by   David Hancock

A few years back, I was standing next to old terrier-man Bert Gripton, at the ringside of a terrier-ring at the Weston Park Midlands Game Fair, when a spectator came to stand nearby accompanied by two expertly-clipped show Fox Terriers. Bert, never slow to state his mind, gazed scornfully at these expensively-coiffeured, surprisingly-lifeless terriers and snorted "They look carved...more like statues than dogs!" And, increasingly, the dog-owning general public seems to prefer preening to performance, confuse grooming with dog-care, go for glamour ahead of capability and have more regard for fashion than function. Terriers are no longer respected in towns for what they can do - more for what they represent - a well-groomed, conformist, often expensively-coated canine possession. As more town-bred people move out into the more rural areas, and why shouldn't they, they take town-thinking with them, and that is not always good for old country pursuits. Nowadays, rats are there to be poisoned not hunted with terriers. Vermin have become a nuisance ahead of a challenge. The show ring has made so many of our famous terrier breeds into animated statues, and sadly, there now seems to be an expectation of a swanky gait and a handsome coat-wearer rather than a fierce opponent of vermin with an appealingly untidy appearance.

A French colleague recently sent me images of terriers at work and at shows in France in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The dogs, mostly Fox Terriers, looked interchangeable, workmanlike, in both venues. This tallies with comparable images of the same breed here in the same period. But, now, here and at continental dog shows, the statuesque terrier rules, whether it's the Fox, the Welsh, the Scottie, the Sealyham, the Airedale or the Lakeland. Perhaps less so in the last-named breed, but generally speaking, the coat-fashionistas rule; these breeds are now less terrier, more a cloned effigy of one. The old close-fitting, wiry-textured, weather-resistant jackets have gone; carefully-sculpted creations have replaced them - and it's not good for the dogs. On the move too, we see the predictably, short-stepping, millipedal gait created by upright shoulders, with no forward reach, a dreadful fault in any working dog. Such a terrier might get into a rock crevice but is unlikely ever to emerge!

It is true that unpopularity alone might kill off the sculpted creations. Terrier breeds like the Manchester, the Dandie Dinmont, the Skye, the Sealyham and the two breeds of Fox Terrier are under threat from lack of numbers alone. But if that lack of numbers has been caused by public dislike of their contemporary form, what hope is there in the long term for the remaining terrier breeds? The grooming cultists and the exaggerators have the inspiration from their strange fads; ordinary dog-owners don't enjoy having to spend hours dealing with soaking wet, tangle-coated, over-furnished terriers at the end of long trying day. The wretched dogs don't enjoy it much either! Of our KC-registered terrier breeds, the Skye Terrier is the least likely to last another decade or so. Its coat is too long, its legs are too short and its back is too long. Function has not decided its form, as it originally did; it will have been killed by its own fancier-faddists. This is surely a call for action in the other terrier breeds.  

If you entered a Wire-haired Fox Terrier for a KC show, with a close-lying, bristle-coated, harsh-haired jacket - lacking feathered front legs and exaggerated extension in the hind legs, you would be laughed out of the ring. Forget the Breed Standard, you either conform to the current show ring fashion or face ridicule. Don't tell them your dog is an ace rat-killer, that is no longer relevant or, even sadder, no longer important. Does this matter when working terriers are still valued in country areas? It matters if breeds of terrier matter! It matters if dogs deserve a waterproof coat, to be able to move naturally and with economy of effort and to have the anatomy that permits terrier-work. If the sculptors triumph, statues will survive not real earth-dogs. As the closed gene-pool increasingly punishes each pure breed, where do you go for outcrosses? A Border terrier enthusiast has traced 8 million dogs of his breed yet only come across less than 3 thousand names, a worryingly small proportion.

The terrier family of pedigree breeds has departed a long way from the prototypal dogs, with diseases of the central nervous system causing concern. The Sealyham, once the gamest of earth-dogs and developed by a real terrier enthusiast, is nowadays too profusely-coated and inflexible in build to be a working breed. Lens dislocation and deafness occurs in the breed, with progressive retinal atrophy manifesting itself in Sweden. That appealing old gladiator, the Bull Terrier, now sports the only rugger-ball shaped head in the canine world. The Bedlington Terrier, a unique combination of lurcher and terrier, has copper toxicosis in one dog out of every three. But virility apart, how do you convince the public that the cubist creation they might covet or crave is not a terrier but a warm-blooded statue? Terrier breeds are under threat and being misrepresented. Terriers shouldn't be at the mercy of fashion but benefit from an anatomy that is designed for and could work.