhounds should not receive additional supplements when a good dog food is used. It is generally accepted that they should be fed a large breed puppy food until 18 months old and then change to a large breed adult food. Most breeders today recommend that they not be supplemented in order to slow their rapid growth. They will eventually reach the same height, but at a slower, and safer, rate. Wolfhound puppies around 10 weeks old grow approximately one inch a week and put on one pound a day.
Irish Wolfhounds are among the tallest dog breeds, along with their relatives, Great Danes. Because of their size they will have a hard time settling in a small house and are better suited living in a rural area with plenty of space.
While many modern texts state Irish Wolfhounds were used for coursing deer, contemporary pre-revival accounts such as Animated Nature (1796) by Oliver Goldsmith are explicit that the original animal was a very poor coursing dog. Their astonishing size, speed, and intelligence made them ideal animals for both boar hunting and wolf hunting, and many were exported for this purpose. They were perhaps too ideal, as the boar and wolf are now extinct in Ireland. The Irish Wolfhound has been recorded as being exhibited in ancient Rome to some excitement, and mention is made that they so amazed and terrified the Romans that it was seen fit to only transport them in cages. There exist stories that in the arena, the original Wolfhound was the equal of a lion. It has also been shown that when hunting animals, the wolfhound would bite the neck and crush the spine, killing the creature.
During times of conflict with England, it was not uncommon for Wolfhounds to be trained to take armoured knights off of their horses, thus allowing an infantry man to move in and finish the kill if the Wolfhound had not done so already.
Due to a massive export into various countries as a gift for royalty and a ban that allowed only royalty to own such a dog, the breed almost vanished in the middle of the 19th century. Captain Graham rebred the Irish Wolfhound with the Deerhound, Great Dane, Borzoi and other breeds; this saved the breed, but had the inevitable effect of altering its appearance, most noticeably leaving the Irish Wolfhound with alternative colours such as brindle (inherited from the Great Dane) as before they were mainly grey in colour.
The ancient breed (often referred to as the Irish Wolfdogge in contemporary accounts) was available in both a smooth and rough coated variety. Descriptions of its appearance and demeanor, as well as the method of its use place it closer to the flock guardians in appearance than the modern breed. It is clear that the dog was not always the giant of today and it has been suggested that the Wolfhound was part of the make up of the Kerry Blue Terrier. The historical variety (which may have been quite similar to a now-extinct sighthound, the Old Serbian greyhound) was famed for its loyalty, discernment, grave nature and aggression. In terms of temperament the modern breed has been greatly mellowed. Wolfhounds are often referred to as "Gentle Giants", and a historic motto of the breed is "Gentle when stroked. Fierce when provoked."
The Wolfhound is sometimes regarded as the national dog breed of Ireland but in fact no breed has ever been officially adopted as such. The Wolfhound was historically a dog that only nobles could own and was taken up by the British during their rule in Ireland. This made it unpopular as a national symbol and the Kerry Blue Terrier was adopted by early Irish Nationalists such as Michael Collins.
McBryde, M. (1998) The Magnificent Irish Wolfhound, Ringpress Books, Dorking, ISBN-10 1860540937 , ISBN-13 978-1860540936