Sir Walter Scott said the deerhound is "A most perfect creature of heaven". He had a point, and many of us who own deerhounds agree, but the deerhound is not for everyone.
If you want a dog that is instantly obedient, always playful, attentive to your every action, or one that will guard your person or property, then look elsewhere.
Temperament, Character and Training
The Breed Standard says that the deerhound "temperament is gentle and friendly. Obedient and easy to train because eager to please. Docile and good tempered, never suspicious, aggressive or nervous. A hound that carries himself with quiet dignity."
That may be the ideal, but it requires a little qualification. Certainly the temperament of the deerhound is close to uniformly excellent. Nervousness is rare, and aggression almost unknown. These dogs are almost invariably very good with children, and once past the boisterous puppy stage, they are normally the most gentle of dogs with family and strangers alike.
There does tend to be a little variation in temperament between individuals, and perhaps in different breeding lines. Some adult deerhounds are so laid back that it is easy to forget they are there; others tend to be more active, occasionally with a rather naughty sense of humour.
There is also some variation between individual adults in the matter of dignity. Some deerhounds effusively - though always gently - love everyone. Others tend to be quite reserved except with their family and a few carefully chosen human friends.
The main qualification however regards "Obedient and easy to train because eager to please." There are exceptions of course, but deerhound puppies do tend to be easy compared to many breeds. With many lead training is simply a matter of putting a lead on the puppy, and house training involves no more than showing the pup where to go and giving it frequent opportunities to get there. Most deerhound puppies are not destructive, and as a result it is usually easy to have a civilised deerhound companion from quite an early age.
Formal training however is a different matter. Most people agree that, with the whippet, the deerhound is the most biddable of the sighthound group, but as far as sighthounds go, being biddable is a very relative concept. Deerhounds have a high boredom index, are extremely determined and despise repetition. That combination makes formal training a challenge to put it mildly! Throw a ball for a deerhound once, and it may fetch it. Throw it a second time, and you will receive a disgusted expression clearly indicating that since you threw it away, you can jolly well go and get it yourself. The same deerhound when asked to sit or lie down will comply once or twice, but then will give you a similarly exasperated look, this time saying ‘I did it right didn’t I? Now kindly go away and let me get on with contemplating my toenails’
As a result of this problem with formal training, some people think that deerhounds are stupid. Others, myself included, think that they are very clever, often far too clever for their owner’s good, for they are most definitely most eager to please - please themselves that is!
Few breeds have as much talent for quietly working out to arrange a household to maximise their own comfort. Convincing a deerhound that chairs and sofas are intended for people, not dogs is so impossible that most owners don’t bother to try. Deerhounds can also be picky feeders, and are quite capable of convincing even the most experienced owner that they really do fully intend to starve themselves to death unless chicken chow mein (or whatever other human delicacy they fancy tonight) is served.
As mentioned before, deerhounds are usually ‘easy’ puppies. That together with their ready adaptability to new situations, and rapidly increasing size often makes novice owners think that they are more mentally mature than they actually are. In fact, although most adults are pretty psychologically bombproof, the deerhound puppy is an unusually sensitive little plant. It requires lots of affection, attention, kindness and consistency. The breed temperament is so good that harsh, excessively rigid management or being ignored will probably not destroy it, but your puppy is most unlikely to reach it’s full potential if treated that way.
The rapid rate of growth also causes physical problems. A deerhound puppy is grows so fast that inappropriate feeding or exercise can cause many frequently irreversible problems. Partly because of this, and partly because of the slow mental maturation, some breeders prefer to keep their puppies longer than is average for smaller breeds, often until they are about 12 weeks old. Others let the pups go much younger on the basis that behavioural research shows that about 8 weeks of age is the ideal time for a puppy to integrate into a new home and bond with it’s new family.
Finding a deerhound puppy can be relatively difficult. Although registration numbers are increasing, until recently the deerhound been very much a ‘specialist’ breed. Again until recently, the price of puppies was low, making breeding deerhounds non-commercial. Also many breeders look on their deerhounds primarily as friends, and breed very rarely, usually only when they want a pup to keep themselves. As with any breed, the potential puppy buyer should always check out the breeder with great care, but because of those factors most deerhound breeders are genuine enthusiasts who will have raised their litter with a great deal of love and attention, and who will follow them up carefully.
Deerhounds have been bred to hunt for centuries, and although the degree of hunting instinct varies between individuals, no animal rights activist is going to talk them out of chasing things that run away. Most deerhounds are very good with other dogs, although they may be a little standoffish with other breeds, preferring the company of their own kind. They are also usually become fast friends with cats, ferrets and other animals that live with them, but the strange cat that strays into the deerhound paddock is likely to lose several lives - possibly all nine!
Making deerhounds safe with sheep and other farm animals is definitely difficult if not impossible. My local farmer is good enough to provide me with ‘ practice’ sheep in the back field when I have a puppy, and because of that I might - nervously - take one deerhound through a flock of sheep off the lead, but I’d never risk it with two, never mind the whole pack. Also because of the hunting instinct, achieving reliable recall for a deerhound is not easy, and a wise owner will assume that, once into it's stride, the deerhound will probably not come back until it has caught or lost whatever it set off after.
