The History of Terriers

Terrier Rough Coat 1434Terrier Rough Coat 1434

The earliest depiction of a dog that could be described as a Terrier is in this famous Belgium painting by Jan Van Eyck in 1434 of the Marriage of Giovanni Arnilfini and Giovanna Cenami. However, Terriers were first classified as such by Dame Juliana Berners in 1486 AD, calling them 'Teroures' in her treatise on hunting. Her book contains the first classification of terriers in English.

Eching of Earthdogs c 1560Eching of Earthdogs c 1560

This wonderful French etching on the left from around 1560 AD demonstrates that certain types of scent hounds dig into tunnels and underground lairs to find and hunt prey that lived beneath the ground. They were called 'Terriers' from the Latin word 'terra' meaning earth. 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[2].

A Scent Hound named 'Terrier'

Terrier Hunting with net c 1584Terrier Hunting with net c 1584

In 1570, Dr. Johannes Caius named 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. The original translation of this important work is difficult to read to be printed in its original form.

It appears here as my interpretation in modern English:

Dr Caius extract on TerriersDr Caius extract on Terriers

'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'[1].

In 1774, Oliver Goldsmith wrote:

"The Terrier is a small kind of hound, with rough hair, made use of to force the fox or the badger out of their holes; or by barking, in what part of their kennel the fox or badger resides, when the sportsmen intend to dog them out"[2] 

Terriers Split into Regions

British Isles showing roughly the areas where Terriers OriginatedBritish Isles showing roughly the areas where Terriers Originated

The 1774 Oliver Goldsmith quote above mentioning the 'small hound with rough hair', demonstrates that by the 1700's, various different terrier types were beginning to emerge. But there were no formal registration records and Terriers of various shapes and sizes were even born in the same litter! Consequently, terriers were purpose bred and huntsmen and farmers did not care what the terrier looked like as long as it did the required job.

Additionally, because the various Terrier breeds we know today were originally developed by peasants or working-class people living in localised areas of the British Isles roughly depicted by the accompanying map, many were named after these areas.

The Emergence of the Terrier Breeds

British Terriers of Various Types c 1906British Terriers of Various Types c 1906

Selection was on the principal that any dog that was adept in a particular task was mated to another adept in the same task. So we have emergence of the various breeds of Terriers. Because peasants rarely travelled outside their local region, today many terrier breeds still bear the name of that region of the British Isles where they first developed. For this reason, we shall consider Terriers according to those Regions.

The terrain in which these terriers developed is very important. Also, if the huntsman rode 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.


We have now published a unique Terrier book 'Terriers Unveiled' Available at our sister site:

References and Further Reading

[1] Dr John Caius, Of Englishe Dogges: The Diuersities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties, trans. Abraham Fleming (London, 1576), 36. Originally published in Latin in 1570 as Johannes Caius, De Canibus Britannicis.

[2] Florence M. Ross 'The Cairn Terrier' 2nd Edition by published by 'Our Dogs' Publishing Co London Chapter 1 'Origin and Early History' Page 11

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