The English White Terrier was one of the first, if not the first, Terrier breed developed primarily for appearance and exhibition in the show ring rather than as a working dog. Some claim that the breed was exclusively bred from white Terriers while others believe that it was the result of a cross between Terriers and other dog breeds such as the Italian Greyhound and Whippet. The English White Terrier was highly influential in the development of a number of other dog breeds, including the Bull Terrier and Boston Terrier. Unfortunately the breed suffered from a number of health problems, especially deafness, and the dog died out in the early years of the 20th Century after having been around for less than 100 years. The English White Terrier is also known as the Old English Terrier, White English Terrier, the Old White Terrier, and the Old English White Terrier.
Although the English White Terrier did not exist as a distinct breed until the 19th Century, its ancestors can trace their roots in England back many centuries, and possibly millennia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest surviving written use of the word Terrier dates to 1440, implying that these dogs were already well-known in England at the time. However, it is generally agreed that these dogs are much older than that. The word Terrier originated in the French term, “Chien Terre,” which roughly translates to, “Earth Dog,” or “Ground Dog.” Terriers earned this name because they were traditionally used to pursue small mammals into their burrows and either kill them or drag them out. It is highly likely that the this term was introduced during the Norman Invasion in 1066, which would seem to date the origin of Terriers at least to that time, but there is solid evidence of their existence in England more than 1,000 years prior to that. Archaeological remains dating from the 1st Century A.D. have been found just south of Hadrian’s Wall, constructed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian to defend Roman England and Wales from the Pictish and Gaelic tribes of modern-day Scotland. These remains included the bones of two separate breeds of dogs. One was a medium-sized coursing dog very similar to a modern Whippet. The other was a short-legged, long-bodied breed similar to a modern-day Skye Terrier or Dachshund. This implies that not only were Terrier-type dogs present in what is now Northern England since the time of Christ, but that they were already used for their traditional purpose. It seems highly likely that the coursing dog located prey and chased it down a burrow, at which point the Terrier would be sent underground after it.
No one knows how the first Terriers were developed, and so little is known about them that very few have even attempted to develop theories. It is almost universally agreed that they were developed entirely within the confines of the British Isles, most likely from local breeds. What breeds these could have been are almost certainly lost to time, but it is commonly suggested that the Terriers may share an ancestry with the Irish Wolfhound, Scottish Deerhound, or perhaps the Canis Segusius, a wire-haired hunting breed owned by the Pre-Roman Gauls (Celts) of present day France and Belgium. Some have also suggested that the smooth-coated Terriers were developed by crossing wire-coated Terriers with small scent hound breeds such as Beagles or Harriers, but this is little more than pure speculation. Most experts think that Terriers were first bred by the Celts, but others believe that they were actually developed by the virtually unknown peoples who preceded the Celts.
However and whenever Terriers were first developed, they quickly became extremely popular with farmers across England. These dogs had two primary functions, vermin eradication and small game hunting. Terriers were tasked with killing the rats, mice, rabbits, foxes, and other pests that troubled English farmers. In doing so these dogs increased agricultural yields and farmers’ profits, reduced livestock and poultry loss to predators, helped stave off starvation, and prevented the spread of rodent-born disease such as the Bubonic Plague. On the rare occasions that farmers found free time, they would take their Terriers hunting, providing them with pleasure, pelts, and the occasional addition to the stewpot.
The English peasantry was often extremely hard-pressed just to survive. They could not afford to keep any dog that would not be useful to them, even one as small as a Terrier. This meant that they bred Terriers exclusively for working ability and to a lesser extent temperament. Appearance only mattered to the extent that it impacted working ability, such as the development of harsh, weather-resistant coats and a large jaw powerful enough to quickly kill other animals. As the centuries wore on, Terriers became miniature killing machines; extremely aggressive to any creature roughly their own size or smaller, driven to kill, very curious, energetic, athletic, very pain tolerant, and capable of working all-day without stopping. The importance with which working ability was placed is evident in a traditional Scottish practice (that was also possibly practiced in England as well). A young Terrier would be enclosed in a barrel with a badger or otter, both known for their extreme tenacity and even viciousness when involved in a confrontation. A fight to the death would inevitably ensue between the two creatures. If the Terrier came out alive, it was considered worthy of being kept, and if it did not the problem had already resolved itself.
Because Terriers were not bred for appearance, these dogs were incredibly variable at one point. Because travel was very difficult until modern times, a number of localized true-breeding landraces did develop, but these were regularly interbred and far from standardized in the modern sense. At one point there were almost certainly dozens of distinct Terrier varieties found throughout the British Isles. Scottish breeders greatly favored short-legged, long-bodied Terriers with harsh wiry coats and these dogs became most popular in that country. Irish breeders came to prefer a much larger, longer-legged, and soft-coated dog that was less aggressive and capable of herding livestock. English breeders preferred a small Terrier but one with slightly longer legs than those found in Scotland. Although there were many wire-coated Terriers in England, that country was primarily known for smooth-coated Terriers.