Management, Maintenance and Health
Many people who would like a deerhound are put off by their size, and because they assume that a sighthound must require a vast amount of exercise. True, a deerhound would be a tight fit in a mini, but I also own Irish Wolfhounds, and because of that, have come to think of deerhounds as big dogs with long legs rather than as a true giant breed like the wolfhound. A deerhound will tidy itself away into a remarkably small space - always provided of course, that the space is comfortable. Also because of their generally quiet nature, they are actually be much less intrusive in the home than many smaller dogs. A few can be quite vocal in expressing their opinions, but in quiet rumbles and grumbles, so noisy barking is rarely a problem.
Nor do deerhounds need an enormous amount of exercise, and some of them can be rather lazy. Many people keep their hounds happy and healthy with a couple of half hour daily walks, although since running is the greatest pleasure for these dogs, somewhere that they can be allowed to run free a few times a day is ideal.
Deerhounds are often quietly devoted to their owners, but they are not attention seekers, and so adults are normally content to be left alone for quite lengthy periods. My own get distinctly offended if I disturb them during what they consider their times for contemplating whatever deerhounds contemplate.
Grooming is not a major chore. Even after it has just been brushed a deerhound tends to look ‘lived in’. Modern coat types vary from quite profuse and softish to harsh and wiry. Five minutes with a brush will sort out the harsh coated type. The softer coated dogs take a little longer, but it is still not a big job.
Deerhounds are not greedy dogs: rather the opposite. It depends on how much exercise they get, and how cold the weather is, but most will eat surprisingly little for their size, often less than a Labrador or similarly sized dog. Therefore feed bills are not excessive.
Vet bills can be a different matter. Happily deerhounds are one of the breeds least affected by inherited diseases, but when they do get sick, they are big, and the drug and treatment bills can be equally large. It can also be quite difficult to find a vet who understands the little physiological idiosyncrasies of the big sighthounds.
The major health problems that deerhounds do suffer from are cardiomyopathy, portosystemic (liver) shunt, torsion (bloat) and bone cancer. None of these are exclusive to the deerhound, but although not as endemic as it seems to be in some breeds, cardiomyopathy is relatively common.
Fortunately portosystemic shunt is quite rare, but it is a horrible condition. Even more fortunately however, puppies can be tested for it at eight weeks, and I would not consider buying a deerhound puppy that had not been tested.
Bloat affects all breeds, but especially those with deep chests like deerhounds. It is often treatable, but it is a true emergency, and all deerhound owners should familiarise themselves with the symptoms so that they can take instant action if it develops.
Bone cancer also affects all breeds, but again obviously those with a relatively high bone/body mass like the deerhound are particularly liable to it.
The one other health problem that the potential owner should perhaps consider is that deerhounds get injuries. Even those who don’t hunt run incredibly fast, and are extremely manoeuvrable. The occasional collision with a solid object or perhaps another deerhound does happen, and the result can be nasty. Despite that, compared to some other sighthound breeds, deerhounds seem to be fairly unbreakable, and I have seen more than one get up and run on after what looked like a devastating tumble or collision.
On the whole however, deerhounds are healthy dogs, who often seem to remain in good health until their last few days.
All big breeds have shorter life spans than small ones, but as far as I know, no one has yet done a proper survey on longevity similar to the one done for wolfhounds. As a result just about every deerhound person you ask will give you a different average life span. My own feeling is that longevity in deerhounds can be quite variable. I have one old lady who is 12 years old (going on 12 months according to her!), and her mother lived to be 14. I lost another, for no reason the vet could discern apart from ‘old age’ at 7 years.
Most people keep their deerhound(s) as friends and companions, but showing is popular, and deerhound people tend to be a friendly bunch. Hare coursing is also popular, and whether one approves or not, the fact that a proportion of breeders have bred as much for coursing as for the show ring has probably had a positive effect in keeping the breed as healthy as it is. Many owners also use deerhounds for informal hunting and lamping (only with permission please!), and although they are too tall to be as good at the job as are lurchers, they often work remarkably well. For those opposed to blood sports there is also lure coursing, although this is less organised in the UK than in the US. Unfortunately deerhounds, especially ones who have had experience of hunting live prey, tend to decide the lure isn’t worth the bother of chasing after a few runs.
The Breed Standard
A full copy can easily be found on the Internet, but the standard can be summed up in the first sentence - "The general appearance should resemble a rough-coated greyhound of larger size and bone."
The minimum heights are given as 28" for bitches and 30" for dogs, but deerhounds today tend to be a little taller.
There is a degree of variation in the type of the modern deerhound, in that some tend towards the greyhound end of the spectrum, while others are more wolfhound like in build. This variation is likely to cause heated arguments between breeders, so I will say no more than that although I have my own preference, except at the extremes, I don’t think either is right or wrong, just a matter of what the owner or breeder prefers and finds most aesthetically pleasing.
There is one final problem that the prospective deerhound buyer should be aware of. Most people who get one end up with several!