They’re sharp, assertive, and notoriously stubborn – but terriers never fail to charm us. From the aloof Scottish Terrier to the cheeky Border Terrier, these spry and determined hunting dogs have sneaked into our homes and our hearts. What’s so special about this group of dog breeds?
What's a terrier?
Terrier is a category recognized by the AKC and it’s a group which ranges from the small Norfolk Terrier to the larger Wheaten and Airedales. Typically energetic and stubborn with big personalities, they can range from sensitive to feisty, but will often make brilliant pets.
What breed counts as a terrier?
Terrier is a broad group: the majestic (allow us some poetic licence) Airedale, the wide-eyed Boston Terrier, and the stocky Staffordshire Terrier (AmStaff) are extremely different to the petite Yorkie and Highland Terriers. The group is connected by its working history and a strong instinct to hunt vermin. You can find the full list over at the American Kennel Club.
The history of terriers
In 19th century Britain, dogs served far more purpose than companionship. While long-legged, muscular hounds were being bred for hunting in the countryside, smaller terriers were bred to stay at home. But they weren’t expected to snooze beside the fire all day. They were ratting dogs – with an insatiable instinct to chase and kill rats and other vermin in the kitchens and farmhouse. In the 19th century, the longer-legged varieties of terrier became known as “earthstoppers” –they would block or enter holes to keep prey like foxes or badgers in the open. Owners bred from the bravest dogs to establish the courageous personalities that we know today.
Although they were found all over Britain, several terriers came from Scotland and its borders – including the Scottish Terrier, Dandie Dinmont, Skye Terrier, Border Terrier and Yorkshire Terrier. After the Industrial Revolution saw roads laid all over England, Scotland and Wales, dogs travelled to agricultural shows, and breeders were able to pick out the best characteristics and refine or continue their lines. The first Crufts, in 1886, was actually titled the “First Great Terrier Show”.
This period was important for dog breeding and the origins of many modern breeds. The Boston Terrier, for example, had a bulldog in its ancestry. Many different terriers eventually became recognized by the British Kennel Club and the American Kennel Club, and the dogs that we know and love were born.
Are terriers good pets?
Terriers have been beloved pets for many years.
They are known for their personalities, which can be comical, stubborn, sensitive or independent. There is no doubt that terriers know their own minds. They’re not ideal pets for young children, as terriers can nip, but they’re great for older children who can help to provide the stimulation they need. Left alone, terriers can become stressed or destructive so they’ll suit an owner who keeps them company. At your side, a terrier will be a feisty and protective presence whose courage knows no bounds!
Characteristics common to most terriers are:
- Independence – terriers are often stubborn, and can be trained, but it might be a hard slog.
- Alertness – bred to hunt vermin, terriers will be instantly alert to anything that crosses their field of vision. They shouldn’t be homed with smaller pets or cats.
- Larger-than-life personality – terriers will bark, especially when their alarm system has been triggered! They are confident and bold little dogs.
- Energetic – running around has been bred into terriers, and they’ll need plenty of exercise and stimulation.
Terriers you should meet...
The Yorkshire Terrier
For decades, the Yorkie has been one of America’s favorite dogs. Bred in Scotland as a hotchpotch of other terriers (possibly including the Skye and Dandie Dinmont), Yorkies were small enough to squeeze between cracks in pursuit of rats. They were tough, gritty, and determined – and several of them travelled with their owners when they took jobs in Yorkshire mills. It’s here they made their name.
With its long, silky coat, the Yorkie attracted the attention of affluent Victorian ladies, and the upper classes started carrying them around (and dressing them up) as companion dogs. The modern breed can be traced more precisely to Huddersfield Ben, a Yorkie who won many dog shows and is now considered the father of the line. Around this time, the feisty little Yorkshire Terrier travelled across the Atlantic and became recognised by the AKC in 1885.
Although the Yorkie’s never taken the top spot, it’s been at no.2 in the AKC charts and often in the top 10, reflecting America’s fondness for this characterful pup!
