688 CHARACTER OF SPORTING TERRIERS
THE CHARACTER OF THE SPORTING TERRIER
“Forbidden fruit is always sweetest, and breeders of show terriers are never tired of dinning into one’s ears that their dogs are workers as well, and bred on the right lines for make and shape, but they lose sight of the fact that while they have been breeding them for straightness, they have acquired a giraffe-like length of leg, and while breeding them for appearance and show-points they have lost all their individuality, intelligence and stamina.”
Arthur Blake Heinemann, writing on Hunt Terriers in The Field, October, 1912.
Working terrier enthusiasts will never show great interest in precise measurements, exact proportions or wordy descriptions of anatomical features. But balance, symmetry, correct proportions and physical soundness really do affect function and therefore performance in a hunting animal. Terrier show judges may prefer to judge entirely by eye and experience, but is this enough? A seminar of sporting terrier judges to bring on the younger judges would surely be of value. It would be interesting to hear, at such a seminar, what terrier show judges' decisions are actually being based on: gut feeling, their own preferences, previous winners, knowledge of anatomy?
In an article in Field Sports magazine of June 1952, veteran terrier-man RR Stopford wrote: “The weight for all types of work should not be more than sixteen pounds, and preferably about fourteen. Colour, looks and length of coat are personal considerations, but the more white there is the better, because a conspicuous colour has its advantages when shooting in thick cover. Another controversial point is the length of muzzle. A long nose is useful for ratting, but takes heavier punishment underground; moreover, it is but rarely accompanied by a strong wide jaw, so that, on the whole, we may say the shorter the better.” He would not like the head of today’s Fox Terrier, but it is of interest to see his high priority for the colour of his dogs’ coats.
Terrier-men have long held prejudices about the colour of their dogs’ coats. You only have to look at some terrier breeds to see that colour makes the breed: West Highland Whites, Kerry Blues and Plummer Terriers for example. In his insightful The Mind of the Dog of 1958, vet, exhibitor and sportsman RH Smythe wrote: “Conformation, physique and hair colour appear to exert less influence on temperament than these same features are believed to do in the case of humans. One cannot truthfully claim that black dogs are more sensible, more trustworthy or more lively than white dogs or vice versa. A Kerry Blue is usually vivacious and high-spirited, sometimes truculent; a blue Bedlington is often sensible and gentle in disposition. A red Irish terrier may exhibit the characteristics attributed to his countrymen, but a red Irish setter may be mild and law-abiding. Any differences are obviously associated with the breed rather than with the colour of the coat.” Being able to see a small bushing dog in close cover however may matter a great deal.
Coat texture seems to matter for some, not in its weatherproofing qualities, but in its association with stubbornness. In his under-rated The Understanding of a Dog of 1935, Lt Col GH Badcock, a highly experienced trainer of dogs, wrote: “Why should most smooth Fox-terriers be so much more biddable and easy to train and correct of faults than the wire-haired variety? There is a curious tenacity of purpose about these broken-haired breeds that makes them extraordinarily difficult to correct of faults…I have a larger percentage of failures with insubordinate wire-hairs than any other breed.” I would value ‘tenacity of purpose’ in a working terrier, but Badcock knew more about training dogs than I do! A writer with plenty of experience in training terriers, the late Brian Plummer, wrote in his Secrets of Dog Training of 1992: “Terriers, despite their small size, are sometimes far from easy to control. In addition to the fact that most terriers still retain a strong inclination to hunt any type of animal or bird whose scent crosses their paths, the majority are particularly eager to take offence from another dog…terriers do need a great deal of exercise to sublimate their working instincts.” A number of researches into defensive behaviour and pain sensitivity have revealed appreciable differences between breeds. Terriers were found notably, but hardly surprisingly in view of their role, very resistant to pain relative to other dogs. This demands more patient training so that a young terrier doesn’t actually perversely welcome ‘punishment’ but be guided by firm consistent direction and its desirable persistence retained.
