Saturday, June 24, 2006

Skye Terriers: The Dog's Been Dead a Long Time

reports that the Skye Terrier is on it last legs as a breed in the U.K. Apparently only 30 Skye terriers were born last year in the U.K. and only 89 Dandie Dinmont terriers -- another breed (supposedly) teetering on the edge.

But so what if these breeds do disappear? Neither breed is remotely like the original working dog from which it is descended.

Today's Dandie Dinmont is that breed in name only -- the original working dog as described by Sir Walter Scott, has been gone quite a long time.

As for the Skye Terrier, it has always been a put-up job -- a fantasy dog created by hair dressers for the show ring. Even the story of "Greyfriar's Bobby" is a bit of a put up job -- the dog did not lie on his master's grave for 10 years; he was adopted and fed by a local tavern owner and consequently stayed in the general vicinity of the graveyard. At the risk of not sounding very romantic, dogs are not driven by sentiment but by food.

I have described the split between Cairn and Skye terriers in "The Missing Part of a Cairn Terrier", but even before that there was the split of the Scottish Terrier into a dozen-odd breeds at about the time the Kennel Club was created.

What all of these "ancient" working breeds have in common is that none of them has ever been found in the field working, outside of an odd dog or two.

When push comes to shove, all of these terrier breeds are bred for ribbons and companionship. In this regard, they offer nothing distinctive or special.

The demise of the Skye Terrier is logical. If you have too many hamburger stands in an area, some of them are going to go out of business and fail. The mostly likely targets for failure are those that offer slow service, mediocre food and an expensive menu. Is there a better description than this for the Skye Terrier? What has been created by the show ring breeders is a dog that needs its own curling iron and that cannot possibly be allowed to walk off the rug. The breed is not only expensive to buy (it is so rare!) and keep up (it requires ribbon, combs, dematting shampoos, etc.) but it is also no better (and perhaps quite a lot worse) than other breeds of terriers, poodles, and walking fluff balls.

Bottom line: When Skye Terrier breeders forced short-haired Skye terriers to be called "Cairn" terriers, it was a truly Pyrrhic victory, for it turned out that the public much prefered the rough-and-ready (if rarely ever seen working) Cairn terrier. As for the Skye, I doubt it will actually disappear. There will always be hair dressers.



Nathan Sheranian, 岑国曦 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PBurns said...

Glad you like your dog Nate, and how sad would it be if you did not? I find that most people love their dogs no matter if they do nothing, are lame, are fat, and were acquired for $5 from a pet shop or picked up as a stray on the street.

That said, I have to say your comments fall into the folder of "gibberish and non-responsive." Try reading the post again, eh? Here are the three core points being made:

1) The dog was made for the show ring;
2) It is completely unsuited to work, as the show ring has created an extremeley distorted dog, bred almost solely for its coat (i.e. a "hair-dresser's dog);
3) The dog is a failure in the world of work AND as a commercial adventure in the pet trade (the two reasons breeds are created). The Cairn terrier, on the other hand, is doing quite well as a less distorted and smaller dog, and is not only popular with the public, but it could (in the right hands) still work.

I did not say a word about the quality of the Skye Terrier other than that. So let me note NOW that due to inbreeding (a very high incidence because there are so few dogs about), the Skye Terrier has a tendency to suffer from lens luxation and various chronic liver diseases such as chronic hepatitis. Hope that does not hapen with your dog!

But of course, for you the dog is not about the dog, is it? It's about YOU. YOU get so many compliments, and YOU like the attention. Which is fine; that too is one reason to have a dog. A lot of people like their dogs because they are conversation pieces and/or because they think they look well walking them on lead. In short, the Skye Terrier really IS a hairdresser's dog. I'm glad you like yours, but don't expect anyone else to salute this freakish exageration (and yes, I have seen quite a few of them). As I have often noted about dogs, work INFORMS, while show rings DEFORM. The Skye Terrier is a perfect example.


retrieverman said...

