by   David Hancock

Terriers are essentially country dogs that adapt to city life. They are hunters that can be trained to behave to suit our modern styles of living, as well as conforming to the pressures of contemporary thinking in an increasingly urban society. Their great enemy the rat is still a serious threat to our health and the economy but is widely kept nowadays as a pet. We bred terriers to be highly proficient killers of ground vermin and now we expect them to ignore every cat and squirrel that crosses their path. We bred them to possess stamina, spirit and tenacity, yet some breeders keep them in small cages for much of their lives. Their purpose never demanded exaggeration of any kind, but now we breed them with excessive overcoats, needlessly short legs and elongated backs. We overlook the fact that the working anatomy is nearly always the healthiest one. In respecting their heritage we must also respect their simple needs; terriers need stimulation, they need an outlet for their energy and they need to be perpetuated not to suit some show ring fad, but in a sound form, in an empathetic environment and with acknowledgement of their famed ‘terrier spirit’. Terriers are a very special group of dogs and long may they be here to gladden our hearts with their modest needs, irrepressible energy, sheer pluckiness and very straightforward attitude to life.

Books devoted to terriers are a relatively recent addition to our sporting bookshelves. In 1896, in his preface to the first edition of his ‘A History and Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland: The Terriers’, Rawdon Lee wrote: ‘This, I believe, is the first occasion upon which a volume has been published dealing entirely with the Terriers.’ He wrote this at a time when the bookshelves were stacked with books on gundogs and hounds, and when the show ring was inspiring a new range of books on companion or Toy dogs.

Rawdon Lee went on to write: ‘In describing the Terriers in all their varieties, I have endeavoured to give particulars as to their working qualifications and their general character, as well as their so-called “show points”; and my desire to prevent, if possible, a useful race of dog from degenerating into a ladies’ pet and a pampered creature, only able to earn his owner gold on the show bench, is my reason for treating so fully of him as he is concerned in that sphere which Nature intended him to occupy.’  I wish to continue that ethos; terriers often make good ladies’ pets and the show bench has saved some terrier breeds from oblivion, but whatever their role, terriers deserve to be perpetuated in their authentic functional form. That truly is as Rawdon Lee so picturesquely put it ‘that sphere which Nature intended him to occupy’.

            “The terrier has a most acute smell, is generally an attendant on every pack of Hounds, and is very expert in forcing Foxes or other game out of their coverts. It is the determined enemy of all the vermin kind; such as Weasels, Foumarts, Badgers, Rats, Mice, &c. It is fierce, keen, and hardy…”
from Thomas Bewick’s A General History of Quadrupeds of 1790.

         “Terriers were very commonly used to accompany packs of foxhounds for the purpose of unearthing the fox, and, when in vogue, were in colour either black and tan, or pied with white and yellow. They were usually of a medium size; if too large, they were unfitted for penetrating the sinuousities of an earth, or creeping up a confined drain; if, on the contrary, they are too diminutive, they cannot keep pace with the hounds of the present day…”
from An Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports by Delabere Blaine, Longmans,1870.

Those rather quaint words from the past, and nearly a century apart, tell you a great deal about the collection of sporting dogsgrouped together as terriers, not just their purpose but their size, character and role in the hunting field too. In this book I express my admiration for the group of dogs known as terriers, their impudent appeal, their perpetual optimism, their renowned tenacity and their sheer vivacity. I also argue for a return, especially in the show dogs, to their functional form: a build which would allow them to perform in the field, even if they are not required to; traditional head shapes not fad-induced ones; good forward extension not restricted reach; weatherproof coats not fluffy woolly ones and, in particular, for the encouragement of their sporting instincts.

There is something uniquely British about terriers, our Territorial Army once being proud to have the soubriquet of The Terriers used to denote its character. There are of course terrier breeds in other countries, as the Russian Black, the Australian, the Brazilian, the Cesky and the German Hunt Terriers demonstrate. But I suspect that in most cases the inspiration, type and breeding stock came from here. If you favour the lesser known terrier types, there is a wide range to choose from. You could try a Capheaton, a Balla, a Patterdale, a Fell, a Plummer or a Lucas from here, or even a Rat Terrier or a Toy Fox Terrier from America, If you want a really big one, try the  Russian Black Terrier, which can be 30" at the shoulder or mastiff-size. The American hunters have developed a 90lb Airedale, half again as big as ours, of interest if you are seeking a big hunting dog.  You will have problems getting a Balla terrier, with perhaps only 15 pure Ballas in England. They come from Ballanantey in Ireland and are red prick-eared foot-high dogs, with strong sporting instincts.

