The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is a general-purpose terrier originally developed in Ireland. Although only recently formally recognized, this breed is quite possibly the oldest of all Irish breeds. Although clearly a member of the Terrier family, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is most well-known for the differences between it and other members of that group, especially its soft coat and more easy-going personality. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is sometimes referred to as the Poor Man’s Wolfhound, Irish Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, Wheaten Terrier, Wheaten, and Wheatie.
Very little is known with certainty about the early history of the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, other than this dog was developed hundreds of years ago, in a time when next to nothing was recorded about dog breeding. Additionally, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier was primarily kept by poor farmers, many of whom were illiterate. What is known for certain is that the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier was developed in Ireland and that it was the dog of rural farmers.
The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is universally regarded as a Terrier, a group of breeds which were originally native to the British Isles but have since spread across the world. Essentially nothing is known about the development of Terriers, but these breeds are certainly very old. The English word Terrier comes from the Latin and French words terrarius and terre, both of which mean, “Earth,” or, “Ground.” The original meaning of Terrier roughly meant, “One who goes to ground.” This describes the primary historic use of smaller Terriers, which was to pursue small mammals such as badgers and foxes into their burrows. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest surviving written usage of the word Terrier comes from 1440, implying that these dogs were already well-established in the British Isles at that time. In fact, most experts believe that these dogs are considerably older, perhaps several thousand years older.
In the First Century A.D., the Roman Empire conquered what is now England and Wales. Even at that ancient time, the British were regarded as some of the world’s greatest dog breeders, and dogs would become one of Britain’s primary exports for the remainder of the Roman Period. Although the Pugnaces Britanniae (a massive war dog thought to be either the Mastiff or Irish Wolfhound) was the most famous of these exports, smaller hunting dogs were just as valued. Despite a lack of documentation from this early period to provide descriptions of these dogs, most experts believe that they were Terrier-type dogs; a contention that archaeological evidence seems to support. In order to defend their holdings in the South from Pictish and Gaelic raiders in what is now Scotland, the Roman Emperor Hadrian constructed Hadrian’s Wall to serve as a border. Excavations from a Roman settlement just south of the Wall included remains of two distinct types/breeds of dogs. One was a fleet-footed coursing dog similar to a modern Whippet, and the other was a long-bodied and short-legged dog similar to a modern Dachshund or Skye Terrier. These remains seem to indicate that Terriers were already serving their primary purpose two thousand years ago. A sight hound or scent hound would locate the prey and chase it until it disappeared down its burrow, and then a short and fierce terrier would be sent down to dispatch the creature and either bring it back to the surface or wait for its master to dig it out. It is unclear how the early residents of the British Isles developed the first Terriers, but they may have been closely related to the Canis Segusius, a wire-coated hunting dog owned by the Celts of Gaul (modern day France and Belgium).
However and whenever the first Terriers were developed, they have served as general purpose farm dogs in the British Isles ever since. Although found on both Great Britain and Ireland, Terriers served slightly different roles in each location. In Great Britain, Terriers became more specialized and were largely dedicated to vermin eradication and small mammal hunting, tasks at which they excelled. In Ireland, Terriers remained more generalized and capable of performing a number of tasks very well, although none at quite the level of the Anglo-Scottish dogs. These differences may be the result of different economic conditions, different available dogs, local preferences, or some combination thereof. Whatever the reason, Irish farmers used their Terriers for a variety of purposes, including vermin eradication, herding sheep, driving cattle, hunting, property guarding, and companionship. The development of Terriers in Ireland was substantially influenced by English edicts pertaining to the island’s dogs. The Irish peasantry was not allowed to own any dog over 19 inches tall at the shoulder, nor was it legal for them to own any dog valued at more than five pounds. Dog ownership was also heavily taxed; the proof that the tax was paid was that the dog’s tail was docked. As a result of these restrictions, the Terriers of Ireland were bred to be small or medium-sized with naturally short or artificially docked tails. Additionally according to The Dogs of Ireland (1949) by Anna Redlich, in 1698 the law of William III stated, "only persons owning an estate of freehold of the yearly value of 40 pounds, at least, or a personal estate of 1,000 pounds shall keep any hound, beagle, greyhound, or land-spaniel other than whelps under the age of twelve months." It should be noted that 'Terrier' was not mentioned and although the fanciful sporting dogs would be reserved for the gentry, laws such as this would cement the Terriers role as the dog of the poor man.
