Monday, March 10, 2014

What is a Terrier?

This is not a pipe. It's a painting.

President 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 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.

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 American 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 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 histories or contrived work.

And as for ratting, let me say this clear: any dog can rat. A whippet is a fine ratter. But it is not a terrier. If a dog is too large to go to ground, and has never gone to ground, it is not a true terrier, because it is not a dog of the dirt.


5string said...

"Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

Same logic I use to debunk the homo "marriage" craze infesting our society.

A pair of men or of women can be called a marriage but that does not make it so.

mugwump said...

My dog is a rat terrier. He doesn't go to ground. He weighs 22 pounds...because he is 1/2 Decker Terrier...his breeding makes him more of a feist, I think. History says all kinds of non-terrier breeds went into the rat..
He does kill rats once they are flushed -- also mice, pigeons, gophers, prairie dogs, rabbits and the occasional litter of barn kittens (oops) He spent his life killing vermin wherever I was employed as a horse trainer.
I always called him a working,or barn dog.
If someone asked his breed, I said rat terrier...and if I decide to replace him, I will look for a ranch-bred rat terrier, because around here, this is a known name for the type and breed I want. If I drop "terrier" off the end in order to be technically correct, I'll only have "rat" left, and I don't feel that will help me find the dog I'm looking for.

PipedreamFarm said...

If you pick up a dog that looks like a border collie at the shelter do you know it is a border collie if you never put it on livestock?

PBurns said...

Actually 5-string, a marriage is whatever the people in the union say it is. More broadly, it is whatever the state says it is for tax and legal purposes. There is no one else in the game. It's a bit like terrier work in that regard: the fox in the den knows exactly what a working terrier is, and no one else need enter the picture. To the extent someone else does enter the picture, it's the fellow with the shovel who decides who gets fed, who gets bred, who gets let go, and who dies. No one else enters the picture, ever. If you are not involved in the activity, you are not involved; you are just another person with an uninformed opinion based on a theory you got out of a book.

PBurns said...

I would say that a dog that has not seen livestock is simply a dog. If it chases livestock, it's a "livestock worrying" dog. If it HERDS the livestock, then it's a herding dog, and if it herds livestock and looks like a border collie, then it is one.

At the boatyard, when I made sailboats, we used to say a boat was very "boat like". It was never a boat until it sailed. For the record, "boat like" was also a way of either cutting or praising another person's craftsmanship on a particular job, depending on the quality of the work done. For instance, if I was doing the welding, it was always a cut, but with another it was always a compliment.

Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,
Unfortunately, names are enormously important. Those who buy a 3rd generation AKC reg "Border Collie" are almost always convinced that, given an opportunity, their pet could work sheep. Thus made-up or show breeds steal the reputation of the original.

Donald McCaig

PBurns said...

Absolutely true. But I laugh at the pretenders, both dogs and people. We live in a dungeons and dragons world, where people with towels around their neck leap around with ninja swords they bought on line, and where old men with invented names pose as 14-year old girls. No one who matters is fooled. Look at all the people buying box wine at $2,000 a bottle. They are not buying wine, but a label, and they are announcing to the world they are fools. The Jack Russell "won" the battle with the American Kennel Club in that two non-working dogs have been brought into the AKC as "Parson Russell" terriers and "Russell Terriers," but these just-invented breeds are passed off as working dogs with ancient histories by the pretenders, and never mind if work is designated to be go-to-ground! The Kennel Club's breed descriptions are an ancient joke, of course, and the entire gas bag of an organization is folding up like the Hindenberg at Lakehurst and will be gone entirely soon enough. But will charlatans, pretenders, and mislabeled goods always be with us? Sadly, yes.

PipedreamFarm said...

"...and if it herds livestock and looks like a border collie, then it is one."

Actually, our breed registry would say that if it works livestock like a border collie then it is a border collie requardless of its appearance. This is backed up with the register on merit process which allows dogs of unknown pedigree to be registered as a border collie if it can pass the working test.

The Midland Agrarian said...

Just curious per mugwump's comment and your definition whether you regard the rat terrier as a feist or terrier? I use mine like a feist too. I think technically, they are a strain of feist.

