It is the morning after the biggest dog show in the world, Crufts, and the social media is abuzz with endless comments about the show, the Scottish terrier that won Best in Show, and the “horrid” handler that abused the poor dog in the Best in Show ring. Her sin? She picked the dog up from the table with one hand supporting its chin and the other firmly grasping the tail. Oh, the horror of it all.
Please understand that this article does not deal with rules and regulation propounded by the show committee at Crufts nor the recent attempt by FCI to make veterinarians out of judges. As visitors we should and must abide by our host’s rules. My focus is on the dogs themselves and the allegations of mistreatment.
Before we begin this article for real, there are a few preambles. My life is pretty much about being in partnership with dogs, now mostly terriers and Dachshunds, that do what they were bred to do centuries ago. Not much has changed in working terriers, except perhaps for the modern day addition of radio locator collars, and we carry on just about as they did in the 19th century. My best shovel is an exact copy of an old poachers’ shovel that proved valuable for a number of related tasks.
The second preamble is that in actual hunting, the dog does stand in harm’s way. For the most part, in the field, the dog’s genes take over and it is not likely to be very cautious concerning its own welfare. We, the hunters, try to take every possible precaution including carrying a small veterinary hospital complete with an oxygen supply. We have a number of vets that hunt with us too and they are very good at evaluating the physical condition and anatomical ability of our dogs. I have often had dogs in danger, but luckily, have never lost a dog or had a serious injury. It could happen tomorrow.
The third preamble is that in Brit-Speak, and therefore the language of terriermen (sorry ladies, it is an archaic term)) “working” means ONLY the pursuit of quarry underground by dogs in a natural den, preferably without the need of a great deal of assistance from above. (“Hunting” is limited to the pursuit of fox in a formal pack, with hounds. “Shooting” deals with driven Pheasants or the like whilst “stalking” refers to killing deer with a firearm.) There is no ambiguity about the meaning of “working”. Rat hunting doesn’t count, nor does the occasional raccoon or ‘possum taken above ground. This generic bunch of beast is quite properly labeled “working terriers.” They are ideally designed and bred to work underground in the close confines and darkness of the dens of their quarry.
When we speak of “working” terriers, that group nearly always includes the Border, the Lakeland, the Patterdale, the Fox Terriers and sometimes the Cesky. More recently the Parson Russell and the Russell took the place of JRTs in the conformation ring and only lately have Norfolk Terriers become distinguished at underground work. Other breeds seem to fall into the group only occasionally such as Bedlingtons, Cairns, Westies and Scottish Terriers. While it is clear that none of this latter group were bred with earthwork as their primary purpose, there is little doubt from the wording of the standards that they were often put to ground. With the exception of the Cesky, all of the “working terriers” were originally developed in the UK.
The temperament of a working terrier is carried in the front of the dog, between the ears. The standards attempt a word picture that is almost universally indicative of a good hunting machine. “Perfect demon,” “fearless and implacable determination,” “tenacious, courageous and single minded,” are a few characteristic descriptions. Oh yeah, and “Diehard.” It made three good movies and it makes a good Scot. Amongst hunters, a good working terrier may be “All balls and no brains.”
Given the likelihood that every working terrier, if it is at all good at its vocation, will find itself in trouble at some point in its lifetime, the lads that bred these animals also considered and included anatomical features that would protect the terrier and assist in its rescue. It may be facing a large and aggressive quarry at the end of a long and deep tunnel. The dog may become wedged into a tight tunnel, unable or unwilling to abandon the hunt. I have had numerous instances where I have dug to a terrier (the deepest was 17 feet straight down) only to be able to see or grasp its rear end. As you can see in the illustration this situation presents a limited number of options for a rescue “handle”.
The tails of working terriers are specifically designed to be used as a rescue device to get the dog out of harm’s way. While the breed standards use different terms, the result is always the same. The tail is set on high, not carried over the back, thick at the base, sometimes docked (to prevent breakage of the thinner part), “of good strength and other terms reflecting its historic use as a convenient handle. One standard, the SFT goes so far as to say “anything approaching a “Pipestopper” tail is especially objectionable.” The Wire Fox terrier standard says it best with “[The tail] affords the only safe grip when handling working terriers.” Consider it the safety handle to counteract the sometimes demonic temperament housed at the other end of the dog.
Meanwhile, back at the dog show, conformation handlers have long lifted working terriers on and off the table with one hand under the neck (or brisket) and the other hand grasping the tail. Why not? The dog is evenly supported, in no way squeezed nor its legs compromised. I have never seen a terrier complain about being lifted in this fashion. True “tailing” doesn’t even involve the use of both hands. “Tailing” is basically the lifting of the dog using only its tail. This is not only traditional, it is done daily by people that hunt their terriers in the US, in England, and in Europe. Indeed, I have been bitten by dogs when I was trying to remove them from a hole by other means.
The recent ban on taking most quarry with “dogs” in England has relegated working terriers to the back pages to avoid confrontation, but just as the hunts carry on in some fashion, so too do the working terriers. I took the liberty of following up on some of the posts regarding the allegations of mistreatment and animal abuse and not surprisingly found that not one of them appeared to originate with a terrier breeder or working hunter. The equating of tailing of a working terrier with cruelty or mistreatment reveals only a lack of knowledge of the breed, its use, and its basic anatomy.
In the matter at hand, it may be fine to argue rules, or esthetics, or even techniques of handling, but only the seriously misinformed or ignorant can argue any mistreatment of this fine animal. Funny, no one has commented how much she deserved the win. Maybe that escaped them in their rush to judgment.I would hope that breeders, exhibitors handlers, and judges can do a better job of public education for the benefit of our wonderful hunting partners.