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In 2004, the multifunctional, even-tempered, and powerfully built Glen of Imaal Terrier became part of the AKC registry’s stellar ranks. In doing so, this native Irish breed joined its cousins, the Kerry Blue, Soft Coated Wheaten, and Irish terriers, in the registry.

A Tough Terrain, An Even Tougher Terrier

The Glen of Imaal Terrier is indigenous to the wild, barren region of the same name in the Wicklow Mountains. The region’s farmers developed the breed in the 17th and 18th centuries in this area, located on the eastern seaboard of Ireland. Descended from Flemish and Hessian soldiers given the land in the late 16th century as payment for service to the British Crown, the soldiers had been sent to Ireland to quell rebellion. When the rebels headed for the hills, the military followed. (Queen Elizabeth I’s coffers were nearly empty; her clever solution was to unload what she deemed a worthless tract rather than pay the soldiers with cold, hard cash.) Surviving in this bitter locale required every resource available to farmers, and dogs who couldn’t make themselves useful would not last long.

Mary McDaniel, DVM, of Winter Haven, Florida, who breeds and shows Glens and does judges’ education for the Glen of Imaal Terrier Club of America (GITCA) says, “When they look at this breed, judges should think ‘antique.’ The head should be disproportionately large, and the dogs should look like rough and ready working terriers. There should be the appearance of maximum substance for size and plenty of muscle. They should never be slight or racy.” Though the smallest of the four Irish terrier breeds, the Glen is exceptionally heavy-boned and sturdy. A hallmark of the breed can be found in the opening paragraph of its standard: “Unrefined to this day, the breed still possesses ‘antique’ features once common to many early terrier types ….”

Historical image of Glen of Imaal Terriers at a dog show.
AKC Library & Archives

Says former GITCA president Bruce Sussman, “If you honor that sentence, you can’t go too far wrong. What I love about this breed is that they are living history. In other terrier breeds, over time the topline leveled out, the bowed legs straightened, the ears turned full-drop. This dog is what many terriers once looked like. The Glen still does.” Long and low to the ground, with a powerful head and bowed legs, Glens guarded livestock, hunted badger, fox, and otter, and dispatched vermin of all sorts around the farmstead. Sussman, also a well-known songwriter who co-wrote the Barry Manilow hit “Copacabana,” points out that the Flemish soldiers no doubt brought their low-slung French hounds with them when they settled in Ireland, which they would have crossed with the root stock of the other Irish terriers and Irish Wolfhounds. “As these generations of soldiers became Irish, so did their dogs,” he says.

Like the Sealyham and the Dandie Dinmont terriers, the Glen was purposely developed to be closer to the ground and stockier. This made them optimal badger dogs; their punishing jaws and short-legged bodies enabled them to spar with their stronger, fiercer quarries. When digging, the bowed front legs and tumed-out feet proved ideal for throwing dirt out to the sides, rather than back into the hole. In his 1576 book, The Noble Art of Venerie and Hunting, George Turberville describes two sorts of terriers, one of which had crooked legs and originated from Flanders (or elsewhere in the Low Countries). He wrote: “… Those with the crooked legges will take the earth better than the other, and are better for the badger, because they will lye longer at a vermin.”

Down and Around

Back in the days of badger trials, the Glen—generally known as a silent hunter—worked in conjunction with “sounders” (such as Lakeland and Fox terriers), who would go underground along a tunnel into the den and announce his location by barking. The Glen was the “working” terrier who would then draw out the animal. Any dog in the working set who barked was disqualified. “When they’re working, you don’t hear a sound,” says Anitra Cuneo, of Belle Mead, New Jersey, who has judged Glens. Of the four Irish terrier breeds, only the Glen, an achondroplastic (dwarf) breed, works underground. Before badger trials were outlawed in Ireland in 1966, a dog could earn a conformation championship only after the securing a Teastas Mor, or “Dead Game Certificate” (a field trial certificate), thus ensuring that show dogs could also do their designated job.

This versatility remains vitally important to modern breeders. Former GITCA president Peg Carty, of Staunton, Virginia, has done Earthdog work with canines she co-owns. Carty strives to breed dogs who can do well in the conformation ring without losing the ability to do the job they were bred for. “Because,” she says, “you can lose that in just a generation or two.” She adds, “The goal for us is to keep the Glen in that strata of the AKC registry where Dandies, Sealyhams, and Skyes are. It’s a healthy place for us to be.”

Legend has it that the Glen acted as a “turnspit dog,” paddling a treadmill contraption to turn a spit in the hearth. The Glen’s bowed front legs and powerful hindquar­ters would have made him well-suited to this task. “The so-called turnspit dogs were probably more like proto-Glens, not the dogs we see today,” says Sussman. “It is also more likely that the wheel was not raised above the hearth, as has been depicted in a somewhat fanciful drawing, but rather was a trestle on the floor, which was probably used to chum butter.”

Typical Irish Glen Terrier in the spring garden

A Study in Contrasts

It is one of the charms of this “Irish Gladiator” that they are a bit of a paradox. “They break all the terrier rules,” says Sussman. Even though Glens are known for their intensity, for example, they are placid, agreeable family dogs whose fans claim are less excitable than some of the other members of their group.

And while Glens can be stubborn with game, they takeseasily to obedience training. They are gentle with children, yet will not shy away from defending themselves; they are small in stature, but their guttural barks and stocky bodies give them an appearance of might, making them excellent little watchdogs. And, unlike most terriers, large litters are common among Glens—10 puppies are not unusual.

“It’s a ‘big dog’ trait,” says Sussman. They respond well to praise and are sensitive to scolding. Fans of the Glen warn, however, that their complex characters means they  are not the perfect fit for every household.

More than a century after the venerable dogman Rawdon Lee wrote, “There is a glen, Imaal, in the Wicklow Mountains, that has always been, and still is, celebrated for its terriers,” these words apply equally well to the Glens in this country and around the world. Committed fanciers have maintained the Glen’s status as a substantial and diligent worker, and as a pleasing and affectionate companion. Unless, of course, you’re a badger.

Related article: Sealyham Terrier History: The Captains Fancy
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