These are the Good Old Days

"They don't make them like they used to," says the fellow patting the hood of a '57 Chevy.

No they don't -- they make them better.

Today cars steer with one finger, have batteries that never need topping off, pollute less, get more miles per gallon, and have seat belts and air bags to boot.

So it is with many other things.

Take wildlife -- there's more of it now than there used to be.

Today, across the U.S., we have more whitetail deer, red fox, raccoon, coyote, possum, groundhog, Gray fox, black bear, wolf, duck, geese, moose, beaver, turkey, elk, alligator, cougar and bald eagles than we have had at any time in the last 100 years.

And the numbers keep going up.

The world of working terriers is better too. Getting out to a farm is pretty quick in an air-conditioned car. No one is riding 20-miles to a hunt on a horse, and then, at the end of a long day, riding 20-miles back.

How about veterinary work? In the "good old days" your dog could be lost to distemper or canine influenza or hepatitis before it was old enough to get into the field. Before antibiotics, a small wound could lead to death from sepsis or a corneal abrasion could lead to blindness. Mange was difficult to cure and rabies was still prevalent across Europe, including the UK. It is still rampant in the U.S., but vaccines now keep our hunting dogs safe.

How about working terrier equipment? It hasn't changed much since the days of Jacques du Fouilloux in 1560, but it is certainly easier to obtain. An excellent shovel can be delivered to your door with a telephone call or a few clicks of your computer mouse. Ditto for fox nets -- only now they are made of green nylon, never rot, and last forever. The radio telemetry of Deben collars means we can now find and dig to our dogs with a great deal less fear than 40 years ago. And if we lose a dog in the field far from home, there is a good chance it will be returned to us thanks to microchips and tattoo registries.

What about working dogs? Surely these are not as good as those of yore?

At the risk of heresy, let me suggest that the real working terriers of today are about the same quality as they have always been -- a mixed lot, to be sure, but probably no worse.

In fact, as a group, they may be slightly better, as we now know more about genetics and, as a consequence, we can at least try to keep healthcare time-bombs out of the gene pool -- bilateral deafness, lens luxation, loose knees, and ataxia, for example.

It is also easier today for the average person to get a good working dog.

First of all, there are more working terriers than there ever have been. 

Oh sure, there are not as many working terriers as a percentage of all dogs, but in absolute numbers the count is clearly up.  Think about it: the human population has tripled over the last 70 years, and with it has come an increase in the number of people interested in all dogs, including working terriers. The rise of working terriers in the U.S. has certainly been a boost, as has been an increase in the number of foxes in the UK -- a phenomenon that has made casual terrierwork much more rewarding.

Today most working terriers are not associated with mounted hunts at all, but with weekend diggers who jump in a car and are out to a hedgerow within the hour.

In Victorian days, it was harder to travel, and fox were often scarce due to traps and poisons. Leisure time was also in short supply -- the weekend was not invented until the 1930s. 

Truth be told, the "weekend warrior" terrierman did not much exist in the "old days." Back then when a gamekeeper had a nuisance fox to deal with, he was more likely to reach for poison and traps than for a terrier. In fact that is still the case. Terrierwork is relatively humane, but it is not very efficient, which is why traps and poison are still used, along with snares, and lamping with lurchers and guns.

But what about the show dogs?

What about them? Most show terriers are to working terriers what white lab rats are to wild rats; they may bear a passing resemblance, but they are entirely different animals in every way that counts.

In truth, many terrier breeds never hunted much of anything other than an occasional rat or rabbit. Though nearly every Kennel Club breed, from Silky terrier to Glen of Imaal, claims they once hunted fox and badger, there is very little evidence to support most of these claims.

Most terrier breeds, as we know them today, are synthetic creations cobbled together by show-ring enthusiasts beginning in the middle-to-late part of the 19th Century. Breeds were assembled from bits and pieces of genuine working dogs mixed with a dash of turn-spit dog, lap dog, dachshund, and spaniel. Features were exaggerated, coats lengthened and softened, colors selected, and nose color and "expression" given points. Slathered on top of all these new show-ring standards were invented histories and unfounded assertions that inconsequential attributes were of importance in the field.

Almost all of it was (and is) nonsense. As Harriet Ritvo notes in The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, from the 1850s and into the 20th Century, dog show folks "elevated standards that had no basis in nature or aesthetics but reflected the ignorant, self-interested caprices of fanciers who wished to boost the prestige of their own stock in order to associate themselves with people of good breeding."

Most show terriers are to working terriers what white lab rats are to wild rats; they may bear a passing resemblance, but they are entirely different animals in every way that counts.

