Irish Setter
Irish Setter (Photo: rebius via Canva)

Breeds of Irish Dogs

How many Irish dog breeds are there? There are nine officially recognised Irish dog breeds. They range in size from small Glen of Imaal Terrier to one of the largest of all dogs, the Irish Wolfhound. Each breed has their own quirky character traits and interesting history. Here you will discover plenty of interesting facts about these charming dogs from Ireland. 

What breed of dogs come from Ireland?

Irish Setters on the go!
Irish Setters on the go! (Photos: Wavetop via Canva)

The nine breeds of dog that come from Ireland are: 

Native Irish Hounds

There are two native breeds of hounds from Ireland. These are the well known Irish Wolfhound and the lesser known Kerry Beagle.

Irish Wolfhound 

Portrait of an Irish Wolfhound
Portrait of an Irish Wolfhound (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

Known for their enormous size, the iconic Irish Wolfhound does make quite an impression as one of the tallest dogs in the world. These large, loyal dogs were originally bred to hunt and defend against wolves and are thought to have been used by the ancient Irish people, the Geals. 

The earliest known written account of this dog, dates back to the writings of a Roman Consul in 391. Down through the centuries, word about these dogs spread and individual dogs were often given as prized gifts to the royalty and nobility of Europe and beyond. 

Interestingly, there is a lack of bone evidence from archeological excavations to support that these dogs were as big in Irish history (ca. 1000 BCE) as they are now according to some experts.

Irish Wolfhounds were used to kill wolves in Ireland and a certain number of dogs was required to protect livestock in each county up until the 15th century. 

After the last wolf was killed in Ireland in 1786, Irish Wolfhounds declined further in number. As the dog Irish chieftains or important individuals kept became more akin to status symbols rather than functional hunters, the numbers declined even more.

As sighthunters, they rely more on their visual senses when pursuing prey and are known for their speed. They are muscular with an average size of 81–86 centimeters (32–34 inches). Their coat is usually hard and wiry and can be in a rany of colors from white to black, fawn and gray. 

These large dogs have a relatively short lifespan of about 7 years on average and frequently succumb to bone cancer. 

Is an Irish Wolfhound a good family pet? 

Despite their large size, they are usually quite gentle in character and reserved, making them a better guardian than guard dog. Irish Wolfhounds are very intelligent and prefer company, especially with their owner or family, with whom they form a strong bond. They are good with children and other pets if they are socialized from a young age.

These large Irish dogs require a considerable amount of exercise, stimulation and space to gallop around to ensure they stay in the best of health. 

Irish Wolfhound Facts

Two Irish Wolfhounds relaxing in grass
Two Irish Wolfhounds relaxing in grass (Photo: Zuzule via Canva)

The number of true purebred Irish wolfhounds was so limited during the 19th century, that Captain George Augustus Graham was forced to cross breed the finest remaining original Irish Wolfhound specimens with other similar large dogs to ensure the breed survived. Therefore, the modern Irish Wolfhound also has traces of Scottish Deerhound, Great Dane, Borzoi and Tibetian Mastiff dogs breeds. 

Enthusiasts of the breed founded the Irish Wolfhound Club of Ireland as early as 1885, although it appears to have been closer to about 1908 before the club became more widely acknowledged.

Many famous people have owned Irish Wolfhounds, including two American presidents (Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy), Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees and Sting

Kerry Beagle

Kerry Beagle by the name of Gangster taken around 1913
Kerry Beagle by the name of Gangster taken around 1913 (Photo: F. Gray Griswold, Public Domain from Internet Archive Book Images)

The Kerry Beagle is a very old native dog breed that can possibly trace its roots back to the Celtic dog breeds used in the early settlements in Ireland. The first documented record of this dog breed dates back to the 16th century. 

This scenthound was thought to have been originally bred as a staghound, but also used to hunt small game, such as foxes and hares. 

Its name is somewhat confusing as it does not closely remember the traditional beagle. One possible explanation for its unusual name is that the name “beagle” may have actually come from the Irish word beag, which means small. 

This breed is officially recognised by the Irish Kennel Club, but it is one of the rare Irish dog breeds that is not well known outside of Ireland.

