Deerhound Character

Deerhounds are wonderful dogs, but they do have some special requirements and some characteristics that do not suit everyone’s lifestyle. I try to be realistic with prospective owners and my Primer will give you a better idea of what to expect when a Deerhound enters your home.

Your Scottish Deerhound Primer ( see “About Deerhounds” on this site for a Table of Contents”) covers most of the basics about raising and living with a Deerhound, so I won’t reiterate them. This piece focuses on Deerhound character and temperament, particularly the vast differences between puppies and adults and certain characteristics that make them so different from other breeds. Deerhound adults are well known for being laid back, non-aggressive (I have five males and five bitches that all live together in our house), and very much their own dog. The following is an excerpt from the Deerhound Listserv from someone who has Deerhounds. It was part of an explanation as to why she much prefers Whippets. Of course, for many of us these are the exact reasons why we have Deerhounds:

“Tosh is a very determined, stubborn, and bright dog. By dint of passive resistance she has trained me to give her the life she feels is hers by ordained right. That life consists of, for the most part, sleeping on my bed for 23 1/2 hours a day, the remaining half hour for exercise, eating, and going potty… When she was younger, and more energetic she enjoyed roadwork and lure-coursing. She sees absolutely no sense in doing anything SHE doesn’t want to do, regardless of how politely I ask her… If she thought the course too demanding she would flop on her back and wave her feet in the air like a bug … I had to get a wagon barrier for my car because if she felt I had left her alone too long she honked the horn until she got the attention she wanted … If someone comes to the house more likely than not she doesn’t bother to come greet them unless it is someone she knows can give “eargasms” … She has moments of silly playfulness, but they are rare and to be treasured. I know she loves me, and I love her … The Deerhounds I have known seem to have the same easygoing, charming indolence as Tosh. That same attitude that says, well, I’m going to lie down here instead of sit because what is the point in sitting when it is so much more convenient to lie down? They have that same explosive intensity when it is something that connects with their inner desires – the chasing game be it feather, fur, or plastic, the joy of digging, the art of landscraping. They are very much their own dog.” (Annie Fitt, 2000)

I like this excerpt because it captures the essence of this breed as it approaches “middle age”. Some of these characteristics don’t always appeal to the average dog owner but are part and parcel of Deerhound ownership. The desirable characteristics are quickly apparent on a first encounter with this breed: the quiet dignity, the sensitivity and devoted loyalty. They are not pushy, they don’t drool over you, they don’t demand that you throw balls, they don’t retrieve, they are intuitive to your needs but don’t do competitive obedience (although some owners do). They are relaxing, peaceful, inert, grey companions that excel at keeping you physically fit by their exercise needs and their passion for the outdoors. Deerhound owners all think their breed qualifies as the most wonderful breed in the world. However, devoted as I am, I can still see that there are some characteristics that not everyone would appreciate but I have always accepted because in my personal tolerance roster the positives far outweigh any negatives. So, let me describe some of these breeds traits up front and let you decide whether these are qualities that you are comfortable with.

Livability? If you can live with the fact that the adults are content to sack out for 22hours out of 24, which some people find pretty pathetic for a dog, they are amazingly easy to get along with. Adult Deerhounds are not a very interactive breed indoors. They come into the house, give you a thirty second greeting (if you are so fortunate) and then quickly ensconce themselves on their favourite piece of upholstered furniture. That is about it until you move to take them for a walk. Some people find this “indolence” boring. Deerhounds don’t really have much energy or interest in interacting as other breeds do unless you are planning a hike or are eating. Their own food, of course, is of minimal interest, but at family mealtimes they might possibly get up and stare at you wistfully. Or they will slide their head under your armpit, which is guaranteed to flip the coffee out of the hands of the uninitiated, as that long grey nose checks out the contents of the dinner plate.

I personally like their indoor inertia because I have always had a high stress job and don’t care for a more demanding type of dog. On the other hand when I am at home any length of time, I often long for more interaction from them and they really have little interest in making that kind of an effort. I have to hunt them out and schmooze over them on their beds. It would be simply too much unnecessary expenditure of energy on their part for them to seek me out more than once or twice a day unless they have needs to be met. At the most you might get waylaid, as you are negotiating the grey “speed bumps” that decorate your house, by a long elegant leg which is the signal that a tummy rub is necessary. Sometimes in a major outburst of affection, you may hear the clacking of jaws directed at you from across the room by what normally looks like a taxidermist specimen stretched out and covering the entire length of your living room couch. This is a love signal from a demonstrative Deerhound that adores you unreservedly. So, I compensate for this attitude by having youngsters about to liven things up. This way I have something more demanding like an adolescent, to give me a real dog relationship, before they slip into adult somnolence. The disadvantage is that I now hover around ten Deerhounds. Since they really only put out when they are in the field, I also end up spending a lot of time outdoors!

