The secret to true terrier spirit

The True Terrier Spirit

In light of National Terrier Day, we’ve been having more terrier discussions than usual. And we talk about terriers a fair bit on a regular day and what terrier spirit is.

A topic that I found interesting which came up was what makes a terrier a terrier? If you refer to Kennel Club Groups, many dogs are terrier by name but are not in the terrier breed group. And, of course, some breeds certainly have a bit of terrier terror in their temperaments but are not terriers by name. 

So, I went off and did some research to discover what makes a terrier a terrier? Is it more about the name or the nature of the breed?

I spoke to dog owners in the breeding and show world to get their take. The overwhelming feedback was that it was more about whether the dog was bred for ‘terrier duties’ and whether they displayed typical terrier traits than anything else.

Breed Groups vary from organisation to organisation. For example, a dog in the terrier group at Kennel Club may not be in the American Kennel Club or the FCI (world canine association).

What terriers were initially bred for

Terriers were bred to go to ground and hunt vermin. The name comes from the Latin word ‘terra,’ which means earth, and the French word ‘terrier,’ which means burrow. I love the fact the terrier breed name is derived from ‘terra,’ quite fitting, don’t you think?!

Terriers are renowned for being determined, full of tenacity, and brave. If you consider what they were bred to do, this makes complete sense. From tiny terriers ratting to larger terriers hunting foxes and even otters!

I was also delighted to discover so many breeds who are not technically declared terriers but very definitely have an air of terrier about them! 

Honourary terriers – terrier by nature, not by name!

Owners of many different breeds shared that their dogs certainly displayed terrier traits. I heard of Brachy breeds and Chihuahua’s who had a definite ratting instinct. Schnauzers, Dauschunds, and Poodles who have a very distinct air of terrier about them. 

I also heard from owners of terriers whose dogs were terrier by name but not at all in nature. An owner shared that her Brussels Griffon was far more terrier than her Tibetan Terrier. Which actually makes a lot of sense; Brussels Griffons were bred to rat! But did you know Tibetan Terriers were actually bred as companion dogs for Monks?

Brussels Griffon dogs (Griffon Belge and Griffon Bruxellois) lying outdoors on a green grass with fallen yellow maple leaves in autumn

They were raised in the Dalai Lama monasteries and were never sold but were given as gifts. They were believed to bring good luck and were known as ‘luck bringers.’ 

Two big dogs of Russian Black Terrier breed lay on the ground.

What about Pinschers?

I also discovered that ‘Pinscher’ means terrier in German. The Miniature Pinscher was bred initially to rat. They were not derived by breeding Dobermans, as many people believe. Speculation is that Miniature Pinschers were produced from breeding German Pinschers and Dachshunds to create this small yet tenacious breed.

German Pinschers were the founding breed of many popular breeds today and were originally bred to guard and get rid of vermin. While often confused as small Dobermans, their closest relative is the Standard Schnauzer.  

Standard Schnauzers were originally bred for ratting, and until 1879 they were known as Wire-Haired Pinschers. Many Schnauzer owners may be horrified to hear of their dogs being referred to as terriers, but at least for the Standard Schnauzers, there are similar traits to those of the terrier family. 

Are Boston Terriers a terrier breed?

Despite their name, the very first Boston Terrier was born in Liverpool to an English bulldog and an English White Terrier. He was shipped to Boston, where the breed was further developed, and initially, they were bred as small fighting dogs. 

Now, of course, they are great companions and lovely family dogs. They certainly originated from a terrier in the very beginning, but how much the terrier traits remain only an owner can tell you. 

I spoke to a Boston Terrier owner to get her thoughts on the matter, and she told me that her Boston would absolutely have a go at vermin given half a chance. Catching it may be a different story!

Boston Terrier laying in leaves, looking alert

Terriers by name but not in spirit

The Russian Black Terrier is not very terrier at all! How misleading breed names can be! They were mainly bred for guarding, and according to the Kennel Club, they were used by the Russian Army to round up fugitives, so more of a herding breed!

We’ve mentioned the Tibetan Terriers already, who were originally bred as companion dogs and went on to be used to herd sheep. He is closely related to the Lhasa Apso, who was also known as the Lhasa Terrier, although they were bred initially as watchdogs for Buddhist Monks in Tibet. 

What about bull terrier breeds? 

The Bull Terrier was originally bred from English bulldogs and a combination of terriers and was named Bull and Terrier. The combination made for a dog perfect for the sport of fighting. 

In 1862, James Hinks presented the new Bull Terrier at a Birmingham dog show. Nobody knows which breeds were used, but it is suspected that the breed was derived from Bulldog, English White Terrier, and Dalmation. 

These days Bull Terriers are known for being loving, affectionate family dogs. According to The Bull Terrier Club, they are still most definitely terriers – with a competitive spirit still present in their souls!

Staffordshire Bull Terriers are a descendant of the Bull and Terrier mixes bred in the 1800s. Initially bred for bloodsports such as bull-baiting and even bear-baiting, they are tenacious, intelligent, and courageous dogs. Even during the years the breed was used for fighting, they were fantastic with humans. More recently, in the UK, they have been known as nanny dogs due to their loving natures and their reputation for being great with children. 

Bull Terrier dog sitting on a bench

What about the Toy Terriers?

Toy dogs are typically put in this group due to their size. But buyer beware, just because they’re small in stature does not mean they’re small in personality!

Our toy terriers are small yet mighty, without a doubt. The Australian Silky, English Toy Terrier and Yorkshire Terrier all fall into the toy category. But most owners of these breeds will agree; they are still abundant with terrier tenacity. 

Australian Silky Terrier and English Toy Terrier

So, what makes a terrier a terrier? What is true terrier spirit? Well, my conclusion is that it’s a little subjective. But whether your dog is a terrier by name or nature, we love them all! It’s fascinating getting to know the history of different breeds and what makes them who they are today. 

Yorkshire Terrier Dog on the green grass

You might enjoy reading ten things only terrier owners understand. Do any of you non-terrier owners see some traits that resonate with terrier spirit?

woofs & licks signature from Michelle Barney & Sandy Scruffy Little Terrier

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  1. Kate Taylor

    Fascinating blog! I’m not sure either of mine have typical terrier traits! They’re both far too pampered to bother with ratting!!

    • Michelle

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading it Kate! Our two love to chase but I’m sure they prefer their home comforts too ;o)


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