AP NEWS

Irish wolfhound show highlights dogs’ unique characteristics

May 16, 2019

Correction appended

It’s one thing to “release the hounds.”

It’s quite another to watch them go.

From the moment their handlers let them run free, it’s apparent the Irish wolfhound isn’t just another big dog. As they erupt in full gallop, reaching speeds up to 40 mph, these gentle giants seem to put mastiffs and Labrador retrievers to shame.

And that’s what enthusiasts love about the breed.

But if the weeklong Irish Wolfhound Club of America’s 90th annual National Dog Show aims to highlight the dogs’ unique agility and aesthetic, it also brings together a niche community of people who have dedicated their lives to the breed.

“The common denominator is this,” said Junko Ishihara of the San Francisco Bay Area, pointing to her Irish wolfhound, a 4-year-old named Jack. “The breed brings a lot of people together.”

On Monday, groups of Irish wolfhounds outfitted in neon vests approached a starting line at HIPICO Santa Fe’s horse arena, their eyes fixed on a set of plastic bags attached to a pulley system several yards in front of them.

When given the command, the dogs darted forward, chasing the bags along a 730-yard lure course. While the dogs zigzagged across the arena, their speed belying their hulking frames, hundreds of spectators stood along the sidelines, befriending fellow enthusiasts and reuniting with long-distance friends.

In between rounds, owners and breeders gathered in circles to exchange jokes, congratulate one another on recent accomplishments, and reward the dogs with treats and back scratches.

Once all 10 dogs participating in the lure challenge completed the course, event organizers prepared the same route going in the opposite direction. Then, it was on to another round.

“There’s no walking, no jogging,” said Mary Ellen Shriver of Spring Grove, Pa., who has been judging Irish wolfhounds for 23 years. “We want a full-suspension gallop.”

It sounds serious and, for a few moments, it is. But as the dogs returned to their handlers after their race, they were, well, beloved dogs — tongues flopping out of their mouths and heavy breathing filling the post-applause silence.

Though the goal is, of course, to win, most handlers agreed the event is more “about having fun.”

“This is how I like to spend my time,” said Phil Fullam of Rio Rancho, a licensed Irish wolfhound judge since 1982 and an owner of the breed for more than 40 years.

Just last year, Fullam said he put about 10,000 miles on his car, traveling coast to coast to compete in similar dog shows.

He said competing in an arena with “3,000 pounds of dog” is “an endorphin rush.” But he also looks forward to seeing familiar faces who share his enthusiasm. Most of all, he said, he loves the bond he creates with his two female canines, 5-year-old Bridey and 18-month-old Connie.

“They’re family. … Dogs bring a joy to your life and a tranquility. It’s nonjudgmental love,” he said. “When you’re developing that bond, that’s really sort of fulfilling. You do something for the dog, and they do something for you.”

For Ishihara, having a wolfhound like Jack has helped open a new world.

“Because of him, I’ve been able to travel like this, meet new people, have new experiences and, of course, enjoy my hound,” she said.

As the light of afternoon turned gold before sunset, some dog owners put their giants in massive pens under shaded tarps, pulling out large coolers of water for them to drink. One woman massaged her dog’s legs, while another jogged around the parking lot to stretch her hound before its final run. Some sat in camp chairs, brushing the hounds’ rough coats, while others let their dogs snuggle up to each other in the grass.

“They enjoy it,” said Fullam of the dogs lined up for competition. “You can’t make them have that sparkle in their eye. It’s like with people: What’s your passion?”

This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Irish wolfhound judge and owner Phil Fullam of Rio Rancho as Phil Fullman.