by   David Hancock

"Old pictures of terriers dating back 300 years illustrate cross-bred looking creatures, some of them bearing more or less the distinctive characteristic of the turnspit. Others indicate a considerable trace of hound blood, but not one, so far as the writer has come across, is hound marked, or bears any more white than is usually found on the chest or feet of any dog." Those words, from Rawdon Lee's Modern Dogs - The Terriers of 1896, may well surprise fanciers of West Highland White, Fox and Soft-coated Wheaten Terriers. White terriers feature prominently in our breed lists today.

In his An Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports of 1870, Delabere Blaine, added to our knowledge of their past: "Terriers were very commonly used to accompany packs of foxhounds for the purpose of unearthing the fox, and, when in vogue, were in colour either black and tan, or pied with white and yellow. They were usually of a medium size; if too large, they were unfitted for penetrating the sinuousities of an earth, or creeping up a confined drain; if, on the contrary, they are too diminutive, they cannot keep pace with the hounds of the present day…” In his Field Sports of 1760, terriers are described by William Daniel as being of two sorts, one of them rough, short-legged, long backed and very strong, usually black or light tan colour, mixed with white. The other was said to be smooth-haired and more pleasingly formed, with a shorter body and a more athletic appearance, usually reddish-brown or black with tan legs. Prototypes of subsequent breeds are hinted at here. But from the above words, you could dismiss the Black Russian and the Airedale from the terrier ranks on size grounds and make assumptions on the terrier coat colour. But today our terriers have a wide range of coats, some being distinguished by colour alone.

If you look at the KC's list of sporting terrier breeds in 1908, you will notice that it contains just 16 breeds, unlike the 27 listed today. The 11 more recently listed embrace the Australian, German Hunt, Glen of Imaal, Lakeland, Norfolk, Norwich, Parson Russell, Cesky, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and no doubt will one day be joined by the Patterdale, Plummer and Sporting Lucas Terriers. We could so easily have had Cowley, Roseneath, Clydesdale, Paisley, Cheshire, Shropshire, Devon and Otter Terriers too; recognition of breeds of dog so often relies on determined individuals as much as ancient type. The terriers as a functional group are essentially British, with the distinguished breeds from Scotland, Ireland and Wales combining with those of England to give the canine world the much-loved terrier breeds valued everywhere.

A long history is often claimed for breeds of terrier, but I doubt if terrier men in past centuries ever bothered much about pure breeding. In his The Book of all Terriers of 1971, John Marvin writes: "Despite claims made by writers who champion the antiquity of several of today's Terrier breeds, years of careful research have failed to disclose a single reference to any reproducible breed prior to 1800. In fact, the only deviations from the earliest descriptions are variations noted as to coat, size and legs."   

Terriers are really rural dogs that adapt to city life. They are vermin-hunters that can be trained to fit in with our modern styles of living, as well as conforming to the pressures of contemporary attitudes in an increasingly town-based society. We bred terriers to be highly proficient killers of ground vermin and now we expect them to ignore every cat and squirrel they encounter. We bred them to possess sporting skills, spirit and tenacity, yet some owners fail to give them even fresh air. Their role never demanded exaggeration of any kind, but now we breed them with excessive overcoats, needlessly short legs and elongated backs. We ignore the fact that the working anatomy is nearly always the healthiest one. In respecting their heritage we must also respect their simple needs; terriers need stimulation, they need an outlet for their energy and they need to be perpetuated not to suit some show ring fad, but in a sound form, in an empathetic environment and with acknowledgement of their famed ‘terrier spirit’. Terriers are a very special group of dogs and long may they be here to gladden our hearts with their modest needs, irrepressible energy, sheer pluckiness and very straightforward attitude to life.

To appreciate the terrier, you don't have to be a sportsman or woman but for their spiritual happiness you have to respect their heritage - what they were purpose-bred for centuries to do, with their anatomy resulting from their function. Legless Dandie Dinmonts, Skye or Jack Russell Terriers are not true terriers; tiny dainty fluffy Yorkshire Terriers should lose the word terrier from their breed title, as should the Airedale and the Soft-coated Wheaten on size grounds alone. Terriers are earth-dogs or they need renaming, and we should appreciate them for just being that.