665 Hunting the Foxterrier

by   David Hancock

 When I was a boy they were everywhere, especially at harvest time - no, not rats, but Fox Terriers. Once the first choice of some hunts as hunt terriers, they became a favourite companion dog, yet, unlike say the Cocker Spaniel, gradually faded from the scene. In some ways they reflect the changes in our society: a preference for exotic dogs and exotic holidays, a desire for flashier canines and cars and a failure to acknowledge the merits of home-grown products, whether they are from dog-breeders, dairies or dockyards. In 1910, the Kennel Club registered over 1,500 smooth Fox Terriers and over 1,300 wire-haired Fox Terriers, against nearly 700 Cockers. Seventeen years later, over 10,000 Fox Terriers of both coats were registered against well over 4,000 Cockers; both breeds had arrived.

 In 2008, over 22,500 Cockers were registered with the KC, against just 178 smooth and 763 wire-haired Fox Terriers. The Cockers had arrived and stayed, the Fox Terrier as a breed is under threat. For such an honest, companionable and fussless breed to falter is a pity, for their working use to all but disappear is simply tragic.

 I wonder how wise it was to seek separate recognition for terriers carrying a different coat but coming from the same root stock. Recognition of more than one breed from the same root really does make a difference. Once the different breeds have become established with their separate stud-books, each gene-pool becomes sealed and genetic isolation results. This is artificial and not how nature works. But just as crucial is the work of fanciers who develop breed points to the degree where the two breeds, from the same origin, are bred and judged differently. I would question the wisdom of this. Some breeds bearing the same basic breed name but featuring different coat textures have developed from separate roots. The German Pointers demonstrate this and I can understand separate breed status for the Wire-haired and Long-Haired from the Short-haired breed. This is not the case in the Fox Terrier.

 In his Modern Dogs (Terriers) of 1896, Rawdon Lee writes on the Fox Terrier: "...the two varieties ought to be identical, though one has a smooth, close coat, the other a hard close coat and somewhat rough." In his The Popular Fox Terrier of 1950, Rosslyn Bruce writes: "The two varieties, the Smooth-coated and Wire-haired, are fundamentally the same breed..."  Both these writers were experts on the breed and worthy of note. Both record in detail a common origin for what is now two distinct breeds. So many pure-bred dog breeders are obsessed with breed purity when they should, if they truly care about their breed, be obsessed with sound functional dogs.

 This is a breed I admire (and for me it is one breed). I have visited their rings at shows over fifty years and rarely been pleased with the entry. Upright shoulders, open coats in the wires, snipey muzzles and too short a back seem to be acceptable features. The breed standard however demands sloping shoulders, well laid back and, in the wires, a dense very wiry coat. Both are required to have short backs without the degree of brevity being stipulated. This is no feature for an earthdog breed; cobbiness may look smart 'on the flags' but it's a considerable handicap underground.

 Rosslyn Bruce objects to the craze for elongated muzzles and the obliterated 'stop' which accompanies this feature. Most of the show Fox Terriers I see have over-long heads and hardly any 'stop' at all. He also wrote that: "An erroneous impression is prevalent that a Fox Terrier must be squarely built, and that by standing the Terrier sideways on, if of the ideal build and shape, he should fit into all the sides of a square." He then makes a convincing argument against too square a dog. Yet, time and time again, down the years, I have seen square Fox Terriers win prizes at prestigeous shows. Perhaps, as in so many breeds, the dogs are being bred to win prizes and not to improve the breed. To be fair to today's breeders many of the faults I see are hardly new.

 In The Kennel Gazette of 1884, there is a critique which reads: "Diadem, the once-sensational, and the only remaining entry in the class, being third. She is far too short in body for my taste, has upright shoulders, and is not enough of a working terrier." For a Smooth-haired Fox terrier to come third and be 'once-sensational' with these shortcomings is depressing. In a critique of 1933, Major Hayward, reporting on a Wire-haired entry, wrote: "With few exceptions looseness at elbows, weak fronts and bad feet and unsoundness prevailed, while hocks were too far away from the body." He would not have liked the contemporary fetish for the hocks to be too far away from the body in far too many 'flashy' breeds. In the 1950s, Colonel Phipps was writing on the entry of the same breed: "I only hope for the sake of the breed that it was not a representative one as otherwise the outlook is not good...I am still of the opinion that breeders are losing or have lost sight of the fact that a Fox-terrier is primarily a working dog." Time and time again, show fanciers admire a breed so much that they can't wait to move it away from its original blueprint and a word picture related to the function which shaped the breed.

 Working terrier breeders understand why certain anatomical features are important; without wishing to sound too cynical, far too many show breeders rate physical features solely by their ability to appeal to a judge. Functional terriers need a front assembly that supports their work and contributes to their success. Working dogs do not deserve the handicap of an unsuitable coat. In the last few years I have judged terriers at breed club shows and found really good shoulders and hard, crisp, weatherproof coats in the coated varieties. These were bred by men who used their dogs in the field but these were not KC registered breeds. The Fox Terrier is very much part of the sporting heritage of England; it would be good to see them favoured by terriermen once again, just as the Rufford and Grove packs did over a century ago.