Ironically, even after 150 years of effort, the show ring has not killed off the true working terrier, which still exists outside the show ring in the same form it did a century and a half ago.

The "black and tan terrier" (now called the fell terrier) still works, though its stilted cousin the show Welsh Terrier and show Lakeland Terrier, now have overlarge chests and elongated heads, making them useless as fox-working dogs.

The "foxing" terrier (now called the Jack Russell Terrier) still works, though its bastard cousin, the show ring Fox Terrier, now has an enormous chest, an oddly elongated muzzle, a loose coat, and an odd stiff-legged movement never seen in a real working dog.

A few Border Terriers still work, though they too are increasingly too large to get to ground, and are now so expensive that they are more likely to be owned by suburban housewives than people capable of digging five feet into an embankment.  In the U.S. finding two working border terriers to breed together is almost impossible!

What of the other breeds of working terriers?

There really weren't any, if by "work" we mean going to ground on fox and badger.

In fact, we may have one or two more working terrier breeds today than we did in the old days. Added to the above list of three types we can add the Patterdale Terrier (breeding true for 50-years and a derivative of the fell terrier) and the Plummer Terrier (breeding true for 20-years and a derivative of the Jack Russell Terrier).  Unfortuntately, here too the push is on to draw them into the show ring, and chest size is already an issue in some lines, especially with Plummers.

What of the Cairn, Norfolk, Scottish, Australian, and Sealyham terrier?

Most of these breeds were drawn into the show ring almost as soon as they were created, and most were "worked" to nothing more substantive than rats and rabbits -- a job that a good collie or lurcher can do almost as well.

Yes a Cairn or two, and a Norfolk or two were hunted to fox. Jocelyn Lucas himself worked badger and fox with his pack of Sealyham terriers. That said, such stories are the exception rather than the rule, and few terrier breeds, other than the three previously mentioned, ever saw wide service in the hunt field. Lucas and his kennel partner, Mrs. Enid Plummer, found it almost impossible to carry on their own kennel of Sealyham terriers in the face of show-ring demands for ever-larger Sealyhams with elongated faces and softer coats. Today the small compact Sealyham Terrier of Lucas's day is essentially extinct -- as are the antecedents of most of the other terrier breeds.  The names may live on, but something is surely missing, for none are commonly found in the hunt field today.

On the upside, the same type of working terrier that has always prevailed in the field still exists, and with a modicum of due-diligence dogs can be obtained reasonably easily from working kennels, and with some certainty that the dog will be of the right size and temperament to do the job.

Five-generation pedigrees -- a legacy of the show ring it should be said -- are sometimes a benefit in sorting through size and paternity claims. A quick telephone call can check out a story or two, and ascertain a pup's availability. A picture posted by email can quickly affirm a sire and dam's overall appearance and perhaps even offer some small assurance that the dog or sire and dam in question have indeed been worked (if pictures are available, as they certainly should be in this day and age).

Caveat emptor, of course.

Dog breeders tend to say what they think their customers want to hear. Even mediocre hunting dogs (by definition most of them) are routinely presented as exceptional beasts. If you do not put chest size front and center in your selection criteria, your dog will sure to be too big

That said, if after due-diligence you are reasonably satisfied that a dog or pup being offered will fit your needs, it's a relatively easy thing to get anywhere in the world in order to visit the kennel, see the dog in person, and strike a deal. We live in an increasingly small world, and it's now quicker to get from Washington, D.C. to London than it is to get across the state of Virginia -- at some level, a marvelous thing.

Which brings us back to Square One:  These really are the good old days.

No generation has ever had more spare time.

No generation has ever had better dogs more easily obtained.

No generation has ever had easier access to farms stretching out over a vast portion of the countryside brimming over with suitable quarry.

If you want to hunt with terriers, it has never been easier to work them, and if you do so, you will quickly learn more with a shovel in your hand than you could in fifty lifetimes of bouncing around a show ring.

Slip loose a dog at a naturally-dug fox or groundhog den, and you will know more about spanning in 10 minutes than you could ever hope to learn from reading a breed standard.

Dig on a groundhog at the stop-end of a dirt pipe and you will know why tenacity and teeth are required.

Patch a few dogs up at the end of the day, and you will appreciate why brains and discretion are required as well.

Spend a hot summer day in a hedge and you will begin to value a dog's nose for its function and not just for its color.

Put a mute dog to ground and you will know why diggers care more about good voice and an honest mark than they do about "movement" and "expression."

Above all, get out and dig.

If you do so, when you grow old and grey, you will look back and say -- "Ah! Those were the good old days." n