Irish Wolfhound Times
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The Biggest Dog Of All Was Finn Maccool's Aunt
Its ancestry lost in legend, the Irish wolfhound is much too large to be petty about winning mere blue ribbons
Robert H. Boyle, Sports Illustrated, 1966



All over the U.S. and even abroad along about now, hundreds of champion pooches are being combed and clipped and pedicured and taught their party manners over and over in the hope of winning big at New York's Madison Square Garden when the Westminster Kennel Club meets again next week to choose a best dog in show. But there is one breed of dog already so big that its fanciers care little what it wins at the Westminster. To those who love the members of this breed the Irish wolfhound is not a dog at all but Super-dog, a half-human beast whose very origin is lost in Celtic myth and legend. There are only a thousand or so Irish wolfhounds in all the world—about 500 in the U.S. and another 500 in Great Britain—and because there are so few, they are all, or almost all, related to one another. The owner of a wolfhound dam, therefore, must select a sire with the greatest care to avoid any harmful effects of too close inbreeding. "Temperament is the thing you treasure," says Mrs. Gordon F. Graham, a leading U.S. breeder. "That is what separates the wolfhound from some of the other big dogs."

Mrs. Graham is quick to admit that a best-in-show at the Garden might provide a certain initial thrill. "I'd be terribly excited at first if a wolfhound won," she says, "but in the long run I'd be sorry. While many breeds could take the upsurge of popularity that comes from winning, I don't really think the wolfhound could. The breed is not numerically strong enough to stand it."

Though weak in numbers, the Irish wolfhound is by all other standards an extraordinary beast. The biggest dog in the world, it looks, to a stranger seeing one for the first time, something like an enormous Airedale or Irish terrier, albeit with an undocked tail.

A fully grown male stands three feet high at the shoulders on all fours, and when he rears up on his hind legs he reaches 6 feet 6. A wolfhound puppy grows faster than a lion, and fond owners must get used to some pretty hefty roughhousing. Wolfhounds, young or old, are frolicsome creatures, and in a gay mood they can flatten an owner with one joyous bound.

Department store heir Tom Wanamaker, who raises wolfhounds in Ridgefield, Conn., has been pushed to the floor on any number of occasions and once even required medical treatment. "Yes," says Wanamaker, "I've been knocked down, but always with love, always with love." Wolfhound owners are used to having their eyes blackened and their lamps, vases and objets d'art demolished by wagging tails. In wolfhound homes it is not uncommon to see a dog that has been lying under a table carry the table away on its back when it rises to leave the room.

Irish wolfhounds are rough-coated and come in half a dozen colors: pure white, wheaten, fawn, brindle, red and black. They are not as fleet as greyhounds or the slimmer, smaller Russian wolfhounds, but they can run for hours on end and turn on a dime. Should a Russian wolfhound happen upon a wolf—a rare occurrence these days—all it can do is hold the predator at bay until a hunter arrives to fire the fatal shot. The Irish wolfhound needs no help at all. With a single shake of its great ruddy jaws, it can break a wolf's neck with ease. Fortunately, the dogs are extremely good-tempered, and the motto of the breed is an old Irish saying: "Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked."

Wolfhound fanciers on both sides of the Atlantic are a close and intimate group that constantly gets together, in person, by long-distance phone or through feverish transatlantic correspondence, to compare notes. As Mrs. Graham, whose manner of speech makes William Buckley sound uncouth, puts it: "We just wallow in wolfhounds." As odd and individual a breed as their dogs, wolfhound owners gathered en masse for a specialty show look rather like the cast of an Ealing Studios film featuring Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford. They radiate an atmosphere of landed gentility and country houses. "I think we're a fun group but not wildly gay," is the way Fanny (Mrs. Peter) Van Brunt of Lake Placid, N.Y. sums it up.

Fanny owns 23 wolfhounds. The Grahams have only 10, but they keep them all in their house at genteel St. James on Long Island. After dinner they have to race the dogs to the library to get the choice seats. Seven of the dogs sleep in the Grahams' bedroom, and on cold nights two of them, Honor and Houlihan, are wont to pile into bed with the master and mistress.

