The land of the leprechauns is also the homeland of several popular dog breeds and a few not so well known. Ireland has brought the world hunting dogs, companion dogs, and working dogs. Irish dog breeds range from the very small to the very large, and each type can be a very special companion with the right family.
Two types of setters hail from Ireland: the Irish Setter, mostly red in color, and the similar Irish Red and White Setter. The former was one of the first breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), while its red and white cousin, smaller in stature, is a new breed recognized by the AKC. You can learn more about these two Irish setter breeds in our article about sporting dogs.
Several breeds of terriers originated in Ireland. Glen of Imaal Terriers are small dogs, standing only 12.5 to 14 inches (32 to 35.5 cm) tall and weighing 34 to 36 pounds (15 to 16 kg), but they act like large dogs, possessing strength and tenacity. This breed is named for a valley in the Wicklow Mountains of County Wicklow, Ireland. This area is one of Ireland’s lesser populated regions, and the Wicklow Mountains are one of the country’s most remote areas; this geography plays a large role in why not much is known about this breed of dog and why it developed along different lines from its three Irish terrier cousins: the Kerry Blue, Soft Coated Wheaten, and Irish Terriers.
The Glen or Imaal Terrier originated more than 100 years ago. Like most terrier breeds, this dog was used by people to rid home and farm of vermin, including badger and fox. These dogs also had a very unique job – working as turnspit dogs. The turnspit was a large wheel and when paddled by the dog, the wheel turned a spit over the hearth – like a canine- propelled rotisserie. Glen of Imaal terriers possess a wiry coat that comes in many colors; grooming is fairly easy. Typical terriers, these dogs are very spirited, make loyal companions, and need plenty of exercise. They can be diggers and chasers, and they may live to 14 years of age. The breed was recognized by the AKC in 2004.
One of the oldest of the terrier breeds, the Irish Terrier originated in County Cork. It was recognized by the AKC in 1885, and was one of the first dog breeds recognized by the organization. Known for its intelligence and devotion, the Irish Terrier was used on the farms of its native land not only to dispose of vermin, but also to guard the property; this dog breed is very protective of its owner. Irish terriers were used as messenger dogs during World War I. A medium-sized dog, the Irish terrier stands about 18 inches (43 cm) tall and weighs between 25 and 27 pounds (11 to 12 kg). It possesses a short, wiry red coat with a softer undercoat. Long-legged and agile, this is an active dog, considered more energetic than most terriers; therefore, it’s a breed that requires vigorous daily exercise. It can live 12 to 15 years and is generally considered a very healthy breed.
The Kerry Blue Terrier is an all-purpose dog, originally used for hunting and retrieving on land and in water as well as herding sheep in its native County Kerry. Its trademark, a soft, wavy bluish coat, starts off black then fades to deep slate gray-blue or light blue-gray; the coat requires grooming about every six weeks. This dog is also known for its long facial hair. Today’s Kerries are found in the show ring and at obedience, agility, and earth dog trials. This Irish dog breed is known for its intelligence and playfulness, but it is a typical terrier with a determined personality; therefore, firm training is required. This dog makes a good family pet for it is friendly and devoted to its owner and with its love of play, the Kerry Blue is a fun dog for children. However, they may not do well in homes with cats or other small pets due to their hunting instinct. These medium-sized, muscular dogs stand 17.5 to 20 inches (44 to 51 cm) tall and weigh between 33 and 40 pounds (15 to 18 kg). The Kerry Blue Terrier is considered a healthy, long-lived breed, averaging 12 to 15 years.
The Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier is considered a strong, agile, and friendly dog that can be good with children. One of the oldest Irish dog breeds, it was known as “the poor man’s dog.” It is known for its soft, wheaten-colored coat. Learn more about this breed att Terriers.
Irish Water Spaniel
The largest of the spaniel breeds, the Irish Water Spaniel stands 20 to 23 inches (51 to 58 cm) and weighs 45 to 65 pounds (20 to 30 kg). It possesses a curly, liver-colored coat that is hypoallergenic; therefore, this dog can be a great companion for allergy sufferers. The breed’s trademark is its curly top-knot and rat-like tail. It is known as the clown of the spaniel family, mild-mannered, loving, and friendly. This Irish dog breed dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries and is believed to have originated in Dublin. It was used for hunting and retrieving on land as well as in water, and therefore, possesses a water-repellent coat and webbed feet. Being a sporting dog, the Irish Water Spaniel requires plenty of exercise and makes a wonderful companion for an active family. Learn more about this breed in our article at Spaniels.
The Irish Wolfhound is the tallest of all dog breeds, standing 30 to 34 inches (76 to 86 cm) tall at the shoulder; it is also one of the oldest breeds of dogs, dating back to the 4th century. Large and muscular, this breed is known for its endurance. It was a dog of the nobility that hunted alongside its owner, pursing quarry such as wolves and Irish elk. In addition to a hunting companion, these dogs were also family pets, guarding castles and playing with children. Even though by the 1800s there were few Irish wolfhounds left in Ireland, the breed was recognized by the AKC in 1897. Learn more at wolfhounds.
The Kerry beagle is an Irish dog breed that is not recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC). Larger than “normal” beagles, the Kerry stands nearly two feet tall (61 cm) and weighs about 60 pounds (27 kg). It’s short coat comes in a variety of colors, including tri-color, black and tan, and tan and white; it can also be solid black. A hunter and family companion, the Kerry Beagle nearly became extinct. The breed was recognized by the Irish Kennel Club in 1991. Considered a friendly dog, this breed makes an excellent family pet as it’s very good with children. It is also energetic, and therefore, requires regular exercise. This Irish dog breed is considered a healthy breed; the Kerry beagle generally lives 10 to 14 years.
Another breed not recognized by the AKC but popular in Ireland is the Irish Lurcher. This breed emerged as a hunting dog for the common person at a time when the nobility used sight-hounds such as greyhounds. Not necessarily a breed but rather a type of dog, the Irish Lurcher (like all lurchers) is a cross-breed between greyhound and collie and greyhound and terrier. Because the land and the game belonged to the aristocracy, the game pursed by the lurcher and hunted by the common people was considered poached – hares, rabbits and other small game. Lurchers can be long-haired or short-haired.
These dogs are used primarily as companion animals since hare coursing is now illegal in many European countries, although they still compete in Ireland where it remains legal. Lurchers are loyal and make wonderful family pets. However, they need lots of room and regular exercise, so they are not the best choice for city living. Learn more about lurchers and their history here.
Irish Toy Collie
A relatively new breed, the Irish Toy Collie’s heritage is that of Shetland Sheepdogs (‘sheltie’) and Spitz dogs. This breed generally weighs less than 20 pounds (9 kg). These dogs are considered sweet natured and friendly as well as lively and intelligent. They need jobs as well as attention and affection from their humans. They serve as therapy dogs and service dogs as well as family companions, and they compete well in obedience, agility, and herding trials. The Irish toy collie is overall very healthy and long-lived. Currently, the breed is only registered through the Irish Toy Collie International organization.
Ireland has produced a variety of wonderful dog breeds and most served in working capacities. These dogs are as diverse as Ireland’s people, an amazing array of poets, musicians, farmers, and business folks. Today, though some Irish dog breeds may still have “jobs”, the majority make fine family pets.