Exercise is a big ticket item in this breed. Walks bring Deerhounds alive in addition to keeping them healthy. Puppy’s exercise needs are prodigious and deserve special mention. I start babies at 6-8 weeks on walks and by 12 weeks they can do more than a mile. They flop, I stop. The flop factor gets less very quickly and by the time they are 6 months they are impossible to tire on foot. That is why I always raise two puppies together. If you have a huge back yard and another young high energy breed you can get away without too much work on your own. The more exercise they get, the better they eat and the healthier they are. If you have a single Deerhound without an active companion, expect to hand feed your puppy for at least the first year and be prepared to spend much of your time outdoors. Also, don’t have aspirations to eventually enter dog shows.

Many people who have raised a puppy look for a young adult as their next Deerhound. These are rough, hard playing puppies that are exhausting just to watch. I pity those that have to get involved acting out the role of surrogate sibling because they don’t have a “grow out” companion for their pup. I can’t emphasize enough how devilishly difficult this breed is to raise properly. A Deerhound puppy needs to be outside with the ability to race around and play whenever the mood strikes them. Rain, shine, freezing weather they should be outside with you or a high energy companion virtually all day. The problem is that phlegmatic temperament. It makes them quite capable of lounging about indoors all day. If you succumb to that wistful look peering at you through the door or window, and let them loll about the house, they rapidly end up as picky eaters, nutritionally deficient, narrow and east – west in front and a wobbly under-muscled rear end. I have had experienced dog people (having raised/shown/bred Dobermans, Bearded Collies, Shelties) come back and say they have never had a breed so difficult to raise. Of course, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t want to show, that your DH exhibits what we in the breed call “single sighthound syndrome”… tall, skinny, two front legs emerging from the same hole, one foot pointing east, the other west, a narrow butt and no muscle. I don’t expect everyone to raise a show quality specimen. My concern is that a Deerhound raised without the proper amount of exercise is not healthy and it won’t live very long. Also, inadequately exercised puppies can be extraordinarily destructive. They do not exercise sufficiently on their own. Deerhounds need far more exercise than they are willing to provide for themselves if they are to develop to their optimum physical and mental potential. Most first time owners don’t realise this and inevitably underestimate this breed’s exercise requirements. In spite of what appears to be major exercise output on the owner’s part (for example, an hour long walk in the morning and evening), under this regime, the end result is a physically debilitated Deerhound.

By now you must understand that the indoor rearing of puppies will not work in this breed. Puppies should go outside at 6 – 8 weeks and need access to unrestricted physical activity all day long. They should be able to come in and out during the day at will (a “doggy door” helps) and have access to a huge (minimum 100 foot by 50 foot ) secure paddock. A commercial “kennel run” is totally inadequate. They should sleep in the house at night. When they wake up or sniff about, whip them outside. If they sleep on your bed at night and you cart them outside when they get restless (if you can still pick them up by that age), they become housebroken very quickly.

Raising puppies indoors with the occasional run outdoors is totally inadequate. Not only is it unhealthy for growing puppies physically, they can trash a room in an amazingly short period of time with ingenious anti-boredom creativity. Puppy’s brains appear to be the last part of their body to grow and it may take as long as 2 ½ to 3 years to achieve a normal size. The good thing about Deerhounds is that the brain doesn’t stop growing and this breed just gets smarter and easier as it matures. It does mean however that unsupervised access to the house up to the age of around two will leave you with a collection of furniture that looks as if a pack of beavers swarmed your premises. A good system for the times that they are indoors is a puppy proof room with their bed and toys near the people area of the house but separated by a Dutch door or baby gate. When you are there to supervise, puppies can have the run of the supervised area. By the time they reach a year and a half to two years they can have the run of the house. You cannot crate Deerhounds as puppies. This is not an acceptable method for “damage control” in my opinion. Puppies need to be able to move around at will, run, and gallop flat out to develop proper muscling and bone structure. Destructive puppies are under-exercised puppies. In addition, if you don’t allow for endless romping, your unfit puppy or adult is more likely to be prone to “Deerhound neck” …which is painful trauma to it’s long spine caused by the violent coursing antics (“the zooms”) that they will perform. Or they may end up ripping a cruciate ligament racing flat out over rough ground. Top physical fitness equates with healthy and laid back individuals in this breed.

