by   David Hancock

“The Terrier is querulous, fretful and irascible, high-spirited and alert when brought into action; if he has not unsubdued perseverance like the bulldog, he has rapidity of attack, managed with art, and sustained with spirit; it is not what he will bear, but what he will inflict …as his courage is great, so is his extensive genius: he will trace with the Foxhound, hunt with the Beagle, find for the Greyhound, or beat with the Spaniel.”

Those epic words by Sydenham Edwards, in his ‘Cynographia Britannica’ of 1800 tell you more about the terrier tribe than some books with 100 pages on them. He has succinctly captured their role, their nature, their value and their soul. Just over two centuries before him, the Cambridge scholar Dr Caius had listed them as part of the hound family and suggested their name came about ‘because they (after the manner and custom of ferrets, in searching for conies) creep into the ground, and by that means make afraid, nip, and bite the fox and the badger…’ He wasn’t scholarly enough though to ponder whether the word ‘terrier’ comes from the French word ‘terre’ (earth) or the word ‘terrere’ (to frighten), from which our word terror derives; both have Old French and Latin origins. ‘Terrors’ would provide a much more suitable word origin for such a feisty group of canines! And they do frighten underground prey.

Thirty years before that, in 1543, Dr Still had composed a poem, which read:

‘Body and limb go cold,
Both foot and hand go bare;
God send teroures so bold, so bold,
Heart will harbour no care.’

and stressed that their boldness was a feature even then. A century later, Nicholas Cox, in his ‘The Gentleman’s Recreation’ of 1667, described them as of two sorts, one with legs more or less crooked with short coats and another straighter in the leg and with long jackets. Another century passes, and we find Daniel, in his ‘Field Sports’ writing: “There are two sorts of terriers, the one short-legged, long-backed, very strong, and most commonly of a black or yellowish colour, mixed with white; the other is smooth-haired and beautifully formed, having a shorter body and a more sprightly appearance, is generally of a reddish-brown colour, or black with tanned legs.” Both were relying on French descriptions of Basset Hounds, as did Turberville, Blome and their followers. The authentic voice of the British terrier-men was not being heard, mainly because they did not come from the educated or monied classes.

In his book The Dog of 1880, ‘Idstone’ records, when recounting Dr Caius’s description of terriers: “These, doubtless, were the stout sort of Terriers for which, as fox killers, James I. wrote to his friend the Laird of Caldwell, naming the Earl of Monteith as having good ones of the kind; and which sort were generally accepted as good from 1677 downwards, bred without much attempt at refinement, and they remained simply crook-legged, hairy, vermin-dogs, until it was deemed requisite to establish something neater and more pleasing to the eye in connection with the handsome and high-mettled Foxhound.” There is more than a hint here of terrier-men going entirely for performance rather than beauty of form, perhaps lacking the means to indulge in handsomeness for its own sake.  

The first reliable description of variety in our terriers is provided by Taplin in his ‘The Sportsman’s Cabinet’ of 1803: “Terriers of the best blood, and most determined ferocity, are now, by the prevalence of fashion, bred of all colours: red, black (with tanned faces, flanks, feet, and legs) and brindled sandy; some few brown pied, white pied and pure white; as well as one sort rough and wire-haired, the other soft, smooth, and delicate, the latter not much inferior in courage to the former, but the rough wire-haired breed is the most severe biter of the two.” It’s significant that no description of a terrier, down the ages, has been deemed complete without mention of the terrier-spirit, the combative attitude of this group of dogs. 

I always think of terriers in four sub-groups: the basset/dachshund type as exemplified in the Dandie Dinmont, the Skye and indeed some so-called Jack Russells; the Beagle or small scenthound type as in the Fox Terrier, Manchester, or the Pinscher breeds; the ‘griffon’ or coarse-haired type as in the Border, Lakeland, the terriers of Scotland (less the Dandie and Skye), the Irish, Sealyham, Airedale, the Schnauzer varieties, Kerry Blue, Wheaten and perhaps the Smoushond of Holland; and then the hybrids, the Bedlington, the English White (that was) and the Bull Terriers.

It is of interest that the same factors which apply to the inheritance of scenthounds apply to wire and smooth-haired Fox Terriers. A narrow head is dominant over the broader hound-like head. The sharp nose is dominant over the blunt nose; wire hair is dominant over short hair and the short legs of the Dachshund, Basset Hound and Scottish Terrier are (incompletely) dominant over the normal longer legs of the Fox Terrier. The colour of the Dachshund, whether wire, long-haired or smooth, is determined by the same determiners which affect scenthounds. In 1916, Wellman wrote of experimental crosses between Fox Terriers and Basset Hounds in which the vast majority of the progeny were black and tan and short-legged. From these facts it can be seen that in time it would not be difficult to produce a narrower-headed, sharper-muzzled, shorter-legged, wire-coated earth-dog from a hound origin.

