The Terriers’ Temperament

Photos by Bill Reyna.  Above: Most hunting dogs have a specialized job description. Teamwork is required. A good hunting instinct requires a healthy respect for your teammates regardless of size, appearance or function. From the September 2019 issue of ShowSight. Click to subscribe

This is his right from the ages – the heart-stirring ‘ Yonder he goes!'

Not for the lust of killing, not for the places of pride,

Not for the hate of the hunted we English saddle and ride,

But because in the gift of our fathers the blood in our veins that flows
Must answer for ever and ever the challenge of ‘Yonder he goes

— Will Ogilvie

There are probably few of us, when we got our first Bedlington Terrier, that went out in search of a hunting dog. We all have different reasons that we were attracted to the breed, but here in the US, those that actually hunt Bedlingtons are a rare breed indeed. Not so in the UK and in Europe where Bedlingtons have been hunted on a variety of quarry, some of it legally. Only recently has the Bedlington Terrier Club of America looked back to the roots of the breed in order to preserve the very desirable attributes of the breed and improve upon some of the more frequent shortcomings.

No one argues that the Bedlington Terrier was bred to hunt by both sight and scent. To the west of Northumberland and the Town of Bedlington, in the lakes and fells, foxhunters and Terriermen were developing the Border, Lakeland, Patterdale and Fell Terrier to hunt with the Fell packs and to bolt fox and Badger from their dens amongst the rocky crags and crevices of the fells. Bedlington itself was a mining town and the Beddy was bred for a different kind of hunting and is a generalist, not a specialist. Putting meat in the family pot was a priority and Beddys frequently hunted in trencherfed packs. The Bedlington’s most prevalent use in the UK today is as courser (or lamping) on rabbits.

Below: “Guarding” a hole or burrow is discouraged. One dog will work the hole while others honor that work. In dogs that lack a hunting instinct, this will often produce a kerfluffle.

Almost every discussion of Terriers of every breed or description includes the suggestion they were bred to hunt “vermin.” Cool! But there is no concise definition of species of vermin and one person’s concept of a pest may be another’s idea of a pet. At one time Red Fox and Badger were considered vermin. Coyotes too here in America and Dingos in Australia. Today in Slovakia Bedlingtons hunt underground in huge Badger earths. It is only recently in America that we’ve succeeded in making the Bedlington into a world class ratcatcher. They’re ideally suited for bigger game.

Let’s be crystal clear about this single truth. The words “hunting,” “killing,” and “aggression” are not synonymous. Not yesterday, not today and not anywhere. Only the naïve (or ignorant) would believe differently. Rhodesian Ridgebacks do not kill lions. They find them, trail them and hold them in one place for the hunter. Norwegian Elkhounds do not kill Moose. The field test for that breed is to hold a cow and her calf “at bay” in one place for 90 minutes. In America, foxhunts kill very few foxes. It’s about the hunt and the chase. It is no different with working Terriers where the objective is to either bolt the quarry from the earth or hold it in one place until it can be dug and humanely dispatched. Most Terriers, by definition, were (and many still are) purposely bred to hunt and should be well equipped for the job, both physically and temperamentally. Except in ratting and rabbiting, few Terriers actually kill their quarry themselves.

Professional Huntsmen (those who hunt recognized foxhound packs 3 days a week) have long debated whether a hound hunts better if it is “blooded.” From my point of view I see no difference in performance between hounds that have killed a fox and those that haven’t. The drag hounds that follow a scented rag give equal sport as do the Bloodhounds that hunt the clean boot. A dog will learn to hunt long before it learns to kill.

Few Terriers (or hounds for that matter) hunt alone. It’s a team effort and the lack of sufficient dogs has been the cause of many a blank day. Many foxhunt with 16 ½ couple of hounds (33 of them) and need them all to cover the ground for scent. I like to hunt with eight Terriers for rats in the city and at least 4-6 dogs on bigger quarry in the country. The cooperation and synergy of a working pack develops naturally between the dogs. Given the need for that teamwork there is no room whatsoever for the slightest sign of aggression by any dog against its teammate or a human. In 30 plus years of hunting I have seen no hound fights (in the field) and less than half a dozen Terrier scuffles. With Terriers, we do see most of them “stand up” when they are on lead before hunting starts. (Hey? Wait a minute. Isn’t this the sparring that we reward in the breed ring?) The dogs have a sense of security provided by the lead and handler. Once released and set to work, they are family once again and willingly share the task of hunting and the quarry. Any Bedlington or other breed of Terrier that shows the least bit of aggression toward man or other dog has a very short life span indeed. In AKC Earthdog the penalty is disqualification, in real life hunting it is more severe.

Below: Rat hunting can be a free for all amongst the terrier pack. It’s hard to share quarry and rodent stretching is a frequent pastime. This is dog vs quarry and not dog vs dog. No growls, no aggression, just good genes hard at work.

A hunting background is not now and never has been a factor in aggression, shyness or any other negative temperament issue. Hunting dogs are quick to learn to shift into and out of hunting mode. To the contrary, problematic dogs quickly are culled from the hunt. Many dogs with prior issues become more stable and tractable with a bit of hunting (or even Earthdog) under their belt.

Several years ago I was asked to help write the breed standard for Spanish Water Dogs. Those that owned and bred the relatively small population of foundation stock perceived a problem with over protection and aggression. To find the right approach we went to the breeders in the Belgian breeds who have made good temperaments their goal. They’ve done this by recognizing the problem in certain bloodlines and addressing that problem by public education and selective breeding. No dog should be inherently aggressive. Your own issues may be genetic, acquired, or a combination thereof. Conscientious breeding will eventually solve the problem.

Bedlingtons do have a reputation for being a bit snarkey. My next door neighbor had a Bedlington that was, by any reasonable standard, mean as the dickens. Neither man nor beast was safe from his jaws. (Except me. I guess kindred spirits get along.) The dog came from a very reputable breeder. It was a liver dog and a copper toxicosis carrier. The owners loved the dog, perhaps to a fault. I suspect there was little outside socialization as a puppy and aside from four very long walks each day he led a pretty sheltered existence. A genetic predisposition to aggression combined with acquired social issues is a recipe to avoid. I’ve always felt that temperament problems are at least 50% (or more) acquired and much less a result of breeding, but there are undeniably temperament issues more prevalent in some lines.

Below: Part of the success of our terriers hunting the streets of New York is their interaction with passersby. Hunting terriers are not aggressive toward dog or human and we prove it every day. (Of course we don’t tell them where that mouth has been).

The message here is a plea that you, as breeders, do as others have done and recognize and deal with temperament problems within your bloodlines. Blaming those issues on the evil hunting gene of yore is not only shirking your responsibilities, it displays a total lack of understanding of the instinct, temperament and conformation required for hunting, exact purpose for which your chosen breed was created.

Not everyone is able to go hunting to learn the ins and outs of performance as well as identify the anatomical priorities in the conformation of the breed. Bedlingtons are blessed with one of the best breed standards in existence, but it’s only a blue print. As a breeder, you can have twenty years of experience, or you can have one year of experience 20 times. Temperament issues are real and are a fault. They are not the result of a Terrier bred to hunt, in fact a dog with ANY temperament issues cannot be hunted.

There are several seminars available on structural priorities and hunting Terriers. The published articles are endless. If you learn what goes into a hunt, you will have a leg up in understanding the history of the breed and its genetic building blocks. To get the real story, I will be happy to take any Bedlington breeder or owner on a real life Terrier hunting trip as a participant or merely as an observer in order that everyone is on the same page with respect to the vocation of the Bedlington Terrier. Just let me know when you are coming! 





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