The Boston Terrier
The flat-coated Boston Terrier is characterised by a flat, bulldoggish face and big eyes. Bred to unite the charms of the terrier with the classic English bulldog, the Boston Terrier was registered by the AKC in 1893 and within 30 years it was America’s favourite dog (1929-1935).
The Boston Terrier has a bright and positive personality and loves making people happy. Although they can be protective (and sometimes aggressive towards other dogs), they’re very trainable and usually gentle with people they know.
Boston Terriers are put into service as therapy dogs and war dogs – with one being awarded a gold medal by the US Infantry in 1921. In 2018, Sgt.Stubby was immortalized in an animated movie about his war exploits.
The Border Terrier
A country favorite among the English aristocracy, the tenacious Border Terrier has a charming, scruffy look and an affectionate manner. It originated on the border between England and Scotland, where it ran with the foxhounds – and then sneaked into the home afterwards.
With little cocked ears and wide, dark eyes, the Border Terrier was never bred to be snappy or aggressive. Instead it was bred as a companion to the pack, and loves being one of several dogs in a household. They also love chewing, digging, and playing, and – if you have time to exercise them – will absolutely adore you.
The Miniature Schnauzer
Although it looks like an elderly gentleman, the Miniature Schnauzer has loads of energy. Bred on the farms of Germany, it’s a working dog which was trained to catch vermin but also protect the flock and sometimes even drive cattle.
But its affectionate personality soon allowed this farm dog a place at his owner’s feet. Bright and alert, the Miniature Schnauzer can be reserved with strangers and children – early socialization will help him to learn to be gentle. Like most terriers, they’re not suitable roommates for cats or gerbils and will need plenty of exercise to stay entertained.
The West Highland White Terrier
The West Highland White Terrier is one of the USA’s favorite terriers, and is just as popular in Britain.
Hailing from Argyle in Scotland, the Westie started life as a hardened hunter. That snowy coat may look elegant, but it’s actually tough and wiry, bred for protection in the undergrowth. The Westie was bred for its determination to chase a fox – or dig for rodents.
Despite these rugged origins, the Westie quickly became a beloved house-pet, adopted by gentlemen farmers. In the 19th century, whisky baron James Buchanan made the Westie famous on the label for Black & White whisky (with the black being a Scottish terrier). The legacy of this little white dog continues today. West Highland White Terriers love to play and run, making good companions for families.
The Scottish Terrier
This distinctive black and bearded terrier appeared in Lady and the Tramp (1955). It was pretty accurately captured on film: this Scottish Terrier is efficient, brisk and cantankerous.
The Scottie is one of the oldest terriers, originating from Scotland in the 17th century. Bred for farming life, it’s a hunter which develops a loyal friendship with its owner, with a dignified attitude and cautious approach to strangers. These independent little dogs would probably never see themselves as “pets”.
Owned by President Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Joan Crawford, the Scottish Terrier is no stranger to fame – and after being added briefly to the “at risk” list, this terrier is back in favor.
The Wheaten Terrier
A medium-sized terrier with a distinctive curly mop, the Wheaten Terrier was only recognized by the AKC in 1973. This latecomer to the Terrier group has dwindled in the charts (we need a movie star to boost its reputation), but does have a solid fan-base.
The Wheaten Terrier is one of the best breeds of terrier for family homes. They love to play, and they love people. As pups Wheaties look like teddy bears, and have an endearing nature to match – which can become clingy. Wheaten Terriers still have that hunting instinct that makes squirrels unsafe, but will also be close companions to their human owners.
The Biewer Terrier
If you haven’t heard of this breed, allow us to introduce the American Kennel Club’s latest addition to the pack. The Biewer Terrier was registered in 2021, and only emerged in the 1980s.
This bewitchingly beautiful variant on a Yorkie has a tri-color coat of silky hair. It is the result of breeding Yorkies with Maltese and Bichon Frise, but its genetic makeup is unique enough for scientists to declare it a new purebred.
Devoted, adaptable, and highly trainable, the Biewer Terrier is a companion dog with a fun personality and enough energy for long walks.