43 WONDERING ABOUT WHEATEN TERRIERS
WONDERING ABOUT WHEATEN TERRIERS
The wheaten hue is a common terrier colouration, being found in the Border, Lakeland, Norfolk, Norwich, Cairn and Scottish Terrier breeds, as well as the terriers from Ireland. I have never liked the title of the Irish breed: Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier; no breed should be identified just by the texture or colour of its coat and there are plenty of wheaten terriers. Such a distinctive and admirable breed deserves a much more precise breed title. In his foreword to Maureen Holmes’s book The Wheaten Years, of 1977, Henry Fottrell, then chairman of the Irish Kennel Club, wrote: “They were generally called Irish Terriers. That is why there was opposition for some years by the Irish Terrier representative on the Irish Kennel Club to their recognition as a distinct breed. It was only when it was suggested that they be officially called Soft-coated Wheaten Terriers that opposition was overcome and a breed register opened.” I wonder sometimes if those involved in the pedigree dog world truly understand how breeds evolved, led by function.
In her book, Maureen Holmes wrote: “The breed has always been in its native country, Ireland, and can be traced for close on 200 years. It is true there is no specific mention of it in records or writings…most carry references to Irish Terriers and the colour wheaten; open coated is a description that occurs from time to time. Kerry Blues are not mentioned as such either in any old records. The generic term Irish Terriers covered all the terriers of Ireland; it is a collective term and does not mean Irish Terriers, the distinctive breed so well known today.” This is not unusual; there are no specific historical references to the English Deerhound, the smooth-coated par force hound usually being termed a greyhound. Similarly, the word bulldog referred to a role not the breed with that title today. Maureen Holmes goes on to state: “How could Soft-coated Wheaten Terriers be specifically mentioned as such when they had no official name until 1937?” Such a dilemma faces so many breed historians. Two hundred years ago a litter of terrier pups in Ireland could contain coat colours ranging from black and grey, red and tan to silver and gold, wheaten and white.
When I was working in County Down some forty years ago, I used to see what could be called straw-coloured terriers on farms there, really like coarsely-bred wheatens. A while later I came across a painting of John Rawden-Hastings, son of the Earl of Moira, attributed to Robert Fagin, who died in 1812. In this painting there are two terriers, one remarkably like the rough-coated straw-coloured terriers I saw in County Down. The Earls of Moira had property in County Down and I wondered immediately if this portrayal was of an early wheaten terrier. In her book The Dogs of Ireland, Dundalgan Press 1981, Anna Redlich writes: “Wheaten Terriers have been kept for generations on the farms of this country where they have been used for cattle work, for pursuing and destroying vermin, and, like their next-of-kin the Kerry Blue and Irish Terrier, have enjoyed a day’s shooting in the company of their master.” So often we think of breeds solely in specialised roles and forget the all-round use of dogs in rural areas.
When working in Ireland it was always of interest to study the farm dogs there; so many of them, ungroomed and unclipped, resembled the bouviers of Belgium, the Dutch Terrier or Smoushond and the stable dogs of Germany, the schnauzers. Going to work in Germany, immediately after working in Ireland, allowed me to keep a picture of Irish farm dogs in my mind when viewing their equivalents on mainland Europe. I have seen both schnauzers and wheaten terriers being used as herding dogs in their native countries and appearing interchangeable in form and technique. Once, at a world dog show I was convinced that the Bouvier des Flandres before me was a large Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier from Ireland. Size apart, the appearance, the coat, the personality and the attitude were easily confused. I see similarities too between the Kerry Blue and the Laekenois of Belgium and the Schnauzer; perhaps the farm function deciding form.
Anna Redlich also writes in her book on the dogs of Ireland: “Wheaten Terriers, used for centuries to hunt the otter and the badger in their native soil, invariably came out first when entered in any Field Trial held by the Working Terrier Association of Ireland. Wheatens scored top honours at the Championship Hunting Competitions of September, 1937, 1938 and 1939. At the Field Trials in June, 1938, two of these terriers qualified for the Certificate of Merit, an honour which none of the other competing terriers were able to attain. Placed first at many of the Badger Trials of the Association, the breed, since it was allowed to compete, has in fact won more certificates at these Trials than all strong terriers put together and has therefore proved the pre-eminence of the Wheaten as a sporting terrier.” The sporting heritage of this breed is impressive; I only hope the current fad, especially in North America for over-coated specimens doesn’t handicap such game dogs too much.
