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Terriers Were Once The Greatest Dogs In The World
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Illustration by Sean Sims. Frame photo by DeAgostini / Getty Images

“God loves a terrier.” — Gerry and Cookie Fleck, “Best in Show

Nearly 3,000 dogs are entered this year in the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual dog show. Officially, they belong to 199 dog breeds and varieties, their names affirming the global success of dog breeding, one of the most awesome biological experiments in history: affenpinscher, Beauceron, boerboel, keeshond, löwchen, Plott, Samoyed, schipperke, vizsla, xoloitzcuintli.

On Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, seven dogs will bound onto Westminster’s iconic green carpet in the event’s final round. Each dog will be linked to a human handler by a show collar and lead, the two participants expertly guided and guiding. When the applause finally dies down, a tuxedoed judge will carefully assess each dog for its appearance, gait, coat, ears, eyes, teeth and temperament — its form against its original function. After careful deliberation, the judge will deem one of these dogs the highest expression of what a dog can be. The award: A polished pewter bowl and the coveted title Best in Show.

For a long time at the Westminster show — the club has put on dog shows since 1877 — the winner of this title came from the same group of dogs over and over and over again, resulting in a record that is unrivaled even by the most storied of sports dynasties. For decades, terriers reigned supreme over Westminster. But then the arc of history turned against them.


The word “terrier” comes from the Middle French chien terrier — literally, dog of the earth. The dogs were originally bred to kill vermin — there’s still a breed known as the rat terrier. And it is this hunter’s instinct, this fearlessness, that has come to define the temperament of the breed today. As A. E. Housman, the English scholar and poet, wrote, “I can no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.” Hunting — like poetry to a poet — is just what terriers do.

This temperament is highly valued in the present-day show terrier. “When a terrier group comes into the ring, they’ll all look confident and seem to enjoy doing what they’re doing,” Geir Flyckt-Pedersen, this year’s Westminster terrier group judge, told me.

Terriers may have a temperament made for a dog show, but their coats are the stuff of nightmares. To maintain the coat coloring that is valued in the breeds, and to keep it properly harsh, a show terrier’s hair must be pulled, plucked and stripped, by hand. Every day.

Of course, other breeds have their own issues. Where terriers are blessed with pluck, beagles, for example, “you have to convince them that they love what they’re doing,” Darlene Stewart, a committee chair for the National Beagle Club, told me. Training, rather than grooming, might be the main challenge.

Ultimately, each dog is judged according to its own breed’s rubric. In the Best in Show ring, a dog competes against the others, but also against the platonic ideal of its own breed. And these ideals are public record. The American Kennel Club’s standard for the wire fox terrier, for example, comes in at just over three dense, single-spaced pages.

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Westminster’s dog show is the second-longest-continuously-running sporting event (if you’ll permit it the label) in the country, after the Kentucky Derby (ditto). Since Westminster first crowned a Best in Show, in 1907, 46 winners have been terriers. Of the 43 Best in Shows that were awarded in the first half of the 20th century, 29 went to a terrier.1 The first three Best in Shows all went to the same terrier — Warren Remedy, a fox terrier. The terrier “is to Westminster awards what Meryl Streep is to the Oscars, except that the terriers win more,” The New York Times wrote in 2003. But this has changed. The market and tastes that made terriers such popular show dogs in the first half of last century shifted, and a broad decline in terrier popularity is now mirrored by fewer terrier Best in Show titles.

BREED BEST IN SHOWS
Wire fox terrier 14
Scottish terrier 8
English springer spaniel 6
Airedale terrier 4
Boxer 4
Doberman pinscher 4
Smooth fox terrier 4
Pekingese 4
Standard poodle 4
Sealyham terrier 4
Pointer 3
Miniature poodle 3
Afghan hound 2
15-inch beagle 2
Bulldog 2
Black cocker spaniel 2
Lakeland terrier 2
Newfoundland 2
Norwich terrier 2
Old English sheepdog 2
German shorthaired pointer 2
Toy poodle 2
West Highland white terrier 2
Most successful breeds at Westminster

Source: Westminster Kennel Club

The breed group system was introduced at Westminster in 1924. The number of groups has increased since then; I’ve backdated the present group definitions for the chart above.2 For the cat-fanciers among you: The sporting group is home to your retrievers and spaniels; the working group to huskies and mastiffs; the toys are pugs and Shih Tzus; the non-sporting are Dalmatians and bulldogs; the hounds self-explanatory; and the herding group is sheepdogs and collies.

