The Fox Terrier

Happy Go Lucky Dogs With A Talent For Mischief


"The terrier should be alert, quick of movement, keen of expression, on the tip-toe of expectation at the slightest provocation." So begins the official standard for the Wire Fox Terrier, and the description is apt for this bright, energetic, bossy little dog.

Like most terriers, the Wire Fox Terrier and his cousin the Smooth Fox Terrier developed in the British Isles. His name describes his job; he was carried in saddlebags on the hunt and released when the hounds chased the fox to ground, and he courageously followed the fox into den or through underground rocky passages.

Terriers have an ancient history. Found in Britain by invading Romans, they are mentioned in the "Natural History" of Pliny the Elder in 55 BC, and their jobs have been well-defined for centuries. As a group, terriers are scrappy, independent, fearless, and blessed with a joy for life. Add a sense of humor, a talent for mischief, and an insatiable curiosity to complete the character of both fox terriers.

Smooth Fox Terrier

The Smooth Fox Terrier developed earlier than the Wire Fox Terrier and probably came from different stock. The Smooth Fox Terrier may have emerged from various crosses of the Greyhound, Beagle, Bull Terrier, and an old smooth-coated black and tan terrier.

The progenitor of the modern Smooth Fox Terrier is considered to be a dog called Old Jock who was born in 1859 at the Grove Kennel, one of four English foundation kennels for the breed. However, early records were often changed because of feuds and rivalries in the kennel business, and the breed's history is actually quite muddy. Paintings depicted dogs that resembled both fox terriers in the early 18th Century, but the breed club was not established in England for both breeds until 1876. Smooth Fox Terriers entered the US in 1879, followed by Wire Fox Terriers a few years later. Once quite popular here, the Smooth Fox Terrier has declined in celebrity and now ranks in the mid-70s in popularity among the 130-plus AKC breeds.

Wire Fox Terrier

The Wire Fox Terrier probably developed from a rough-coated black and tan working terrier common to Wales and Durham and Derbyshire in England. However, huntsmen wanted a dog that they could distinguish from the fox as they dug into the den where the critter was cornered by the dog, so they cross bred with the Smooth Fox Terrier to fix the predominantly white color. This cross breeding is no longer done, and the Smooth and Wire Fox Terriers are different breeds with different standards.

In spite of the difference in ancestry, the two breeds are remarkably similar in type, size, and temperament. In fact, they were shown under the same standard in the United States until 1984, when the American Kennel Club required approval of separate standards. The major distinction is the coat type.

The Wire Fox Terrier must be professionally groomed to keep his coat in top shape -- unless the owner learns to "strip" and pluck the coat, procedures that require the pulling of individual hairs to remove them. The hair can be clipped, but trimming dulls the color and softens the coat.

Although the Smooth Fox Terrier was Best in Show for the first four years that award was given at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Show, the Wire Fox Terrier has 13 Best in Show wins, more than any other breed. The 1992 Westminster Show was won by the popular female CH Registry's Lonesome Dove, otherwise known as Lacey. Described by the judge as "very animated, on her toes every second," Lacey had the charm and charisma of a winner as she gaited around the ring. The Wire Fox Terrier ranked 48th in popularity among AKC breeds in 1989.

Neither breed is used for hunting foxes or anything else today. However, in an attempt to prove their terrier instincts, many breeders and owners compete in go-to-ground contests. Here the dogs must enter a buried tunnel, scrabble to the end, and attempt to kill a caged quarry such as a rat. The dog must indicate its willingness to catch and kill by barking at the rat and clawing at the cage. The rat is safe in its cage, and the dog is never allowed to harm it.

The standard

The standard for each breed depicts the ideal dog of that breed. The standards for both fox terriers describe a dog that is 15 1/2 inches tall at the withers (the top of the shoulders) and built like a well- balanced hunter with a strong, relatively short back and powerful hindquarters. Both breeds have a relatively long, almost equine head with ears folded forward; a docked tail; and small, compact feet and are predominantly white with patches of black or tan. Brindle (tan stripes on black background or black stripes on tan background), red, or liver markings are discouraged.

The Smooth Fox Terrier has a short, flat coat that is hard in texture, dense, and abundant. The Wire Fox Terrier has a double coat; the outer layer is harsh, wiry, and wavy and is dirt and weather resistant; the under layer is soft and oily, providing insulation and water-proofing. The wiry hair carries onto the head, giving the breed a squarer look and a beard, and down the legs to the feet, providing a heavier-boned look than the Smooth Fox Terrier. As the hair prepares to shed or "blow," its color fades and its texture softens. Proper grooming is critical to maintaining correct coat condition, and poor coat is penalized by judges.


