What The Border Terrier Isn’t
I liked the scruffy, mongrel look of the Border Terrier the first time I saw one in a book borrowed from a friend. But looks are never the only good reason to start a new relationship. It took me over six months to decide I wanted one as a companion and a household pet. I read a lot about them before and since.
The Border Terrier is a reasonably healthy dog, not overly afflicted by the inherited genetic defects that are commonly found in many breeds popularised on TV. The Border Terrier isn’t too big and isn’t too small. He’s not sleek or fancy or fluffy, like something embarrassing we might see quivering in a car’s rear window. Thankfully, left to his own devices there’s no chance of him making a fashion statement at the local dog show. The Border Terrier can look gloriously and rebelliously ungroomed, even when perfectly clean and well brushed.
Look the other way if you ever come across a Border Terrier sporting a pretty bow. Hopefully you’ll never see him outdoors wearing a Pets At Home “Pink Reversible Dog Rain Mac“. His wiry double-thickness natural coat does the job really well, thank you very much.
All in all quite a handsome wee dog then—the endowed, active kind I like to go walking with and have stand beside me while I rest at a hedgerow gate to take in the view. Most definitely a man’s dog I’d say—no disrespect intended to any ladies who own one, as many do.
Border Terrier History and So-called “Legitimate Work”
The history of the Border Terrier tends to underscore its more masculine connections, but sadly all is not well. There are issues that can’t be glossed over. Almost every book you read will mention that this breed is essentially a “working dog”. We are repeatedly reminded not to forget the Border Terrier’s roots. The Border Terrier “was brought into being principally to work alongside hounds and to play its part in hunting foxes” (Frank and Jean Jackson, Border Terriers, pub. 1997).
By no stretch of the imagination could I be called an animal rights campaigner. But I most definitely have an ongoing problem with the concept of working dogs when it’s specifically related to the hunting of wild animals as a sport. According to Frank and Jean Jackson again, hunting is “not… merely a fashionable winter sport”.
A few years ago on a UK Border Terrier forum I came across a post that included photos of a Border Terrier chasing crows. To be more precise, what I actually saw was a series of pictures of a Border Terrier stalking, killing and retrieving a crow. That bothered me. But what was really unsettling was the derailed mindset of the lady who was deliberately taking pictures of her dog hunting down a crow. Think about it. This is what’s commonly referred to as Sport. And it’s common indeed.
“Hunting…” the Jacksons say, “remains the most effective, and arguably the least cruel, means of controlling the foxes which would otherwise play havoc with the sheep on which the farmers… rely for their livelihood.” Arguably.
But let’s be fair. It seems many fail to understand that in certain locations and contexts pests and vermin need to be controlled. Out among the picturesque rolling hills there are persistent creatures causing real problems for landowners and farmers. Sometimes the need to deal with them is a serious matter. It might not come easy, but we really should rise above the humorous British perception that hunting’s about wearing silly clothes, posing beside top-end Land Rovers and having those upper class double-barrelled names that, amazingly, aren’t made-up.
Whether we like it or not the significant numbers of foxes, rats, rabbits, mink, stoats, weasels, otters and badgers need to be controlled. So fair enough. But, do you ever ask yourself when and why this legitimate work became Sport? And it’s also pertinent to ask, How can this sport be enjoyable?
We know it’s what a good number of rural folk in Great Britian and Ireland have always done. They go off on The Hunt. It’s truly a social occasion, something they’re born into and, as we have seen in recent times, they will fight tooth and nail for the right to do it. Why should they give it up? Given their heritage we shouldn’t expect them to be responsive and agreeable when highly vocal animal lovers voice their disgust and demand the passing of laws that protect animals from being flushed out and savaged to death by fired-up packs of dogs.
It’s perhaps significant that authors of books on Border Terriers invariably show their social background and conditioning when they write about hunting with “working” terriers. One such author, Verité Reily Collins, tells us she has spent “many happy days… running over the fields” hunting mink with Border Terriers. This, she claims, is “the sport… at its best”. The “mink had killed or chased away most of the birds”, so now there was less birdsong. She and her friends liked to get out and “enjoy the hunt”: “…once a Border had had a go at those vicious little mink there wasn’t much left to make a coat…” Sounds like an equally vicious little Border Terrier, doesn’t it…
Others glowingly use terms like “enjoy some hunting”; “excitement of the hunting field”; “rats are fair game at any time”. We are told “a good Border will kill them with a zest and flair that almost raises the whole thing to an art”. Of course, after all this enjoyable and almost arty sport it may be necessary to “bathe any bites… for they [the rats] are dirty animals and their bites invariably become infected”. Overall, then, we learn that hunting is “enjoyable and useful… laudable…”(these quotes from a book by Frank Jackson and W. Ronald Irving, pub. 1969; Mr Irving was chairman of the Kennel Club 2002-2011 and is a long time breeder of Border Terriers).
