Terriers are a particularly British dog. Mentioned as long ago as the 14th century in a treatise on hunting, The Boke of St. Albans by Dame Juliana Berners, as ?small terours that do creep beneath the ground?, they are essentially earth dogs, whose task is to go to ground after vermin, either to flush or to kill it. Purists say that if it hasn?t the size or desire to get to ground, it isn?t a terrier. Others, however, maintain that terriers can carry out valuable pest control above ground even if they are too big to work below, so are still deserving of their name. The name may not, after all, be derived from the Latin ?terra? meaning ?ground? but rather from their ability to ?strike terror? into their quarry. The sun will never set on discussions such as these.

Dogs for digging

True earth dogs need to be small enough to get to ground without being so small that they risk being dominated by their quarry. Today in England this work is restricted by law to the fox, but in many other countries terriers are expected to tackle a wider variety of vermin, such as otters, badgers, groundhogs and possums. Facing down a large well-armed creature in the dark on its own, week-in week-out, takes a particular character of dog, and even among those bred for the job, there are individuals who opt for a quieter career. Terriers need fire ? the insane courage that spurs them on to do their job no matter what, though this can be a demanding attribute to manage when the dog is not at work. Terriers don?t quit, don?t retreat, don?t shut up and only let go to get a better hold. They are bred to take the fight to the enemy, and win it.

A fighting physique

Physically, terriers need a spannable ribcage ? one that a man?s two hands can reach around and touch fingertips ? so that they can work their way through the fox-narrow tunnels underground. They need big forepaws to dig with, and strong back-ends to hold them firm when under attack, or to push them on through the pipes in pursuit. Their tails are traditionally two-thirds docked to avoid injury when wagging frantically against the sides and roof of the earth, leaving sufficient length for their handlers to grip if they need to draw their dog out after having dug down to it. The terrier should bay, for hours if necessary, to guide the digging process (though of course this is made easier nowadays by electronic locators). That?s why terriers are so vocal ? it?s in the design specifications.

The head of the terrier needs to be strong, the jaw powerful, and the brows heavy to protect the eyes from dirt and bites. The teeth should be big and well-rooted, though most working terriers lose their incisors early. The whole beast should hold the ground like a prizefighter: light, agile, strong and well-balanced. Exit the majority of Kennel Club-registered show terriers, but not all.

Hard by breeding

Kingship of the earth dogs include the Patterdale, Fell and Lakeland terriers. The latter have slightly longer legs because their traditional work includes finding quarry in vast outcrops of stone, where they need to climb and s scramble, and maybe to tackle a fox on a ledge above them. If the quarry bolts, and it would be wise to, that is one job done, but these are hard terriers by breeding, and can, if necessary, kill a fox that will not bolt. Lakelands can be dual-purpose, in that they make affable pets as long as they have plenty of work, but the Patterdale and Fell types are like psychopaths, and it is unwise even to kennel them together. They live to work, and many consider them the supreme earth dogs.

More relaxed terriers

Other terriers can be of a size to work well to ground but with a generally more biddable nature. Among these are the Border and the ubiquitous Jack Russell, usually almost as happy to be part of the family as they are to work. Not all of these breeds make good earth dogs, but they certainly enjoy the concept, and find holes in the ground appealing. The Plummer terrier was created specifically for ratting in packs, and many will work to ground as well, but they can be combative with other dogs and are not for novices.

The puzzle of the Bedlington

The Bedlington is an enigma. A racy shape and unique gait marks this wolf in sheeps? clothing, for this is one of the bravest terriers. It has a totally different attitude from those mentioned earlier and doesn?t go looking for trouble, though it can end it if it comes across it. Traditionally the Bedlington is a silent worker, though possessed of a deep bay quite at odds with its size. Some say it comes from otterhound blood long ago, and certainly Bedlingtons have tremendous scenting powers. Though suitably narrow, height has always been an issue with the Bedlington, many maturing above the size desirable for an earth dog. Some owners cross them with other breeds in an attempt to widen the gene pool and keep a small type going, but this process is in its infancy.

Others happily accept the larger version, which is still a great vermin dog even if it doesn?t fit down holes.

And the rest

Larger types of terrier have traditionally featured as farm and vermin dogs. Into this group come the Irish terrier, Kerry blue and soft-coated Wheaten, each of which, like the Bedlington, has a darker side to its history because they have been used as fighting dogs, too. There are small pockets of working types within the Skye, Sealyham, Aberdeen, West Highland, Cairn and Dandy Dinmont breeds, though most are only seen in shows and as pets now. In most of these, the instinct to work is still there, even if the size is too large or too small, the coat too profuse or the proportions incorrect.

The Yorkshire terrier, traditionally a rat-pit dog, retains its terrier spirit, but nowadays often lacks the jaw or dentition to do that job, though the diminutive Norfolk and Norwich terriers can still give a rat a run for its money. Other ratting terriers include the Manchester and the English toy terrier, each of which has the lithe physique of the ratter, though are seldom worked nowadays. More recent creations, the Lucas and sporting Lucas, are Sealyham-based, and display similar physique and working attributes.

Some exceptions

When is a terrier not a terrier? Our bull terriers were originally known as ?bull-and-terriers? from the time when terriers were crossed into bulldogs to make a smaller and more agile fighting dog. These dogs retain their terrier instincts as do the bull breed ones, but are they true terriers?

The Airedale was allegedly created to hunt otter and other larger vermin above ground; certainly you wouldn?t want to meet anything that was down a hole that one of these could fit into. They do have the terrier spirit and work ethic, and though used in the past as military and police dogs, the terrier nature produced more tenacity than is currently acceptable. Ersatz terriers, such as the Russian black are the result of whimsical naming, rather like the Tibetan terrier, which is as much a terrier as the Tibetan spaniel is a gundog, or the Boston terrier, which doesn?t fit any terrier criteria at all.

Should the terrier be regarded as a specific earth dog or general vermin dog? The discussion is ongoing, but the terriers themselves don?t give a damn.