The Skye Terrier is one of the oldest and most distinctive of the British terrier breeds. These dogs are known for their beautiful coats, long bodies, and short legs. For a period of time, the Skye Terrier was the most popular pet among the British nobility. Renowned for their intense loyalty, the most famous Skye Terrier in history was Greyfriar’s Bobby, who guarded the grave of his master for 14 years.
The Skye Terrier is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, unique breed of terrier; created long before dog breeding records were kept, and in an area where written records of any kind were rare before the 1800’s. As a result much of the breed’s ancestry is unknown, and what is commonly said is more likely legend than fact. What is known is that the Skye Terrier comes from the Inner Hebrides Islands (an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland), the largest of which is Skye, and that these dogs bred true to type in isolation.
The word terrier comes from the French word ‘terre’ and the Latin word ‘terrarius’; both of which mean earth or ground. The name is believed to derive from the original purpose of these dogs which was to chase foxes, badgers, rabbits, and other vermin down holes and to either chase them out or fight and dispatch them down there. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written appearance of the word ‘terrier’ comes from 1440, so these dogs have been in existence since at least that time, and almost certainly long before. As the word is of French origin, it likely entered the English language around the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, implying that these dogs were already around at that time.
The earliest known evidence of the presence of terriers comes from Roman times. Archaeological digs around the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England, which was constructed by the Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD to protect Roman territories in modern England from Pictish territories in modern day Scotland, reveal two distinct types of dogs. One of these dogs was a medium-sized coursing dog, which probably closely resembled a modern day Whippet in size and function. The other type was a short-legged, long-bodied dog which probably very closely resembled a modern Dachshund or Skye Terrier. Although impossible to verify without more evidence and genetic tests, this finding may indicate that as early as Roman times there was a division in labor of hunting dogs in Britain, with larger hounds driving prey to ground and smaller terriers going to ground to chase it back to the hunters or dispatch it in its lair.
The earliest ancestors of the Skye Terrier were probably brought to the Hebrides Islands by Celtic settlers. On these islands the dogs were isolated from the mainland, and thus more likely to develop into a unique breed as the only way new blood could be introduced was if new dogs were deliberately brought to the islands. It is thought that many of the unique traits of the Skye Terrier were introduced in this fashion. It is generally believed that the original Skye Terriers were very similar in appearance to other Scottish Terriers, such as the Cairn Terrier and the West Highland White Terrier, and that their appearance was altered due to at least two later dog arrivals on the islands. In fact, many early writers on the breed such as Hugh Dalziel commented on the perceived closeness between the Cairn Terrier/West Highland White Terrier and the Skye Terrier.
During the Middle Ages, most of the islands off of the Scottish Coast were subject to Viking raids and settlement. In fact, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands remained under the rule of the Norwegian Crown until the 1470’s. The Norwegian settlers were known to have brought some of their dogs with them, one of which is now known as a Swedish Vallhund. These Viking dogs are then believed to have been bred with the native British dogs, creating the short-legged and long bodied dogs thought to be the ancestor of at least one of the two Corgi breeds, and possibly the reason behind the Skye Terrier’s unique body plan. Indeed, the Corgis, Swedish Vallhund, and Skye Terrier do appear similar in many ways. However, it is equally possible that the Skye Terrier got its shape from one of the two Welsh Corgis (Pembroke Welsh Corgi or Cardigan Welsh Corgi), or that these dogs were developed without outside influence through deliberate and careful breeding. In the complete absence of written evidence; however, to support these theories the full truth will likely never be known.
The most common and well-known story surrounding the origin of the Skye Terrier is that a ship from the Spanish Armada sank off of the island of Skye in 1588. Among the few survivors of the wreck were small Maltese dogs which the Spanish had kept as pets. Upon reaching land, these dogs integrated into the local canine population and interbred with the native terriers giving them a distinct coat. Indeed, the Skye Terrier’s coat does closely resemble that of the Maltese. While it is true that there are also definitive records of ships from the Spanish Armada sinking near the Scottish Islands, and even of some survivors reaching land and settling down. There is, however, no evidence that any Maltese dogs were passengers aboard these ships, or moreover that they survived and made their way to land. Perhaps the biggest problem with this tale is that there are records of the Skye Terrier which predate the failed invasion of the Spanish Armada. Perhaps something was lost in the way the story was passed orally from one generation to the next and it was instead an earlier wreck or traders that brought Malteses, or perhaps another breed with similar hair. It is equally possible, and perhaps more likely, that breeders developed the Skye Terrier’s coat without any outside influence.