The Kerry Beagle is a medium sized dog (56–61 cm (22–24 in) and larger than the traditional beagle. This breed has a muscular stature suited to hunting sports with a broad head and low set velvety ears. Kerry Beagles are typically brown and black tan in color, but can occasionally be tan and white or black. Their coats are short, hard and smooth and they typically live to be 10 years old or even older.

As a hunting dog with a lot of stamina, strength and energy, the Kerry Beagle needs vigorous amounts of regular exercise and is best suited to an area with lots of space to run around. Generally, the Kerry Beagle is a social dog that tolerates people and other dogs well.

Kerry Beagle Facts

Due to its hunting abilities, the Kerry Beagles was one of the preferred hunting breeds of the wealthy elites in Ireland during the 19th century. The Great Famine in Ireland during the 1840s resulted in the decline in the number of the Kerry Beagles due to starvation. 

Not long afterwards, during the Land Wars of Ireland between the landlords and farmer tenants in the 1880s, the Kerry Beagles number declined again. This time the dogs belonging to the gentry were targeted with baited poison and were attacked in their kennels.

By about 1881, it is thought that only one pack of Kerry Beagles were left in Ireland at Scarteen in County Limerick. The history of Kerry Beagles at Scarteen House goes back several generations making it the oldest pack of hunting dogs in Ireland and most of the Kerry Beagles can trace their lineage back to here. 

Native Irish Terriers

Ireland has four different types of terriers that were specifically bred for the hunting conditions in Ireland. These Irish terriers are:

  • Irish Terrier
  • Kerry Blue Terrier
  • Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier
  • Glen of Imaal (Glen or Wicklow Terrier)

Irish Terrier 

Irish Terrier
Irish Terrier (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

Little is known about the exact origin of the Irish Terrier dog breed, but it is likely to be a descendant of black and tan terriers. In terms of Irish terriers, it is considered to be one of the oldest types. The dog is known for its adventurous spirit, daring nature and fierce loyalty.

Up until about the late 19th century, Irish Terriers had coats of black and tan color and showed great variation in size, but around the turn of the 20th century selective efforts were made to breed only pure red coats on Irish Terriers. Today, red, golden red and occasionally wheaten colored Irish Terriers exist.

During the late 1880s, its popularity rose significantly in Ireland and Britain. The official Irish Terrier AKC breed recognition was awarded in 1885.

The Irish Terrier is a functional dog that earned its keep in houses and farms, by hunting vermin and watching guard. This breed is agile, robust and enjoys mental and physical challenges to keep them in top form. Naturally enough, these dogs need plenty of exercise. As they do not shed, their coats also need to be well groomed to ensure that they stay in the best shape to protect against the weather.

Irish Terrier competing in an Agility Trial
Irish Terrier competing in an Agility Trial (Photo: herreid via Canva)

Irish Terrier dogs generally live to be about 13 to 14 years. They are affectionate and good tempered with people, but can fight fiercely if attacked or provoked by another dog. These dogs can be trained as great guard dogs, as well as being a suitable family pet.  

Irish Terrier Facts

Surprisingly, Irish Terriers played a very useful role in World War I. These intelligent and often fearless dogs were used to deliver messages to the troops on the front, detect movement in enemy camps using their acute sense of smell and help to control vermin in the trenches.

After the war the popularity of this breed took a downturn. This was partly due to the lingering association with the war, but also the association of the Irish Terrier with the British Army during the politically sensitive time in Ireland as the country fought for independence from the British.

Kerry Blue Terrier 

Kerry Blue Terrier
Kerry Blue Terrier (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

The Kerry Blue Terrier’s origins can be traced to Kerry in the south of Ireland, probably to around the mid-19th century. There are however, many stories as to how the Kerry Blue Terrier came into existence, including one tale that suggests its origins may be found with a Spanish Water Dog that was shipwrecked off the Kerry coast from one of the Spanish Armada ships. 

The Kerry Blue Terrier is a versatile dog, well able to hunt vermin, as well as hares, foxes, badgers. Its adaptability was a great asset for farmers making it a useful Irish mountain dog in the hilly Kerry countryside and beyond. 

In addition to being great working dogs, Kerry Blue Terriers are also excellent companions and watch dogs. 

The coat of the Kerry Blue Terrier is slate gray or black in color. It is soft to touch and wavy, however it does require quite a bit of grooming and clipping maintenance to keep it in top condition. 