I suggest that any prospective Scottish Deerhound owner ask themselves why they would want to have a Deerhound if they do not have the space to ever watch it run? The beauty of this breed is their athleticism and running flat out with the wind is an essential part of that beauty. Some breeds are house pets, first and foremost. Deerhounds have to be seen on the hills to feel their full impact.

After a certain age, usually between three and five years, Deerhounds metamorphose into what Sir Walter Scott described as “the most perfect creature of heaven”. It then takes a fork lift to get them off the couch unless they hear you put your outdoor gear on…instantly, they are then at the door waiting. As an aside, I might add that it has always confounded me that the same dog that is so totally deaf on the “come” recall while chasing something outdoors, can hear inside the house, the sound of a slipper drop and a pair of hiking boots get laced up. Keep in mind though, if adults are under exercised, the first thing to give up as they get older is the rear end. So, like puppies, you need to keep them as fit as you can. If the rear muscles weaken from lack of exercise and they can’t get up from a lying position the end is near. They are too heavy to lift up and carry outside. After a certain age they don’t demand a lot of exercise, they just live longer healthier lives when they get it.

Speaking of health… old age for Deerhounds is 10-12 years for bitches and 9-10 years for males. The breed average tends to be about 9 years for bitches and 8 years for males. Deerhounds have the usual large breed problems (cardiomyopathy, bloat/torsion, osteosarcoma) but not to the extent of the other giant breeds. In my experience, cars are the number one killer of Deerhounds. You must have a secure paddock for this breed. Coursing breeds do not reliably come on the recall, nor do they have car smarts. Sometimes vets/owners tend to “over-vet” this breed, which has resulted in some pretty horrific problems, even death. You and your vet should be aware that there are physiological differences between Deerhounds/Sighthounds and other breeds. I list these in my Primer. Please draw these to your vet’s attention. You also have to use common sense and seek reliable advice. For example: casting the leg of a growing puppy for a broken toe will cripple your dog for life, but many vets will still advocate this procedure. On the whole, I think as a breed, Deerhounds are pretty healthy. Look for a healthy outcrossed or linebred pedigree, not inbred relations. There are very few “backyard breeders”, in fact, few breeders and most long term breeders are extremely concerned about health and temperament and have an excellent , open, communication system that seems to keep a certain degree of control on “problems” .

Grooming? Huh? What’s that? A Deerhound with a good harsh coat is maintenance free. Wash before a show or as needed, usually once or twice a year, and that is about it. I like to brush regularly, at least once a week, because I understand from the books that it is good for their skin. They may come back from walks covered with burrs, and it may take a few minutes to straighten that up. Coat varies with individuals, but the breed standard calls for an adult coat that is “close lying, ragged, harsh and crisp to the touch….wiry, about 3 inches to 4 inches long”. This breed should not be subjected to plucking, stripping, or scissoring. Profuse coats are common, but they are not correct. Bitches in season get a bit ripe, but I surmise that most breeds do.

Compatibility with small dogs? cats? deer? Single Deerhounds, especially puppies raised with small dogs, never seem to realise their size superiority and generally defer to any dog that is older. However, as puppies they can really push the tolerance level and physical capacities of small dogs. While not ideal, it usually works and it is pretty amusing to watch a Deerhound with a Scottie puppy functioning as its personal animate India rubber ball as they play hard together. On the other hand, pairs of Deerhounds, thanks to that coursing and competitive instinct can quickly rid the neighbourhood of any outdoor cat (including your own) and yappy, morsel sized dogs that are not part of your own household. Its not pleasant to watch your favorite cat that escaped from the house into the dog yard get stretched before your eyes. Indoors your cat is the dog’s companion; outdoors any cat is fair game. To solve the problem, stick to one Deerhound or pick your areas to walk off lead letting only one Deerhound loose at a time. Keep in mind that this is a large hunting breed, developed to take down the great Scottish red deer. The dogs have changed very little over the years and the coursing, hunting, and killing instinct is still strong and will manifest itself when you have more than one Deerhound or they take off with another hunting companion. They are very difficult, if not impossible to get to come on the recall if they are coursing game, without a major positive training effort. Always remember, this is what they were bred to do. Deer or their smell, rabbits, squirrels and other small or big game (mounted police, sheep, cattle, horses…literally anything that moves) will incite your dog to chase. If they are loose, they will be off like a bolt of lightening after their quarry. They will come back if they haven’t been hit by a car or shot (which is legal in many municipalities if dogs harass game or domestic animals). Generally your Deerhound will return only after it “unsights”, which equates to “when he feels like it”. They also can take you with them if you have a Deerhound on a leash and it suddenly sees something it wants to course. Deerhounds can be a horror on the leash for those who are elderly or infirm and one or two can easily drag an adult if they decide to run something.

