Irish Wolfhound Specialty Showcases the State of the Breed

National specialties illustrate where the breed stands at that moment in time. See where Irish Wolfhound breeders think their breed stands today.

By Gretchen Bernardi | Posted: July 16, 2014 9 a.m. PST

Irish Wolfhound Profile
Photo courtesy Mary O'Malley.

National specialties appeal to all of us who are part of the dog-showing world, at least they should. They offer something for everyone: exhibitors, some proudly showing the dogs they bred or sired by their own dogs, and others showing dogs they bought, equally proud that they were wise and lucky enough to talk a breeder into selling them a show dog; juniors exhibiting their skills in handling; professional handlers, there to do what they do best, present the dog so it will hopefully do well in competition; and performance enthusiasts, some of whom also participate in the conformation ring.

During the 2014 specialty week of the Irish Wolfhound Club of America, there was all of that and more: obedience, rally, an ASFA trial (lure coursing under American Sighthound Field Association regulations) and LGRA races (straight racing on a straight, flat track under the Large Gazehound Racing Association regulations).


Behind Every Dog Is a Breeder

Behind every dog that participated at this year’s specialty, as at every specialty, was a breeder, someone who decided to breed a bitch to a specific dog, someone who thought such a breeding would produce a litter of outstanding Irish Wolfhounds (at least that’s what we hope, don’t we?). Breeders are the main focus at these shows, the stars, if you will, or at least that has historically been true. We pretend that this just might be true at all of our shows, but the specialties do it best.

Breeders come to see their dogs that went to other homes or breeding programs, wanting to see how they turned out, if they kept the right dog, testing their eye for finding quality. But they also come to proudly show off the results of their own endeavors, to compare their breeding choices with those of their fellow breeders and to see how their dogs measure up. What did a specific sire do for my breeding compared to what he did for a fellow breeder?

True breeders adhere to a statement made by Florence Nagle of the famous English kennel Sulhamstead. When someone asked what dogs she chose to take to the championship shows, she said, "I take the dog I like and hope the judge agrees. If not, I go another day.” I hope there still are breeders with that attitude, although they are surely diminishing in numbers.

Specialties showcase the state of the breed and illustrate in the living dogs before us where the breed stands at that moment in time. Where are the dogs excelling, and where are they failing? What kennels are producing significant and consistent type and quality? What sires are making their mark, siring dogs that signify a step forward for the breed? What sires are a disappointment, not producing dogs as good as themselves or worse, dragging the breed backward?

So it is the breeders I am focusing on in this report of the 85th Irish Wolfhound Club of America Specialty held in late April and early May at Purina Farms in Gray Summit, Mo. The winners will all be featured in various magazines, especially the official club magazine, Harp & Hound, complete with photos and critiques. All of the winners are posted on the club website ( with names of sires, dams, owners, breeders, etc. Here I want to focus on what our current breeders are thinking about the breed today, and because so many were present at this specialty, it was a perfect opportunity to find out.


What the Breeders Think

Irish Wolfhound Conformation
Photo courtesy Mary O'Malley.

Very simply I asked breeders to respond to two questions: 1) Looking at the dogs at this specialty, would you say that Irish Wolfhounds are, as a breed, in good shape? Are they better, worse or about the same as in the past? And 2) Looking at the dogs at this specialty and comparing them to the standard, what, in your opinion, are their greatest strengths and their most prevalent weaknesses?

David and Donna Smith of Taliesin Irish Wolfhounds in Pennsylvania were the most philosophical in their response and expressed what many of us in the breed are feeling. "I think the answer to that [the question on whether the dogs are better or worse] depends on where you are in your life with IWs. I will say that there was more quality to be found at this year’s specialty than the last couple years,” Donna writes. She continues, "Bitches are usually better, thankfully, otherwise there would be no hope. That is not to imply we are swimming in quality. I think this is something that you do not notice initially in your IW journey because the sheer number of hounds is daunting. There is a great quantity of non-horrifyingly average. By that I mean they look like IWs and move in a ‘not-lame’ fashion, but they are not hounds that send you scrambling for your catalog to see their breeding.”

Donna believes the breed suffers, as all breeds do, from the loss of great large kennels. "These were the places that could produce a larger number of quality hounds to share with those of us with smaller numbers. On a positive note, today we are more able to share with other breeders from all over the world. I think if we are judicious in what we carry on with, there will always be a small group of hounds of extraordinary quality to carry on with, and perhaps we can make more progress in overall health of our hounds in the process.”

The Smiths have had the breed for 24 years and attended their first National in 1990. They brought several dogs to Missouri and were rewarded in several classes, including Winners Dog.

