How Terriers Worked

Parson Russell TerriersParson Russell Terriers

The name 'Terrier' is derived from the Latin word 'Terra' meaning earth. By the early 1800's when the various different terrier types began to emerge, there were no formal registration records. Huntsmen and farmers did not care what the terrier looked like as long as it hunted the required animals that lived beneath the ground. Any dog that could do this was mated to another adept in that same task. So we have emergence of the various breeds of Terriers we know today.

The Purpose of Terriers

Map of British Isles showing where Terriers OriginatedMap of British Isles showing where Terriers Originated

Our Terrier breeds were developed by peasants or working class people living in the localized areas of the British Isles roughly depicted by the accompanying map. Usually these people rarely traveled outside their local region. So many terrier breeds still bear the name of that region of the British Isles where they first developed. For this reason, we shall consider this Group according to those Regions.

The terrain in which these terriers developed was also important. Should the huntsman own a horse, he would be more likely to use long legged terriers. However, if the huntsman hunted on foot, he is more likely to use short legged terriers which were more inclined to hunt unilaterally.

History of Terriers

Terriers Hunting c 1560Terriers Hunting c 1560

Terriers were first classified as such by Dame Juliana Berners in 1486 AD, calling them 'Teroures'. This wonderful French etching from around 1560 AD demonstrates that for centuries certain types of scent hounds dug into tunnels and underground lairs to find and hunt prey that lived beneath the ground.  As these seem to be long low-slung dogs, with deep chests, they appear to be similar to 'the 6 best earth dogges in Argyll (Scotland)' which James 6th of Scotland sent to France in 1600 AD[4].

Terriers (1570 AD)

In 1570, Dr. Johannes Caius called the type of scent hound that follows its prey beneath the ground Terrier in his classification that was written in Latin and translated into English by A Fleming in 1576 AD[1]. The original translation of this important work is difficult to read to be printed in its original form. So it appears here as my interpretation in modern English:

Caius DocumentCaius Document

There is another sort of Scent Hound that only hunts the fox and the grey badger. These are called Terriers because they (after the manner and custom of ferrets, in searching for rabbits) creep into the ground, and frighten by nipping and biting the fox or the badger. Alternatively these terriers either tear them into pieces with their teeth in the bosom of the earth, or else haul and pull them, by force, out of their lurking angles, dark dungeons, and close caves, or at least through conceived fear, drive them out of their burrows. So the fox or badger is compelled to bolt, being desirous of the next, albeit not the safest refuge, the fox or the badger is otherwise taken and entrapped with snares and nets lain over their holes.

Working Terriers Specialize

Rabbit Hunting using netRabbit Hunting using net

This section is an extension of the above and outlines the type of work the terrier was required to do during the vital times when terrier breeds began to evolve. This  specialized work is the reason why different construction of the various terrier breeds was required.

In addition to construction and instinct, one of the training methods used to stimulate the young terrier to find whatever quarry they were hunting, was to 'couple' them up to an older successful working terrier.

West Highland White Terriers CoupledWest Highland White Terriers Coupled

This method was also used to train young hounds. This rare photograph of Colonel Malcolm of Pollatoch's own West Highland White Terriers demonstrates this training technique.

Badger Digs

Badger digs were not only considered a sport, as the population grew and land became urbanized, the underground tunnels constructed by badgers were becoming an increasing problem. Also, their homes, or badger setts were cohabited by foxes, rabbits, rats, weasels and other vermin. So badgers became the elusive prey many terriers were bred to hunt.

A Badger DigA Badger Dig

Some of the old badger earths, which have been going on for generations, are of enormous extent and depth. Sometimes the earth has only one entrance, but in the old main earths there are often as many as thirty. Every four feet or so has a junction where a hole branches in two or more directions. Every few yards is a den or chamber in which the badger sleeps, and often a bit of moss, grass or rush is found in these; and often several beds in the same earth... I recently dug one earth which had three separate layers of holes, the top containing a few rabbits, the second and third badgers, and occasionally foxes[2] 

Bagging the BadgerBagging the Badger

As badgers are nocturnal, they are difficult to spot and even more difficult to catch. With an adult weighing up to 40 pounds, and possessing very large claws and teeth, not only did it require an extremely plucky terrier to face them, the terrier had to have the correct short legged construction to enable it to have the digging ability to do so. He must also possess a rare blend of courage and intelligence as he wove his way through dark, cold and damp passages relying almost entirely on his sense of smell and sound.

"I know of one locality on the Quantocks where the holes occupy an area of woodland approximately one acre in extent.... another set in Blackdown Hills is of great size and covers an immense area. More than 50 holes were counted... the breeding chambers are often situated in specially well-protected places, a common spot chosen is under roots of a tree or some large stone or boulder. The badgers will remove some of the earth from above the roots or stone, and on this platform one of the adults will lie with its face towards the entrance. It is thus in an impregnable position and can drop on any intruder. A variation of this method for a similar purpose is for a step to be constructed just below the breeding chamber, so that anything entering is below the badger and would have to leap up the step.