Like most owners of wolfhounds, the Grahams belong to the Irish Wolfhound Club of America. Gordon Graham edits Harp & Hound, the club's quarterly journal, which keeps members posted on wolfhound doings here and in Britain. The big event of the year is the club's specialty show, held at the home of a member. At wolfhound shows great stress is placed on amateurism. The camaraderie is such that there is none of the cutthroat competitiveness often associated with dog shows, and woe to anyone who gloats over a win—he could never gain election to the club. Even getting into the club is a rather mysterious business. One never asks for admission, and a new owner who passes muster by displaying the proper sporting qualities only learns of his election when asked to pay full dues.

Nobody really knows where the wolfhound came from. The Celts who ransacked Greece in 279 B.C. were said to have had these great swift hounds. Later the Romans used them for circus combat. Early Irish literature contains frequent references to the esteem in which they were held by kings. According to one Irish legend, Finn MacCool, the great hero, had an aunt who was turned into a hound by an enemy. Finn succeeded in restoring her to human form, but he was unable to turn the trick on her two children, who had been born as hounds while their mother was under the spell. The children, Bran and Sceolaun, remained wolfhounds and were Finn's inseparable companions.

Sometime later, braces of wolfhounds were sent as gifts to the kings of Spain and Poland. In 1652 Oliver Cromwell, of black memory in Ireland, forbade their export on grounds of scarcity, but his son was able to obtain a pair for a lady friend, though he did not say how he got them. An Englishman, visiting the home of Sir Murragh na Mart O'Flahertie in 1698, wrote, "One thing I saw in this house perhaps the like not to be seen anywhere in the World, and that was nine brace of Wolf-Dogs...a pair of which kind has often been present for a king, as they are said to be a dog peculiar to Ireland.... They were as quiet among us as lambs, without any noise or disturbance."

With the dispatching of the last wolf in Ireland in the 18th century, the breed began to languish. Few persons could afford to keep huge and hungry dogs that had, supposedly, outlived their usefulness. But in 1862, an Englishman named Captain G. A. Graham, who is related to the Long Island Grahams only by a common affection for wolfhounds, obtained a dog named Faust and began resuscitating the breed. He bought wolfhounds wherever he could—even poor specimens—and by judiciously adding a dash of mastiff here and a pinch of Great Dane there, he was able, in the course of 20 years, to recover size without loss of type.

Since then, in Britain improvement of the breed has been largely carried on by several doughty ladies. One of them, Mrs. Florence Nagle, a 71-year-old great-grandmother and horse trainer, has been raising wolfhounds for the last 52 years. Her kennels have produced 27 champions in Britain, 14 in the U.S. and several on the Continent. "I am not a commercial breeder," Mrs. Nagle says, "and I'm very particular whom I sell to."

Most breeders will not sell pups until they are 3 months old, and they generally fetch from $300 to $500 each. There is usually a waiting list, and even when puppies are available not just anyone can buy. A would-be purchaser is screened to make certain that the dog is going to a home where it will be appreciated. There are some persons who merely want a wolfhound to flaunt, according to Mrs. Graham. "When someone wants a dog for that purpose," she adds, "you can spot it like a beacon, and it's very sick-making." Once Mrs. Graham was asked to sell her biggest wheaten wolfhound to a man who wanted it to match his convertible. She coldly informed him that his was "not the kind of home we want for our dogs." On the other hand, breeders have been known to give away pups to persons who lacked the price but had the right outlook. The wolfhound club has become very alarmed in recent years over fast-buck commercial breeders who have been importing dogs directly from Ireland that are often of inferior stock, sometimes actually sickly and frequently unfit for registration with the AKC. To counteract this unethical traffic, the club has taken to running an ad in The New York Times offering to supply the names of reliable breeders.

World War II was especially hard on wolfhounds in England. "The problem of finding food was almost insuperable," says Mrs. Nagle. "I kept only a very few dogs and, of course, I always had a gun handy. If the Germans had landed I would have shot the lot so they wouldn't have fallen into their hands."

Miss Esther Croucher, a well-known wolfhound judge who is now in her 70s, was able to pull her hounds through the war thanks to the wastefulness of U.S. GIs at a canteen near her home in Oxfordshire. "The American troops would bite one mouthful out of a fish cake or a pie and then never touch it again," says Miss Croucher, a no-nonsense sort who was gassed at Verdun in the first war while driving an ambulance. "So I used to take an enormous bucket with a lid and clear up all these oddments and bits and come home with a pailful to feed the hounds."