One thing is very clear from the responses: Getting specific, the front assembly in the breed is what needs the most attention. Isn’t this the case with many of our breeds? It has certainly been the case in the Irish Wolfhound as long as I have been associated with the breed. Straight upper arms are so prevalent that they have almost become acceptable, at least to those who know where the upper arm is.

Karen Catov-Goodell of Pinehurst kennel in Colorado, put her finger on the real issue when she wrote that she was "disappointed with the straight fronts, which may be a product of trying to get more leg.” Certainly, in a breed required to have "great size,” one way to get that size is to open up the angle of the forehand, which is surely why we see much better front assemblies on the smaller, that is, shorter hounds, especially the bitches. Karen pointed out that lack of length of leg is a problem in the breed and saw an improvement in that respect at this show. Is this a case of solving one problem by creating another? Karen has been involved with the breed for 25 years, has been attending the National since 1994 and has done well at most of them, and this year earned Select Dog with a homebred dog, in addition to other placements. Karen is also a dedicated coursing enthusiast, competing in lure coursing and open field coursing with her Wolfhounds.

The Limerick trio Janet and Linda Souza and Jamie Souza Bartlett from California, had very similar thoughts: the need for more length of leg and, again, faulty front assemblies. Jamie writes, "As always, we need to continue work on our front assemblies. There were many short upper arms with no shoulder layback that presented hounds with shortened and/or improperly stationed necks. This structural fault moved through to their side gait.”

All three women felt that the IW community is doing well in improving type and felt that soundness was good overall and were happy to not see many over-angulated hindquarters. There have been Limerick Wolfhounds for 42 years, and Limerick won the AKC Hound Breeder of the Year award in 2013. In addition to success in the all-breed ring as well as regional specialties, a Limerick dog won the National in 2003.

Beverly and Susan Stobart from Missouri have been breeding and showing Irish Wolfhounds under the Caraglen name for 40 years and attended their first National in 1974. Caraglen dogs placed well at this specialty, and the kennel name showed up prominently in the pedigrees of several top-placing dogs throughout the show.

They, too, saw many faulty front assemblies, "with the most pervasive problem being upright pasterns and, secondly, upright or shoulders set too far forward.” And they made a very perceptive point about the quality of the breed in general. "Going by the dogs at this specialty is deceptive,” Susan wrote. "One might think the breed is in pretty good shape. However, the average dog at the specialty was far better than the dogs at the average all-breed dog show.” Does this statement say more about the value of national specialties or the problems facing our all-breed shows?

The Stobarts agree that the greatest problem in the breed is not in the individual dogs themselves, but in the fact that "there are far too few breeders trying to keep or establish a line of good-quality hounds based upon pedigrees or generations of good, sound, healthy hounds, and far too many people breeding dogs without much regard for anything other than getting puppies.” Amen!

Nightwing Irish Wolfhounds, under owner/breeder Joel Mattson of Minnesota, are mostly seen at specialties, both national and regional, and are always in the running for top placements. Joel has been involved in this breed for 35 years, attending his first specialty in 1982, and he has the same reservations about the quality he saw at this specialty. Feeling that the breed is in "OK shape, but could always be better,” he thinks we have dogs today that are as good as the dogs of the past, and "we always seem to have a small group of top-tier dogs. Then there is a larger group of really nice dogs, just not as nice as the top tier. We have another group of OK dogs that, if bred to the right dog, could produce something good. But these three groups make up about 30 percent of our IWs. Many of the remaining 70 percent will go to all-breed shows and become champions, giving their owners the false perception of quality.” Someone somewhere needs to pay attention to these words if we want to save all-breed shows as a platform to evaluate breeding stock.

In Joel’s opinion, what were the weaknesses at this specialty? Those short upper arms again, but he, too, thinks we are getting length of leg back in the breed.

Deborah Sanders of Niobrara has been in the breed for 43 years, attending her first specialty in the early ‘70s, and brought her dogs from Cimarron, N.M., to this show. She was "pleased with the quality of the dogs in all classes, which has not always been the case.” She saw hounds with good length of leg, curvy shape and sound movement. But she, too, saw many short upper arms, as well as flat toplines. On a positive note, she said, "I can’t remember when I have enjoyed watching judging more!”

Irish Wolfhound
Photo courtesy Mary O'Malley.

