The Irish Wolfhound is a tall domesticated dog with a shaggy coat. It is amongst the oldest breeds that exists today, and received its name from its ancient use in wolf hunting.
The heritage of the Irish Wolfhounds is disputed, and only further genetic testing will clarify the exact origins of this breed. It is a very old breed, presumed to have developed at the same time as the Irish Wolf (8000 BC). There are several accounts of bravery exhibited by these dogs, when used in ancient battles.
The ancient Irish people also used them as guard dogs, as well as for protection of their livestock. Much of the information regarding the dogs, i.e., the basis of their history, etc., emanates from stories and sagas.
'The Intelligence of Dogs' by Stanley Coren contains an account of a ship full of 'hunting hounds' being sent from Ireland to Europe, where these dogs were to fetch high prices. Another account tells of a besotted Culann, whose Irish Wolfhound was killed by seven year old Sétanta in self defense.
So upset was Culann, that the boy offered to take the place of the hound, until a replacement could be found.
Another point of view states that these dogs were used as a coursing dog, to hunt deer. Coursing is a sport of hunting, where dogs follow the quarry using sight instead of scent. This perspective is refuted by others on the basis that the animals dominant stature, agility and intelligence made it better suited to actually hunt deer and wolf. Its name is believed to have originated from the role it played in hunting the Irish Wolf.
As stories of this breed, distinctive appearance and intelligence began to spread to other continents, demands for the dog drew. During this period it was exported all over the world. It is said that the Romans were especially taken with the dog, which was shown to them in cages, for they were both amazed and fearful.
It is possible that it may even have been revered by them, as a bronze statue of the Lydney Dog, which is presumed to be a half-grown Wolfhound, found in the Roman Temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire. This representation dates back to about 365 AD.
Other tales, of the wolfhound accosting and defeating animals such as lions exist. However, these may have been exaggerated, or may have taken place where a pack chased away a solitary lion. The same view is taken of accounts of damage caused by Wolfhounds during numerous wars.
As mentioned earlier, when the dogs were exported to other countries, high prices were paid for them and they became a status symbol. Consequently, they were owned only by royalty and there existed a ban on commoners owning the dog. This chain of events almost led to the breed getting wiped out in the mid of 19th century.
Their savior came in the form of Captain Graham, who started to breed them with the Deerhound, Great Dane, Borzoi, English Mastiff, Tibetan Mastiff and other breeds to increase their number.
While this eventually led to the breed being saved, it inevitably altered their original appearance. The most significant change was the introduction of other colors such as brindle into the bloodline.
The present day Irish wolfhounds differ in a few ways from what the ancient ones are presumed to be. One such difference is that the earlier dogs in this breed were seen in both smooth and rough coated varieties. They were also likely to have been more aggressive compared to the gentle souled contemporary variety. One surprising fact is that despite the great feats these dogs were said to have achieved in ancient times, they were smaller in size than the present day breed.