Some of the first reliable written descriptions of the Skye Terrier date from 1576, when Johannes Caius published “English Dogges”, which details many of the unique canines present in the British Islands. He described “lap dogs which were brought out of the barbarous borders from the uttermost countryes northward, and they by reason of length of their heare, made show neither face nor body and yet these curres forsooth because they are so strange, are greatly set by, esteemed, taken up, and of made of, in room of the spaniell gentle, or comforter.” From this description it can be inferred that even at this point Skye Terriers were being used as companions as well as hunting dogs.
Scottish Breeders and fanciers used breeding and training methods that would be considered unusual and even cruel to modern eyes. Resources have always been scarce in the Scottish Highlands, and owners could not afford to keep dogs which were not able to perform. It was a regular practice to place a six-month old Skye Terrier puppy in a barrel with a full-grown otter and to seal the barrel afterwards. This was almost always a fight to the death. Also, many of these dogs bred themselves by wandering around to neighboring properties. The Skye Terrier developed a reputation for being a tenacious and fearless hunter and killer of small animals.
Eventually, the Skye Terrier’s unique and charming appearance began to attract as many followers among the nobility as among hunters. In parts of Scotland, the Skye Terrier was one of only three types of dogs allowed in castles, the other two being toy spaniels and Greyhounds. Leaders of both major clans present on Skye, the MacDonalds and the MacLeods, were known to have possessed these dogs. By the end of the 1500’s, the Skye Terrier was already being seen outside of the Highlands. Mary, Queen of Scots possessed a Skye Terrier named Geddon, who was said to have been her favorite dog. He was with her throughout her incarceration, and would regularly travel underneath her dress. After her execution, Geddon came out from hiding and placed himself in between Mary’s head and body. Geddon subsequently refused to eat despite the care that servants attempted to provide for the dog, and the heart-broken dog followed his master to the grave a few days later.
Until the beginning of the 1800’s, almost all terriers were either random-bred or bred for purpose only. The Skye was one of the only, if not the only, truly unique terrier breeds. The Skye remained quite popular throughout the 19th Century, and was probably the most well-known and common terrier breed until the waning decades of the 1800’s. Queen Victoria was a well-known fancier of the Skye Terrier, and kept several of these dogs. Her favor won the breed a great deal of popularity. Edward Landseer, the famed painter, depicted these beautiful dogs, further popularizing the breed. The dogs depicted by Landseer are almost identical to modern day Skye Terriers. For a long period of time, the Skye Terrier was as popular as the Yorkshire Terrier or the Shih Tzu is today. By the 1850’s, the Skye Terrier was almost certainly the most popular pure-bred dog in the major Scottish cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Fanciers began to export the Skye Terrier all over the world, a process which was sped up by the presence of the British Army and Navy, in which many Scottish soldiers and sailors served. In 1857, there was a rebellion in British India known as the Indian Mutiny. Eye witnesses described looters and mutineers stealing guns, rupees, gold watches, and Skye Terriers. During the 1800’s, a number of Skye Terriers were imported to the United States, almost exclusively for show and companion purposes.
The most famous Skye Terrier in history, Greyfriar’s Bobby, was born in 1856. Originally just Bobby, the dog was owned by John Gray, a police constable. At that time Constables were expected to patrol their routes accompanied by a canine companion. Bobby and Officer Gray made their daily rounds for two years until Gray died of tuberculosis in 1858. For the next 14 years, Bobby faithfully guarded his master’s grave in the Greyfriar Cemetery. Bobby had friends who would feed him, but he refused to leave his master’s grave for many years. In 1867, Bobby found himself under fire and was almost destroyed as it was argued that any dog without an owner should be put down. Coming to his rescue, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers—who was also a director of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—paid for Bobby's license, making him the responsibility of the city council. For the last few years of his life Bobby would spend nights by the fire at the home of the Traill family, which is where he passed one night.