Anne Roslin-Williams’ book, The Border Terrier, first published in 1976, offers further unsettling insights: “It is quite amazing the amount of punishment a Border will take, and equally amazing the speed with which even the most ghastly bites will heal. However, a badly bitten terrier should be kept at home until healed…”
But how bad does it really get for these dogs while their owners are enjoying good sport? “[Smuts’] injuries were terrible, a broken nose, blind in one eye, as well as being de-hydrated and very thin. However, with expert attention from the veterinary surgeon who had been standing by all this time in the surgery to receive him, should he be alive, and careful nursing he recovered” (Anne Roslin-Williams).
What’s going on here when someone is entertained by a sport that may well result in animals being injured and left in pain? To the conditioned minds of some in the hunting fraternity this situation could never be considered cruelty to dogs. It’s deemed an acceptable risk. Weirdly, the same author writing elsewhere, is so sensitive to her dogs’ comfort and welfare she recommends the somewhat oddball practice of coat-stripping (see below) to prevent the animal feeling “uncomfortable and itchy”.
“There is no thrill,” Roslin-Williams further affirms, “like that of seeing your dog doing the work for which it has been bred for generations… However, if one has a highly prized showdog and would mind the odd tooth knocked out or jaw broken, don’t risk it. The choice is yours.” As for the general suitability of these ‘working’ Border Terriers she writes: “Bad tempered and shy terriers should not be bred, or bred from, and really should be ‘six feet under’.”
In the wider context of kennel management she mentions resorting to “various tricks” to “separate two fighting Borders”. These include twisting ears, burning noses with cigarettes, and, “If all else fails, the old ‘terrierman’s’ trick of simultaneously inserting a sharpened pencil up the rectum of each dog usually works.”
All of this is very different to comments found in her book, Border Terriers Today, published in 1996, some seven years after the 3rd revision of The Border Terrier: “The best way to separate fighting dogs is by emptying the pepper-pot around their noses.”
According to Montagu H. Horn whose work appears in a book by Walter J. F. Gardner, the “sport” of hunting with dogs “is good entertainment…” Gardner also shares material from a 1933 publication: “[The Border Terrier] dived into a small rabbit hole 10 yards away and a bout of blood curdling yells were heard, out came the Otter and Sandy with a twinkle in his eye and blood streaming from his nose…”
In the same book we read: “[The Border Terrier] recovered but was in an exhausted state. When they came on her there were the bodies of two foxes and four cubs. She must have had a hard time with that lot.” Animal lovers, rightly defined, will question how anyone could undergo such an seismic mental shift that he could justify the pain and suffering his ‘working dogs’ inflicted and endured.
Thankfully in our modern age we have moved on, publicly at least. But in the past this blanket acceptance of the serious physical risk to dogs even extended to a club’s rules. Quoting again from Gardner: “Adam was a keen worker of his dogs. On one occasion when pedigrees were mentioned he said, ‘the best pedigree a Border can have is the marks on its face.’ His Coquetdale Vic had all the flesh torn from her underjaw while working. In the period of the Original Northumberland Border Terrier club… she won a challenge cup three times in succession… At that time one of the club’s rules was ‘if any part of a terrier’s face was missing through legitimate work, that part was deemed perfect.’ The last time Vic won the challenge cup she had lost part of her underjaw.”
Enough. This is a sad history. Balanced Border Terrier owners will distance themselves from the so-called sport that overshadows hunting with dogs.
The Border Terrier’s Coat
I used to have a website with a couple of pages dedicated to the Border Terrier. Some of the search strings that resulted in hits on my pages were very interesting: “do border terriers have different coat textures”; “border terrier ungroomed”; “controloing & restraining while groomming border terrier”; “ive shaved my border terrier to his under coat help”. My my.
After almost 11 years’ experience I can tell you for a fact it doesn’t matter one jot how you manage your Border Terrier’s coat. Really. But if you want to keep your clothes, carpets and furniture from being horrendously plastered in wiry hairs that weave their way into what you’re wearing I’d definitely recommend using a professional hair trimmer. Wahl is a good make.
A Cross Between a Monkey and a Hedgehog
It seems to me that those who passionately show Border Terriers are largely responsible for perpetuating the myth that the Border Terrier’s coat must be “stripped” with your finger and thumb twice a year at least. It’s claimed that this is necessary to maintain the typical Border Terrier look. The classic advice goes something like this: “To maintain a true Border Terrier coat texture and look, dogs should be stripped about every three months, a tedious process of pulling out dead hairs by hand or with a stripping knife”. Note the phrase “a true Border Terrier coat texture and look”. Who says?
