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The Deerhound

Author: Robert Leighton

The Deerhound is one of the most decorative of dogs, impressively stately and picturesque wherever he is seen, whether it be amid the surroundings of the baronial hall, reclining at luxurious length before the open hearth in the fitful light of the log fire that flickers on polished armour and tarnished tapestry; out in the open, straining at the leash as he scents the dewy air, or gracefully bounding over the purple of his native hills.

Grace and majesty are in his every movement and attitude, and even to the most prosaic mind there is about him the inseparable glamour of feudal romance and poetry. He is at his best alert in the excitement of the chase; but all too rare now is the inspiring sight that once was common among the mountains of Morven and the glens of Argyll of the deep-voiced hound speeding in pursuit of his antlered prey, racing him at full stretch along the mountain's ridge, or baying him at last in the fastness of darksome corrie or deep ravine. Gone are the good romantic days of stalking beloved by Scrope. The Highlands have lost their loneliness, and the inventions of the modern gunsmith have robbed one of the grandest of hunting dogs of his glory, relegating him to the life of a pedestrian pet, whose highest dignity is the winning of a pecuniary prize under Kennel Club rules.

Deerhound History

Historians of the Deerhound associate him with the original Irish Wolfdog, of whom he is obviously a close relative, and it is sure that when the wolf still lingered in the land it was the frequent quarry of the Highland as of the Hibernian hound. Legend has it that Prince Ossian, son of Fingal, King of Morven, hunted the wolf with the grey, long-bounding dogs. "Swift-footed Luath" and "White-breasted Bran" are among the names of Ossian's hounds. I am disposed to affirm that the old Irish Wolfhound and the Highland Deerhound are not only intimately allied in form and nature, but that they are two strains of an identical breed, altered only in size by circumstance and environment.

Whatever the source of the Highland Deerhound, and at whatever period it became distinct from its now larger Irish relative, it was recognised as a native dog in Scotland in very early times, and it was distinguished as being superior in strength and beauty to the hounds of the Picts.

The revival of deerstalking dates back hardly further than a hundred years. It reached its greatest popularity in the Highlands at the time when the late Queen and Prince Albert were in residence at Balmoral. Solomon, Hector, and Bran were among the Balmoral hounds. Bran was an especially fine animal--one of the best of his time, standing over thirty inches in height.

Two historic feats of strength and endurance illustrate the tenacity of the Deerhound at work. A brace of half-bred dogs, named Percy and Douglas, the property of Mr. Scrope, kept a stag at bay from Saturday night to Monday morning; and the pure bred Bran by himself pulled down two unwounded stags, one carrying ten and the other eleven tines. These, of course, are record performances, but they demonstrate the possibilities of the Deerhound when trained to his natural sport.

Primarily and essentially the Deerhound belongs to the order Agaseus, hunting by sight and not by scent, and although he may indeed occasionally put his nose to the ground, yet his powers of scent are not remarkable. His vocation, therefore, has undergone a change, and it was recently ascertained that of sixty deer forests there were only six upon which Deerhounds were kept for sporting purposes.

Happily the Deerhound has suffered no decline in the favour bestowed upon him for his own sake. The contrary is rather the case, and he is still an aristocrat among dogs, valued for his good looks, the symmetry of his form, his grace and elegance, and even more so for his faithful and affectionate nature. Sir Walter Scott declared that he was "a most perfect creature of heaven," and when one sees him represented in so beautiful a specimen of his noble race as St. Ronan's Rhyme, for example, or Talisman, or Ayrshire, one is tempted to echo this high praise.

The qualities aimed at now are a height of something less than 30 inches, and a weight not greater than 105 lbs., with straight fore-legs and short, cat-like feet, a deep chest, with broad, powerful loins, slightly arched, and strength of hind-quarters, with well-bent stifles, and the hocks well let down. Straight stifles are objectionable, giving a stilty appearance. Thick shoulders are equally a blemish to be avoided, as also a too great heaviness of bone. The following is the accepted standard of merit.

Deerhound Breed Description:

HEAD--The head should be broadest at the ears, tapering slightly to the eyes, with the muzzle tapering more decidedly to the nose.

The muzzle should be pointed, but the teeth and lips level. The head should be long, the skull flat rather than round, with a very slight rise over the eyes, but with nothing approaching a stop.

