So, you want a Deerhound?

Scottish Deerhounds aren’t the biggest, or the fastest, or the most elegant, or the easiest to train of the dogs out there to choose from. But they are steeped in history, and they have a craggy, dignified beauty unlike any other breed. It takes them two or three years to reach that level of dignity, though--puppies can be very rowdy and destructive, especially if they don’t get enough exercise. It can be difficult to be sure they get that essential exercise, especially if you have a limited amount of space or no other active dog to help out when the pup has exhausted you. Getting two pups from the same litter helps a lot, but not everyone can do this. If you’re not equipped to handle a very fast-growing, rowdy, sometimes destructive large breed puppy for the next two years or so, it might be best to choose a less difficult breed. Inadequate exercise during this important period will lead to an adult which has not realized its physical or mental potential.

I started hiking with my Deerhounds after visiting Barb Heidenreich at Fernhill in Canada in ’93. I only owned 36 acres, but I had access to sixty more and mowed a hiking trail around it modeled on Barb’s place, letting the dogs run free while I walked with them for an hour or more every morning before work. When that sixty acres was surveyed, I went on a land hunt which culminated in the acquisition of 150 acres on Bear Creek in Edmonson County, Kentucky, an hour north of my south Bowling Green home. I built an off-grid solar home there in 2010, dog-fenced the back 75 acres, and now spend one to two hours every morning walking along the creek with the dogs ranging as far as they could desire through the pastures, woods, hills and gullies. I start letting puppies go along at around four months old--before that time they stay together in a large fenced yard with each other for exercise partners and lots of social interaction with people and other dogs, and they go on private puppy hikes with their mom and me.

While this idyllic existence isn’t possible for most people, it is ideal for Deerhounds to develop their physical potential and mental attitude toward running free with other Deerhounds. I believe the way my dogs live makes them better lure coursing dogs--the temptation to play with the dogs they’re running with doesn’t phase the ones that love the game at all. And they don’t get tired and quit. They know chasing a lure is a game, and they’re fit enough to enjoy it even when it’s a challenging field. I think Deerhounds that quit are often not physically fit, so chasing isn’t fun anymore.

As house dogs (and Deerhounds ARE house dogs), when they are out of the puppy stage, they’re hard to beat. Deerhounds are gentle and calm, and though they may greet a visitor enthusiastically for a few minutes, they then return to their beds and fall asleep. They form strong bonds to their families though they are usually not cloying. They want to be where you are, but not usually in your lap, although some do make excellent lapdogs. Alas, only a small part will fit, but often it’s the head, and that’s nice. They are NOT watchdogs, although their size might deter someone who can’t read body language. Adult Deerhounds can be exceedingly lazy. If you don’t make them move, they might stay in one place all day long.

Health problems are not uncommon in this breed, and it behooves you to familiarize yourself with the potential for the disorders that are more common in sighthound breeds than in the general dog population. Unlike Labs, Dobermans and Shepherds, Deerhounds seldom suffer from hip or elbow dysplasia. They do, however, share bone cancer, bloat and cardiomyopathy with those breeds. These diseases can take your beloved Deerhound at a fairly early age, and as we don’t yet have any good genetic tests for the propensity, all we can do is try to breed away from it by observation and discussion. Bleeding disorders that manifest after surgery and cystine urinary tract stones in male Deerhounds are two other disorders overrepresented in our breed. If you decide to start a hunt for a Deerhound puppy, please ask the breeder about family history and which tests have been done on the parents and on the puppy itself. A test for liver shunt, a congenital disorder which results in liver failure at a fairly young age, should have been run on the litter prior to offering them for sale. The Scottish Deerhound Club of America and the Canine Health Information Center work together to identify and recommend tests that should be run on every breeding animal. For Deerhounds, that includes the serum bile acids test for liver shunt; a genetic test for Factor VII deficiency bleeding disorder, our only available genetic test to date; and cardiac ultrasounds performed by veterinary cardiologists at two years of age and every two years thereafter. The test for cystinuria in male dogs over two years of age is recommended as well. Some good news is that a genetic test for post-operative fibrinolysis (bleeding) has been developed and should soon be available for general use. We will definitely want to use that test to reduce surgery risk in our Deerhounds.

Deerhounds have an average life expectancy of about nine years. That means, if you remove the individuals that die young of accidents, bloat, osteosarcoma or liver shunt, you can expect your Deerhound to live into double digits, and many do. Unfortunately, osteosarcoma (bone cancer) occurs in up to 20 percent of Deerhounds, and it usually strikes at five to nine years of age. We’ve been struggling to discover the genetic cause of osteosarcoma for many years. Advances in genetics recently are giving us hope that it won't be terribly long before we can identify dogs at increased risk. If you exclude osteosarcoma, though, cancer of other types is fairly rare in our breed. To put it into perspective, there are other breeds, much more popular than Deerhounds, which have more than 60% loss due to cancers of various kinds. While it may seem that Deerhounds have a lot of diseases, compared to most breeds, they have fairly few.

Do your research, study the Standard, visit the SDCA’s website ( and browse through it. Visit the Health and Genetics page, an excellent resource on Deerhound health and the genetic studies underway presently. Join the Deerhound List chat group, where you can ask and get answers to just about any Deerhound question you may have. Visit any nearby Deerhounders who will let you to see how you like Deerhounds in their home setting. Make sure you understand what it’s like to have a dog dominate your life. That’s what Deerhounds do.