“Terriers are in many ways the most homogenous group of breeds,” Flyckt-Pedersen said. Terrier breeds tend to be similar to one another, especially compared with the heterogeneity of the non-sporting group, for example, which is home to both the Lhasa apso and the Norwegian lundehund.

If terriers were once the Yankees of Westminster, one terrier breed in particular was their Babe Ruth: the wire fox terrier. Flyckt-Pedersen, who has bred terriers since 1963, called wire fox terriers “the ultimate” terrier breed. “They were hunting dogs, and they had to be tough and fearless to hunt badgers and foxes,” he said. “They have to have a real personality, they have to have a real character, and they have to be confident and, hopefully, fearless.” Wire foxes alone have won 14 Westminster Best in Shows. A distant second: another terrier. The Scottish terrier has won eight.


For decades, it wasn’t just dog-show success injecting the terrier brand into the collective American psyche — politics and pop culture also shined light on these breeds. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had Fala, a Scottish terrier, as a pet in the White House. The dog was a centerpiece of a nationally broadcast speech given by the president in 1944, and a statue of the pet sits at Roosevelt’s memorial in Washington, D.C. The Kennedys owned a Welsh terrier called Charlie. Asta, a wire fox terrier and now a staple of crossword puzzle answers, became a Hollywood star, appearing in “The Thin Man” films and many other movies in the 1930s and ’40s. Alfred Hitchcock owned Sealyham terriers, and the dogs made cameos in his movies.

But the history of terriers in America goes back further than that. To understand it, you have to start in the United Kingdom.

Terriers were described by an English physician as early as the 16th century; by the Victorian era, the animals had become the people’s dog of choice. Flyckt-Pedersen and Peter Green, a legendary terrier handler who has won four Westminster Best in Shows, agreed that some combination of the animals’ hunting utility and the vagaries of public taste were responsible for terriers’ popularity in the U.K. Around the turn of the 20th century, “terriers were the popular things,” Green said. “The only other breeds that were popular were sporting dogs.” And different terrier breeds emerged that were tailored for different landscapes and different prey — rats, badgers, rabbits and so on.

DOGS SIDEBAR_McKendry2_SML

Illustrations by Joe McKendry

“A lot of working-class people were involved with them in the U.K. because it was a hobby,” Green said. “It didn’t cost a lot of money to keep a dog and breed a few dogs, and working-class people would breed puppies and make a little money doing that.” Someone was always in the market for a good show dog. “A good one is always what everybody was looking for,” Green said.

A “good one” was exactly what George Thomas was always looking for. In 1939, The New York Times called Thomas “one of America’s greatest all-around dog experts” when he judged Best in Show at Westminster. But it was his business acumen decades earlier that drove him to this distinction. Beginning in the late 1800s, Thomas imported terriers from England to the United States, and business was good. The English press dubbed him the “American Ambassador.” He imported hundreds of the greatest wire fox terriers ever produced in England to the U.S.

The rich East Coasters who bought the dogs often got more than a dog in the deal. “George Thomas would say, ‘OK, I can get you the foundation stock; I can get you a man from England to come over and take care of the dogs and groom them for you,’” Green said. “And he did, literally, scores of people, started their kennels for them.”

And judging by news reports from Thomas’s time, this was a profitable business. The 1915 Westminster champion, yet another wire fox terrier, was plucked from “the obscurity of an English barnyard” for 2 pounds. On our side of the pond, one Boston terrier3 at the 1907 show sold for $1,000 — about $27,000 today — to “a prominent New Yorker.”

Stingray of Derryabah, a Lakeland terrier, won Best in Show at Westminster in 1968 and Best in Show at Crufts, the U.K.’s major dog show, the year before.

Stingray of Derryabah, a Lakeland terrier, won Best in Show at Westminster in 1968 and Best in Show at Crufts, the U.K.’s major dog show, the year before.

Photo courtesy of AKC Gazette Collection

Thomas’s heir apparent in the trans-Atlantic dog trade was Percy Roberts, who started as a kennel boy for Thomas when he was 16 years old. During his 70-year career, Roberts was terriers — “a leitmotif of the 20th century in dogs,” according to The Canine Chronicle, a show-dog magazine. Roberts won his first Best in Show, with a wire fox terrier, in 1926. And then the stock market crashed.