Kerry Blue Terrier pups are born with a black coat. The blue color coat that the dogs are known for is the result of a gene for coat fading can only be seen once the dogs mature at around 18 to 24 months. 

Typically, Kerry Blue Terriers live to be over 10 years of age and grow to 46–48 cm (18–19 in) at the withers.

Kerry Blue Terrier Facts

Kerry Blue Terrier
Kerry Blue Terrier (Photo: AsyaPozniak via Canva)

The strong willed character and courageous fighting spirit of the Kerry Blue Terrier made them a well liked Irish pet, as well liked symbol of the Irish national movement around 1920s. 

In October 1920, The Dublin Kerry Blue Terrier Club made history when they held a clandestine dog show (all dog shows required a license from the British Kennel Club). The Club followed this dog show with another illegal one on St. Patrick’s Day in 1921. 

Both events were attended by Michael Collins, an avid Kerry Blue Terrier fan and the Leader of the Irish Nationist Movement, who had a bounty on his head of £10,000. (He was so taken by the breed that he even gave Kerry Blue Terrier puppies in Ireland to his friends.) 

There were even plans in place by Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins to make the Kerry Blue Terrier the national dog of Ireland in 1922. However, Michael Collins was unfortunately assassinated in an ambush earlier in the year and these plans never came into being. 

Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier 

Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier
Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier (Photo: slowmotiongli via Canva)

Soft, silky and unmistakable, the coat of the Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier is this breed’s defining feature and has probably certainly helped to make it the most popular of Irish terriers. 

However, the origins of this dog type reach back over two hundred years when this medium sized dog was a was prized for its working ability and character rather than its coat. Its main tasks would have been to help hunt animals, such as badgers and otters and keep the number of rats and other vermin low. 

When selective breeding programs started for this breed in the late 19th century, it still took a considerable amount to officially name the breed. One issue was that the color “wheaten” is not a unique color, even for Irish dogs. In the end, “Irish Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier” was agreed upon in 1937 and only in 1973 did the American Kennel Club also recognise the breed.

The soft, wavy coat of the Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers needs very regular grooming. This breed only has one long coat of hair without an undercoat (open coat). Pups have a darker colored coat, which lightens to a wheaten color as they mature.

Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers have a happy temperament and are typically very affectionate, which has led to the popularity of this dog as a family pet. Its prey instincts to catch small animals such as cats and squirrels are still strong, so it is best to have this dog on a leash in public. 

Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier mid jump
An Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier in snow (Photo: Pfüderi via Canva)

The dogs grow to about 45 to 50 cm (18 to 20 inches) in size and are generally considered to be healthy animals that can live to be over 10 years of age, (typically between 12 and 14 years of age). Some known health issues include renal dysplasia and protein wasting diseases such as protein-losing enteropathy (PLE) and protein-losing nephropathy (PLN).

Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Facts

Distinct differences can be seen in the coats of this breed. In Ireland and Europe, the original Irish type is smooth and silky. This coat also needs daily grooming to avoid becoming matted. 

Preference for a heavier, wooler coat became obvious in the United States soon after the breed was first introduced and there are few breeders of the origin Irish type in the States at present.  

Irish Glen of Imaal Terrier 

Irish Glen of Imaal Terrier
Irish Glen of Imaal Terrier (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

This small, dwarf dog breed is named after one of the glens in County Wicklow on the east coast of Ireland. It is the rarest breed of all the terriers native to Ireland and is considered a vulnerable breed.

The Irish Glen of Imaal Terrier has an interesting history. Although it is not certain, some say that this breed of dog came about when soldiers from Queen Elizabeth’s army were given land in the form of payment and settled in this remote part of Wicklow. The small dogs that they brought with them bred with the local dogs in this relatively isolated part of Ireland and the result was the Irish Glen of Imaal Terrier. 

Certainly small Irish dog breeds such as this hardy, muscular dog would have been of use to such settlers in this harsh, mountainous environment. These terriers were bred for their skilled hunting abilities. Not only did they hunt small animals such as rodents, they were also used to hunt foxes and badgers for example. 

One unique trait with this breed is that it was bred to hunt their quarry in silence. This can still be noticed today as they tend not to bark as much as other terriers and can be an advantage if they are living in an urban environment.