Because of economic conditions in the county as well as cultural preferences, Terriers in Ireland enjoyed a great deal of freedom. These dogs largely lived free of fences, and could wander wherever they liked. Although they were fed, natural selection also played a role in their development as they also were responsible for providing a significant amount of their own food through scavenging and hunting. These dogs also largely chose their own mates during their wanderings. Which resulted in the creation of dogs that were quite hardy and well-adapted. These dogs were not breeds in the modern sense, but rather a number of distinctive landraces. At some point, a group of long-legged Terriers was developed that was better suited to a variety of jobs than shorter-legged dogs. After which these long-legged terriers could be found throughout Ireland, but were especially common in the region of Munster, located in Ireland’s southeastern corner. These longer-legged dogs may have been bred up in size from shorter terriers, or they may have been the result of crossing Terriers with other dogs. It has frequently been suggested that the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is the result of crossing Terriers with Spaniels, Poodles, Irish Wolfhounds, or even Spanish dogs that survived the sinking of the Spanish Armada. Unfortunately, unless more information comes to light, the truth will probably never be known.
The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier begins to enter the written record during the 1700’s, and it was apparently quite common in Ireland at the time. Most experts believe that the reason that the dog was first written about in the 1700’s was that was when literacy first became common in Ireland, not because that was when the breed was developed. Many believe that the breed is substantially older, and was developed sometime between 500 A.D. and 1600 A.D., but that is little more than pure speculation. Regardless of its actual age, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is almost certainly the oldest or second oldest breed native to Ireland, depending on whether or not the Irish Wolfhound is considered a restoration or a recreation. Farmers across Ireland used the dog for essentially any task that needed doing. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier killed rats and mice that threatened crops, herded livestock, drove cattle from the farm to the market, located and sometimes killed small rabbits, foxes, and other game on illicit hunts, and protected their homes and families at night. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier was so popular that it was used to develop other dogs. The Irish Terrier was probably developed from the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, and the Kerry Blue Terrier almost certainly was. In Great Britain, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier was probably used in the development of the Glen of Imaal Terrier.
During the 1700’s, English Foxhound breeders began to keep studbooks of their dogs and started forming clubs. These developments would later lead to the creation of kennel clubs and dog shows. Gradually, breeders across the British Isles worked to standardize the many localized varieties and enter them in the show ring. Organized breeding programs were started for both the Irish Terrier and the Kerry Blue Terrier. However, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier remained almost exclusively a working dog, and its owners (most of whom were poor farmers and fishermen) showed little interest in standardizing the breed or entering it in dog shows. This began to change in the early 1900’s and by 1937, the breed was granted formal recognition with the Irish Kennel Club. On Saint Patrick’s Day of that year, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier made its first appearance in a dog show in Dublin.
In 1946, Lynda Vogles of Springfield, Massachusetts imported a litter of six Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier puppies to the United States. These were the first known breed members to arrive in the New World, and were first exhibited at Westminster the following year. Although these dogs produced at least 17 known offspring, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier did not become established in the United States until 1957. In that year, the Gramachree Kennel of New York, owned by the O’Connor family, and the Sunset Hills Kennel of Connecticut, owned by the Arnold family, began seriously and regularly competing in the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Miscellaneous Class. The O’Connors and the Arnolds are largely credited with the establishment of the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier in the United States, and the descendants of their dogs have remained influential in the modern breed. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America (SCWTCA) was founded in 1962 to promote and protect the breeding of these dogs. The beautiful appearance and charming nature of these dogs quickly earned the breed many fanciers and within 10 years there were over 1,000 breed members registered with the SCWTCA and more than 500 fanciers seeking full AKC recognition. In 1973, the AKC granted full recognition to the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier as a member of the Terrier Group, and the first conformation champion was crowned a few days later. In 1978, the United Kennel Club (UKC) followed the AKC’s suit and also granted full recognition to the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier.
Since its recognition with the AKC, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier has slowly grown in popularity in America. In 2010, the breed ranked 59th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations. This rise in popularity is due almost entirely to word of mouth and personal contact, as the breed has a low public profile and is surprisingly unknown for a breed with this level of popularity. Although bred almost entirely as a working dog well into the 20th Century, the vast majority (essentially all) of Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers are now primarily companion dogs, where the breed’s future likely lies. However, this dog retains a great deal of working ability and competes very successfully at a number of canine events such as obedience and agility trials, and a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier recently earned the breed’s first AKC herding title.
