Is Bigger Better?
I have finally come to an age where I can employ these two significant words: “Years ago.” As the story unfolds, I was walking to my ring and found myself behind two gentlemen amiably talking. One of the gentlemen said he was off to finish his Terrier assignment and asked his comrade where he was off to next. “I’m set to judge the Draft Horses next,” he replied. I chuckled to myself until to my horror the draft-horse judge stood directly in the middle of the Irish Wolfhound ring. As if to make a mockery of any self respecting wolf-killer, this gentleman proceeded to award every would-be draft horse in the ring in a systematically size-befitting order.
Every good, red-blooded American is keenly aware and takes great pride in knowing that “bigger is better” in this country. In some categories of life it has been a very close shave as to that particular project’s undoing. In the cattle industry the trend towards bigger dairy cows and bigger beef cattle made for animals that were so unsound that they were dangerously unthrifty. Breeding bulls could not stand on their very tall and very straight hind legs to service a cow. Cows so huge did not have the proper structure nature intended to maintain their weight and height, and could not calve without major complications. Because this is an industry fueled by economics, the trend reversed in short order and the folly of their greedy thinking went safely, at least so far, into the history books.
There is a significant quote about the history of a breed and potentially a warning to breeders, judges and enthusiasts: "History: It is the backbone of the purebred world. Without a knowledge of history, an exhibitor can only show a dog that looks similar to another dog. Without history, a judge can only evaluate shapes in a ring, never a breed."- Cindee Byer, AKC Gazette, March 2008.
Without this history, without a serviceable knowledge of the breed, Irish Wolfhounds become a generic big dog. To judge Irish Wolfhounds based solely on their size is a disservice of gigantic proportions, no pun intended.
Left: The frontispiece of Capt. Graham's seminal work "The Irish Wolfhound," compiled and completed between 1879 and 1885.
Right: Capt. George A. Graham (1833-1900), credited with preserving the Irish Wolfhound breed.
“An all-round sound dog of medium height is far preferable to an overgrown, badly-shaped, crooked-legged giant, for size, though most important, cannot in any way make up for unsoundness.” - Captain George Graham, founder of The Irish Wolfhound Club in 1885.
More and more the ring is full of animals that couldn’t catch a couch, let alone a wolf. Recently lamenting to a friend in arms about this mess, this lack of “wolf killer,” he suggested that perhaps we could start out our hunting dogs on fainting goats*. Funny and true. The desire is certainly there, but these structurally unsound dogs could not carry through on their intention.
“This is more important than height at shoulder. Our standard says ‘It is desired to firmly establish a race that shall average 32 to 34 inches in dogs showing the requisite power, activity, courage and symmetry.’ This aim has been achieved and most hounds 36 inches or over have not been either symmetrical or sound.” This quote was written in 1962 by Mrs. Florence Nagle, Sulhamstead Kennels, and is still, quite unfortunately, true today.
“In my opinion there is a tendency to get them too heavy and overladen with fat; after all, what is the object of having them all square and fat, like a Smithfield prize ox; if they were galloped in that condition they would die of heart failure, and to me it spoils their beauty of outline..…
I can never forget that our breed is a galloping and hunting dog.”
- Florence Nagle, 1930, the matriarch of the breed in England, with involvement spanning from 1913 until 1988.
Florence Nagle with four of her Sulhamstead Irish Wolfhounds in the 1920s. From "Mission Accomplished - The life and times of Florence Nagle," by Ferelith Somerfield.
Although many people have been alarmed about this turn of events, there are just as many touting the need for more size. Too often we hear the “All things being equal, put up the bigger dog” mentoring. After watching these people judge I fear they only heard the latter half of that statement. Alarmingly, I have seen more judges sizing up their entry at a coat pocket or a hem length. Put up the better dog!
In interpreting the opening line of the standard, “Of great size and commanding appearance” doesn’t necessarily mean that we are comparing each Wolfhound to one another. Every Wolfhound is of great size and commanding appearance when compared to nearly any other breed. They are awesome, they are magnificent, they are huge and above all they should be a hound capable of catching a wolf and then killing it.
Soft curves, balance and symmetry—the essence of an Irish Wolfhound—should never take a back seat to sheer size. It’s the all-elusive marriage of size and rough-coated Greyhound-like type we all are striving for.
I've bred some very big champions, and I am certainly not advocating breeding smaller Wolfhounds, but I think if we are looking to breed rough-coated Great Danes or Wire-Coated Mastiffs the future looks bright …
*Fainting goats have a genetic mutation that causes them to “faint” and fall over when highly stressed.
“The Irish Wolfhound is a galloping sight hound, not a prize-fed porker that any self-respecting wolf would immediately gobble up. Without exercise to keep the ligaments and tendons taut the dog loses control over his hind legs and can only shuffle about and that, to me, is a travesty of what I consider a Wolfhound should be.”
- Florence Nagle, 1934.
“Novice breeders are apt to think that size is the most important thing at which to aim. This is not so; type and conformation come first, all things being equal. Of course, a good big one will beat a good small one, but it is quite wrong to put a big hound of poor conformation or unsound over a really well-made smaller hound, provided that the latter is 32 inches tall (30 inches if a bitch). In my long experience in the breed since 1913, the few hounds of 37 inches or over have not been really good hounds, and would not have stood an earthly chance in a variety class.”
- Florence Nagle, 1957.
“I have seen practically every dog and bitch in the breed since 1913 and I particularly want to emphasize how important correct conformation is. Without this no hound will be sound or a good mover … This is more important than height at the shoulder. Our standard says ‘It is desired to firmly establish a race that shall average 32 to 34 inches in dogs showing the requisite power, activity, courage and symmetry.’ This aim has been achieved and most hounds 36" or over have not been either symmetrical or sound.”
- Florence Nagle, 1962.
“Judges don’t always read the standard far enough down. It does call for ‘great size and commanding appearance’ but also says ‘It is desired to firmly establish a race that shall average 32 ro 34 inches in dogs showing the requisite power, activity, courage and symmetry.’
- Florence Nagle, 1980.
Mrs. Nagle in the 1980s with her last two champion Irish Wolfhounds, Ch. Seplecur Meg of Sulhamstead and Ch. Lainston Laodamia of Sulhamsted. From the cover of the book "Mission Accomplished - The life and times of Florence Nagle," by Ferelith Somerfield.