Sunday, May 22, 2022

True Terriers

Art by Kevin Brockbank for the December 2011 edition of Dogs Today magazine.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was not much for hiding behind language or engaging in obfuscation, and he would sometime pose a riddle to new staffers to underscore the point.

"If you call a tail a leg," he would ask, "how many legs does a dog have?


"No, four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

I tell this tale, because it is more than a little germane when it comes to the taxonomy of dogs.

If I point to a cross between a Dachshund and a Corgi, and proclaim it to be a "Shenandoah Mountain Setter," does that make it a bird dog?


If I pick up a Border Collie at the shelter and insist on calling it a "Black and White Swan," does that make it a bird?


And yet, there seems to be confusion among some people in the dog world, who think words mean nothing.

Words Have Meanings

Words DO mean something.

Take, for example, the word terrier.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary and Etymology Online, this is the origin and meaning of the term:

c.1440, from O.Fr. chien terrier "terrier dog," lit. "earth dog," from M.L. terrarius "of earth," from L. terra "earth" (see terrain). So called because the dogs pursue their quarry (foxes, badgers, etc.) into their burrows.


A terrier is a small dog that goes to earth and which pursues its quarry -- foxes, badger, etc. -- into their burrows.

I could not have said it better, though I might have given a bit more history.

For example, I might have detailed the fact that Dame Juliana Berners, writing in the Boke of St. Albans (1496) noted that there were 14 basic types of dogs:

"Thyse ben the names of houndes," she wrote, "fyrste there is a Grehoun, a Bastard, a Mengrell, a Mastiff, a Lemor, a Spanyel, Raches, Kenettys, Teroures, Butchers' Houndes, Myddyng dogges, Tryndel-taylles, and Prikheridcurrys, and smalle ladyes' poppees that bere awaye the flees."

Later, in 1576, John Keys (who wrote under the Latinized name Johannes Caius) divided the world of dogs into five broad categories. Under the first group type, the Venatici, or dogs used to hunt beasts, could be found:

Leverarws or Harriers; Terrarius or Terrars; Sanguinarius or Bloodhounds; Agaseus or Gazehounds; Leporanus or Grehounds; Loranus or Lyemmer; Vertigus or Tumbler; and Cams furax or Stealer.

In an entirely different group (his fourth category), Caius noted that were various kinds of herding and guard dogs.

Canis pastoralis, or the Shepherd's Dogge; The Mastive, or Bandogge, called Canis Villaticus Or Carbenarius, which hath sundry names derived from sundry circumstances.

Breed or Type?

Prior to the 19th Century, there were very few "breeds" of dogs; most were just types.

This seems to be a point of confusion for some people who are a bit shaky as to what constitutes a "breed" versus a "type."

The Oxford English Dictionary says a breed is "a line of descendants perpetuating particular hereditary qualities."

In the modern world, it is generally deemed to be an animal that "breeds true" for at least seven generations.

But what does it mean to "breed true?"

Good people can, and do disagree. The Kennel Club, for example, splits breeds that other registries and countries lump together, and vice versa.

The good news is that the real experts -- the people who actually work their dogs on a regular basis rather than merely parade them around at the end of a string leash, are not too often confused.

A genuine terrierman knows what a true terrier is, just as a running dog man knows what a true sighthound is. And as for the houndsman, he will tell you a good dog is never the wrong color, and the same can be said of those who herd sheep for a living, or depend on dogs to carry them over 200 miles of open arctic snow and ice.

But, of course, these people are in the minority today, aren't they?

Instead of people who engage in honest work with types of dogs, we now have show ring theoreticians who are obsessed with breeds of dogs.

For them, a dog is not what it does, it is whatever the piece of paper says, and that piece of paper is all wrapped up in a romantic history cocked up years ago by an all-breed book writer penning paragraphs about a dog he never owned and never worked.

As a result, we have complete and total nonsense in the world of canine taxonomy.

Take the issue of terriers, for example.

Despite what some folks would have you believe, a "terrier" is not a universal catch-phrase that can be properly tagged to any type of scruffy-looking or game-bred dog. It is a dog that goes to ground.

So then, is a dachshund a terrier? Yes! It is included in all books about working terriers. A true terrier is defined by the work it does, same as a true collie or a true bird dog is defined by the work it does.