The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is something of an enigma, it clearly looks like a Terrier, but it is very different than any other Terrier at the same time. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is the epitome of a medium-sized dog. Males typically stand between 18 and 19 inches tall at the shoulder and weight between 35 and 45 pounds. The smaller females typically stand between 17 and 18 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 30 and 40 pounds. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is a squarely built dog, roughly as tall as it is long. Most of this breed’s body is obscured by hair but underneath is a sturdy and hardy dog that is more athletic than it is stocky. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier traditionally has its tail docked to two-thirds of its natural length, but this practice is increasingly disfavored and actually banned in some countries. The natural tail of this breed is still fairly short, although usually somewhat curved. Both natural and docked tails are carried upright over the body.
The head and face of the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier are largely obscured by the breed’s hair, which is especially prominent on the face. The head of this breed is proportionate to the size of the dog, but is somewhat long. The muzzle and head should be roughly equal in length, giving the impression of power but not coarseness. The muzzle should end in a large, black nose and have tight-fitting, black lips. The eyes are dark-colored, and not prominent. When in a show cut, the eyes of the Soft-Coated Terrier are often hidden behind its fur, but this is not the case with most pet dogs. The ears of this breed are small to medium in size. They should fold down and face slightly forwards. The overall expression of the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is usually alert, intelligent, and friendly.
The coat of the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is the breed’s defining and most important characteristic. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is covered in a single coat of abundant hair. The coat naturally grows to roughly the same length all over the body, including the head and legs. The hair on the head slopes forwards, covering the eyes. The coat has a soft, silky texture and usually has a slight wave. The hair of puppies is usually straighter, with the wave forming later. Most owners of Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers choose to have their dogs trimmed into short and manageably puppy cuts, often leaving the hair longer on the head and legs. These cuts often leave a beard and mustache at the end of the muzzle. In order to be exhibited, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier must be kept in a unique show cut.
According to the AKC standard, “For show purposes, the Wheaten is presented to show a terrier outline, but coat must be of sufficient length to flow when the dog is in motion. The coat must never be clipped or plucked. Sharp contrasts or stylizations must be avoided. Head coat should be blended to present a rectangular outline. Eyes should be indicated but never fully exposed. Ears should be relieved of fringe, but not taken down to the leather. Sufficient coat must be left on skull, cheeks, neck and tail to balance the proper length of body coat. Per the standard
As its name suggests, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier comes in one color, solid wheaten. The dog is generally solid colored, but may have a few scattered hairs of red, white, or black. The color of the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier only comes in with age. Most puppies are born substantially darker than adults (and are sometimes even grey or red), and often have dark masks over their muzzles. The wheaten color comes with age, but usually goes through a period in adolescence where it is substantially darker than those of adult dogs.
The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is well-known for having the eagerness and energy of a Terrier, but with a considerably softer and less aggressive temperament. This breed is very people-oriented. Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers want to be with their families at all times, and do very poorly if left alone for long hours. This breed is known to suffer from very severe separation anxiety. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is one of the Terriers that is least likely to become a one-person dog, and most will form equally strong bonds with all members of a family. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is one of the most openly affectionate of all dogs, and is a major licker. This breed is well-known for leaping to lick faces constantly, which can become extremely irritating to some individuals.
Unlike most Terriers, most Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers are extremely friendly. This breed tends to think of everyone as a potential friend and greets all comers warmly and excitedly. In fact, one of the breed’s most common behavioral problems is inappropriate greeting, and these dogs often jump straight into a visitor’s face. Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers are very alert and will alert their owners to the approach of a visitor. However, this alert is more of an announcement that someone has come to play with them than it is a warning. Few breeds are as ill-suited to life as a guard dog as a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier as most of these dogs would lick a robber’s face and then happily follow him home before they would ever show aggression.
The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is one of the few Terrier breeds that has a good reputation with children. When properly socialized with them, most Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers are very tolerant of and playful with children. Many of these dogs are just as friendly with children as they are with adults. However, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier puppies may not be the best housemates for very young children, as they have a tendency to bowl over toddlers in their youthful exuberance.
The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier has perhaps the best reputation with other animals of any Terrier, but it has a somewhat mixed reputation with them. This breed is probably the least dog aggressive of any Terrier, and with proper training and socialization most breed members will get along with other dogs with few problems. Same-sex aggression is a problem for many breed members, and this breed is ideally kept with members of the opposite sex. Owners do have to be aware that although the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier rarely goes looking for trouble, it is still a Terrier and is more than willing to scrap if a confrontation comes its way. Although generally good with dogs and people, this breed is generally not good with other animals. Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers have a very, very strong prey drive and will chase virtually anything that moves (and kill it once caught). If left alone in a yard, this breed will probably bring its owner home “presents” of dead animals. Most Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers will be fine with cats that they are raised with, but some are never entirely trustworthy around them.