The terrier breeds are however likely to have more than just a hound background. As Darwin himself once wrote: “A breed, like a dialect of language, can hardly be said to have a distinct origin. A man preserves and breeds from an individual with some slight deviation of structure, or takes more care than usual in mating his best animals and thus improves them…When further improved by the same slow and gradual process, they will spread more widely and will be recognised as something distinct and valuable, and will then probably first receive a provincial name.” In such a way did we develop our Rothbury, Manchester, Aberdeen, Reedwater, Glen of Imaal, Patterdale, Norfolk, Poltalloch, Clydesdale and Yorkshire terriers. The root stock of many being the old rough-coated black and tan common terrier of Britain, used by many hunts before hound-marked dogs became fashionable.

It is not wise to regard the many nineteenth century writers on dogs as authorities on terriers. Firstly, they copied from each other, sometimes consolidating falsehoods which are still today regarded as facts. Secondly, as so many did before them, they often wittingly or unwittingly plagiarised the masterly work of Jacques du Fouilloux, (his ‘La Venerie’ of 1560), a few even passing off his words as their own. He was writing, not surprisingly, as did De Foix in his  ‘Livre de Chasse’ of 1401, (brought to us as ‘Master of Game’ by Edward, Duke of York), of French dogs. Youatt, ‘Idstone’, ‘Stonehenge’ and Dalziel, for all their valuable words on dogs in Victorian times, are not so well informed on terriers. Vero Shaw gives much more detail; Robert Leighton, into Edwardian times, provides even more information on the developing show breeds of terrier. But it is not until quite late in the 20th century that we get coverage of working terriers. At last, it is not educated men writing secondhand about dogs of which they have little knowledge, but informed writers: Sir Jocelyn Lucas, Pierce O’Conor, Rosslyn Bruce, Geoffrey Sparrow, Dan Russell, Brian Plummer and their like, covering a subject they are well acquainted with and working terriers receiving long overdue attention.

Robert Leighton, writing early in the twentieth century had a wide knowledge of terriers. In his Dogs And All About Them, published by Cassell in 1914, he gave an admirable summary of the emerging and non-emerging breeds: “A wire-haired black and tan terrier was once common in Suffolk and Norfolk, where it was much used for rabbiting, but it may now be extinct, or, if not extinct, probably identified with the Welsh Terrier, which it closely resembled in size and colouring. There was also in Shropshire a well-known breed of wire-haired terriers, black and tan, on very short legs, and weighing about 10lb. or 12lb., with long punishing heads and extraordinary working powers. So too, in Lancashire and Cheshire one used to meet with sandy-coloured terriers of no very well authenticated strain, but closely resembling the present breed of Irish Terrier; and Squire Thornton, at his place near Pickering in Yorkshire, had a breed of wire-hairs, tan in colour with a black stripe down the back…Possibly the Elterwater Terrier is no longer to be found…”

He knew of the terriers of Scotland, writing of the Border Terrier in Galloway, Ayrshire and the Lothians, going on to state: “There are many more local varieties of the working terrier, as, for example, the Roseneath, which is often confused with the Poltalloch, or West Highlander, to whom it is possibly related. And the Pittenweem, with which the Poltalloch Terriers are now being crossed; while Mrs Alastair Campbell, of Ardiscraig, has a pack of Cairn Terriers which seem to represent the original type of the improved Scottie.” It was Leighton who initiated the breed title of Cairn Terrier for that breed. He accepted the rather ‘hit and miss’ acknowledgement of distinct types as breeds, or not!              

The showing of dogs, launched in the 1870s, mushroomed at the end of the nineteenth century and this expansion continued into the twentieth century despite two world wars. Individual breeds of terrier once recognised by the Kennel Club as such, became isolated genetically, with some breeds originating in a relatively tiny gene pool. Small red tan terrier: ears down it's a Norfolk, ears up it's a Norwich; is this the essential criterion for one breed to be identified from another, or just loosely controlled breed identification? Here are two admirable breeds separated, visually at any rate, solely by ear carriage. Is that enough, or, one day when numbers are low or inheritable diseases encountered, will they merge? Horrifying for their devotees, perhaps, but does the general public appreciate such niceties? Does the man in the street know a Welsh Terrier from a Lakeland? Does the dog-owning community, all six million members of it, really care about breed differences? Those concerned with sporting terriers care less about breeds and much more about performance.

The arrival of the terriers and their subsequent evolution into breeds has left us with a dilemma. Do you breed them to fit the accepted show-ring phenotype or to respect their working function? If you stop for a moment thinking about the type of dog that goes underground and consider other small mammals that do, you obtain a different mental image. Rabbits, badgers, foxes, prairie dogs and especially moles, operate very successfully underground. Does coat colour matter for them? Do they need to be well-boned, have very long muzzles, excessively long coats, a ‘cobby’ build, or resemble in any way the type of horse called a hunter? What do those which operate above and below ground have in common? Three particular features come to mind: appreciable elasticity of torso, an eel-like construction for the neck and back (which is comparatively long) and a short thick coat. But what physical features do the Kennel Club approved standards for registered terrier breeds demand? It is worth a glance at them.