A 60-Pound Terrier?

A 60-pound hound is not a terrier.

That would seem to be simple and obvious enough, but for some folks it is not. And so, in the topsy-turvy world of the early dog show world, a few odd-looking Otterhounds were once crossed with a working terrier and then called the "Bingley" or "Waterside" terrier, and then later renamed the "Airedale" terrier.

But can a dog that is almost entirely hound, and which weighs 60 pounds be called a true terrier? Only if you would call a transvestite a woman!

An Airedale is a hound in form, and it does a hound's work in the field when it is worked.  A houndsman knows it is a hound, for it is found in his kennels, and not that of the terrierman.

Airedales, in turn, were crossed with a herding breed (the Giant Schnauzer) and a molosser breed (the Rottweiler) and a few herding and guard dogs (Caucasian Ovcharkas and Eastern European Shepherds). The resulting cross was called a "Black Russian Terrier," despite the fact that there is no terrier in the breed at all.

Once again, you can call the dog whatever you want, but calling it so does not make it true. A Black Russian Terrier is not a terrier in any way, shape or form.

Going down the list, we have the Tibetan Terrier which is not a terrier (it is a spaniel), and we have the Schnauzer (it is a miniature version of its larger herding-dog relative), and we have the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Pit Bull Terrier, which are molosser (guard dog) breeds.

And then, of course, we have the Bull Terrier which is neither true terrier nor true molosser. It is, instead, the most common type of dog on earth today: the dog dealer's dog. This is an animal cocked up for the pet trade, and for no other purpose than to trot around the ring and lie next to the chair.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a dog being created solely for the purpose of being a pet. That is the work of most dogs, and it is the purpose to which most terrier breeds have devolved. But let's not kid ourselves that these dogs were ever bred for any other purpose, eh? A pet is an honorable enough occupation; let us not gild the lily with nonsense names, nonsense histories, or contrived work.


geonni banner said...

In the sick and twisted world of the AKC, a breed is usually defined by a tortuous description of what it looks like. Never mind if it can walk, run, breath or get along with anything two or four-legged.

My breed is the Border Collie, which, when speaking of working lines, has been diparaged as a "mere type" and not a breed at all. Jeez! Considering the AKC definition of "breed", I fervently hope the working Border Collie is and remains a "type" - the type that gets the stockwork done. And screw what color, length of hair and size he has/is.

Raegan said...

"A true terrier is defined by the work it does, same as a true collie or a true bird dog is defined by the work it does.... Going down the list, we have the Tibetan Terrier which is not a terrier (it is a spaniel)."

Spaniel? What? No Tibetan Terrier has flushed birds any more than Tibetan Spaniels have flushed birds. The Tibetan Terrier Club of America says right at the top of their website "We are not terriers but we are from Tibet." TT's have never been advertised as any kind of working dog; they are companion dogs.

PBurns said...

Sorry Raegan, but it seems you do not know what a spaniel is "a breed of dog with a long silky coat and drooping ears". Consult your Oxford English Dictionary or any other. A flushing dog is not necessarily a spaniel, and a spaniel is not necessarily a flushing dog. Lap spaniels are a very old type.

Raegan said...

"a breed of dog with a long silky coat and drooping ears"

So is this a spaniel, or a pointer:

What about this:

Or this:

Oxford Dictionary defines Dalmatian as "a dog of a white, short- haired breed with dark spots." ( Does that mean this is a Dalmatian:

What is a better definer of a dog, what he does, or what a book says he is?

PBurns said...

Raegan, I encourage you to read the post again as you seem to have lost the thread.

Words mean something, and as a general rule we follow the dictionary.

You can call a dog anything you want, but its performance and history tell you what it actually IS and how it came to be.

Sorry this seems to be such a hard idea for you, but I assure you I did not write the dictionary. And YES, a Tibetan Terrier IS a kind of spaniel and I do not have to clip off any part of the dictionary definition of that word to make my point.


PBurns said...

Raegan, it occurs to me that you might not know the true history of the dog called the Tibetan Terrier.

Here's a start for a true history >>

This dog showed up in the UK in the 1920s and in the US in the 1950s).