Richard Grossman

Simba said...

Hey now. Dungeons and Dragons is honest: everyone involved knows that it's fantasy, and has no grandiose illusions about their nerdy pastimes. People who play those games tend to be, if anything, LESS likely to believe in magic and fairies. Or at least to admit it.

All in all, probably a more reality-based hobby than most dog showing.

sparrowhawk said...

This is why when people ask what kind of dog I have, I always simply reply "Airedale," though I usually have to clarify with "airedale terrier" after. There is no denying her hound blood when you get her in the woods; she's not terrible for birds either. And if she were 10 pounds instead of 50, she could be a terrier (if y'all don't believe me, I'll get some video of her on the prairie dog holes come summer!) I say she's a true working "camping dog" because she's a pro at locating and retrieving firewood, and breaking down large branches into kindling. Keeps the nighttime critters at bay too (literally.)

5string said...

A millenniums old tradition of civilization, the basis of a family, is now considered only a theory?

In any case I did get my "theory" out of a book; The Cambridge Learner's Dictionary.

74 2324839

5string said...

Per other commenters' Ratties, mine will chase anything. They "go to ground" on moles! They partially enter dens in the woods around my house. My type A mini is a grade A moler, darn good rabbit catcher, fair possum wrangler, excellent eau de skunk receiver, top notch armadillo hole-r-up-er and an ever so hopeful squirrel killer, if he could only conquer his tree climbing handicap. Now my type B, otherwise known as a Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, Bench Legged Feist, or as I refer to her, a 'low-rider' variety, best excels at barking skills and tag-along to my type A, but on occasion will partially enter a den until her better judgement overcomes her.

PBurns said...

Yes, another person who got a theory out of a book. Exactly as said. A favorite book for theories on marriage is the Bible, which gives the green light for multiple wives (David had 7), the sale of women into sexual slavery (how Jacob got his first and his second wife), the taking and raping of brides at force and as war conquest (Deuteronomy). The same book, of course, ALSO says the only VALID legally binding marriage is to a virgin (Deuteronomy 22) and if not a virgin she should be put to death. The same section says if a man commits adultery with another man's wife, both the man and the woman should be put to death. While NO country salutes this nonsense today, as far as I know, 15 countries allow same sex marriage, all of them very civilized (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Sweden, etc.) So yeah, you got your theory of marriage out of a book, you actually have no input into anyone else's marriage, and you are a dick for thinking you do, same as people who note that slavery is an ancient practice "which built civilization" and which ALSO gets the green light from a lot of places, such as the original Constitution and the Bible. Haters gotta hate, dick heads gotta be dick, and people with theories will explain the history of their breeds as it comes from an AKC all-breed book.

Pablo Mayora said...

Hello Patrick, i have been reading through your posts for some days now and Im really amazed by the work you are doing here. Im the proud owner of a small prague ratter who no happens to be 4 months of age, now, i am well aware that my dog is a ratter and not a terrier, but as you have stated in your article "A true terrier is defined by the work it does". I was wondering if you could tell me some more about how to initiate a dog to hunting, my prague ratter has been sniffing some mice and rat holes at the local park, and in the woods near my place, but id like her to actually start entering the dens and going to ground, im well aware that she is too young yet, but still i would be very thankfull if you could provide me with some tips or comments on the matter. I would also want to point out that ive never chased or hunted anything before, and that there is no one in my environment that ever has, however, i have become very interested in the world of hunting with dogs, specially small terrier work, and id like to start learning and aproaching the topic from a serious point of view, thanks a lot for your help and keep up the good work, this blog is truly awesome

PBurns said...

A good place to start is with a cage rat or squirrel. Take bedding and make a urine tea out of the old shavings (or you can simply buy fox piss from a hunting store). Go down a path and mark a scent trail at right angles to the path. At the end of the scent trail (which can be made with a drag cloth dipped in the tea), place either a small piece of hot dog or a caged rat. Either way, the dog will get a reward for scenting.

Real ratting is best done with several dogs, a smoker and a shovel and iron bar.

For more info, see >>