by   David Hancock

Farm dogs are usually classed as pastoral breeds nowadays but big terriers have long had a role for the farmer. A dog that can drive livestock, kill vermin, guard the farmstead and at a pinch pick up in the shooting field, has enormous value to the cash-strapped farmer who isn't able to keep several breeds. The Airedale, more a Griffon than an earth-dog, is the type to triumph as an all-round farm dog - even as an otterhound! Sadly, in Britain today, the Airedale is largely ornamental. It is heartening therefore to learn of The Airedale Club of America's work in promoting the breed's hunting ability. For two decades or so, they have been running tests to trial the breed's all-round hunting skills: finding and flushing game, water-retrieving and 'coon tracking ability. It would be so worthwhile if the breed here had a working role. The all-round capability of the Airedale reminds me of the versatility of other comparable breeds, like the Schnauzers, the Bouviers and the Smoushond on mainland Europe, and the Soft-coated Wheaten and Kerry Blue Terriers in Ireland. The Bouviers being drovers' dogs but all-round farm dogs too.

In her book The Dogs of Ireland, Dundalgan Press 1981, Anna Redlich writes: “Wheaten Terriers have been kept for generations on the farms of this country where they have been used for cattle work, for pursuing and destroying vermin, and, like their next-of-kin the Kerry Blue and Irish Terrier, have enjoyed a day’s shooting in the company of their master.” So often we think of breeds solely in specialised roles and forget the all-round use of dogs in rural areas.  Terriers are versatile!

When working in Ireland it was always of interest to study the farm dogs there; so many of them, ungroomed and unclipped, resembled the Bouviers of Belgium, the Dutch Terrier or Smoushond and the stable dogs of Germany, the Schnauzers. Going to work in Germany, immediately after working in Ireland, allowed me to keep a picture of Irish farm dogs in my mind when viewing their equivalents on mainland Europe. I have seen both Schnauzers and Wheaten Terriers being used as herding dogs in their native countries and appearing interchangeable in form and technique. Once, at a world dog show I was convinced that the Bouvier des Flandres before me was a large Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier from Ireland. Size apart, the appearance, the coat, the personality and the attitude were easily confused. I see similarities too between old photos of the Kerry Blue and the Laekenois of Belgium and the Schnauzer of Germany; perhaps the farm function deciding form.

When I was working in County Down some forty years ago, I used to see what could be called straw-coloured terriers on farms there, really like coarsely-bred Wheatens.  These dogs were sheepdogs, ratters, beaters, retrievers and very sharp guard-dogs. They lacked the long soft coat of the pedigree Soft-coated Wheatens of the show ring, but had a much stiffer almost Schnauzer-like straff jacket. Such a coat texture gives much more protection from undergrowth and the weather. The now extinct Old Welsh Grey sheepdog had the look of an all-rounder and was often used with terriers. Terriers that can face up to a bull are hardly likely to be fazed by rats, however many of them there may be. A small holding in rural Ireland needs such a dog, small enough to deal with ground vermin, large enough to herd a bull. The farm-dog type terriers depicted in Scotland, England and Wales in the 19th century, resembled the Irish ones in pastoral paintings of that time.

I am indebted to Barbara Penney, a diligent researcher of the Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier, for alerting me to War Dog by John Orr, writing of his grandfather, William McKeown and his famous Wheaten Terriers. His dogs were used for driving pigs, including facing down huge boars, scaring off strangers, stray dogs, foxes, badgers and any other threats to livestock. He describes two different strains, according to locality and use, ranging from 55-60lbs when used to herd cattle, and 30-35lbs when used to herd sheep. The bigger dogs were more blonde in coat colour, with the smaller ones the colour of toast. Our Kennel Club puts the weight of this breed at 35-45lbs with a coat of ripening wheat colour, light wheaten being favoured. But their Breed Standard stipulates a coat texture that is soft and silky, abundant all over the body and especially profuse on the head and legs. For a working farm dog, such a coat is a distinct liability. I doubt if the remarkable William McKeown would have tolerated such a coat in his working terriers. 

Kennel clubs find it difficult to categorise breed types that can perform both sporting and pastoral or working functions, so farm terriers are grouped with earth-dogs despite their physical inability to go to ground. As a direct result of this, farm terriers that work are very different from such a type recognised as a sporting terrier and bred by its fanciers to look thoroughly terrier-like. So the Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier and the Kerry Blue are made to look terrier-like in profile, whilst the working versions can look like collie-hybrids sometimes. The same situation exists in the Bouvier breeds, those shown are more like Bearded Collies than their shorter-coated terrier-like counterparts on say the Flandres farms. If you study old photographs of all these ex-farm-dog terriers, they have a recognisably-common appearance. Since then of course, the show ring fanciers have given them longer coats (quite unsuitable for a working dog), a larger form (costing more to feed and penalising a ratting dog) and a push-over personality not advisable in a herding dog or even a vermin-killer. Soon, every recognised breed will have lost its heritage and just conform to an ill-chosen KC grouping. All-rounders need not apply! Terriers as farm dogs were remarkably competent animals, multi-functional and very serious-minded, but what a service they provided to peasant-farmers.