Until the late 1500’s, Terriers were almost exclusively kept by the British lower-classes. This was largely because the small game that they specialized in was thought to be beneath the nobility, who greatly preferred deer, boar, and wolf. Technological advancements and social changes meant that the English population continued to grow dramatically from the end of the Middle Ages until the second half of the 20th Century. Larger populations demanded more farmland and much of England was deforested. Big game species either became extremely scarce or went extinct entirely. To supplement their traditional deer hunts, the nobility began to pursue foxes. Fox hunting eventually became the most popular sport among the British upper-classes and grew into a highly ritualized event. A new breed of pack hound was developed to pursue foxes while riders followed on horseback known as the Foxhound. However, a hound large enough to run alongside horses was not small enough to pursue a fox down into its burrow. The nobility began to keep their own Terriers which were primarily tasked with hunting foxes. Huntsmen began to breed Terriers specifically for this purpose. Fox hunting Terriers were initially almost all smooth-coated, as they had been developed primarily from English Terriers. These dogs also tended to be slightly larger, taller, and longer-legged than other non-Irish Terriers because they would occasionally have to run alongside the horses as well, at least for a short distance.
At some point in the late 1700’s, a large number of fox hunting Terriers began exhibiting white on their coats. It is unclear exactly when this coat coloration began to appear. In 1790, the British painter Sawrey Gilpin created his work, “A Huntsman with Hounds Foxhunting.” The painting clearly shows three smooth-coated Terriers with undocked tails, all of which are primarily white in color with brown markings throughout their body. Other works from the same time period show similarly coated Terriers. Prior to this time, almost all descriptions of Terriers discussed their color being brown, black, fawn, grey, or black and tan. It is possible that a few English Terriers always possessed white coats, but that these dogs were very rare. It is also possible that English breeders traditionally killed all white Terriers at birth, a practice carried out in the Scottish Highlands for centuries where pure white Terriers were born into normal litters with some frequency. This was done because white Terriers were considered highly inferior. The few records seem to indicate that Scottish breeders thought that white Terriers were weak, but it may be that they realized that such dogs are very often deaf. Perhaps the English nobility did not share the beliefs or knowledge of the Scottish farmers, and did not cull the white Terriers as a result. It could also be that they came to favor them for their attractive appearance. It has also been suggested that English Terriers were never white until the 18th Century, but at that time a mutation occurred giving some a white coat, which was subsequently preferred. Although either of these theories is quite possible, most experts agree that the white coat was first introduced into English Terriers as a result of crosses with other breeds. The most likely sources are unculled white Terriers from Scotland, Beagles, Harriers, English Foxhounds, Greyhounds, Collie-type dogs, Old English Bulldogs, and the Italian Greyhound, all of which were occasionally crossed with Fox Terriers to improve some aspect of their hunting abilities.
In the late 1700’s, breeders of English Foxhounds began to keep studbooks of their dogs and form clubs to regulate their breeding. The goal was to keep their animals purebred and to improve future generations. Their efforts proved so successful that breeders of many other British dogs began to do the same. This was especially true of Fox Terriers which were often bred by the same huntsmen who bred the Fox Hounds. The British nobility greatly preferred a more refined and beautiful animal, and Fox Terriers began to be bred for appearance as well as working ability for the first time.
By the early decades of the 19th Century, a sizable percentage of the English Fox Terrier population exhibited some white on their coats although such dogs were still the minority. A number of prominent Fox Terrier breeders began to actively favor the development of primarily white-coated dogs. Perhaps the most prominent of these was the Reverend John Russell, better known to history as Jack. Russell bred a large number of white coated Fox Terriers throughout his life, and had a major influence on the Fox Terrier breed. A number of fanciers continued to breed his lines long after his death, which eventually gave rise to the Jack Russell Terrier, Parson Russell Terrier, and Russell Terrier. However, other breeders were also developing white Terriers at the same time, and the Reverend Russell never had a problem finding other white Terriers to breed to his.
