Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Dog Breeds of Ireland

By Linda Cole

I love digging into the history of dog breeds and where they originated. Our relationship with canines began centuries ago, and understanding the needs of our ancestors tells us we haven't really changed all that much in terms of how we use specific breeds to do certain jobs. Many of today's breeds began in Asia and other areas of the world. Ireland can also lay claim to dog breeds that originated on the Emerald Isle.

Irish Setter

This beautiful chestnut red dog is a breed most people associate with Ireland. In the early years, the dog had shorter legs and a red/white coat. The solid red color didn't begin to show up until the 1800s and soon became the color signifying a well bred, quality dog with excellent hunting ability. Popular throughout England and Ireland in the 1700s, the breed was likely developed by mixing the Irish Water Spaniel, Irish Terrier, English Setter, Spaniel, Pointer and Gordon Setter.

The sporting dog was originally bred to crouch low next to a bird to “set” his game and wait for a hunter to walk up and toss a net over the dog and bird. After firearms improved, the Irish Setter became a complete hunting dog that could point, retrieve and hunt game birds in different types of terrain. The dog has an exceptional nose and can quickly find game hiding in the brush. He's an affectionate, smart and energetic family pet.

Irish Terrier

During WWI, the Irish Terrier was used to run messages and as a sentinel to warn soldiers of any surprise attacks. This dog is thought to be one of the oldest terrier breeds and could possibly be around two thousand years old. No one knows which breeds were used to produce the Irish Terrier, but they originated in Country Cork, Ireland in the 1700s where they were used as a retriever and to hunt otter, water rats, fox and other vermin. At one time during the early 1900s, the Irish Terrier was very popular in the U.S., but for some reason, their popularity died out and they are now rare. This dog has a long body and long legs. He is a loyal, brave, inquisitive, adventurous, playful, energetic and kid friendly dog.

Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier

The Wheaten shares a common ancestry with the Kerry Blue and the Irish Terrier. This dog was considered to be the poor man's dog and was used around the farm as an all purpose canine to hunt down vermin, herd sheep, guard, and hunt with his owner. The common people of Ireland were forbidden to own hounds, so they used the Wheaten Terrier in a variety of jobs. The Soft Coated Wheaten is thought to be one of the oldest breeds that originated in Ireland. This is a spunky, playful, happy, and very high energy dog with a soft and silky wheaten blonde colored coat.

Irish Wolfhound

This is an easy going, patient, friendly and calm breed – around the home. There's an old Irish proverb that aptly describes this dog breed, “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.” The tallest of the sighthounds, this “gentle giant” was built for speed and power to hunt down wolves and Irish elk. They fought in battles alongside soldiers in ancient Rome. The earliest mention of the Irish Wolfhound was made in A.D. 391 Rome, and it's believed the dog was brought to Ireland around 1500 from Greece. In Ireland, their bravery and valor during battles and when chasing prey is legendary.

The dog was highly prized at one time and given as gifts to visiting nobility. By the turn of the 1800s, the Irish Wolfhound had wiped out the wolf population in Ireland and the breed was on the verge of extinction. The 1845 potato famine caused further decline of the breed until 1869 when Capt. G.A. Graham stepped in and saved the breed. The Irish Wolfhound is the tallest dog breed (up to 7 feet tall standing on his back legs), but not the heaviest one. (The English Mastiff is the heaviest breed coming in at 110 - 343 pounds).

Kerry Beagle

This breed was introduced to Ireland by the Celts in the middle ages and is thought to be among the oldest Irish dog breeds. The Kerry Beagle is a larger scenthound than the traditional beagle, with an excellent nose once used to track mainly hare, stag and other large game. The breed likely came from mixing French Hounds and Southern Hounds, an extinct breed today.

This breed was also almost wiped out during the potato famine. It's believed the Kerry Beagle aided in the development of the American Foxhound and the American Black and Tan Coonhound. The breed also played a role in today's Beagle which is a descendant of the Harrier, Foxhound and the Kerry Beagle. It's the genes from the Kerry Beagle that gave the Beagle their exceptional nose.

Other dog breeds of Ireland are the Irish Red and White Setter, the Glen of Imaal Terrier, the Irish Water Spaniel and the Kerry Blue Terrier.

Top: Irish Setter by Adam Wyles
Middle: Irish Terrier by Sini Merikallio
Bottom: Irish Wolfhound by Brian Harrington Spier

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. I never realized that an Irish Setter was a mixed dog. Interesting. And I think those Irish Wolfhounds are just astounding. I met a guy who had two of them, just beautiful dogs. Their size is incredible.

  2. I really like the Irish Wolfhound. I have only seen one of them and they are great. But very large and would need a place to run around a lot.Good info.


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