SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
February 14, 1966
Its ancestry lost in legend, the Irish wolfhound is much too large to be petty about winning mere blue ribbons
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February 14, 1966

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

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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.

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