Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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.


Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,

For several centuries the Border Collie was one of many "collies" and bears that name in the rural UK today. Along came Queen Victoria, her collies and the Borzois her kennelman crossed them with. The "COLLIE" is born.

Sometime after WW1, a sheepdog trial was to be held in London's Hyde Park and was advertised as a collie competition. The KC objected: "Your dogs aren't COLLIES at all."

So the ISDS Secretary shrugged: "Okay, we'll call our dogs "Border Collies".

When the KC started registering "Border Collies" the originals started calling themselves "Working Border Collies".

In the US, after the AKC poached the Border Collie, their version was renamed, happily I think, the "Barbie Collie".

Names matter. A lot.

Donald McCaig

Amy Nexus said...

Airedales aren't all worked like hounds. The otterhound was likely used to breed up in size, but the bone structure is way more terrier from the various black and tans that formed them. They are extremely versatile dogs, they make excellent bird dogs, personal protection dogs and they'll rid a property of vermin in no time flat. They made great war dogs, too, and served our military well. I've seen them worked in the field on birds, and they do have fantastic noses, can triangulate a field with very little training needed, but other than that ability they're not much like a hound. If you're going to identify a dog by a single purpose, then it's one of the most difficult breeds to categorize.

I get what you're saying about 'type', but the use of the word terrier began to be used as shorthand for a type of temperament not just a hunting dog's size and grounding ability a long time ago. I wouldn't call a Black Russian a 'terrier', either, but the translation from Russian and the heavy use of the Airedale in its formation is likely what started it, plus they're a very recent breed. The Germans used the Dale heavily in the Giant Schnauzer, too.

An Airedale is not like a hound in temperament, not even close. And they're hunting styles are very different. I've seen Dales go after dens in ways that hounds do not. Not too many dogs will go in for a badger, and I've seen a Dale do it. In fact, I've seen them used with hounds in a hunting pack because they hunt differently and compliment the hounds, Dales can catch and hold. They're fantastic in rough territory and water. The best are not breed standard (no surprise there) and seem to be most common working on ranches these days. I think part of the problem is that they have been used for so many different purposes that 'terrier' became a catch-all. It's semantics at this point. If it's the size of the quarry that matters most, Airedales are also used to hunt bear in Maine. There really isn't a category for that. A hound won't cut it.