Irish Glen of Imaal Terrier
The skilled Glen Terrier (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

As the Irish dog breeds smallest terrier, it stands typically 35-36 cm (14 inches) and is high spirited in character. Generally, this breed is good with children, but has strong prey drive instincts and can be a bit aggressive to other dogs. 

The breed was recognised by the Irish Kennel Club in 1934 and only relatively recently by the AKC (2004).

Irish Glen of Imaal Terrier Facts

Due to the physical stature of this dwarf dog breed, it can sit for periods of time on its hind legs in an upright position known as the “Glen Sit”.

One of its other functions this breed may have carried out in days gone by is to turn the spit on the fire. Turnspit dogs, as they were known, were often small dogs that walked along a sort of treadmill, which in turn rotated the spit over the fire.

Gun Dogs of Ireland

The Irish Setter, the Irish Red and White Setter and the Irish Water Spaniel are the three breeds of native gun dogs in Ireland. These Irish hunting dogs are known for their intelligence and skills when it comes to catching game, but also make good pets.

Irish Water Spaniel

Irish Water Spaniel
Irish Water Spaniel (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

Irish Water Spaniels are known for their energy, need for excitement and love of water. Their boisterous way can be sometimes interpreted as clownish, however this breed is very intelligent and well able to act on its own initiative, especially when it comes to hunting.

This is undoubtedly an old Irish breed, but the origins of the Irish Water Spaniel are not clearly known. Irish folklore suggests that this dog is descended from the legendary, supernatural Dobhar-chú, a creature that boasted traits of both dog and otter and lived in the watery depths of Irish lakes and rivers.

However, given the strong Irish connections with Spain through trade down through the centuries, it is not beyond the possibility that the Irish Water Spaniel may have had some Spanish Water Dog ancestors. The modern breed can be traced back to Ireland in the 1830s and was recognised by the American Kennel Club in 1878. At the time it was one of the top hunting dogs in the United States.

The Irish Water Spaniel was bred to be an all rounder in relation to its abilities. Features such as its webbed feet enable it to swim well and it is thought that its hairless tail can also assist with propulsion in water. 

As well as being able to flush out game birds and animals, like other spaniels, Irish Water Spaniels, are eager to please and could be trained to carefully retrieve the quarry and bring it to its owner. 

Irish Water Spaniels have little fear when it comes to water and are enthusiastic and willing to plunge straight into the coldest water as part of a hunt. 

This one of the Irish dog breeds that don’t shed much. The liver colored double coat of the Irish Water Spaniel has been found to be less problematic with people who have allergic reactions and sensitivities to dog hair than other breeds. Its coat is naturally waterresistant, but needs brushing a few times a week to prevent matting.  

Irish Water Spaniel with double coat
The double coat of the Irish Water Spaniel does not cause many problem for people with allergies. (Photo: slowmotiongli via Canva)

Measuring about 56–61 cm (22 to 24 inches), the Irish Water Spaniel is the largest spaniel and lives to be 10 to 12 years of age. It has a friendly temperament, but can also be a good guard dog. This breed needs to be socialized early and responds well to dog training.

Irish Water Spaniel Facts

The Irish Water Spaniel most striking feature is probably its tail, which is hairless except for a few centimeters at the base. In fact, the smooth tail has given the dog the nickname of “Rat Tail Spaniel”. Other Irish dog names for this breed include “Shannon Spaniel”, “Whiptail Spaniel” or occasionally “Bog dog”.

Irish Water Spaniels were very popular show dogs during the 19th century, but they are no longer the one of the most popular dog breeds in Ireland or beyond. This breed is now considered one of the vulnerable dog breeds native to Ireland. 

Irish Red and White Setter

Irish Red and White Setter
Irish Red and White Setter (Photo: Charles Mortensen via Canva)

Irish Red and White Setter is supposed to be one of the best dog breeds for hunting and is the lesser known cousin of the Irish Setter known for its superior hunting skills

Gundogs, like the Irish Red and White Setter, were bred specifically for their hunting performance. They were particularly popular working dogs in the field for Irish gentry in the 19th century due to their suitability for the hunting terrain of Ireland. 

The main role of these dogs was to assist the hunter in the search for game birds. To do so, they rely on their excellent sense of smell and direct the hunter to where the birds were by pointing with their noses, then remain still while the hunter pursues the game using a gun.