Roberts was traveling from England to America with thousands of dollars’ worth of dogs in 1929 when he got news of the crash. He didn’t go back to England for another four years. The Gilded Age was, by now, a distant memory, and the Great Depression had begun. “There were some big kennels that went kaput when the crash came,” Green said. The Manhattan dollars that had been put toward show dogs dried up, squeezing the terrier-import business. Not only had the terriers themselves cost good money, but so had the mercenary experts that undertook the intensive endeavor that is terrier maintenance. And so went the terrier demand.

And then television came along. While Black Tuesday changed the business from the U.S., a few decades later, mass media changed it from England. The English working class that was largely responsible for raising the dogs turned to other leisure pursuits. “So instead of you going outside in a cold shed and pulling hair, you can watch a football game, and you’re sitting in your kitchen by the fire,” Green said. “Well, which would you rather do for a hobby?” And so went the terrier supply.

Echoes of these effects are visible in data. The American Kennel Club, which is the governing body for dog shows and whose membership includes Westminster, tallies the most popular breeds in the country each year, going back to 1935. This data is based on purebred dog registrations with the club, which says it registers nearly 1 million dogs each year. (There are something like 80 million dogs owned in the U.S.)4 Many of the all-star terrier breeds5 began to decline.

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This fall from prominence has affected more than the multi-champion terrier breeds. The Dandie Dinmont, the Skye, the Kerry blue, the Bedlington, the Welsh, the standard Manchester, the Australian and the Lakeland have all seen significant declines in popularity, as well.

For some terrier breeds, the situation is existential. In 2011, a campaign was launched to save the Sealyham terrier — winner of four Westminster Best in Shows and once the dog of choice of King George V, Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor — from extinction. “If we can save the rhino or tiger, we can surely save this useful and charming breed of dog,” the British magazine Country Life wrote. Some related breeds, like the English white terrier, from which the Sealyham line descends, have already gone extinct. In 2010, only 49 Sealyham puppies were registered with the U.K.’s Kennel Club, down from 2,000 in the breed’s peak years. The near-extinction of the Sealyham is an extreme illustration of terrier decline — even among terriers, the Sealyham is extremely difficult to show. The dogs have very thick coats, for one thing, and their white fur tends to get dirty easily.

Despite the difficulties, an intrepid few still soldier on in the terrier world. Diane Orange, a columnist for the American Kennel Club, told me that she has bred terriers since 1956 and now breeds Welsh terriers in West Virginia. When I reached her by phone, she had her hands full: “I’ve got a 6-month-old puppy running around loose, and I’ve got to put her back in her crate.” When she returned a minute or two later, she continued: “Right now, I’m starting to work on coats for four of them for the summer, and once I get really working on the coats, it’s going to take me an hour a day, per dog, to get them ready to show, for about three months.”

When terriers were hegemons of Westminster in the early 20th century, there were far fewer breeds in the country. And as terrier popularity has declined, the variety of dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club and competing at Westminster has increased. But terrier titles haven’t gone down just because there is more competition now. In 1950, when terriers ended their run of winning 29 out of 43 Best in Shows, there were 19 terrier breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, 17 percent of the 109 total. Now, there are 31 terrier breeds, 16 percent of the 189 total.6 A new terrier breed — the American hairless — was recognized just this year and will make its debut at Westminster in 2017.

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In the past two decades, titles have been fairly evenly distributed across most of the breed groups. Last year’s winner was a beagle (a member of the hound group) known as Miss P, only the second beagle to take the title. The runner-up: Charlie, a Skye terrier.


“The domestic dog is a genetic enterprise unique in human history,” a team of biologists wrote in a 2004 paper in Science. The animals are all one species — Canis familiaris — but they range from the diminutive 8-pound Brussels griffon to the massive 150-pound Neapolitan mastiff. But with the exception of the Boston terrier’s one-year reign in 1935, only four dogs have taken turns atop the American Kennel Club’s most popular breed list: the cocker spaniel, the beagle, the poodle and the Labrador retriever.

