by   David Hancock

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 This is not unusual; there are no specific historical references to the English Deerhound, the smooth-coated par force hound usually being termed a greyhound.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.
That great chronicler Rawdon Lee, in his volume on terriers in his Modern Dogs series of 1896, writes, quoting a Mr WC Bennett of Dublin: “I have several times been assured, by those from whom I sought information, that a special strain of Irish terriers was kept in their families for generations, and they usually described them as wheaten coloured, open-coated, with long, punishing jaws, and I was shown…a game-looking wheaten coloured bitch, long and low on the leg, with a very open coat, long, level head, with little or no stop visible. The owner claimed to have had her breed for over thirty years in his family. I can vouch that she would fight until nearly killed, if once provoked.” This might have been a Glen of Imaal, but terriers in Ireland were usually interbred on merit not confined to distinct breeds.

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.   
I like the look of the working Wheatens bred by Declan Looney of Belfast: workmanlike, not over-coated and with a real glint in their eye. There are working Wheatens in Wales that do not feature the heavier coat of the show ring Soft-coated Irish Wheatens. The wheatens that are depicted in old paintings of dogs, like William Trood’s Waiting for Master of 1891, show a golden-coated, but not over-coated, much more functional dog. In the 2004 breed health survey for Soft-coated Wheatens the most common conditions reported were in the dermatological category at 14.1% with dermatitis, sebaceous cysts, pyotraumatic dermatitis or hot spots and fading nose pigment listed. 13% reported  ear problems, way above the average for other breeds. These are all conditions that can be linked to excessively coated jackets. Our sporting ancestors, in developing such terriers for us, never sought or tolerated excessive coats in their dogs and we are learning to respect their judgement. Such a distinctive and wholly admirable breed as the Soft-coated Wheaten deserves our very best custodianship and this includes putting their best interests way ahead of our contemporary fad for heavy coats - and grooming orgies! If this is to remain a sporting terrier breed then its fanciers have to put aside show ring preferences and respect the breed’s origin a great deal more.    


  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.”
From British Dogs by WD Drury, Upcott Gill, 1903.

 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 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. Morning Nip was the first wheaten champion in Scottish Terriers. He was said to have a lovely golden coat, flecked with black hairs; he had great presence in the ring and was very highly rated as a model for the breed. After a highly successful show career, he was bought by Dr Fayette Ewing and taken to the United States. In the early 1920s black became the ‘only’ colour in the breed, which made the selling of a puppy in any other shade extremely difficult. This followed the production from purebred stock of white Scotties, leading to allegations of sly outcrosses to Sealyhams. Such ignorance of the breed’s colour gene-pool led to the favouring of solid jet black jackets, despite the fact that the use of brindle blood was known to improve coat texture.     
This concentration on the colour black has not brought with it consistent quality. Judges of the breed in 2010 reported: ‘There were some common failings; dogs deep in chest but not wide, or slightly lacking forechest, putting front legs at the end of the body instead of underneath, and there were many with loose elbows.’ And another: ‘I was disappointed with the overall quality. Many were overweight and in soft condition, lacking muscletone and general fitness. Movement generally was not very good and quite a few failed in front action, lacking reach.’ These are disturbing faults in a sporting terrier breed. The breed is not being helped by the almost reckless awarding of coveted prizes: in 2009, a judge had an entry of just three dogs but still went ahead and awarded both challenge certificates on offer! Talented Scottie breeders of old like McCandlish, in the breed’s early days, and Medcalf, half a century later, would not have approved, they relentlessly sought real quality. It is never enough just to turn up on the day.

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. 
Sandy-wheaten, silver-grey and grey-wheaten can be confused, but the real wheaten coat is truly golden and very attractive. In his book The Inheritance of Coat Colour in Dogs, of 1979, Clarence C Little writes: ‘Light-yellow or cream and pure-white Scotties (formerly known as Roseneath Terriers) represent a wheaten type in which the gene for full pigmentation has been replaced by the paling gene…Wheatens, like sables in other breeds, may be clear-colored or may show varying amounts of scattered dark pigment, especially on the back and sides. Usually this disappears with age.’ In a number of terrier breeds the pups can be much darker than their parents but lighten gradually to their final colour. Choosing a pup on a preferred shade of coat needs more knowledge than most pet owners possess. Adulthood can bring change.

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.