In 2006, a championship show breed judge reported: “Upright shoulders, loose elbows and hence poor front movement were prevalent, particularly in the (male) dogs…” I do hope they were not bred from; these are appalling faults in a sporting terrier. Six years earlier the Crufts judge for the breed remarked “…we really do need to consider our breeding programmes very carefully.” Were these words heeded? Sadly, most judges are more concerned with coat than soundness, not a good sign.
RECALLING THE SCOTTISH WHEATEN
“Scotland is prolific in Terriers, and for the most part these are long-backed and short-legged dogs. Such are the Dandie Dinmont, the Skye, and the Aberdeen Terriers, the last now merged in the class recognized at our shows as the Scottish, or Scotch, Terrier; but the old hard and short-haired “Terry” of the West of Scotland was much nearer in shape to a modern Fox-terrier, though with a shorter and rounder head, the colour of his hard, wiry coat mostly sandy, the face free from long hair, although some show a beard, and the small ears carried in most instances semi-erect, in some pricked.”
Whatever happened to the ‘Terry’, the old hard-haired sandy-coloured working terrier of the West of Scotland? Did it live on in the wheaten Scottish Terrier, before that variety lost favour? Nowadays when regarding an entry of show ring Scotties you could be forgiven for thinking the breed was only black-coated, just as the Westie is white. It is relevant too to keep in mind that both these breeds were once far less heavily coated, their working man owners not wishing to devote hours to their coats, unlike the grooming fetishists of the modern show ring, especially in North America. A heavy coat on a working dog, whatever its function was never sought by pioneer breeders. Weatherproofing comes from the texture of the coat and the hair-density not its length.
The Medwal kennel of Walter Medcalf became renowned for its wheaten Scotties from immediately before the Second World War to the 1950s. Medcalf likened this coat colour to a lightly baked loaf of bread; others compared it to a field of ripe corn. He found this coat colour provided the best waterproofing, thought that the blacks were usually too soft-coated but also admired the brindles. The Medwal dogs always had excellent pigmentation as well as extremely handsome coats. Every wheaten Scottie bred here goes back to his line. Not many wheaten Scotties are seen on the show benches today. I believe the last wheaten champion was Glenecker Golden Girl in 1966. The first published standard for the breed didn’t include the wheaten shade but the 1885 one laid down the breed’s colour range as: steel or iron-grey, brindled or grizzled, black, sandy and wheaten. Walter Medcalf’s daughter Mrs GB Willatt tells me that her father always encouraged his dogs to rat and introduced pups early to their traditional foe. His outstanding bitch Medwal Miss Mustard produced a litter of five champions. Walter’s father George Medcalf was a distinguished breeder of Fox Terriers, both wires and smooths, selling winning stock to the Duchess of Newcastle and to success on the Continent; a fine terrier dynasty.
Pet owners would however warm to the words of perhaps the greatest expert on Scotties, WL McCandlish, who wrote, in his book on the breed of nearly a century ago: ‘The first aim of a breeder should be to produce the dog best fitted to be the companion of man in and out of doors…I should like to shoot all breeders of Scottish Terriers who breed dogs to suit judges, those who tell you, for instance, that you must breed for straight fronts and short backs, because such judges insist on these two catch-penny phrases, even though they are fully aware that to obtain these two subsidiary features they must ignore expression and intelligence, type of body, and true activity.’ A visitor to his kennel in 1905 reported her amazement at seeing 30 to 40 Scotties that all looked completely uniform in appearance. Before the First World War, his was the leading kennel, bringing balance, great quality heads and ears, bigger quarters with muscular thighs, tails with a good strong root, and a symmetrical build without losing workmanlike attributes too, some feat. McCandlish favoured an 18lb dog, nowadays the standard asks for a 19-23lb dog. In his day steel or iron grey coats were listed, today they are not; sandy was then an accepted coat colour, today it is not listed.
Writing in his The Dogs of Scotland of 1891, Thomson Gray, the great authority on dogs there before the show ring took them over, stated: ‘The usual colour of the old Scottish Terrier was sandy. No other word is so expressive of the colour, and will readily be understood by all Scotsmen. There were other colours, such as grizzle and brindle, but “sandy” was the popular one. They were not bred for ‘fancy’ but for work, consequently the carriage of ears, and other little ‘points of beauty’ so greatly insisted upon by ‘fanciers’, were ignored, and only the sterling qualities of the animal prized. If he could kill rats, draw a badger, and face a cat without flinching, he was termed a terrier; if not, he was a “guid-for-naething useless brute…’ He was probably describing what others have called the ‘terry’, leggier and hard-coated; he would have been more than surprised to find the Scottish Terrier of today forever in black.