|New: 1 December 2007
Revised: 23 March 2008
There is a lot to be said about “know thine enemy”, but I will restrict myself to the dog world. Most people realize that a breed of dog was developed for a specific purpose. The bird dogs were engineered by centuries of breeding to hunt birds in several modes, to point and flush, to retrieve. The hounds had different jobs; some were enhanced as scent hounds to track; some enhanced for artic game; some for getting into narrow, winding places; and other to hunt by sight. One of the driving reasons for an enhancement was a purpose where the form was prescribed by the function.
In the case of the Irish Wolfhound, to better understand its purpose, you should know the reason for enhancing the natural instincts for the hunt of a specific prey, the history behind that developing enhancement and how the hunt would progress. Centuries ago, during one of the prolonged droughts in Ireland, the great Irish wolf began attacking and preying upon the peasants in the fields near the forests or on distant farms. This greatly distressed the manor holders and Lords as it diminished the ability for their subjects to tithe to their sovereign. Many of the farms were remote and the terrain rugged causing the huntsmen to develop an all-purpose hunting dog which could hunt in packs without a horseback rider as accompaniment. The wolves became more and more bold as the lack of game continued. This created a need for a specialized hunter. To develop such a specialized hunter, the farmers, chieftans and lords, recognized that the distance the wolf could travel was quite far (about 30 miles). They would need a dog of great endurance to keep up with, then dispatch after that long a chase. They had to consider the countryside of hills, crags, rocks, meadows and forest.
They would need a dog with strong athletic abilities. They would need a dog strong in jaw, shoulder and rear musculature who could sustain a hunt over many miles yet have the stamina to kill its prey—the Great Irish Wolf. This wolf was highly predatory and has been determined to have been well over 31 inches at the shoulder (some say larger, but I feel that is part myth and they may be comparing to a Modern day assumption) and weigh from 125 to 150 pounds. [Columbia Encyclopaedia-1963 states: "the wolves of the Pleistocene period were larger than those of the present day".] They were more solitary than the grey or timber wolf we know today.. They could cover over 30 miles in a day during their foraging for food. Sometimes they would encounter small farms and enjoy a sheep or calf. So, where did the huntsmen start.
Where did the Irish Wolfhound come from? Some of the tales tell of a valiant warrior, Milesius of Spain (Gaul) who invaded Ireland around 1699 BC to avenge the death of his uncle, Ithe, killed by the Tuatha de Danans, and fulfill a prophesy. Spanish history tells of Milesius ruling during a 26-year famine. He superstitiously believed the famine to have fallen upon him and his people as a judgment and punishment from their gods, for their negligence in seeking out the country destined for their final abode as was long before fore told by Cachear, their Druid or magician Thus he sent his Uncle, Ithe, to the land west as emissary. The teachings of Ithe were of peace, mutual love and forbearance. However, jealousies arose among the villagers and Ithe was pursued and killed before reaching his ship to return to Spain. Milesius sought to avenge that senseless death and remained in Ireland, fulfilling the age old prophecy. It was Milesius who brought with him a great mastiff dog, the Molosser.
He brought his eight sons as well. Five of his sons were killed on the treacherous Irish coast. The eldest, Heber, and another brother, Heremon, jointly ruled Ireland as Kings or Sole Monarchs, and their descendants continued to rule successively for 2,885 years!! As an interesting aside, Heremon’s wife chose Tara in Ireland as her dowry; Tara remained the capital and home of the Irish High Kings for 2500 years .All things change; along about 100 AD the Gaels began to emerge as the dominant tribe and this was the beginning of the Gaelic culture of today.
What of the dog they brought with them? As all things change, it had evolved through weather, environment and breeding into a dog of rough coat, great stature, and athleticism. It was often used on local game—though the Irish Elk had long been extinct, and was not one of the Anno Domini Wolfhound prey..But the Great Irish Wolf was; and it was a menace that needed to be eradicated. The Wolf Dog began its evolution around 1600BC, and was approximately 26 to 30 inches tall, weighing around 100-130 pounds. Brig.General Alfred DeQuoy, Irish Wolfhound Saga, Volume 1, stated that "From osteological evidence, they ranged in height from 23.4 to 30.1 inches, with a 95% confidence interval of 25.2 to 27.8.", for the ancient wolf-dog.
We need to fill in some information about that wolf and the terrain of Ireland. Discussions about the range for the Wolf and its size brought me to this presentation. I was informed by an Irish Wolfhound Breeder that the wolf would race straight back to its den and fight only when cornered. Research has convinced me otherwise. They would do everything possible to prevent the hounds from locating his den. This is evidenced by modern day observations of wolf habits.
The hounds discover the wolf with its kill and they begin their stalk to eliminate this menace from their Lord’s realm. The young males, generally around age 2, along with several mature females do the stalking and tracking, while the Senior Male (lower left) commits to the encounter. Their methodology is to get the wolf turned and running, to tire and harass him until he is an easy prey.
They have him on the move. More hounds join the chase. The most effective number being six or seven; mostly females.
Could the Irish Wolfhound sustain the distance or is it possible they were smarter than the average wolf? Working in relays, the young males and adult females would split off in small groups, for water and rest, always listening to the baying of the chase. The Senior Male had no need to keep up with the pack as he was certain to be in at the final confrontation. He loped up from behind, stopping for water or rest as needed, too. But he kept his ears open for the turns and twists of the pack. At any moment, a burst of speed could take him forward into the fray.
THE HOUNDS HAVE THE WOLF CORNERED…The male is more rested than his pack and is ready to do his job—kill the wolf!! While the others distract and harry the cornered wolf, the big male launches forward to grab the neck or middle back of the wolf and snap the spine. Is it any wonder the hound needed a strong jaw, shoulder and rear musculature with the stamina to sustain a hunt over many miles and still kill its prey. It is inaccurate to think that the pack would hold a wolf for longer than a minute or two…believe me, being mostly female, they would rather do the kill themselves, but it is the Senior Male’s prerogative, and woe unto that bitch who forgot!!
I would bet you don’t think your Irish Wolfhound could or even should be marathon runners these days. And why not? A well-conditioned hound, kept interested in life and living WILL LIVE LONGER!! You might consider some of the other activities the hound is STILL capable of given his structure.
Actually, I'm not sure there is a "conclusion" to this presentation. It could be the start of a volume of short educational presentations. Who knows? So rather than say "conclusion", shall we say, "Here's to the Beginning".