by   David Hancock

  “These old working terriers were tough and strong. They had to be because their daily life consisted of facing cornered animals which they had to kill or bolt. The fighting underground was savage and the terrier was expected to succeed or die – and many of them did – either through bites or by being trapped under the earth. Courage or ‘gameness’ was the quality most prized by the terrier breeders and cowardly dogs were very rare indeed because a terrier showing the slightest trace of fear was quickly destroyed and never used for breeding. The old types were also swift and some were known to have covered over six miles in thirty minutes – a very good time over rough country by a comparatively short-legged animal.”

         CGE Wimhurst, writing in his The Book of Terriers, Muller, 1968.    

 Ugly little varmint or cute little canine fashion model? Couch potato or crouching tiger? Scarred canine miner or handsome reduced hound? What should a sporting terrier look like? Does its anatomy truly matter? Is its spirit more important? In his 'Sporting Terriers' of 1926, Pierce O'Conor wrote: "That the foxterrier of today is a great improvement, in so far as looks go, on his predecessors of forty or fifty years ago is beyond question, though whether he is better suited physically or morally for work underground is a matter of opinion". If O'Conor were alive today, I think he would strengthen those words even more and would not be a happy terrier-man.

 In Field Sports magazine in 1949, in an article entitled The Hunt Terrier Man and His Dogs, old terrier-man Fred F Wood wrote of his kind: “There is also another attendant to the pack, the terrier man…then look at his little companions, maybe a couple or a couple and a half of terriers, not much to look at perhaps, the show terrier man might call them ugly little mongrels, but there is no mongrel about them, many of their pedigrees have been as carefully kept as those of the hounds, not for their appearance, but for their qualities. They have to be constructed of bone, wire and whip cord, and have coats that will keep out cold and wet and then on top of that be brave as lions, if they are to do the work they are called upon to do…so think of those little terriers…they will stay and fight their fox until he bolts or they are dug out, that requires pluck.” It was fear of their terriers losing their working anatomy, and especially their ‘pluck’, which steered working terrier enthusiasts away from the show ring.

 In his book The Terrier’s Vocation of 1949, Geoffrey Sparrow writes: “Some years ago there was a wire haired dog at the Crawley and Horsham Kennels which was one of the best I ever saw; he had rather a shy way with him and couldn’t abide a lot of raucous halloaing, nor would he enter a hole unless he wanted to. The first time I saw him at work out hunting, they couldn’t get him to go at all and were just going to give it up when someone said: ‘There’s a heck of a noise underneath where I’m standing.’ Well, it was quite obvious he had waited his time and then gone into another hole, got up to his fox and was busy at him. At the beginning he looked abject, mean and utterly lacking in courage, showing how deceptive a dog may be.” I have had comparable experiences with infantry soldiers, especially countrymen; judgements made on outward appearances don’t count for much when the real tests come. 

 The key senses of a working terrier: sight, hearing and ‘feel’, or touch, matter very much to an earth-dog. The great American expert  on dog behaviour, Clarence J Pfaffenberger, in his The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior of 1963, wrote: “A dog can hear much higher and lower sounds than a person can. His sense of smell has never been satisfactorily evaluated, but it is so superior that we do not yet know its workings. A dog’s eyes are different from ours. One very valuable quality is his ability to practically photograph motion. Where we might be aware that something moved, a dog will know just where it moved.”  In this connection, it is worth noting the words of Dugald Macintyre in Field Sports magazine in 1949: “Terriers are smart dogs, and I had more than one which did remarkable feats. There was the West Highland White who, assisting farm collies to chivy the hares out of an oat-field which was in the process of being reaped – after some hares had escaped, lay down by the gate of the field, and so secured several. The collies could only see what was ‘before their noses’, but that terrier was a bit of a thinker. The same terrier could be lifted up in one’s arms to point out a distant hunting stoat, or to make him understand that he was to go to a bridge and cross it, to get to at the holt of an otter.”  Terriers may lack height but we must never underestimate their ability to pick up movement far far better than we; it would be unwise too to play down their sheer canniness, as Macintyre indicates.