At the end of the war the number of top wolfhounds left in England was small and threatened to become smaller through the hazards of inbreeding. U.S. breeders rushed to the rescue by sending a male wolfhound named Rory back to the old country to revitalize the breed. "The dogs in England had started to lose their good character," says Miss Croucher, "and Mrs. Nagle and I were very worried."

Rory was placed in the care of the Misses May Atfield and Margaret Harrison, who are celebrated among wolfhound enthusiasts in the U.S. and Britain as "the girls." He promptly became a very busy dog. Recently, while the girls were reminiscing about his achievements, Miss Atfield mused, "He had most of the bitches in England, didn't he?" To which Miss Harrison responded with a faint, "Yes."

Like most large dogs, the wolfhound has a short life expectancy, an average of about seven years. A bitch is not robust enough to have puppies until she is at least 2?. An owner must be prepared to assist at birth to prevent the mother from accidentally rolling on a pup and crushing it. The pups grow at such a fantastic rate that a dam is unable to cope with a litter of six or more. When this happens, pups are fed formula from a regular baby bottle. When 2 months old, the pups get four pounds a day each of the best double-ground round steak supplemented with cod liver oil and calcium. By 9 weeks they can get by on a cheaper grade of beef, spiked with soft-boiled eggs. In his first six weeks a wolfhound pup gains nearly 100 pounds. "What you're feeding is growing bone structure," says Mrs. Graham.

Unlike the pups, a mature wolfhound eats only two pounds of beef and kibble a day—not much, considering the size of the beast. However, the dogs do need considerable exercise to keep trim, and a daily three-mile run is a must. Some owners tailgate the dogs behind station wagons, and at least one—Miss Celeste Hutton of Maryland—tethers her dogs to a tractor which she drives over her estate. City living presents obvious problems. Tom Wanamaker once kept a wolfhound in a five-floor walk-up in Manhattan. The dog was too big to manage the stairs, so to get him out for a walk Wanamaker had to place each paw on each stair and repeat the chore upon his return.

When Douglass Montgomery, the former actor and Wanamaker's partner in wolfhounds, was living in London following World War II, he had his housekeeper, Maggie, take his wolfhound for a daily trot through Kensington Park. The dog not only strained at the leash, but he had the very doglike habit of sniffing every stranger close up. One afternoon as Maggie, a roly-poly north-of-England countrywoman, was being dragged through the park, a man in a bowler hat suddenly appeared. The man was an equerry for Queen Mary, who had stopped her Daimler upon sighting the huge creature. The door of the Daimler was wide open, and the Queen Mother was smiling and beckoning as the wolfhound surged forward to identify this interesting stranger. Maggie strained at the leash, praying, "Oh, God, don't let him do it to Queen Mary," as the dog lunged into the back seat. Fortunately, the Queen was so exquisitely perfumed that the wolfhound contented himself with a sniff of her face.

Ordinarily, wolfhounds are no more awed by speeding automobiles than by Queen Mary, and a good many have been sent from this world for refusing to yield the right of way. Samuel Ewing III, a Main Line breeder very active on the show circuit, attempts to make his dogs aware of the danger of cars by having a training period in which he bumps them with Volkswagens. Besides succumbing to cars, free-ranging wolfhounds have also been shot by excited hunters who think they've bagged a Kodiak bear in Connecticut. Because of this and the danger posed by cars, wolfhounds must have a fenced yard in which to play when out of the house. The fencing is also of some comfort to apprehensive deliverymen.

Sometimes, but not often, wolfhounds are used for the chase. Miss Croucher recalls one man who pursued lions with them in Africa. In India they have been used to hunt cheetahs. Last year a number of coursing hounds of all breeds were brought together in a meet outside Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Greyhounds, whippets, Salukis, deerhounds and Afghans all performed well in pursuit of a mechanical quarry. Only two wolfhounds were entered, one male and one female, but when they were unleashed the male ignored the quarry to chase the female.

Even as watchdogs Irish wolfhounds prefer to take a peaceful path. Instead of going for the throat of an unwelcome intruder in the slashing style of a Doberman or a German shepherd, a watching wolfhound will either restrain the prowler's movements by holding his arm firmly in a huge mouth or simply sit on him until the law arrives. Any injuries inflicted are psychological rather than physical, but it is the kind of thing that gives a second-story man second thoughts.

Sports Illustrated, 1966 .

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