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And there is a disconnect between popularity in the broader canine world and success in the silk-stocking milieu of Westminster: Ubiquity doesn’t necessarily lead to first-place ribbons and shiny pewter bowls. No Labrador retriever (“America’s dog,” per the vice president of the American Kennel Club) has ever won Best in Show at the Garden. Nor has a retriever of any kind. No beagle had until 2008, despite more than 70 years in the popularity top 10.

Some popular dogs do take the top prize, though. Poodles of various types have taken nine titles, and cocker spaniels, which have enjoyed two distinct reigns as the country’s most popular breed, have won four. In some sense, popularity is bound to help. “If a breed is bred in numbers and bred by serious people, the chances that you breed something fantastic is higher than if it’s a small breed, with a small number of breeders,” said Flyckt-Pedersen, the terrier judge.

Some breeds have seen boom times. Chief among them: the French bulldog, Rottweiler, Maltese, and Siberian husky, each of which has risen from obscurity around 1950 to prominence today. But so far only one of these — a Siberian husky back in 1980 — has taken Best in Show.

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It remains unclear what the next dog-show dynasty will be or if there will be one at all. Might it be the dawn of the toy? A Pekingese and an affenpinscher took the titles in 2012 and 2013. Perhaps a long-in-coming age of the hound? Hounds have taken three titles since 2008 — as many as they’d won in the previous century. Or maybe the retrievers will finally get their due.

Things change. A Portuguese water dog now lives in the White House. Our celebrities tote around Maltese and toy poodles. “Frasier” went off the air long ago, and its star terrier, Moose, is dead. So is Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier from “The Artist.”

But amid the still-smoldering ruins of the terrier empire, one terrier prospers — the rose that grew while the others wilted. The Yorkshire terrier’s increased popularity, per the American Kennel Club data, stands alone as a terrier on the rapid rise.

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One Yorkie did win Westminster, back in 1978. But Yorkshire terriers, small as they are, compete in the toy group at Westminster. The terrier on the rise is barely a terrier at all.

Despite the upending of the import market decades ago and the breeds’ often sharply declining popularity, the terrier experts I spoke to were still high on the dogs’ chances to prevail at the Garden this year. Oddsmakers haven’t cooled completely on their chances, either. The Wynn sportsbook puts the odds of a Skye terrier Best in Show at 5-to-1, making that breed the second overall favorite. The odds of a German shepherd win are 4-to-1.7 Charlie, the Skye terrier who was last year’s runner-up, has good odds to win this year, as does Rumor, who was the best of the German shepherds and won the herding group on Monday.

At the Garden on Tuesday, the mood among the dog handlers will be serious and competitive. “It’s just like what you would expect with trainers at the Kentucky Derby or mechanics at the Daytona 500,” said Stewart, the beagle expert. “They’re not going to be talking to each other about the new clutch they put in their car.”

But that competitive tension can work in a terrier’s favor. “The chaos that is [the Westminster] show doesn’t bother the terriers,” Orange said. “They are so outgoing and so full of themselves that they don’t get exhausted. And they don’t stress out the way some of the more sensitive breeds do. Very few things bother a terrier.”

The royal terrier bloodline may have thinned, but it’s royal nonetheless. “Terriers are still difficult to beat if you’ve got a good one,” Green said.


Oliver Roeder and Jody Avirgan visit the Westminster Dog Show on our podcast What’s The Point.

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Footnotes

  1. There was no Best in Show awarded in 1923. ^
  2. Five of the groups were introduced in 1924, the hound group was added in 1930, and the herding group was created in 1983. ^
  3. Actually the result of breeding bulldogs with the (now extinct) English white terrier. ^
  4. I obtained rank data — the American Kennel Club doesn’t release raw registration numbers. The club ranked roughly the top 100 breeds for the early years of this data set, increasing to roughly 175 breeds in more recent years. ^
  5. Those that have won more than two Best in Shows through 2015. The smooth fox terrier, which has won four Best in Shows, isn’t included in the chart because the data on its popularity during the last century is incomplete. ^
  6. Westminster did not have historical data on the number of breeds and varieties competing each year, so I used the American Kennel Club data, which is a close proxy. There are 10 more dog types on the Westminster list, though, because the breeds are divided into even finer categories — e.g., the dachshund is one breed on the American Kennel Club list, but its longhaired, smooth, and wirehaired versions compete at Westminster separately. ^
  7. The Scottish terrier comes in at 18-to-1, the wire fox at 40-to-1, and the Welsh at 125-to-1. ^

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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