Terriers are a group of dogs descended from dogs bred to hunt rats and other pests. Terriers continue to be working dogs in many places, but they’re also very popular as pets.
If you want a family dog with a distinctive appearance and a whole lot of personality, a terrier might be just the pet for you. Because of their energy and feistiness, however, terriers need a lot of exercise and patient discipline.
Their name comes from the French verb “terrier,” meaning “to dig” or “to burrow.” They got this name because they were initially bred to dig into the dens of animals such as rats, moles, and foxes.
The terrier group comprises over 30 different types of terriers, ranging from tiny toy breeds to the majestic Airedale. There’s a lot of variety to love!
However, all terriers do have certain traits in common. They’re athletic, energetic dogs that have minds of their own.
Terriers are bred for a quality called “gameness,” which means that they don’t give in to fear or pain. Terriers are courageous, spirited, determined dogs, but they can also be stubborn.
Terriers are charming, loving dogs, and they’re fiercely loyal to their families.
Terrier aficionados group the many breeds of terriers into five general groups based on their histories and bloodlines and the jobs they were raised to do.
The Hunting Group
Hunting terriers were bred to track and trap prey, and many are still used as working dogs, continuing to do so today. They are especially renowned in fox-hunting.
Whereas hunting hounds are primarily used to track animals that run or hide in trees, hunting terriers specialize in hunting down burrowing animals. They can chase such animals right into their dens and trap them there or chase them out for hunters to catch them.
This group includes the Jack Russell Terrier, the Jagdterrier, and the Rat Terrier.
The Short-Legged Group
These are also hunting dogs but of a more specialized type. Whereas breeds like the Jack Russell Terrier are ideally suited to run down prey that both flee and burrows, such as foxes, these dogs are ideal for digging up prey that goes to ground and defends their burrows, such as badgers.
Badgers are tough, stubborn animals and world-class diggers, and the dogs bred to hunt them have to be able to match these qualities. Short-legged terriers tend to be even more confident, aggressive and stubborn than most terriers.
This group includes the Cairn Terrier, the West Highland White Terrier, and the Scottish Terrier (or “Scottie.”)
The Bull-Terrier Group
The bull-terrier or “bull and terrier” group is so-called because they originate from nineteenth-century breeders combining terriers with bulldogs. This mix created powerful, agile, courageous dogs.
Unfortunately, these dogs were ideal for bloodsports, and the bull terrier got a reputation as a champion of the dogfighting rings – a “pit bull.” Even today, animal abusers often target these dogs, trying to make vicious fighters out of them.
By the way, in case you were wondering about the American Bulldog vs Pitbull debate, we’ve covered that in a separate post.
But that’s not the bull terrier’s fault! When raised in a loving home, they are perfectly safe and make excellent family dogs. Many rescue dogs recovered from abusive fighting rings have become gentle and loving companions.
However, this bad reputation has “dogged” these breeds, and some parks, apartment complexes, and homeowner’s associations prohibit them. Make sure that you check before you adopt!
This group includes the Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
The Toy Group
Toy terriers have been bred for small size and may weigh as little as two pounds. This makes them suitable for owners who have limited space.
However, despite the name, these dogs are not toys! They retain the typical terrier energy and stubbornness – don’t expect them to sit passively on your lap all day.
This group includes the English Toy Terrier and the Yorkshire Terrier.
Types of Terriers – The Popular Breeds
There are a lot of breeds of Terrier, and dog breeders are already working to develop more.
The AKC recognizes 30 breeds of Terrier, and the UK Kennel Club recognizes 44! Here are some of the most popular Terrier breeds:
The Airedale Terrier
The Airedale is known as the “king of terriers.” This large, handsome dog is the largest terrier breed, weighing as much as 70 pounds.
Airedales are powerful and loyal dogs and make suitable protectors. But like all terriers, they need a lot of exercise, and because of their size they need a lot of room.
The American Hairless Terrier
The American Hairless was bred in Louisiana from the Rat Terrier. These dogs are typical of terriers in their athleticism, energy, and aggressive character.
