The Revival of the Irish Wolfhound

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A major focus of 19th-century dog breeding was an ambition to promote national breeds. This laudable desire came with a few snags. Many of these breeds predated the nations they were meant to represent. For instance, Germany is cited as the birthplace of many breeds that would be more accurately described as a family of related varieties performing similar functions, which were produced in small states and principalities. The existence of multiple types inevitably led to conflicting interpretations of each breed’s form and ancestry. When historical documentation did exist it rarely provided conclusive evidence to settle controversies. More often breed histories and definitions of type were cobbled together simultaneously, with the end result sometimes reflecting a genuine record of heritage, but sometimes wishful thinking.

These issues were compounded by the novel idea that form was no longer tied to function. In earlier times breeds disappeared when outdated functions rendered them obsolete, but this changed with the advent of dog shows and pet ownership. For instance, England’s national breed, the Bulldog, experienced its greatest popularity after bullbaiting was outlawed. 

The question at the center of these issues has yet to be completely answered: What defines a breed? Nineteenth-century fanciers understood that traditional definitions required revisions, but this was treated with varying importance. In some cases, experts seemed happy to ignore reality in favor of entertaining myths. Many of the strangest legends embedded in breed histories evolved this way. However, certain breeds aroused incredible scrutiny.

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