Known originally in old Ireland as "Cu," (loosely translated as "hound," "Irish hound," "war dog" or "wolf dog") the Irish wolfhound is the world's tallest dog breed. The animal is mentioned in ancient Irish laws established before the dawn of Christianity. Initially, only kings and other nobility could own the dog, but soon the Irish wolfhound's international profile brought it to the brink of extinction.
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Given the dog's origin in early history, some confusion exists as to the exact lineage of the creature. In the book "A History and Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland," Rawdon Briggs Lee says the animal, or the dog from which it evolved, may have been brought to Ireland in the sixth century B.C. by the Celts during their migration from the area of the Black Sea.
Their huge size made them ideal for both intimidation of, and attack on, enemies. "The hounds were used as war dogs to haul men off horseback and out of chariots, and there are many tales in Irish mythology of their ferocity and bravery in battle," writes the Irish Wolfhound Society of the United Kingdom. "They were also used as guards of property and herds and for hunting Irish elk as well as deer, boar and wolves."
One ancient Irish law concerned itself entirely with the dog and established the amount of time that each animal could be allowed to roam dependent on the status of its owner. The law also detailed rules for the wolfhound relieving itself on a neighbor's property, demanding that the waste not only be removed, but also sod put down and covered with cow dung for one month. A fine of butter, dough and curds--in the same quantity as that of the excrement--was required to be paid to the neighbor whose property was "defaced."
The animals were highly esteemed and often offered as gifts to foreign dignitaries. "Large numbers were sent to Spain and King John of Poland is said to have contributed to their near extinction in Ireland by procuring as many as he could lay hands on," according to IrishWolfHounds.org. "In 1652, a declaration was issued banning the exportation of hounds from Ireland on account of their scarcity." A few of the animals also made their way to Roman society, where they were a focus of great attention and admiration.
The dog nearly disappeared from common existence in Ireland but was saved from near extinction thanks to the efforts of one fan of the animal. "It was at this point that Captain George A. Graham gathered the remaining specimens and restored the breed," reports the American Kennel Club. "His work began in 1862, and 23 years later, under his supervision, the first breed standard was set." Graham and others established the Irish Wolfhound Club in 1885, with the dog being recognized as a sporting breed in 1925.