Their lack of fur makes them hypoallergenic and ideal for households that have individuals allergic to dog hair. However, it also makes the American Hairless vulnerable to cold and sunburn, so special care is needed.
The American Staffordshire Terrier
The American Staffordshire Terrier is also called a “Staffie” or “AmStaff.” This is a popular breed that excites strong feelings.
AmStaffs are part of the bull-and-terrier group – powerful, courageous, athletic dogs which have unfortunately often been used in dogfighting rings. Because of this, some people consider them “pit bulls” and are wary of them.
But these dogs are naturally intelligent, loyal, and eager to please. These traits make them among the most easily trained of all breeds.
Despite their fearsome reputation, Staffies are not considered ideal guard dogs, as they are too friendly towards strangers!
The Australian Terrier
The Australian Terrier is a smaller terrier breed, only about 15-20 pounds, but they’re known for their outsized personalities. They are known to be tough, spirited, loyal dogs.
The Australian’s intelligence and loyalty, along with its small size, have led to its being regarded as a great pet for children.
The Border Terrier
The Border Terrier is another small breed distinguished by its relatively long legs compared to other small terriers and by its distinctively-shaped “otter head.”
Although its toughness is legendary, the Border Terrier has a more laid-back temperament than most terriers. They’re less excitable and more eager to please.
The Border Terrier adapts well to children, other dogs, and city life. However, they still need plenty of exercises, and their strong hunting instincts make them inclined to chase cats and small animals.
The Bull Terrier
Like the Staffie, the Bull Terrier is part of the bull-and-terrier group, misunderstood and feared as “pit bulls,” but gentle and devoted family companions.
Crossing terriers bred them with bulldogs, and they’re muscular, athletic dogs with deep chests and strong jaws. Despite their generic name, they can easily be distinguished from other bull-terrier breeds by their unique “egg-shaped” heads.
Like all terriers, the Bull Terrier is energetic and can be stubborn, but these dogs love people and are known for their devotion and their “clowning” behavior.
The Irish Terrier
These are slightly larger dogs and are known for being good companions, easy to train, and highly affectionate. They have boundless energy and need plenty of exercise. They’re not very suitable for close confined dwellings like small apartments.
The Irish Terrier breed is said to be courageous and protective. They’re quite an old breed. They are natural hunters and have an instinct to chase down vermin. Irish Terriers are great with children.
The Jack Russell Terrier
This beloved breed is known for packing a big personality into a tiny frame. Jack Russells are small and adorable, but their strong personalities may be too much for an inexperienced dog owner.
For the owner who knows how to handle them, these active, intelligent, confident dogs are delightful companions. But they require plenty of exercise and a firm hand, or they can become territorial and domineering.
The Scottish Terrier
The Scottish Terrier, or “Scottie,” is distinguished even among terriers for its toughness, feistiness, and colorful personality. They are a symbol of national pride in Scotland, known as “the Diehard.”
Like Border Terriers, Scotties adapt well to urban life but have a strong prey drive, and when outdoors, the owner should keep them on a leash. They get along with families, but they have a reputation as a “one-person dog.”
The Scottish Terrier has a delightfully distinctive face, with a pronounced mustache, beard, and eyebrows.
The Yorkshire Terrier
Yorkshire Terriers, or “Yorkies,” are one of the “toy” breeds, known for their diminutive size (under 7 pounds!) and long, silky coats.
Despite their size and plush appearance, these dogs are not toys! They are still terriers, intelligent and strong-willed animals. They require the same patient and consistent discipline as any other energetic dog.
When properly trained, Yorkies make lovely companions and watchdogs. However, due to their eagerness to take control, they are not recommended for households with small children.
Because they often suffer from separation anxiety, Yorkie owners often own two, rather than leaving one at home alone.
Is a Terrier the Right Dog for Me?
Terriers are energetic, intelligent dogs with a feisty spirit and a ton of personality. They make excellent pets and companions – if you can handle them!
Every dog owner needs to provide exercise and discipline as well as affection. This is even more true for terriers. But if you can do it, you may find terriers are some of the best pets out there!