The skull should be coated with moderately long hair which is softer than the rest of the coat. The nose should be black (though in some blue-fawns the colour is blue) and slightly aquiline. In the lighter-coloured dogs a black muzzle is preferred. There should be a good moustache of rather silky hair, and a fair beard.

EARS--The ears should be set on high, and, in repose, folded back like the Greyhound's, though raised above the head in excitement without losing the fold, and even, in some cases, semi-erect. A prick ear is bad. A big, thick ear,hanging flat to the head, or heavily coated with long hair, is the worst of faults.

The ear should be soft, glossy, and like a mouse's coat to the touch, and the smaller it is the better. It should have no long coat or long fringe, but there is often a silky, silvery coat on the body of the ear and the tip. Whatever the general colour, the ears should be black or dark-coloured.

NECK AND SHOULDERS--The neck should be long--that is, of the length that befits the Greyhound character of the dog. An over-long neck is not necessary, nor desirable, for the dog is not required to stoop in his work like a Greyhound, and it must be remembered that the mane, which every good specimen should have, detracts from the apparent length of neck.

Moreover, a Deerhound requires a very strong neck to hold a stag. The nape of the neck should be very prominent where the head is set on, and the throat should be clean-cut at the angle and prominent.

The shoulders should be well sloped, the blades well back, with not too much width between them. Loaded and straight shoulders are very bad faults.

STERN--Stern should be tolerably long, tapering, and reaching to within 1-1/2 inches of the ground, and about 1-1/2 inches below the hocks. When the dog is still, dropped perfectly straight down, or curved. When in motion it should be curved when excited, in no case to be lifted out of the line of the back. It should be well covered with hair, on the inside thick and wiry, underside onger, and towards the end a slight fringe is not objectionable.  A curl or ring tail is very undesirable.

EYES--The eyes should be dark: generally they are dark brown or hazel. A very light eye is not liked. The eye is moderately full with a soft look in repose, but a keen, far-away gaze when the dog is roused. The rims of the eyelids should be black.

BODY--The body and general formation is that of a Greyhound of larger size and bone. Chest deep rather than broad, but not too narrow and flat-sided. The loin well arched and drooping to the tail. A straight back is not desirable, this formation being unsuitable for going uphill, and very unsightly.

LEGS AND FEET--The legs should be broad and flat, a good broad forearm and elbow being desirable. Fore-legs, of course, as straight as possible. Feet close and compact, with well-arched toes. The hind-quarters drooping, and as broad and powerful as possible, the hips being set wide apart. The hind-legs should be well bent at the stifle, with great length from the hip to the hock, which should be broad and flat. Cow hocks, weak pasterns, straight stifles, and splay feet are very bad faults.

COAT--The hair on the body, neck, and quarters should be harsh and wiry, and about 3 inches or 4 inches long; that on the head, breast, and belly is much softer. There should be a slight hairy fringe on the inside of the fore and hind-legs, but nothing approaching to the feathering of a Collie. The Deerhound should be a shaggy dog, but not over coated. A woolly coat is bad. Some good strains have a slight mixture of silky coat with the hard, which is preferable to a woolly coat, but the proper covering is a thick, close-lying, ragged coat, harsh or crisp to the touch.

COLOUR--Colour is much a matter of fancy. But there is no manner of doubt that the dark blue-grey is the most preferred. Next come the darker and lighter greys or brindles, the darkest being generally preferred. Yellow and sandy-red or red-fawn, especially with black points--i.e., ears and muzzle--are also in equal estimation, this being the colour of the oldest known strains, the McNeil and the Chesthill Menzies.

White is condemned by all the old authorities, but a white chest and white toes, occurring as they do in a great many of the darkest-coloured dogs, are not so greatly objected to, but the less the better, as the Deerhound is a self-coloured dog. A white blaze on the head or a white collar should entirely disqualify. In other cases, though passable, an attempt should be made to get rid of white markings. The less white the better, but a slight white tip to the stern occurs in the best strains.

HEIGHT OF DOGS--From 28 inches to 30 inches, or even more if there be symmetry without coarseness, which, however, is rare.

HEIGHT OF BITCHES--From 26 inches upwards. There can be no objection to a bitch being large, unless she is too coarse, as even at her greatest height she does not approach that of the dog, and, therefore, could not well be too big for work, as over-big dogs are. Besides, a big bitch is good for breeding and keeping up the size.

WEIGHT--From 85 pounds to 105 pounds in dogs; from 65 pounds to 80 pounds in bitches.