After a Successful DigAfter a Successful Dig

The normal procedure is to find the set which is known to be occupied and send in a terrier. The dog is trained to find the badger but to keep at a distance. If it approaches too near it may get badly mauled or killed. Its job is to prevent the badger from digging away, a thing it will do if as quickly as the diggers at the other end of it if it gets the chance! If the badger turns to dig, the terrier leaps on it and gives it a nip; this makes the badger turn again and the terrier retreats. This is continued for some hours, while the diggers excavate the tunnels in the direction of the yelps of the terrier. When close enough, badger tongs are used to drag out the badger, which is then dispatched by a blow on the nose or put in a sac and transferred to another district and released".[3] 

Terrier Running with the HoundsTerrier Running with the Hounds

Fox Hunting

Fox hunting began in the 1500's because Britain was overpopulated with foxes which attacked livestock and poultry. Additionally, their dens were a hazard to horses and larger animals which could break a leg by stepping into their holes.

A Terrier manA Terrier man

Over the next three centuries, Fox Hunting became a sport in which terriers played an integral part. Accompanied by men on horseback, packs of hounds would find the fox. It was then the terrier's job to bolt it out of its hiding place so the hunt could continue. Contrary to popular belief, the huntsmen killed the fox far more often than the dogs.

The terrier worked in one of two ways:

  1. The long-legged terriers had legs of sufficient length to keep up with the hounds plus a front with a shortened humerus (or 'Terrier Front') so it could 'go to ground' or
  2. It was carried to the scene of the hunt by a Terrier man who had large 'pockets' in his riding jacket in which the terrier travelled.


Terriers ratting in FieldsTerriers ratting in Fields

Ratting dogs were important for the centuries before modern pesticides were invented. Rats and mice plagued developing cities in the early 1800's when the different types of terriers were developing. The growth of cities with open drains and no sanitation caused rats and mice to thrive. When this became a problem, a terrier man would be hired to rid an area of rats would be paid for the number of rats he supplied to his employer, dead or alive. When the rats were caught in fields they usually cohabitated the 'setts' originally dug out by badgers, foxes or other animals. This process consisted of the hunter blocking off all escape routes except one. Then a terrier would enter that hole and bolt the rats towards the hunter. He would catch the live rats and place them in a bag.

Terriers capable of catching rats could earn sufficient income to support an entire family. These ratting dogs had to be quick, agile and have very strong jaws so the rat was killed before the dog himself got bitten. It was these ratting dogs which traversed the globe in the holds of the early trading ships and gave rise to the various breeds of terriers developed outside Great Britain, most of which are named after their country of development.

Rat PittingRat Pitting

Rat Pitting became a popular blood sport in the early 1800's. It usually took place beneath a public houses, hotels or inns. The rats would be supplied in 'lots' of a specific number. Betting would take place on which dog could kill these 'lots' of rats in the shortest time. With the stronger rats underneath and the weaker ones on the top, the rats would settle into piles at the outer edges of the pit. A clever dog could kill the 100 rats in around 10 minutes. This spectator blood sport not only helped eliminate rats, it tested the ratting skills of particular dogs.

References and Further Reading

[1] Dr John Caius, "Of Englishe Dogges: The Diuersities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties", London, 1576, translated into English by Abraham Fleming, Page 10. The work was originally published in Latin in 1570 as "Johannes Caius, De Canibus Britannicis".

[2] Captain Jocelyn Lucas, 'The Sealyham Terrier' Pub. M.C. T.H.Crumbie Ltd, Halford Street, Leister UK 1922 'Badger Digging' Page 69

[3] Ernest Leal 'The Badger' Pub Penguin Books Ltd New Naturalist Monograph series 1948 Page Chapter 12 'Badger Sets and Life Underground' Pages 146 - 148

[4] Colonel E. D. Malcolm C. B. of Poltalloch, 'The West Higland White Terrier' Cassell's New Book of the Dog' by Robert Leighton assisted by eminent authorities on the various breeds Published by The Waverley Book Co Ltd Vol 111, Chapter XLI Page 391

[5] Vero Shaw B.A, "The Illustrated Book of the Dog" Published by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co, London, Paris & New York 1881 Chapter XL The Dachshund Page 316

Also published in 2015 as"The Historical Function of Terriers" by Jane Harvey in 'The Talkabout" the Official Publication of the Australian Terrier Club of America 2015 Issue 2 Pages 36 - 37

See also Jane Harvey, DVD "Terriers Then & Now" (Rangeaire Vision 2002, 2004) ISBN 978-0-9804296-4-0