 I believe that it is entirely fair to state that of all the types of dog ruined by the effects of the Kennel Club-approved show rings the Terrier Group has suffered the most. This is sad for a number of reasons: firstly, the Kennel Club was founded by sportsmen, with the Rev John Russell an early member and Fox Terrier judge; secondly, the breeders of those terrier breeds recognised by the KC boast of the sporting ancestry of their dogs -- and then dishonour it, and, thirdly, some quite admirable breeds of terrier have been degraded, even insulted, in this way. Discounting the Airedale, never an earth-dog more a hunting griffon, and farm dogs like the Kerry Blue and Wheaten Terriers, which were all-rounders rather than specialist terriers, all show terriers should only be called full champions if they have passed an underground test.

 In the United States, they are shaming us by conducting such ‘gameness’ tests, ranging from 'Introduction to Quarry' and 'Junior Earthdog' to 'Senior Earthdog' and 'Master Earthdog'. Introduced by their kennel club, the AKC, in 1994, in the introduction test, the terrier (or working Dachshund) has two minutes to enter a ten foot tunnel, negotiate a 90 degree turn and 'work' (i.e. bay, growl, lunge or dig) the quarry (sometimes a caged rat) for 30 seconds. The American enthusiasts say that "you put a dog down the hole but you get a terrier out of it". In the master earthdog test, acting in a brace, a dog has to follow a 100 foot scent trail to a hole, which is intentionally a false one, investigate the false den without giving tongue, then navigate 30 feet of tunnel only 9 inches square, three 90 degree turns, a false exit, a constriction point and an obstacle.

 Seventy years ago, Pierce O'Conor was advocating something similar. He described the French apparatus for trying terriers: a wooden conduit 7½" wide, sunk in the earth, with passing chambers, just over 50 feet long. Terrier-testing underground is so much more a basis for judging than any 'beauty show'. It tests, however artificially, the working instinct and character of the dog. It is both surprising and disappointing that at game fairs and country shows the underground testing of terriers isn't conducted. It would cost little to instal the equipment needed for such essential tests of terrier function. Come on, Game Fairs of Weston Park and Ragley Hall, set the pace!

 But having heard the expression 'gamest of them' applied to early Sealyhams resurrects an old worry of mine. Having read of the method used by the celebrated Captain John Tucker-Edwardes to 'prove gameness' in the terriers he used when fashioning the Sealyham as a distinct breed, it has always appeared to me the perfect recipe for producing brainless canine psychopaths. I cannot understand his fame as a terrier-man if the stories about his 'selection tests' are true. Terriers which when not at work are expected to kill captive polecats are not likely to appeal to those terrier-men who also keep ferrets!

 In his book Working Terriers of 1948, Dan Russell writes: “The very best terrier I have ever owned was one of these Border-Sealyhams. He weighed 15lbs and was immensely strong. For four seasons running he did his two days a week with hounds, during which time I dug eighty-three brace of foxes with him and he bolted goodness knows how many, twenty badgers and three otters; in all that time he sustained no injury beyond an odd nip or two and never missed one day’s hunting.” I have never heard a proper terrier-man admire a dog that was too hard. OT Price, a great terrier-man in his day, once stated: "Don't let your terrier get too hard. Remember that a terrier's job is to bay the fox not fight it." And, according to Dan Russell, "the hard dog is as big a nuisance as the coward. He spends half his working life in hospital."

 Writing in Field Sports magazine in June 1952, working terrier expert RR Stopford stated: “As time goes on you will know just what sort of noise he makes against different opponents. No dog fights mute, but some have the aggravating habit of baying at a rabbit when there is a fox or a badger in the same earth! For this reason many experienced diggers will not use their dogs for rabbiting, but  provided you have not got a fool of a dog he will tend always to seek out the most dangerous opponent. A terrier that stays underground until he kills, or is physically exhausted, is a real nuisance and a danger to himself.” 

 Decades before that, Major Ollivant was writing that "...the terrier's pluck must not be the bravery of the Bull Terrier that goes in regardless of consequences, but the brave, fearless kind of pluck that knows its own danger, and yet has the grit to stay there." The relevance of degrees of aggression to build lies in the fact that if you use Bull Terrier blood to strengthen the head, you risk the production of a holy terror that could be a blessed nuisance! When I hear of working terrier-men utilising show dog blood to achieve a physical point, I recall the words of Geoffrey Sparrow on this subject: "...but then she had a working pedigree back to the nineties on both sides. The real blood must be there or the pups are sure to throw to soft lines." His words are as true today as they were then. The vital ingredient in the make-up of a terrier is terrier spirit and it should be valued ahead of all other virtues.