Airedales, both varieties of Fox Terrier, Norfolk and Norwich Terriers and the Welsh Terrier are required to have short backs. The West Highland White, Norfolk and Norwich Terriers are expected to have compact bodies. The Welsh Terrier has to have straight front legs, as does the Parson Russell. The Australian and Irish Terriers have to have front legs which are perfectly straight. The Sealyham has to have its point of shoulder in line with its point of elbow. The Airedale has to show little space between its ribs and its hips. The Bedlington has to feature front legs which are wider apart at the chest than at the feet (the strangely-desired ‘horse-shoe front’). The Wire-haired Fox Terrier has to have its tail set high; the Smooth is expected to have its tail set rather high, and, in its forequarters, little or no appearance of ankle in front. These stipulations are not wise. They are so easily mis-applied by those who have never seen a canine miner at work.

In later articles, I describe how the breeds developed, or, in some cases, did not survive despite their clear identity. In most registered breeds, fashion has prevailed over function and, in other serials, I illustrate how show-ring criteria or breeder-whim threatens soundness in so many terrier breeds. The Kennel Club is now, commendably, insisting on the recognition of function in terrier breeds registered with them, and not before time. It will be timely and important for the survival of these breeds as sporting dogs; we all need to keep in mind where they came from.

Foundation stock in the sporting terrier breeds often came from hunt kennels or working sources and so the breeding basis was sound. Gradually and remorselessly however, both the anatomies and the coefficients of inbreeding have in some of these breeds reached unacceptable levels and a rethink is now urgently required. Away from the show ring, unrecognised breeds, like the Fell, Sporting Lucas and Patterdale have thrived, not in large numbers, but in true terrier form. Newly created breeds like the Cesky and Plummer Terriers are more popular than some age-old breeds, with the ubiquitous Jack Russells replacing the once heavily fancied Fox Terrier. If the twentieth century was the one in which the terrier breeds ‘arrived’, then the twenty-first century could be the one in which the terrier varieties ‘came and went’. What really must continue is the unquenchable spirit in this type of dog; breeds may in time just lose favour, but any breed bearing the description of terrier has to have that very special ‘get-up-and-go’, the never-say-die attitude of the true earth-dog. May that spirit never be lost; it is a precious feature of the canine world and the terrier is very much Britain’s contribution to the sporting dogs of the world.

 “The terrier, among the higher order of sportsmen, is preserved in its greatest purity, and with the most assiduous attention; and it seems of the utmost importance not to increase its size, which would render him unsuitable for the purpose in which he is employed, that of entering the earth to drive out other animals from their burrows, for which his make, strength, and invincible ardour, peculiarly fit him. On this account, he is the universal attendant upon a pack of fox hounds, and though last in the pursuit he is not the least in value.”
Thomas Brown, from his Biographical Sketches and Authentic Anecdotes of Dogs, of 1829.

 “Some of the breeds of terriers seen nowadays in every dog show were equally obscure and unknown a few years back. Fifty years ago the now popular Irish Terrier was practically unknown in England, and the Scottish Terrier was only beginning to be recognized as a distinct breed. The Welsh Terrier is quite a new introduction that a generation ago was seldom seen outside the Principality; and so recently as 1881 the Airedale was merely a local dog known in Yorkshire as the Waterside or the Bingley Terrier. Yet the breeds just mentioned are all of unimpeachable ancestry, and the circumstance that they were formerly bred within limited neighbourhoods is in itself an argument in favour of their purity. We have seen the process of a sudden leap into recognition enacted during the past few years in connexion with the white terrier of the Western Highlands, with the Cairn Terrier and with the Sealyham; and at the moment the hitherto ignored terrier of the Borders is receiving tardy recognition. Yet the West Highland Terrier was known in Argyllshire three hundred years ago, while the Sealyham Terrier was hunting the otter in Pembrokeshire when Wales was inaccessible to all but the most adventurous of travellers.”
From The Complete Book of the Dog by Robert Leighton, Cassell & Co., 1922.

Terrier breeds listed by the Kennel Club in 1908: Airedale, Bedlington, Border, Bull, Cairn, Dandie Dinmont, Fox (smooth), Fox (wire), Irish, Kerry Blue, Manchester, Scottish, Sealyham, Skye, Welsh and West Highland White (16).
Note: The English White had previously been recognized. In 1908, there were no registrations of Border, Cairn, Kerry Blue or Sealyham Terriers.
In 1956, the KC table of terrier registrations listed the Australian, Lakeland, Norwich, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers in addition to those above.
In  2006, this table showed the miniature Bull, Cesky, Glen of Imaal, Norfolk, Parson Russell and Soft-coated Wheaten Terriers in addition to those above. At the time of writing application for the Plummer Terrier to be KC-recognized was being mooted.  The German Hunt Terrier may well be recognized in the coming years.