"Old pictures of terriers dating back 300 years illustrate cross-bred looking creatures, some of them bearing more or less the distinctive characteristic of the turnspit. Others indicate a considerable trace of hound blood, but not one, so far as the writer has come across, is hound marked, or bears any more white than is usually found on the chest or feet of any dog." Those words, from Rawdon Lee's Modern Dogs - The Terriers of 1896, may well surprise fanciers of West Highland White, Fox and Soft-coated Wheaten Terriers. White terriers feature prominently in our breed lists today.

If you look at the Kennel Club's list of terrier breeds in 1908, you will notice that it contains just 16 breeds, unlike the 26 listed today. The 10 more recently listed embrace the Australian, Glen of Imaal, Lakeland, Norfolk, Norwich, Parson Russell, Cesky, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and no doubt will one day be joined by the German Hunt, Brazilian, Patterdale, Plummer and Sporting Lucas Terriers. We could so easily have had Cowley, Roseneath, Clydesdale, Paisley, Cheshire, Shropshire, Devon and Otter Terriers too; recognition of breeds of dog so often relies on determined individuals as much as ancient type.

The terriers as a functional group are essentially British, with the distinguished breeds from Scotland, Ireland and Wales combining with those of England to give the canine world the much-loved terrier breeds valued everywhere. A long history is often claimed for breeds of terrier, but I doubt if terrier men in past centuries ever bothered much about pure breeding. In his The Book of all Terriers of 1971, John Marvin writes: "Despite claims made by writers who champion the antiquity of several of today's Terrier breeds, years of careful research have failed to disclose a single reference to any reproducible breed prior to 1800. In fact, the only deviations from the earliest descriptions are variations noted as to coat, size and legs."   

In his Field Sports of 1760, terriers are described by William Daniel as being of two sorts, one of them rough, short-legged, long backed and very strong, usually black or light tan colour, mixed with white. The other was said to be smooth-haired and more pleasingly formed, with a shorter body and a more athletic appearance, usually reddish-brown or black with tan legs. Prototypes of subsequent breeds are hinted at here. French and German writers of previous centuries have made reference to dogs functioning as terriers, not just Dachshund types but Pinschers and Schnauzers too. We may have captured the terrier breed market but not the terrier function.

But, whatever the origin, the nomenclature or the literature behind the terrier type, this group of dogs deserves our admiration, not just for their valuable work in vermin control but for their effect on our spirit; it is difficult to be depressed, idle or bored when terriers are about. Their sheer joie de vivre lightens our day, their renowned tenacity can inspire us and their sustained curiosity can shame us into comparable activity. May we have terriers with us for a very long time.

 “There are terriers of sorts which through long usage as house-dogs and pets have lost most of their essential qualities as outdoor working companions for the man with a gun. But in spite of this decline in their native gifts – no fault of their own – they still preserve the gallant spirit of less urbanized ancestors, and most of them, with a little training and opportunity, can easily be turned into first-rate rabbiters, ratters and fox-bolters.”
From The Dog in Sport by James Wentworth Day, Harrap, 1938.

 “Ay, see the hounds with frantic zeal
The roots and earth uptear;
But the earth is strong, and the roots are long,
They cannot enter there.
Outspeaks the Squire, ‘Give room, I pray,
And hie the terriers in;
The warriors of the fight are they,
And every fight they win.’ ”

 “The Terrier Group: The common physical features are a robust and tightly-knit frame, well-muscled, small-to-medium in size, with the head rather long, without any dome, the ears small, triangular and usually folded over to the fore. Coat is mainly rough with a dense soft undercoat, protective eyebrows and no featherings. The tail is usually docked but when of natural length is fairly short. Such breeds as are still sent to earth are usually short-legged. The cubist effect of square bodies and rectangular heads is due to a temporary modern phase of fashion and does not represent a true family characteristic.”
From Dogs in Britain by Clifford LB Hubbard, MacMillan & Co., 1948.