by   David Hancock

The Bedlington Terrier has long baffled the sporting dog world and many of its own fanciers. If it's a terrier breed then why is it quite unlike every breed with that function? If it's an earth-dog why doesn't it have the coat of one? The Bedlington's coat is, by its texture and its range of colours, that of a water-dog - principally a waterproof jacket intended to protect the dog when working in water. Our gundog breeds today are rightly revered and their sporting prowess as well as their breed type, which originated in function, perpetually prized. Sportsmen in early medieval times however knew the value of setting dogs and water dogs, the original retrievers, more than any of their successors. The invention of firearms did away with the need to recover arrows or bolts, as well as increasing the range at which game could be engaged. The setting dogs adapted from the net to the gun and survived, but the water dogs of Europe lost their value and many became ornamental dogs, like the Poodle. Some water dogs survive as breeds, with the Irish Water 'Spaniel' still causing discussion over whether it's a spaniel or a retriever. This type of dog, quite often black, liver or parti-coloured, had one physical feature which set it apart from most others, the texture of its coat. Look at a black or liver Wetterhoun from Holland and deny any common blood!    

    There was a dog with a topknot and a tight linty-twisty coat in light liver on the Berwick coast and up into the Cheviot Hills at the time the early types of Rothbury Forest Dog were emerging. It was known locally as the Tweed Water Spaniel, but Tweed Water Dog would have been more accurate. Water Spaniels have the marcelled coat texture, as the American Water Spaniel illustrates. Water Dogs have the 'poodle-coat' as the Italian, the Spanish and the Portuguese Water Dogs demonstrate. Water dogs have long been favoured by the gypsy community, with gypsy families like the Jeffersons, the Andersons and the Faas, living in the Rothbury Forest at the start of the 19th century. They were famous for their terriers, long-dogs and water dogs. I believe that there is plenty of evidence that the distinctive coat of the Bedlington comes from a water dog origin.

The liver and the black coat colours of the ancient water-dogs and their unique dense, tight-curly texture have survived and surfaced in many of today's breeds, whether sporting or non-sporting in use. Their fondness for and durability in water lives on too, whether the breed is linked to Ireland or Holland, Italy or Spain, France or Portugal, America or Britain. Water-dogs are the rootstock of many of our sporting breeds whether they have lost or retained the typical coat texture and colours of their distant ancestors. The water-dogs of Europe have contributed a great deal to our sporting heritage and more should be made of the debt we owe them, in breed histories for example.  Mention is sometimes made of the use of blood from small Otterhounds, Bull Terriers and an infusion of Whippet too, in the development of the breed. But little reference is made to the origin of the distinctive topknot, the highly-individual linty coat and the range of self-colours in the breed.

Much is made of the unique use of the word ‘linty’ to describe the breed’s coat-texture. The word lint comes from the late Middle English lynnet, a word describing flax prepared for spinning; it could be that the word linty describes the colour of the flax, and the dog’s coat, not its texture – a very pale sandy-liver colour. The true Bedlington coat is never like lint, but twisty, not curly, crisp rather than hard or soft, dense and weatherproof. In Vero Shaw’s authoritative The Illustrated Book of the Dog, published in 1879, there is a breed standard for the Bedlington, in which the colour portion reads: “Blue, liver, linty or sandy, in the different shades of each.” The required texture of the breed’s coat doesn’t use the word linty in this very early breed description. But every breed of water-dog stresses the importance of the coat-texture of that breed in its Breed Standard.   

In an interesting letter to Field Sports magazine in 1949, a writer signing himself ‘A.S.’ contributed: “At one time otters were exceedingly abundant on the Northumberland streams, especially the Coquet, Alm, and Till. They had one particular enemy – a man named Will Allan, who regularly hunted the waters for otters in the eighteenth century. He owned three famous ottering dogs, renowned for their prowess, named Charlie, Phoebe and Peacham. Will was so proud of them that he set a high value on them. It is recorded that Will used to visit Eslington from Hepple, where he lived, with these grand helpers, and killed otters for Lord Ravensworth at Eslington, on the river Aln. Will used to assert that ‘When my Peacham gies mouth, I durst always sell the otter’s skin.’ It is also said that Lord Ravensworth once desired to buy Charlie from Will, and told his agent to inform that worthy to state his price – he could have a good sum for the dog. But Will’s reply was: ‘His hale estate cann’ buy Charlie!”  That is some tribute both to the man and his dog. It also indicates the need for a dog well able to operate in water.

In the quaintly-titled Dogs: Their Points, Whims, Instincts and Peculiarities, published by Dean & Son in 1883, edited by Henry Webb, it is stated: “The Bedlington is essentially a vermin terrier, on land or in water, as many who have owned him will testify. He will do, and has done, what it is possible for a dog of his description to perform. The Reedwater foxhounds (Northumberland) are attended by some four or five of the breed, descended from Donkin’s strain, as good as are to be procured, and the subscribers to the Carlisle otter hounds can tell many a tale of his usefulness. Instances of his courage could be supplied without number…”  It is significant that the breed was prized as a vermin terrier on land or in water and valued by those hunting the otter. Perhaps Otter Terrier would be a more apt title if the terrier noun has to remain. But its purpose as a dog able to work in water is noteworthy.

   The breed title of Bedlington Terrier does scant justice to such a capable all-round hunting dog; if anything the Bedlington is a pedigree lurcher, whose blood is much valued by lurcher men. As a breed, the ancestry of the Bedlington is, relative to most breeds, well-documented and free from myths. From the celebrated hunt terriers, Peacham and Pincher of Edward Donkin of Rothbury to the nailors' terriers in the Northumbrian village of Bedlington itself, from Joseph Ainsley's dog and Christopher Dixon's bitch and their offspring, the prototype Piper and Coate's Phoebe, came the foundation of the breed. The breed changed from a 15lb dog in 1830 to a 30lb dog by 1870. This breed is often dubbed a rabbiting dog, but it uses its nose too much to make just a gifted sighthound; it excels at putting up rabbits for waiting lurchers or Whippets, its nose working ahead of its eyes. It is a great ratting breed and renowned for its work on otter - that is its work in water.

In the Live Stock Journal of November 1875, there is a letter which reads: “About thirty or forty years ago I remember well people crossing these Terriers with the Bull-terrier, in order that they might stand more wear and tear for fighting purposes, which were then so extensively sought. A few years after that they again crossed them with our Poodle dogs, so as to get linty-haired Terriers…but as soon as they come into contact with ‘Broc’, they are generally seen to come faster backwards than they went in, which was not the case with our real Bedlingtons…” In the same edition of this journal, the breed is described as a northern counties Fox Terrier. So many of our native terrier breeds could have ended up with very different breed titles. But this writer clearly states that crosses with 'our Poodle dogs' were used to obtain the linty-haired terrier. This outcross could have been to the local Tweed Water Spaniel, well regarded enough for it to be used in the development of the Golden Retriever. For me, the stand-alone terrier breed with Bedlington in its title is misnamed; just look at the water-dogs of the European countries and not be aware of the distinct and irrefutable similarities. Bred to be a water-dog, the Bedlington could become the natural  successor to the lost Tweed Water Spaniel and perhaps claim its rightful heritage.