Bobby died in 1872, but the intense devotion and loyalty he displayed captured the imagination of all Scotland and eventually the world. In 1912, Eleanor Atkinson wrote a best-selling novel entitled Greyfriar’s Bobby, which strayed very far from the true story. Disney made the novel into a movie in the 1960’s, but did not use an actual Skye Terrier for the film, instead it is believed Disney opted for a more trainable Skye Terrier look-a-like. The film’s star was eventually purchased by the Chief Constable of Edinburgh and given to a children’s home where he lived until the age of 18. There are several statues and other pieces of art throughout Scotland dedicated to Greyfriar’s Bobby. Some recent research has called the Greyfriar’s Bobby story into doubt, claiming Bobby was in fact two dogs and that the real Bobby was swapped with a younger model to keep visitors streaming to the area when he died in 1867; the scheme being the brainchild of local businesses, who profited greatly from the tiny dog's fame; although, this has yet to be proven.
The Skye Terrier was perhaps more influential in the development of later terrier breeds than any other dog. In fact, the Skye Terrier has probably been bred with almost all other terrier breeds either directly or indirectly. These dogs were regularly bred with early lines of Cairn Terriers and West Highland White Terriers and probably substantially contributed to their development. Scottish workers who moved to Yorkshire to work in the mines brought Skye Terriers with them. These were bred with small dogs, eventually becoming known as Yorkshire Terriers; currently one of the most popular breeds of dog in the world. In turn, Yorkshire Terriers were used to develop other breeds such as the Australian Terrier and Silky Terrier. The Skye Terrier is also thought to be the direct ancestor, or one of the direct ancestors, of the Dandie Dinmont Terrier.
By the end of the 19th Century, the Skye Terrier was already beginning to fall out of favor and other breeds such as its direct descendant the Yorkshire Terrier began to largely take its place. Also, the Skye Terrier had been bred primarily for appearance and as a companion animal for so long, that by this point hunters and farmers preferred other terrier breeds such as the Patterdale Terrier and the Jack Russell Terrier for working roles. The Skye would, however, remain a common sight in the show ring for many years, both in the United States and the United Kingdom. The American Kennel Club (AKC) first recognized the Skye Terrier in 1887. Up until World War I, the Skye Terrier was considered to be one of the most important of all show dogs in the United States. Rivalries between kennels became especially fierce. However, as the 20th Century wore on, the Skye Terrier became increasingly rare. In 1938, the Skye Terrier Club of America (STCA) was founded to protect the breed which at that point was not unknown to most Americans. The breed’s rarity may have been one of the reasons that Disney did not use the breed when they made their film about Greyfriar’s Bobby in the 1960’s. The United Kennel Club (UKC), which is primarily a registry for working dogs, did not recognize the Skye Terrier until 1993, when the breed was known more for its rarity than almost anything else.
The Skye Terrier has undergone a substantial change in appearance in the 20th Century. Prior to 1900, the majority of Skye Terriers were dropped eared dogs. However, breeders began to prefer the prick-eared dogs and by 1934, the two varieties were no longer allowed to interbreed. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in drop-eared Skye Terriers, which are occasionally still born to litters. Due to a relatively small gene pool, Australian Skye Terriers are particularly prone to being drop-eared.
The Skye Terrier remains a rare breed, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. According to AKC breed registration statistics for 2010, the Skye Terrier ranked 160th in registrations out of 167 recognized breeds, ahead of only seven other breeds. In 2003, the Kennel Club in Britain realized that several native British breeds were in danger of extinction in the United Kingdom. They placed these breeds on a list known as Vulnerable Native Breeds. The Skye Terrier was one of the first dogs placed on the list, and was considered of particular concern as registration numbers had declined by almost 50% in recent years. In fact, many consider the Skye Terrier to be at serious risk of extinction in the United Kingdom, as only 30 puppies were registered in that country as late as 2005. Luckily for the Skye Terrier, this loyal breed has dedicated fanciers and breeders who are devoted to its preservation and protection. Like many breeds, the Skye Terrier is rarely, if ever, used for its original purpose of vermin eradication. Almost all modern day Skye Terriers are either show dogs or companion animals; tasks which these beautiful and loyal dogs are well-suited.
