They're pets that need a few accommodations, like a minivan with the seats pulled out, a bed that can approach the size of a twin mattress and a household that doesn't mind when an animal that weighs in triple digits wants to “share” the sofa.
But owners of some of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show's giant breeds say there's no small joy in thinking big.
“It's a very interesting relationship you can have with a large dog,” Lynn Kiaer of Argyle, New York, said as two of her 10 Scottish deerhounds, Seaforth and Rhionnach, relaxed after competing this week. To her, “their whole manner of living” feels closer to human scale than does life with smaller dogs.
After all, her lean, gentle dogs can come roughly eye-to-eye with a person sitting down: Seaforth, a 6-year-old male, stands about 32 inches tall at the shoulder alone.
While canines of all shapes and sizes have won the nation's most prestigious dog show, large breeds just might win an outsized share of attention outside the ring as visitors mingle with dogs and breeders.
“Those are bigger than the wolves I've seen!” one boy exclaimed as he laid eyes on Irish wolfhounds Stuart and Kaviar, members of the tallest breed recognized by the American Kennel Club, the governing body for Westminster and many other canine competitions.
“It's a good thing,” owner Karen Goodell said, explaining that the dogs' commanding size — 4-year-old Stuart is about 37 inches at the shoulder and weighs 180 pounds — was an asset when they historically hunted wolves and guarded castles in their native Ireland.
At Goodell's Colorado Springs farm, a half-dozen wolfhounds enjoy the run of fields and the comfort of lazing around a house with taller-than-usual kitchen countertops and everything from biscuits to bowls in “jumbo” size.
While some giant dogs can be easygoing house pets, owners stress that early, assiduous training is essential for puppies that will grow — quickly — to an imposing size.
“You're not going to be able, in six months, to pick up this dog if it misbehaves,'' notes Newfoundland owner Kathy Wortham of Newport Beach, California. Her dog Xander competed Tuesday.
Big-breed owners also confront the painful reality of losing their dogs relatively soon. While the average lifespan of American dogs of all sizes has roughly doubled in the last 40 years because of factors including better medications and diets, “it's a fact that larger dogs die earlier and smaller dogs live longer,” said Dr. Joseph Kinnarney, until recently the president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association. He also co-owned the 1995 Westminster best in show winner, a Scottish terrier named Peggy Sue.
The reasons for the lifespan discrepancy aren't clear, but Kinnarney says he's hopeful continuing genetic research will shed light over time. For now, though, a long-lived Chihuahua might make it to 18, for instance, while 10 would be an impressive lifespan for an Irish wolfhound.
“That's the hardest part” of having a wolfhound, Goodell says. “To me, they're worth it because they're so wonderful. ... They're smart, they're loyal and they're great to live with.”
Any dog owner has his or her share of “it's worth its," but the big-breed crowd has perhaps a particularly memorable list.
Big dogs … big beds
For Great Dane owner and breeder Teresa LaBrie, who showed her dog Duesy at Westminster on Tuesday, it's worth custom-ordering supersized dog beds and using a 13-quart bucket as a water bowl for the 10 Danes who share her Norwich, New York, home with, yes, two Chihuahuas.
“There are times when we sit on the floor because we don't want to disturb the dogs,” she chuckled.
With four St. Bernards at his home in Lawrenceberg, Kentucky, Dr. BJ Jackson has grown accustomed to sweeping up daily and teaching hundred-pound puppies that they're too big to jump into laps.
“Absolutely, it's worth it,” said Jackson, whose dog Rambo competed at Westminster. “I wouldn't have it any other way.”