Prior to selective breeding, setters came in a variety of red, as well as red and white colors. During the 19th century, popularity for the all red colored Setter soared and by the time of World War I, the number of Irish Red and White Setters had fallen so much that they were in danger of dying out. 

Through breeding programs the breed has recovered and has regained some of its popularity as a household pet, but it is still listed as a vulnerable breed.

The coat of the Irish Red and White Setter is silky and does shed, so it needs daily brushing. Because they are towards the upper end of large Irish dog breeds, the lively Irish Red and White Setters also need plenty of exercise and interaction every day. 

Irish Red and White Setter
Irish Red and White Setter (Photo: artiste9999 via Canva)

Their hunting instinct remains strong, so it is best to keep their distance from other small pets in a household, such as rabbits. Irish Red and White Setters are usually good with children and are affectionate dogs. These dogs typically have a lifespan of 10 to 12 years. 

In 2009 the Irish Red and White Setter was recognized by the American Kennel Club as an official breed.

Irish Red and Whtie Setter Fact

The coloring of the Irish Red and White Setter is advantageous in the field. White markings help the dog to stand out from the brown colored vegetation making them easier to spot and thus less likely to get shot at, unlike the other all red Irish Setter.

Irish Setter (or Irish Red Setter)

Irish Red Setter
Irish Red Setter (Photo: CaptureLight via Canva)

This eye-catching breed is probably one of the most popular of all Irish dog types. Irish Setters have an unmistakable glossy red coat that has a glamorous appeal so it is no surprise that this became a popular show dog.

Is the Irish Setter a hunting dog? Most certainly, yes. The Irish Setter is a gundog and a descendant of the Irish Red and White Setter. Spaniels are most likely the ancestors to the two Irish Setter breeds. Hunting conditions in Ireland favored taller, lighter dogs to scrabble over the high vegetation and dogs such as the Irish Setter were well suited for these requirements.

The appeal of these solid red or chestnut colored dogs increased hugely during the latter half of the 19th century, threatening the survival of the similar Irish Red and White Setter. 

While the original purpose of these dogs was to hunt, more and more emphasis was placed on the color of the coat of these dogs rather than on their hunting performance. In the mid 20th century an attempt was made to ensure that the skills of the working dog were not lost in this breed and some crossbreeding occurred. 

Today working Irish Setters (typically called “Red Setters”) who take part in field competitions are typically smaller and lighter than their show dog counterparts (known as “Irish Red Setters”). Their coloring may also be lighter in color and display some white markings on its chest and face.

A playful Irish Red Setter
A playful Irish Red Setter (Photo: Shanemullen via Canva)

When it comes to the search for Irish pets, Irish Setters fit well with families, are good with children and make excellent companions, but poor guard dogs. They are also commonly used as therapy dogs as they are easy to train, respond well to commands and are highly intelligent. As is to be expected with gundogs, they need plenty of walks and space to exercise on a daily basis.

This breed of dog does tend to suffer from gluten intolerance, as well as other health issues such as hip dysplasia and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA).

Irish Setter Facts

Charles Steward Parnell, the Irish nationalist politician, was very fond of this breed of dog, apparently one was even by his bedside as he died. 

Many people in Ireland will be familiar with the dog from advertisements from the national bus company, Bus Éireann, who use the Irish Setter in their logo.

More About Dog from Ireland

What is the best dog breed from Ireland? That is difficult to say and depends on what exactly you are looking for in a dog. Each one of the nine breeds of Irish dogs have their own unique charms. 

Want to discover more about Irish dog breeds and their fascinating history? Then the Curious History of Irish Dogs by David Blake Knox is an interesting and insightful read! Full of facts and historical insights into the role these dog breeds had in Irish culture down through the centuries.

Irish Dogs on the Farm

Border Collies are often used as sheepdogs in Ireland. (Photo: Lois via Canva)

If you happen to be in Ireland and want to learn more about Ireland’s dogs, then visiting a sheepdog dog demonstration would be an interesting experience for you. There are several locations around the country where you can view Irish Sheep dogs at work herding the sheep, learn about their role in farming and about Irish Sheepdog breeds. 

For more information and fun facts about some of Ireland’s nature, read our articles on Irish Birds of Prey, Garden Birds in Ireland or Irish Flowers

This post may contain affiliate links. If you link on one of them we might receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Thank you for your support!