Another source puts it this way: “You may have read on some of the ‘Is This Breed For You’ sites that the Border Terrier requires ‘minimal’ grooming. They lied. That is, of course, unless you want your dog to look like this [picture of gloriously scruffy Border Terrier at this point]. Please be realistic; this is a ‘hand-on’ breed. If you don’t want to spend time on your dog, this may not be the breed for you. If you want your Border Terrier to look like the ones you see in the books and on the websites, [the “true” look, remember], you’re going to have to devote about 60-90 minutes every 3 weeks or so to grooming”.
And another: “They should be hand stripped rather than clipped. Clipping will give the dog a super thick undercoat, softer topcoat, and make future grooming/stripping much more difficult. A good brushing regularly, as well as ‘tidying’ helps keep the Border Terrier looking neat and tidy. Untidy, they look like a cross between a monkey and a hedgehog.”
Here’s some further advice for those who want Border Terriers as pets only: “…people who have Borders as companions can keep their dogs looking their best and preserving the water resistant nature of their coats using the same methods as the people who exhibit them. The major task in grooming the Border is to pull out, or strip its old coat when it has blown, that is, when it has become overgrown and dead. At this point the hair can be pulled without any discomfort to the dog.”
The best example I’ve come across was found in a video presentation from a professional groomer. Apparently it’s necessary to regularly groom a Border Terrier (at a salon of course!) because this breed no longer has hair removed by going down foxholes, etc. Further advice assured me that “Using a machine to groom this breed is not species-appropriate.”
On and on it goes. Well, that’s officialdom for you. It’s well-intentioned, but should we accept it? I don’t. First-time Border Terrier owners are influenced by the above advice which is found, well, just about everywhere. They conclude that not maintaining a show-style coat spoils the look of a Border Terrier—the “true look”. But who can authoritatively define what the proper look should be? What in fact is “a true Border Terrier coat texture and look”?
If you want a Border Terrier as a pet only you would do well to question this well-publicised high-hat opinion. Dogged radical that you are, you may well wonder what will happen if you let your dog’s coat grow naturally and trim it now and then with the help of an electrical appliance. Will your dog die? Will the sun go out? As I update this page (February 2020), my dog is well into his eleventh year and he’s never been “stripped”—nor will he be.
It’s worth questioning the rationale that proclaims all Border Terriers come into this world with similar coats. And, shocking though the concept may be, maybe your pet dog may not need “stripped” at all, and certainly not to the subjective breed standard demanded by the show ring. You will want sensible and practical reasons for plucking out dead hair, whether it’s a couple of times a year, every 3 months or every 3 weeks. It depends who you ask.
As a responsible, caring owner you will want to know why regular brushing and trimming won’t be enough for your dog. I’ve looked conscientiously for legitimate reasons in books and online, but I have to say that I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by persuasive arguments.
The best reason I can come up with, as suggested above, is a lot less dog hairs on the carpets—and there’s a lot of my dog’s hair on my carpets. But an energetic daily brushing helps.
You will be told that a dog with a “full blown coat” won’t be properly protected in cold, wet weather because the “insulating layer is not able to to its job” properly. The inference is that by not stripping the outer dead coat we hold back the inner coat’s natural protective development. Does this mean the Border Terrier’s coat ends up much the same as many other dogs? Heaven forbid! But we can be thankful that naturally occurring oils may help in this not-so-serious context. Let’s get real here—it just doesn’t matter.
Another view suggests if the dead hair isn’t hand-stripped away the dog will be uncomfortable and itchy, especially in hot weather. It’s claimed too that not stripping the coat encourages skin problems, but my dog has always had perfectly healthy skin, probably because he’s brushed often and trimmed (with a machine). It’s also been said that a stripped coat allows easier inspection of the skin, which certainly makes sense. But all dogs with longer hair can have their skin inspected successfully, if not easily. And it’s a doddle giving a coat the once-over if it’s been trimmed by sharp blades moving very effectively at great speed.
Each owner must free their minds and decide what’s best for his or her unique Border Terrier pet.
Summer morning in the Mourne Mountains.
- Border Terrier by Penelope Ruggles-Smythe
- Border Terrier by Betty Judge
- About the Border Terrier by Walter J. E. Gardner
- Border Terriers by Frank and Jean Jackson
- About the Border Terrier by Verité Reily Collins
- Border Terriers by Frank Jackson and W. Ronald Irving
- The Border Terrier by Anne Roslin-Williams
- Border Terriers Today by Anne Roslin-Williams