Since the Tibetans do not recognize "breeds" as the KC and AKC knows them (narrow standards, closed registries, etc.) one is left wondering when did a Lhasa Apso become and Tibetan Terrier vs a Tibetan Spaniel?

In fact, as the breed club more-or-less admits, this "breed" was invented in the West around the turn of the 20th Centur, based on looks alone. Dogs in the same litter would be deemed to be Lhasa Apso or Tibetan Terriers based on coat type (this was previously done for many other breeds based on ears up or down, etc).

How big was the registry before it was closed? Twenty dogs? Forty?

Of course, as you will find out if you research, the Lhasa Apso, the Tibetan Terrier and the Tibetan Spaniel are all from the same lap dog stock and not too differentiated in Tibet.

As noted in this report from 1904 ( )

"There are Tibetan Terriers as large as Russian Poodles, and have others almost as small as Maltese. A few would appear to have Terrier instincts, but many have the habits of the large dog of Tibet. The Lhasa Terrier has now (i.e.:1900) found a foothold in India and is bred there, though not in considerable numbers. At one time it was only to be obtained in its purity at Lhasa, and the breed was once, it is said, jealously guarded by the Bhuddist priests. But, traders finding a demand among the dog loving public of India, contrived to convey specimens to Leh and Kashmir, westward, and to Darjeeling, eastward. Of these little creatures there are to be two contrary types, the terrier and the spaniel. At the Muree (an Indian Hill Station, bordering Kashmir) dog show of September 1900, there was for the first time a separate class granted for this breed, and both types were conspicuously represented. The terrier type (though all Tibetan dogs have the tail curling strongly over the back), strongly resembles the Skye Terrier."

So, to put a point on it, the Tibetan Terrier, Tibetan Spaniel and Lhasa Apso are all the same thing, show in the same show, interbred, and simply classed and differentiated and created by show ring folks.

Of course, this happens all the time. The English Bulldog a terrier? Not a chance! And yet there are people who will tell you that the TRUE bulldog (the Pit Bull) is one. Not true at all. And so it goes.... the point of the article. Read it again, and I think you will see I got it right!


mugwump said...

OK then. In continuing my back reading and education, I now understand my rat terrier is not a terrier at all. I even accept it since neither he, his relatives, or most of his close friends will go to ground.
What is he then? A lurcher? A hound?
My education continues.

seeker said...

Mugwomp, I don't know what you called Rat Terrier in your youth. My Grandparents raised Rat Terriers and they would dig out a possum, go down a den after a coon and up a tree after a squirrel. No rat nor mouse nor poisonous snake dared show its face in their house or barn. Much blood was shed by these mighty little warriors. They were true dirt dogs.

Debi and the 3 TX JRTs

mugwump said...

Debi, It's not my youth, it's my current. My Rat is an incredible ratter, mouser, squirreler, rabitter, snaker, cooner, I could go on, we have lots of er's. He does not, however, go to ground. He leaves that to my JRT/Corgi cross.
His mother, grandmother and great grandmother, all working ranch rats, shared the same talents and failings. His father is a feist, I can't vouch for him.
He is an awesome cattle dog. At twenty pounds (explains his reluctance to ground?)he will hold, drive, work a nose or a heel. Not his calling, but being exactly what my dad says his rat terriers were, good farm dogs, he does the work I need him to do. You should see him load a trailer full of reluctant steers! Mugwump

PBurns said...

A 20 pound dog can go to ground in the right location and will if entered systematically. See “American Working Terriers” on how to do that. said...

I've handled a lot of Airedales and hounds, and Dales do not work or behave like hounds. Their approach is completely different (in the U.S. anyway)and if you try to work a Dale as you would a blue tick're not getting far. I've said this before, the folks who labeled them as such were referring to temperament and disposition not size or function to the exclusion of all else. People have semantic disagreements about cataloguing and labeling frequently, and that's fine. Not everyone groups birds by beak types and food source, either. The Russians who began the BRT breeding programs absolutely were going for a temperament possessed by terriers more so than any other breed, so that label fit especially considering the translation. That's why the Airedale was part of the foundation, they bred true for temperament. Their quarry was never intended to be below ground. Then again, Airedales quarry wasn't below ground either, but along river's edge. Water dogs are hardly ever small in size for obvious reasons.