From my reading of the Skye's history, it seems that this breed has been a pet breed for centuries. Indeed, centuries before there ever was an organized dog fancy. Here's what Caius wrote about them in the sixteenth century:

"[L]ap dogs which were brought out of the barbarous borders from the uttermost countryes northward, and they by reason of the length of their heare, make show neither face nor body, and yet these curres forsooth because they are so strange, are greatly set by, esteemed, taken up, and made of, in room of the spaniell gentle, or comforter."

What Caius was saying was that even back then, the Skye terrier was a pet dog-- a fashionable pet for ladies. It was being kept like the "spaniel gentle"-- the precursor to the toy spaniel breeds. It's very likely that working Skye terriers were very rare even at that time.

What I found interesting about them is that they were drop-eared for centuries. Today, it is very hard to find a drop-eared Skye terrier. The prick-ear started as a fad. In several countries, only the prick-eared variety is recognized. Drop-ears are now verboten.

There are a few breeders with sense who are trying to save this breed-- reduce its size and increase its gene pool. But I have no illusions. I seriously doubt that you'll be using this dog any time soon.

PBurns said...

I would not rely too much on Wikipedia or the breed descriptions, especially if they do not give a real citation to text and page. John Caius on dogs is a pretty easy text to get. See >> for the whole thing.

You will note that Caius divided the world of which we are talking into lap dogs from Malta "in the sea of Sicily" at page 20 (no mention of the Skye at all) and terriers that go to ground on badger and fox (page 5) and true spaniels (no mention of Skye) useful for birds. The Skye terrier is none of these breeds, and is not mentioned at all unless you think the description of what Caius called an "Outlandishe Dogge" (page 37) fits the mit. That is where the description you have comes from, and the intent of that paragraph is not to describe a particular type of dog, but to bemoan the fact that people elevate novelty over function, the foreign over the domestic, etc. He is saddling that affliction on to women by the way. In short, he is saying that preening pretenders, looking for novelty, are embracing dogs made for hair dressers. Well yes! Is that the Skye terrier today? Sure is. Did the Skye terrier exist back then? There is no evidence of it. In fact, breeds as we know them today did not exist except as functional or useful dogs. Remember, there was no breed registry, no Kennel Club, and no sire control. A modern-sized Skye Terrier is not useful as a lap dog as it simply weighs too much for the lap.

The game of pointing to vague text and blurry pictures to claim ancient origins for dogs is an old one and there is not much repute in it. The history of the Isle of Skye is very clear as is the geography. To start with, the place has less than 10,000 people living on it today, and only had about 11,000 in 1755. A breed of dog came from here? OK. Now let's think that through .... The land was devastated by poverty during the clearances -- no food at all as the island is rock with a very thin skin of dirt over some parts of it. There is so much rain on Sky that if were warmer it would be a jungle. So on this small, impoverished, rocky, wet island where people's own children were starving, they created a useless lap dog (or is it a working terrier?) whose hair is so long it drags on the ground? And instead of feeding their children, they fed it? I kind of doubt it.

In fact, there is not much evidence to suggest the Skye Terrier has anything to do with Skye. This is not an old breed -- none of the terrier breeds are. The Skye is a 19th Century creation as so many dogs are. In fact, the modern Skey Terrier does not look too much like the dog that existed even 150 years ago. In movies about "Greyfriars Bobby" they use other terriers instead (Cairn crosses and Westies) because the modern Skye Terrier is a dog no one could love and which looks absurd walking around on the street.

Take a mutt Cairn and you can call in an "ancient Skye" or an "original Scottie" or a "true Dandie Dinmont" or whatever else you want. These mutt Cairns are what the first working terriers looked like and they have nothing to do with the fancy histories ascribed to them now or 150 years ago by Kennel Club fiction writers. No one who works a dog cares about the color of the coat or the lay of the ears. They care about whether the damn thing can get into the hole. The old working terriers, of pedigree unknown, could. The Kennel Club dogs generall cannot, and no "Skye" terrier ever can.