Although Terriers which were primarily white were already common, the vast majority of these dogs possessed sizable areas of colored markings. This began to change at some point in the early 19th Century. No one is exactly sure when solid white Terriers began to appear or who developed them, but they were apparently relatively widespread by the end of the 1840’s. When the Kennel Club first recognized the breed in 1874, they stated that it had been known for at least 30 years, and possibly longer. Considering that the Kennel Club was founded by the leading dog experts found in England at the time, this information can be considered at least as valid as any other. White English Terriers were generally similar to other working Terriers, but had a distinctive appearance beyond that of their coats. This dogs tended to have a more refined body that often looked more sculpted that that of other Terriers. They also had an elongated head with a less pronounced stop. Because of these differences, it is widely believed that the White English Terrier was actually the result of crosses between Terriers and either Italian Greyhounds or Whippets. This theory seems to hold some merit as breeders of Manchester Terriers (a cross between a Black and Tan Terrier and a Whippet) often also bred English White Terriers. Most descriptions closely connect the two breeds, which apparently were very similar in appearance. It also was supposedly the case that Manchester Terriers and English White Terriers were regularly born in the same litters. In fact, the English White Terrier may have been an accidental side effect of the development of the Manchester Terrier, the result of the introduction of white sight hound blood to the Black and Tan Terrier. It is also equally possible that the breed was developed from the whitest examples of the Fox Terrier, possibly with the addition of Italian Greyhound and/or Whippet Blood. This is the theory preferred by a number of other authors.
The White English Terrier was initially bred as a working dog, tasked with both vermin eradication and fox hunting. However, it was soon discovered that the breed was ill-suited to these purposes. A large number of these dogs were totally or partially deaf, and therefore useless for work. Additionally, the breed was said to possess a weak constitution and was frequently nervous. This may be an indication of a high degree of inbreeding. By the 1850’s, the English White Terrier was rarely (although occasionally) used in the field or the pit, and was primarily an urban companion animal. In the 1850’s, James Hinks began to breed the English White Terrier with the Bull and Terrier, a cross between the Old English Bulldog and various Terrier breeds used in the incredibly popular sport of dog fighting. Prior to this time, the Bull and Terrier had a face quite similar to that of the Bulldog, short, large, and powerful. Hinks greatly preferred the elongated head of the English White Terrier and began to select for that trait as well. Other breeders followed Hinks’ example and a new line of Bull and Terrier was developed. This breed possessed a pure white coat, erect ears, a long straight tail, a long face, and a unique stopless, brick-shaped head. These dogs eventually became known as Bull Terriers while the older, more Bulldog-like Bull and Terriers became known as Staffordshire Terriers. Some sources claim that the English White Terrier was used as a fighting dog as well, but there are apparently no records of this. It also seems highly unlikely that a breed which was too frail to hunt foxes or rats would be well-suited to combat with other dogs. Any claims about the English White Terrier’s use as a fighting dog are probably the result of confusion with the Bull Terrier.
In the middle of the 19th Century, dog breeders began to exhibit their dogs in competitions designed to select the best examples of various breeds. Dog shows were born, and they became extremely popular throughout England. Breeders began to develop dogs primarily for exhibition in these shows, which dramatically altered the appearance of a number of British breeds forever. The English White Terrier was a regular entrant at many of the earliest British dog shows, and won a number of championships. Many champions were extremely over bred, and their offspring became heavily inbred. The English White Terrier was perhaps the first breed to have its health seriously compromised by such breeding practices. One of the first English White Terrier champions was completely deaf, but was supposedly of such quality that it was extensively bred from anyway. The English White Terrier continued to develop a number of health and temperament problems and became a victim of chills, nervousness, and a short temper. Regardless of these issues, English White Terriers continued to be bred, and the dog was one of the very first to be registered with the Kennel Club when it was founded in 1874. The first Kennel Club studbook included 54 English White Terriers and a number of other breed members were registered over the next thirty years.
During the last few years of the 19th Century, the English White Terrier was imported into America. Most of these dogs went to a few Eastern Seaboard cities, especially New York and Boston. In Boston, the English White Terrier was crossed with English Bulldogs and American Pit Bull Terriers, giving rise to the Boston Terrier. Perhaps due to its propensity for deafness or simply differing American preferences, the English White Terrier never became established in the United States and had almost certainly gone completely extinct in that country by the year 1900.
Back in England, the English White Terrier became increasingly scarce. Many Terrier breeders were highly critical of the breed, due to its physical frailty, deafness, and temperament issues. Fewer and fewer breeders were interested in working with the breed. In 1894, Rawdon Briggs Lee wrote Modern Dogs. He derogatively described the breed as, “the most fragile and delicate of all our Terriers,” but did claim that although the breed was not capable of being a sportsman’s companion it made a good companion animal, albeit one that, “Requires a considerable amount of cuddling and care.” At some point, a club dedicated to English White Terriers was founded and even published a written standard for the breed, but that organization eventually folded as the breed became increasingly rare. In the last few decades of the 19th Century, British breeders began to develop the Miniature Bull Terrier from the Bull Terrier. In order to do so, they made extensive use of crosses with the small English White Terrier. So many English White Terriers were used in the development of the Miniature Bull Terrier that the breed’s own numbers began to fall even faster. By the end of the 19th Century the breed was very rare. In 1904, the very last English White Terrier to be registered with the Kennel Club entered the studbooks. Although it is not clear exactly when the English White Terrier became extinct, it was likely prior to the start of World War I. Even if there were a few remaining English White Terriers at that point, the dog most certainly did not survive the hardships created by that conflict.