The Skye Terrier has one of the most unique appearances of all terriers. These dogs are long-bodied and short-legged, with prick ears and long flowing hair. As is the case with most terriers, the Skye Terrier is a small dog. The ideal height for males is 10 inches tall at the shoulder, and the ideal height for females is 9½ inches at the shoulder. Breed standards call for the dog to be twice as long as it is tall not counting the tail, meaning that males should be approximately 20 inches long and females should be approximately 19 inches long. The Skye Terrier’s body ends in a medium length tail which is typically held low, and should never be held over the back. Although breed standards do not call for a specific weight, Skye Terriers in good health will usually weight between 19 and 23 pounds.
The Skye Terrier has a very distinctive coat, which it passed on to its descendant the Yorkshire Terrier. The Skye Terrier has the double coat common to most terriers. The undercoat is soft and wooly while the outer coat is hard, straight, flat, and long. This breed has very long fur, which hangs straight down. Sometimes the breed’s fur is so long that it can drag on the ground. The hair of the face is typically longer than that which covers the body, but it still entirely veils the face. Similarly, the ear hair is somewhat shorter, but almost completely hides the ears while clearly showing their outline. The Skye Terrier has a substantial amount of feathering on its tail.
As is common among older dog breeds, the Skye Terrier exhibits a greater range of color patterns than many other dogs. Skye Terriers can be found in black, blue, dark grey, light grey, silver platinum, fawn, and cream. One dog may exhibits several shades of the same color. Some dogs are solid colored, but many are substantially darker on the upper side of the body or have a lighter-colored undercoat. All Skye Terriers should have black ears, muzzles, and tail tips. Some dogs have a small white spot on their chests. As is the case with many breeds, Skye Terrier puppies are typically a very different color than they will be as adults.
Much of the Skye Terriers face is obscured behind its long, flowing fur. Underneath the fur, is a head and muzzle that are considerably longer than those of most terriers, more closely resembling those of a Welsh Corgi. These dogs should always have black noses. The eyes of a Skye Terrier are dark brown, the darker the better. Skye Terriers are known for having long, prick ears which often stand at a slight angle rather than straight up. At one time the majority of Skye Terriers were actually drop-eared dogs, but this trait has largely been bred out. However, some Skye Terriers are still born with drop ears. These dogs are becoming more acceptable to breeders as the Skye Terriers population and gene pool are so small.
The Skye Terrier has the personality typical of a working terrier. These dogs are bold and feisty. Skye Terriers have a well-deserved reputation for intense loyalty. There are few breeds of dogs as devoted to their owners as a Skye Terrier. These dogs do best in small families, and many completely attach themselves to one person at the exclusion of all others. When a Skye Terrier has decided to devote itself to someone, it will be devoted and loyal to that person for the rest of its life to the point that there have been several reports of Skye Terriers dying of grief after the death of an owner. However, these dogs are not the right choice for every owner.
Although noted for being very loving and affectionate with their master, these dogs tend to be reserved with strangers. Many Skye Terriers will be either standoffish or nervous around strangers. If not properly socialized, Skye Terriers have a tendency to become fearful or aggressive with new people. The Skye Terrier is considerably more powerful than most terriers or small companion dogs, and it is therefore especially important to properly socialize them. While Skye Terriers can be properly socialized and trained to accept children, this is not an advisable breed to keep if you have young children. Skye Terriers tend to be very excitable, which can be brought on by the noises children make. Also, as is the case with most terrier breeds, the Skye Terrier has a well-earned reputation for snappiness. These dogs are quicker to react with growling and biting than most if they feel disrespected or in danger.
As could be expected from such a devoted animal, Skye Terriers make peerless watchdogs. There are few breeds which are more suited to alerting their owners of the approach of someone or something new. Despite their diminutive size, these determined and powerful dogs actually make decent guard dogs as well. If you are looking for a small protector, a Skye Terrier may suit you excellently. If you are looking for a dog to take to neighborhood parties which will play with anyone who comes along, you should probably look for a different breed.
Most Skye Terriers would prefer to be either a family’s only dog or have one canine companion of the opposite sex. Like most terriers, the Skye Terrier is both likely to challenge other dogs regardless of size and to never back down from a challenge. This is especially problematic for the Skye Terrier as these dogs are both small enough as to be likely to suffer serious injury from larger dogs and powerful enough to seriously injure similarly-sized or smaller dogs. Skye Terriers that have been properly socialized and trained will often get along with dogs which they have known for a long time. However, it is probably not advisable to introduce an adult Skye Terrier into a home with other dogs unless that individual Skye Terrier’s history is known. Also, these dogs will sometimes get into scraps with dogs with which they are very familiar. Keeping a female Skye Terrier with another female dog would be asking for trouble, and keeping a male Skye Terrier with another male dog is asking for regular confrontations.
