by   David Hancock

In the Breed Standard of the Border Terrier, under the Characteristics description, there is the phrase ‘capable of following a horse’, which is often interpreted as a requirement for the breed to run with the hounds. But the breed was often employed with foot-hounds not the mounted field. The physical needs of an earth-dog and a running dog are in conflict. I wonder if originally a phrase like ‘able to follow the hunt’, i.e. to support the hounds once the quarry had been located as being underground, was used. The country over which the hunting took place and this breed was used was not always suitable for mounted huntsmen. In similar country, the Scots and the Cumbrians never sought a leggy terrier, able to run with the moving hunt. In his book on terriers of 1896, Rawdon Lee writes: “Some of the terriers follow hounds regularly, and are continually brought into use, not only amongst the rocks and in rough ground of that kind, but in equally or in more dangerous places – wet drains or moss holes, or ‘waterfalls’, as they are called in Northumberland.” Not much scope for mounted huntsmen here! Has this phrase in its Breed Standard had a long-term effect on the breed's conformation? For me, they are too cobby.

In his informative book on the breed, Walter JF Gardner queries: “How many of the world’s top athletes are short-legged or short-backed or both? How many animals which go to ground or can gallop and stay long distances have a short back?” Most wild creatures which live underground have been shaped by nature to have relatively long backs. Far too many pedigree terrier breeds are now too short-backed for an earth-dog but some too have exaggerated hindquarters, with the hind-feet having to be positioned way beyond the croup when standing naturally. This is not useful to the dog.

Writing in Hounds Magazine in 1987, experienced terrier-man Tony Kirby stated: “Arguments between terrier-men as to the length of leg, close or long coupled between the front and back legs and general size are often held around the show rings. My personal preference is a terrier with a length of leg so that it stands about 13-14 inches at the shoulder – in other words not as tall as I believe some show terriers are becoming. Close or long coupled? I definitely prefer a terrier long in the back. What animal that lives below ground is short backed? I cannot think of one. Certainly the fox has a long back in relation to its overall size to enable it to twist round corners and make it more agile. The general size of a terrier depends on the type of earth to be tried but it should be a balanced size.” His views are worth heeding, being based on experience. 

It is interesting to look at depictions of Border Terriers of a century or so ago; they were very clearly longer-backed. If you look at depictions of say the German farm terrier, the Schnauzer, in the same way, it too was once longer-backed. Is the show ring creating a terrier-style in which the shorter-backed, cobbier exhibits appear flashier and 'smarter to the eye'? With the exception of the traditionally short-legged terrier breeds like the Skye and Dandie Dinmont Terriers, far too many of the sporting terrier breeds, especially the Fox, Irish and Kerry Blues, have become too short-backed to be considered as earth-dogs. And whenever I hear the shout 'We don't want our terriers to go to ground!' - I shout back 'It's not whether you want them to, but whether they can!' Function shaped our sporting breeds and remains the only true test of type. Most of the general public buy their pet terrier from a show breeder; I detect this influence descending on working terrier show rings too. Looking smart in the ring has become more important than any honesty to role; this is not good for future sporting terrier breeds.  

   In the Lonsdale Library’s volume on Fox Hunting, Charles Mc Neill OBE, Master of the Grafton for seven seasons and of the North Cotswold for five, writes “As all terrier men know, a good way to get a real hard, wiry, weather-resistant coat is to cross a wire with a smooth…A nice little short-legged terrier is best, he is not too heavy to carry, but he must not be wide in front. A tall terrier with good shoulders and narrow front will get to ground better than a small cobby one, but a small dog, with narrow front and good shoulders, with a long lean head, is the ideal huntsman’ terrier.” He would not have liked the cobbiness of the show terriers of today and would have noted the far shorter backs in fine sporting terrier breeds like the Border Terrier. Far too many too lack the 'real, hard, wiry, weather-resistant coat' he admired; crossing a wire with a smooth is not an option either in KC-registered terriers. But an outcross for the Border Terrier might be worth a thought if the real breed is to survive. Sacrilege? No - that's how this admirable breed was created in the first place. In 2015, just under 5,500 Border Terriers were newly-registered with the KC; how many were true to their roots?