Although the English White Terrier is now extinct, its blood lingers on in a number of other breeds. The Bull Terrier, Miniature Bull Terrier, and Boston Terrier are all definitely descended from the breed, as are the Dogo Argentino, Gull Terr, and Gull Dong as a result of their Bull Terrier ancestry. It is also widely believed that the Manchester Terrier, Smooth Fox Terrier, Wire Fox Terrier, Jack Russell Terrier, Parson Russell Terrier, and Russell Terrier were influenced by the English White Terrier, and some have suggested that the Sealyham Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, Rat Terrier, Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, American Hairless Terrier, Australian Terrier, and Silky Terrier were as well. The deafness that plagued the English White Terrier was inherited by its descendants the Bull Terrier and Miniature Bull Terrier, and at the turn of the century new colors were introduced into those breeds to solve the problem.
Unlike most other extinct breeds, the English White Terrier was a regular in the show ring, and even had a written standard. There are numerous painting and drawings of the breed, and even a sizable number of photographs. As a result, we know a considerable amount about the dog’s appearance. The English White Terrier was a small to very small breed. In early shows, there were two size classes, one for dogs under 6 or 7 pounds and another for dogs over that weight. The written breed standard allowed for English White Terriers to weigh between 12 and 20 pounds, with 14 being the ideal, but by the end of the 19th Century almost every breed member weighed substantially less than 14 pounds. Rawdon Briggs Lee, an accomplished Terrier judge as well as an influential dog writer, claimed that, “As a matter of fact, I do not ever remember seeing a really so-called pure English White Terrier up to 20 pounds, the maximum allowed by the club.” This breed possessed a very refined looking body, with the pronounced muscular found on many Terriers. Most dogs were very lightly built like a Manchester Terrier or an Italian Greyhound, although some were somewhat heavier. This breed had relatively long legs for its size, which were often quite narrow. The ideal breed member had the large feet of a Fox Terrier, but most possessed the narrow feet of an Italian Greyhound. The tail of this breed stood out straight from its body and was medium in length, traits it passed on to its descendant the Bull Terrier.
The head of the English White Terrier was among the most refined of all Terrier breeds, and was considerably more reminiscent of that of most sight hounds than other members of its own group. The muzzle was very long for the size of the dog. Although quite wide at the base, the muzzle tapered substantially towards the end. The English White Terrier had an even bite. The eyes of this breed were typically brown or amber, but sometimes black. The natural ears of this breed were quite variable, some were fully erect, other were drop-down and button-shaped, while others were intermediate between the two. At one point, breeders tried to distinguish the ear varieties, but met with little success as all three were often born into the same litter and the breed became so rare that it became impossible to separate them at any rate. In any case, the ears of this breed were almost always cropped into a fully erect triangle shape.
The English White Terrier had the short, smooth coat common to most English Terrier breeds. This dog only came in one color, solid white. Apparently, an English White Terrier would sometimes be born with brindle, brown, black or other markings, but such dogs would have quickly been eliminated from the breeding pool.
The English White Terrier was said to be considerably softer tempered than most others of its kind. It was said to be extremely affection and devoted to its family, and was known to make an excellent urban pet. Many of these dogs showed the vivacity and eagerness common to other Terriers, but not all of them did so. Some of these dogs were apparently animal aggressive enough to kill rats and mice, but the dog was not anywhere near as skilled at the task as many other Terriers, including its close relative the Manchester. Most sources claim that the breed lacked intelligence and was difficult to train, but that is actually probably the result of so many of these dogs being deaf rather than an inherent flaw. The breed had a reputation for being extremely nervous and quick-tempered, but these traits also were probably influenced by deaf animals. It is known that this breed greatly preferred to be an indoor companion rather than an outdoor working dog, and the dog supposedly greatly enjoyed being cuddled and comforted by its owners.
The English White Terrier was known to be a very unhealthy breed, which was one of the primary reasons that it went extinct. As early as the late 1800’s, fanciers were complaining that the dog had become excessively inbred and had developed a weak constitution as a result. The number one problem facing the breed was deafness. There is a major connection between hair color and hearing in animals, and all breeds of primarily white dog suffer from high rates of deafness. The English White Terrier apparently suffered from very high rates of deafness, as virtually every source that discusses the breed mentions its propensity for deafness. Breeders actively bred dogs that they knew were completely deaf, allowing the problem to become even more rampant. It is quite possible that the majority, or even vast majority, of breed members were partially or fully deaf by the time the dog became extinct.