The Skye Terrier should probably not be kept with non-canine pets. These dogs were bred to eradicate vermin, and they were renowned for their ability to do so. Skye Terriers were able to fight and kill animals which were substantial larger than themselves and known for their ferocity such as foxes, badgers, and otters. They have an intense prey drive, and will pursue most animals. When they catch up with their quarry, they have the drive and ability to kill it. This does not mean that a Skye Terrier cannot be trained and socialized to live with a cat, but it must be done when the dog is young. Just remember that a Skye Terrier which lives in complete peace with a cat it has known for years may kill a strange cat with no hesitation.
Skye Terriers are very playful and love the attention of those that they trust. These dogs will gladly take a romp in the yard with their owners. However, this breed does not require a great deal of exercise. A regular walk and plenty of opportunities to play will suit a Skye Terrier. This does not mean that they require no exercise. These dogs must be given regular activity and stimulation. Otherwise, they have a tendency to become nervous, destructive, and sometimes aggressive.
Many people believe that terriers are difficult or even impossible to train. This is not the case. Like most terriers, Skye Terriers are intelligent and highly interested in their masters. If the proper techniques are used, Skye Terriers can be excellently trained, and are capable of competing at high levels of obedience and agility competitions. These dogs do tend to be stubborn. They will not want to do anything unless their owner shows them that it is either to their benefit or that they are serious. As these dogs tend to be very sensitive, it is very important that harsh training techniques such as yelling be avoided. Skye Terriers respond much better to rewards than punishments. A Skye Terrier which has been treated harshly is likely to become fearful and possibly aggressive.
As with most terriers, Skye Terriers are particularly susceptible to a behavioral problem known as Small Dog Syndrome. Small Dog Syndrome occurs when owners fail to discipline a small dog in the same they would a larger dog either because they think they behavior is either cute or not a risk. This often leads to dominant, aggressive, out-of-control little dogs which do not respect anyone. It is important that all owners take charge of all situations to prevent behavioral problems from developing later.
As most would assume from looking at the coat of a Skye Terrier, these are not low maintenance dogs. However, their coats require substantially less attention than those of most terriers. These dogs must have their coats regularly and thoroughly brushed, otherwise they will mat. Many owners of Skye Terriers choose to do any grooming themselves, although others decide to have their dogs professionally groomed. Although the coats of Skye Terriers do not require cutting, many owners choose to do so in order to reduce the maintenance. Skye Terriers are considered average shedders. Owners will probably not be constantly covered in dog hair, but if someone in the household is either an allergy sufferer or someone who cannot stand the thought of dog hair on their furniture another breed should be considered.
Skye Terriers are generally healthy dogs, with average life expectancies of between 11 and 15 years. Studies have indicated that mammary cancer is the leading cause of Skye Terrier death. These dogs were bred for a specific purpose for hundreds of years. The scarcity of resources meant that dogs which in poor health would probably have been euthanized and certainly not allowed to breed. As the breed has been rare for most of the past century, the Skye Terrier has been spared the questionable breeding practices which have proven so damaging to many dogs. This does not mean that the Skye Terrier is immune from genetic disorders; it just means that not many are more common in this breed than others.
The most common problems found in Skye Terriers revolve around the breed’s elongated back and short legs. Degenerative disc disease can result in back injuries and chronic pain. As many as one in ten Skye Terriers suffer from this condition. One preventable skeletal condition that Skye Terriers have been known to suffer from is known as Puppy Limp or Skye Limp. This condition is caused by dogs which have been over exercised at too young of an age and results in badly bowed legs, limping, pain, and sometimes lameness. Skye Terriers should have their level of activity closely monitored until the age of at least eight months, and should be prevented from excessive running, climbing, jumping, and even long walks.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
Overall, some of the health conditions which the Skye Terrier has been known to suffer from include:
Degenerative Disc Disease
Puppy Limp or Skye Limp