Jill Bregy, whose Wildisle Wolfhounds are known to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of pedigrees, adds one more voice to those decrying the front assemblies, saying, "Straight upper arms and forward scapula placement causing dips behind the shoulder and roaching in the topline — not to be confused with ‘a rise over the loin’ — although it often is.” And Jill has seen her share of Wolfhounds in her 48 years in the breed, attending her first national specialty in 1966. In addition to many regional specialty winners, her Ch. Wild Isle Warlock (different spelling to accommodate requirements to register the kennel name) won three consecutive specialties in the mid-‘70s under three well-known breeder-judges. ‘Warlock’ came back three years later and did it again.

Incorrect front assemblies aside, Jill thought the breed is in good shape, bitches being better. "Several years ago,” she writes, "I felt that males were improving in their overall quality. I would say that the overall quality of the males was disappointing. Many of the toplines, which are the indicator of the structure underneath the dog, were soft, indicating front assembly problems. Referring to a statement made to me by Rachael Page Elliott of Dog Steps fame many years ago — ‘the dog hangs from the topline’ — that statement, when you think about it, tells us all. The quality of the bitches generally showed stronger toplines, superior overall balance and movement and good type.” She saw great improvement in balance of height to length of body, giving the dogs the Greyhound-like shape as required by the standard.

Jonathon and Nina Harvey of Cualainn kennels, currently in Houston, Texas, but originally from the UK, have been in the breed for 14 years and have sent Cualainn hounds to breeding programs in the Netherlands and Sweden as well as the United States. This was their first National in the United States, and they attended as spectators, feeling the quality was about the same as they have seen elsewhere, with heads and shape being the strongest features here. "Soundness in movement on the down and back was lacking,” they thought.

Sorcha Wilde, Witchesbroom Irish Wolfhounds from the UK, was also a spectator, but not for the first time. Sorcha attended her first IWCA specialty in 1985 and then judged it in 1990 under her previous name Sheila Kemp. Since 1972, Witchesbroom dogs have contributed to breeding programs in Sweden, Canada, South Africa, Germany, France and the United States. A dog she bred and co-owned won the National in 1989, and Witchesbroom dogs are found in many of today’s top hounds. However, from her perspective, the breed is in decline. But it’s not all bad news. She does feel that there were exceptions, "which were as good and some better than those dogs in the past.” She felt that the heads and the expressions were the dogs’ strongest points, but that many of the dogs lacked balance. She also saw over-angulated hindquarters and a definite lack of muscle and overall conditioning.

Maria Lubera breeds under the kennel name Shellane in suburban Chicago. She has lived with Irish Wolfhounds for 32 years, but the first 10 of those were with one pet Wolfhound. Evidently, she was hooked and attended her first National Specialty in 2000. She thinks the breed is in good shape and found the final lineup "quite impressive.” She thought movement, especially side movement, was very good, although the down and back could use a little improvement. And, of course, she, too, saw front assemblies as the breed’s most prevalent failing, adding to the nearly universal theme.

And, incidentally, Maria bred her first litter just four years ago, and her dog from that first Shellane litter, Ch. Shellane Braniff, topped the entry this year as Best of Breed. Maria should teach a course on how to do it right, from getting a top-quality bitch to picking the right sire and keeping Irish Wolfhounds in top condition.

Last and certainly not least, judge Roger Tebbutt of Caredig Irish Wolfhounds took the time before he flew back to Wales to give me his own brief impression of the dogs that were brought to him. Roger and his wife, Debbie, have had Wolfhounds for more than 40 years and attended their first specialty in the UK around 1980. He has judged and attended specialties throughout Europe and the UK and feels that individual dogs shown to him this year could compete in any era. But he felt there was not much depth of quality in the classes, and that concerned him. "All I have seen in the reports from previous specialties are the winners,” he writes, "so to make claims about US stock in general would be unfair.” He goes on to say, "In contrast to the UK, you retain numbers of large kennels, which give more opportunities to breed consistent quality than do groups of fewer individuals. Thus, your hounds are stronger here than anywhere else I have visited recently.”

But a warning: "I hope your country avoids the slide into the anonymity that the breed is suffering elsewhere, but it needs intelligence and understanding and patience to maintain the standard, and it is rarer to find the combination of all three these days.” He felt the breed’s greatest strengths were excellent, typical heads with dark eyes and small ears, and good croups with correct tail carriage. On the weak side were fronts, again, "which are frequently narrow, with upright shoulders, short and near-vertical upper arms, upright pasterns and lack of discernible sternum in many cases,” small and dirty teeth and weak, poorly set necks.

I am grateful to those breeders who took the time to answer my questions right after a busy Specialty week. I apologize to those important breeders I missed, as there were many, and to those who were asked but too busy traveling to respond in time. I am also grateful to everyone involved in making this 2014 Irish Wolfhound Specialty a success.


From the July 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.


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