As is the case with most Terriers, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier can prove very difficult to train. This breed is regarded as quite intelligent and learns very quickly. However, they tend to be quite stubborn. These dogs don’t live to please and have a, “What’s in it for me?” attitude towards training. For this reason, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers respond much better to rewards-based training methods than correction-based ones. Owners must spend extra time and effort, and show greater patience with Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers than they would with most other breeds. That being said, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier is definitely one of the most trainable of all Terriers, and can become very well-trained. Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers have competed very successfully at a number of canine events such as obedience competitions and agility trials, although not necessarily at the very highest levels.
There is one training area where Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers provide special difficulties. These dogs have such a strong urge to chase that they are virtually impossible to call back once they begin a pursuit. Because of this, even the best-trained breed members must be kept on a leash at all times when outside of a securely enclosed area. For similar reasons, any enclosure which contains a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier must be very secure. This dog is an accomplished and intelligent escape artist that will go out into the world on its own given any opportunity. This is a special problem because this breed has a very strong urge to roam.
The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier has sizable exercise requirements, but not extreme ones. This breed is very, very high energy and absolutely needs an outlet to release it. This is not a dog that will be satisfied with a couple of potty walks, instead requiring a fair amount of vigorous daily exercise. Although not a breed that needs constant activity, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers are capable and willing to take any that is provided them. Without the proper exercise, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers often develop serious behavioral problems such as excessive barking, destructiveness, nervousness, hyperactivity, and over excitability. Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers also greatly enjoy working their intelligent and inquisitive minds, and prefer to have some amount of goal-oriented exercise. All that being said, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers do not have anywhere near exercise needs of a breed such as a Border Collie or Jack Russell Terrier, and most reasonably active families will be able to meet their needs without too much difficulty. Although Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers prefer to have a yard, this breed adapts very well to apartment life with proper exercise.
This breed is known to make an excellent house pet, but potential owners need to be aware that this is a very “doggy” dog. Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers love to run around outside, sometimes in the mud. This is a breed that will track dirt and grime into the house, a problem heightened by its easily-dirtied coat. This breed loves to dig holes, and can easily destroy an entire yard. Many Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers bark a great deal, although they do tend to be quieter than other Terriers. These dogs chase squirrels and pull on leash. Potential owners looking a calm, aristocratic, or dainty dog are advised to consider other breeds.
The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier has very extensive grooming requirements. This breed needs frequent and thorough brushing, ideally on a daily basis. Owners will have to dedicate a substantial amount of time to coat maintenance. Breed members require very frequent baths because their soft coats trap almost any type of grime and particle, and their light color means that everything shows up clearly. Keeping a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier in show coat requires several hours of work each week. To prevent massive care requirements, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers should go to the groomer every six to eight weeks. However, even professionally groomed dogs still need regular brushing and other routine maintenance procedures such as nail clipping and teeth brushing. Owners unable or unwilling to properly maintain this dog’s coat should not acquire one.
Although their coats require substantial maintenance, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers make up for it with very little shedding. This breed does shed, but so little as to be almost unnoticeable. No dog breed is truly hypoallergenic (most people are allergic to a dog’s skin, not its hair), but most allergy sufferers have far fewer problems with Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers than other breeds.
Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers are a generally healthy breed, and most breed members are considerably healthier than many other pure bred dogs. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier tends to be a very long lived breed, especially for a dog of this size. The average life expectancy for a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier in the United States is between 12 and 14 years of age. Despite this generally good health, several major health problems have been indentified in Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers in recent years. Because they have only been identified within the last 20 or so years, it is unclear exactly how common that they are in the breed, but appear to be fairly rare.
Two of the most serious conditions identified in Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers are protein-losing nephropathy (PLN) and protein-losing enteropathy (PLE). PLN involves the loss of protein through the kidney, while PLE involves the loss of protein through the intestines. Both of these conditions are often fatal but if caught early enough may be treated by medication and diet. Diagnosis of these diseases is very complex, and both are quite rare. This means that veterinarians unfamiliar with Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers often misdiagnose them. The inheritance of these conditions is not understood at this time, and there is no test. This has hampered the efforts of breeders to eliminate them from their lines, but efforts are being made.
Because skeletal and visual problems have been known to occur in this breed, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring. It is highly advisable to request that breeders show any OFA and CERF documentation that they have on a puppy or its parents, which essentially all reputable breeders will have.
A full list of health problems which have been identified in the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier would have to include: