The Otter Head | Hallmark of the Border Terrier

Border Terrier

The Otter Head | Hallmark of the Border TerrierThe look and shape of the head distinguishes the Border Terrier from other Terriers and is a hallmark of the breed. Specifically, the breed standard twice references the otter head and devotes considerable detail to the features of the head as they embody the look of an otter. In fact, while the Border is most decidedly a working Terrier, the scale of points in the official breed standard allots a full twenty (20) out of a possible one hundred (100) points to the “head, ears, neck and teeth.” “Eyes and expression” are valued at another ten (10) points. Collectively, this ascribes a full thirty (30) points to the head of a Border out of one hundred (100) points. This equates to a 30% emphasis on the distinctive otter-like head and expression in the breed
standard’s judging scale. The Border Terrier is, in all things, a moderate breed. While definitely not considered a “head” breed by breeders, the distinguishing features of the head are critical to maintaining breed type. The characteristic otter head, with its keen eye (combined with a body poise that is “at the alert”), gives a look of fearless and implacable determination that is characteristic of the breed and is highly valued by breeders.

Border Terrier


The Otter Head | Hallmark of the Border Terrier
Lutra lutra, the River Otter. Photo courtesy of Graham William Hughes. (Special thank you to Dawn Bladen.)

The Border Terrier Club of America (BTCA) offers a Best Otter Head class at each national specialty, and many regional clubs at hosted specialties follow suit. Although a non-regular class, it is a fiercely competitive one for breeders and owners. To win Best Otter Head is, indeed, cause for celebration. At the national specialty, the award initially known as the Dandyhow Quaich Best Otter Head Trophy was first offered in 1993. Upon completion of regular conformation judging, an always large entry of dogs graces the ring where breeders proudly hold their dogs up as the judge walks round, examining each head, looking for the flat planes, well-set eyes, moderate stop, and keen expression that is most like that of an otter. The ring is always full and, as the judge makes cut after cut, finally, the dog with the head most “like that of an otter” is chosen. You can hear a pin drop. When a winner is named, the rousing cheers and congratulations often inspire Terriers throughout the venue to give voice to the occasion. It is a unique class that highlights the value that breeders place on that characteristic otter-like head.


The Otter Head | Hallmark of the Border Terrier
GCHP Meadowlake Dark Side of The Moon, winner of 2015, 2016, 2017, & 2018 National Specialty Best Otter Head awards and numerous regional club specialty show Best Otter Head awards. Photo courtesy of Christina Freitag. (Special thank you to Karen Fitzpatrick & Simon Simaan.)

When judging a Border head in profile or from the front, you should be able to see that it is not excessively broad or coarse. The breed standard states that the skull is “moderately broad and flat in skull with plenty of width between the eyes and ears.” In terms of proportion, the Border head should be 2/3 from the occiput to the stop, and 1/3 from the stop to the nose. These proportions allow all of the features of the head, from eyes to teeth, to be properly placed to ensure that “ottery” look. If the proportions go off, then the head starts to look less like an otter and more generic. The head of a Border isn’t to be cute, round, houndy or even doggy. It must, instead, invoke the image of an otter.



The Otter Head | Hallmark of the Border Terrier
Dandyhow Quaich Best Otter Head Trophy. CH Kevrah Star Gazer. Best Otter Head 2010 National Specialty. Photographer Kenneth Reed. (Special thank you to Deborah Lawton.)

To attain a head that is more similar to the head of another species than it is to the head of any other dog, the width and breadth of the skull should carry through below the eyes, making room for large, punishing, and effective teeth that meet in a scissors bite. The cheeks should be slightly full and flow smoothly into a short, well-filled muzzle. The muzzle itself should be strong and in proportion to the overall head. The mouth of a Border is a formidable weapon and the teeth are large in proportion to the size of the dog. The stop on a Border should always be moderate, with little drop-off. There should not be a pronounced stop or room for a “thumbprint,” nor should there be zero stop or the flat plane seen in some other Terriers. The overall look of a Border is always that of moderation, and each feature flows smoothly and without sharp angles into the next. Ears are V-shaped and drop close to the cheeks to protect the inner ear when the dog is working. They should not be set-on too high or break above the line of the skull. Thin-leathered, fly-away ears or round and heavy, hound-like ears are incorrect. The entire picture should project the look of an otter with no exaggeration of proportions. The eyes should be dark hazel, full of fire and intelligence, and not bulging or prominent, or small and beady. The black nose is of good size in proportion to the dog.

Border Terrier
CH Kevrah Star Gazer. Best Otter Head 2010 National Specialty. Photographer Kenneth Reed. (Special thank you to Deborah Lawton.)

Each of these components are grounded in a functional purpose. The smooth planes and eye set are protective and useful underground in the pursuit of quarry. The muzzle and skull, which accommodate those large teeth, have the substance to get the job done. Too much of any one component and the functionality of the head at work is compromised. A too short muzzle with pronounced stop will not afford space for proper dentition, nor will it provide the leverage to perform against formidable quarry or permit optimal subterranean breathing. A too long muzzle can result in less cheek and jaw power, weaker backskull and, potentially, a higher ear set, which results in less efficiency and protection for the dog. Both examples, or any extreme for that matter, lessen the functionality of a Border. Despite the emphasis on the otter-like look, it is far more than appearance for the sake of aesthetics. Each individual attribute has a purpose and use underground or in the field, and when those individual parts come together in the right proportions and in moderation, the head truly does resemble that of an otter.


Border Terrier
The Border Terrier Illustrated Standard, The Border Terrier Club of America, Inc., 2002, with author emphasis added to show the 1/3 to 2/3 ratio of skull to muzzle.

While breeders the world over engage in animated discussions about the historical connection to the river otter, Lutra lutra, found in the rivers and streams in the region of origin, the variety of otter is not specified in the standard. Fortunately, this oversight does not require one to possess a license in otter judging in order to properly evaluate a Border head. Although there are, undoubtedly, differences between the varieties of otters, all otters have a moderately broad, flat skull with good width between the eyes. They look “varminty” and, when swimming with their head breaking the surface of the water, the heads of all otters bear a striking resemblance to one another. Thus too, the head of a correct Border possesses the proportions, planes, angles, fill, ears, moderate stop, and keen eyes that make one immediately think of an otter. A dog show judge must be able to recognize these unique features when evaluating the Border Terrier. With the head of a different species as a reference point versus that of another breed of dog, it is important to reward the qualities that define an otter-like head when evaluating the Border Terrier. In doing so, you will earn the respect of Border Terrier breeders and show a true understanding of the standard.

The Otter Head | Hallmark of the Border Terrier
Esteemed UK Breeder-Judge Ronnie Irving awarding Best Otter Head at the 2011 National Specialty to CH. Foxbolt Blue Bayou and Lyn Stahl Bolt.
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