Now to cover compatibility with children. Most Deerhounds simply tolerate children although some seem to really enjoy them, but they are not a Lab or Golden. They are not crazy about lots of mauling, and when they have had enough they get up and leave. Children need to be trained to respect that. I have noticed that Deerhounds not raised with children are leery of toddlers that are at that “no brain” age when they lurch around (one to four years?). They are not forgiving if teased. This is a breed with a long memory and they don’t bounce back for more if they are poked, pinched, yelled at or molested. I don’t leave them with young children unsupervised for this reason, but also because of their size. Even their wagging tail can hurt. There are, however, other factors you must be aware of. As with many sighthounds, squealing children that run away from your hound will likely be chased. This can be terrifying for the child and a very dangerous situation for all. I also always warn parents to train their children to leave a sleeping Deerhound strictly alone. Never to startle them while they are in a deep sleep or crawl into their bed with them without alerting them first. Perhaps I am overcautious but I do know that a sleeping Deerhound or any dog’s first reaction if it gets jumped on and startled could be a defensive snap. On the other hand, in forty intense years of living with this breed I have witnessed/heard via the grapevine of five incidents of a Deerhound snapping at a person.

One positively annoying feature of this breed to non-doggy types is that if your Deerhound does get up to greet people on their arrival at your house (not always assured), they just happen to be crotch height and inevitably give the person a long and (for them) embarrassing sniff. Some people don’t get used to this so they stop visiting (which can be useful of course, depending on how you feel about them).

I think that these are most of the things that have pushed my limits over the years and I have then modified my life to accommodate these Deerhound idiosyncrasies. You really need to walk endless miles with them off lead daily in a secure area to enjoy them fully . Without this, puppies can be frustratingly picky eaters and also very destructive, while adults will simply languish and physically disintegrate. They will not exercise sufficiently on their own. Be prepared to cook gourmet meals twice a day for your hounds as they do not thrive on dry food. I can almost guarantee that you will be hand feeding a single Deerhound puppy if it is raised alone. A pack (two or more) of hunting hounds that includes a Deerhound can be pretty lethal and they love to course anything that moves. That inertia as an adult, can, depending on taste, be incredibly relaxing or boring. Oh yes, don’t bother looking for the old colour variations of red and wheaten that are listed in breed descriptions and the standard. Deerhounds are grey, light grey, dark grey, darker grey, grey, grey, grey (“seen one, seen them all someone once said to me…”). Personally, I wouldn’t want any other breed. But, like most Deerhound owners I have acreage (200), the requisite mini-van, huge paddocks with secure fencing and a steady income, which all seems to be part and parcel of really enjoying this breed.

Now, for interest let me conclude with a character piece on Deerhounds written more than a hundred years ago that also sums up this breed.

As companionable animals, Deerhounds cannot be excelled. Their chief drawback is their eagerness, when young, to chase any running object. If, however, they are taken out constantly, or reared amongst animals in the country, they soon become easily restrainable, and capital followers. They are not quarrelsome, but when they get three or four years old will not stand any nonsense from other dogs. They are of a general and affectionate disposition, strong in personal attachment, and may safely be let run about the premises without any fear of their biting any lawful comer. They are delicate dogs to rear, and should never be shown as puppies unless they have had distemper.” Hugh Dalziel, British Dogs: Their Varieties, History, Characteristics, Breeding, Management, and Exhibition. London: The Bazaar, 1888)

Deerhound temperament and appearance have changed very little over the years. These characteristics are an intrinsic part of the breed and Deerhound breeders tend to be dedicated to ensuring the breed remains this way forever.