Terriers generally are happy, buoyant, and stubborn, and the fox terriers fit that bill quite well. While these qualities are undoubtedly endearing, they can also be quite frustrating if the dog gets the upper paw in the household. Like all terriers, they like to dig and can quickly tunnel their way under a fence or through a sofa if the spirit moves. Outdoors, they need a fenced yard or a pen.

"Once they get loose, they're gone," said Darline Welsh, breeder of Wire Fox Terriers, "and they don't even say goodbye." Fox terriers are active indoors as well as out. They need tolerant, patient owners with a sense of humor.

"It takes a certain personality to put up with the shenanigans of a Wire Fox Terrier," Welsh said.

Since they were bred to hunt, small animals -- squirrels, rabbits, cats, etc. -- are at risk. A secure fence or dog run is essential; chain link should be sunk into the ground to prevent tunneling underneath. Fox terriers do not know that discretion may be the better part of valor; they back down at nothing, even a dog several times their size. Terriers are expected to show some spunk in the ring -- they are the only breeds encouraged to do so, for without an exhibition of terrier fire, they do not win. Outside the terrier rings at a dog show can be noisy as the dogs challenge each other at the end of their leashes. Handlers of large breeds try to avoid the area, for feisty terriers will harass big dogs without fear.

However, in spite of their peppery character, fox terriers can be wonderful family pets. They enjoy children, they love to play, and their perky attitude brightens the darkest days. Kathy Parrish, owner of several Smooth Fox Terriers, said she likes their cheerful disposition and outgoing personality. "They're fun," she said, "but they're definitely not the dog for everybody."

Obedience training is necessary to teach them who's boss, and a crate is needed for confinement when the family is not home. Both fox terriers enjoy a fair amount of exercise. They can play ball or Frisbee longer than most, and they may get into mischief if their exercise needs are not met. If given enough opportunity for exercise, they can adjust well to apartment living.

Fox terriers are hardy breeds. They suffer little from the genetic diseases that seem to afflict breeds that skyrocket to popularity and become targets for puppy mills and backyard breeders. Some are prone to digestive upsets, some need to have their tonsils removed, and some get thyroid disease, but hip dysplasia and other serious illnesses seem to have passed them by.

Like others in their canine family, the fox terriers can be barkers, and this quality makes them excellent watch dogs--not guard dogs, but alert watchdogs. Their somewhat high-pitched bark can also be quite irritating, so must be taken into consideration when discussing these breeds.


Fox terriers do not shed, and if brushed weekly, they will have no doggy odor. However, something must be done to remove the dead hair in the dog's coat; as with all other hard-coated terriers, that something is to strip the coat down.

"The Wire Fox Terrier is certainly not a wash and wear dog," said breeder Harry Welsh. Show dogs must be stripped bare every six-to-seven months, he said. This means that all the hair must be plucked out so that, when it comes back in over the next three months, the top coat will be wiry and the colors will be bright.

Pets do not need such attention; patches of color in the coat can be kept bright by plucky only those areas and clipping the white areas on the dog. Owners should be careful to choose a groomer who specializes in terriers, for the techniques are different from those used on other dogs.

Finding a puppy

Although they are not immensely popular, fox terriers still fall prey to puppy mill and backyard breeders who care little for the health and temperament of their puppies or the conditions under which their dogs are raised. Puppies purchased from these sources often have temperament and health problems that result in euthanasia, so selection of a breeder is important in getting just the right puppy. Wire Fox Terrier breeders are extremely protective of their breed since overbreeding in the 1930s caused such problems.

Toy Fox Terriers

The Toy Fox Terrier somewhat resembles the Smooth Fox Terrier from which it was developed, but the diminutive pooch has definite differences in appearance. The ears on the Toy Fox Terrier are upright and appear too large for the dog's head, its skull is more rounded with a longer muzzle than that of its larger cousin,its body is proportionally longer, and its tail is shorter.

The Toy Fox Terrier had its beginnings in the runts of litters born to Smooth Fox Terriers on American farms. Favorites as house dogs to keep vermin out of the pantry and entertain the family with their antics, these scrappy little dogs became the foundation of the breed. Toy Fox Terriers inherited the smooth coat that needs little care and the devil-may-care attitude of the larger Smooth Fox Terrier. This is a one-man or one-family dog that does not take well to strangers or small children. Elderly people often enjoy the lively little dogs, for they can be counted on to exercise themselves in the apartment, are good watchdogs, and love to do tricks.

The Toy Fox Terrier weighs three-and-one-half to seven pounds. It is mostly white with black, tan, or black and tan markings. The breed is registered with the United Kennel Club and has not gained acceptance with the American Kennel Club.

Care should be taken to select a responsible breeder, for like all small breeds, the Toy Fox Terrier can be exploited by puppy mills and backyard breeders. Puppies purchased from pet stores can have the same temperament and health problems as any other breed purchased from this source.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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