In his book Working Terriers, of 1948, Dan Russell wrote: “The real working terrier is usually very self-contained; he keeps himself to himself and does not fight with other dogs unless in self-defence. I always think this is because he knows he gets into enough trouble in his life without going to look for it. In any event, the quarrelsome brute is generally a coward. Watch your dog at the meet. You will have him on a lead, but hounds will come around and sniff at him. If he is of the right sort he will stand his ground quite quietly, although he may give a warning growl when hounds crowd him or get too familiar, but he will show no signs of fright or panic.” These are wise words; sporting terriers need to be self-confident, steadfast and with stable temperaments. All show and no ‘go’ is of no value whatsoever to a sporting dog.
Genetic predispositions in breeds of dog are rooted in their function. The American psychologist Stanley Coren wrote a book about matching breeds to human personalities. He listed dogs in seven categories according to their psychological make-up. The Airedale Terrier was the only terrier breed listed as independent, perhaps its hound blood manifesting itself. He listed as ‘self-confident’ breeds: Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Yorkshire and Fox Terriers, but would not have known of many working types of unregistered terrier breeds. He listed the Skye Terrier quite separately under the ‘steadfast’ types, perhaps a reflection of their long breeding for show ring boredom!
It is important to keep in mind that a dog is not just like one of many other animals, but very much a creature of humans, an artificial animal in many ways. It is an animal that has been shaped and fashioned in its behaviour and appearance to suit human desires. With the possible exception of the domestic cat, a dog is probably better equipped mentally than any of the other domesticated animals, yet its perception of other living things and objects around it is restricted by the conditions and emotions of the moment. It is a modern cliché that dogs are merely creatures ruled by instinct. In reality, as compared with the lesser animals that do function mainly as a consequence of instinctive action, the dog seems to possess rather a limited number of instincts which cause it to operate. A number of psychologists and behaviourists have commented on this.
In his enlightening book Understanding Your Dog, published by Blond Briggs in 1972, the distinguished veterinary scientist Michael W Fox writes: “The inheritance of behavior and temperament is complex, for the characteristics of a breed comprise a combination of several independently inherited traits which are modified by genetic factors. No trait is inherited as such; genetic factors are transmitted by inheritance, but the traits themselves are modified by interacting genetic and environmental factors. Training and early experience greatly influence these traits, and it is the selection of traits which facilitate easier training to perform particular tasks that differentiates one breed from another and individuals within the breed.” Well-selected breeding stock is more likely to produce progeny which can assimilate training and respond to experiences. Genes are facilitators not directors.
The pioneering animal behaviourist Dr Konrad Lorenz has coined the phrase ‘instinct-training conditioning’, in which an innate, or instinctual, predisposition to respond is reinforced or shaped by experience. Following a trail and discriminating it from others, and the ability to catch, kill and even consume prey efficiently, exemplify this. The innate predisposition to follow enticing scent and to pursue small moving objects is seen in all young pups, as they explore their environment and ‘play-hunt’. These activities expose them to experiences from which they benefit by instigating and improving their ability to track and hunt. Early learning enormously assists the young terrier to ‘cash-in’ on its genes. Early experiences can be lasting ones, for good or bad. The making of a terrier comes from such early learning; the make-up of the terrier allows it to benefit the most.
Terrier breeders should always be seeking ‘the whole dog’, not pursuing one feature obsessively and excessively whilst accepting others not entirely beneficial. As Darley Matheson records in his 'Terriers' of 1922: "Quality of front is greatly sought after by breeders, but a beautiful front ought not to be allowed to overshadow poor hindquarters". This over-emphasis of one physical feature to the detriment of others is a curse. Some terriers are judged on their 'spannable thorax' whilst their stuffy necks, weak loins, short bodies and thin feet are overlooked. Some tolerate frenetically barking terriers, furiously striving to attack any dog within reach, mistaking such character weakness as terrier-temperament. The soundest production of a terrier is about the whole dog, never the blinkered obsessive seeking of perfection in one area or the blind overlooking of undesirable traits. There is one area however which should always be emphasised in sporting terriers, and it is in their spirit not their build; without a sporting 'attitude' no working terrier is ever going to succeed. The character of a terrier is everything.