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.