When a pup’s age is still counted in weeks, he’d be lucky to get much farther than the front door. But in 1954, a 6-week-old black and tan pup from the sub urbs of Sydney made a 7,500-mile journey on Qantas Empire Airways to his new home in La Crescenta, California.
His name was Sir Boomerang, and he was a “Sydney Silky Terrier.” His new owner, Mrs. Evelyn Holaday, had seen a photo of a pup just like Sir Boomerang on the cover of the newspaper supplement This Week, and, naturally, she just had to have one. She arranged to have her Silky pup sent in style across the Pacific. A beaming Mrs. Holaday can be seen collecting Sir Boomerang from a Qantas stewardess in a Los Angeles Times story titled “Rush One Puppy,” dated February 14, 1955.
Peer into the history of the Silky Terrier and you’ll see even more stories of international travel and irresistible cuteness. Not quite the rough-and-tumble beginnings you’d expect from a dog bred to stalk poultry farms for vermin. But this plucky little dog with the glossy coat is quite accustomed to being defined by what he is not.
In the late 1950s, when the Silky Terrier first started appearing at dog shows in the United States, it was met with stares and a few scattered snickers. Murmurs of “Oversized Yorkie?” echoed in its little V-shaped ears. Indeed, the Silky resembles the Yorkshire Terrier, as well as the Australian Terrier—but is neither. And those traits that make it not a Yorkie, and not an Aussie are often the same qualities that Silky breeders and owners find most endearing. They’re small but not fragile, feisty but not yappy, pretty but not sculpted. As noted in the breed standard, “His inquisitive nature and joy of life make him an ideal companion.”
While the general—and most convenient—explanation of the Silky’s origins is that they resulted from planned matings between the Australian Terrier and the Yorkshire Terrier, there may in fact be more to their heritage than that.
Both the Australian and the Silky terrier have in their histories a dog traced to Tasmania known as the “rough coated terrier.” Less a breed, more a type, he had a rough, textured coat of blue and tan, or a sandy color. Also called a “broken coated terrier,” this scrappy little ratting dog may have been bred in the late 1800s with other terriers, includ ing the Yorkshire and the Skye, all of which were imported from Great Britain. Untangling the descriptions of the Australian and Silky terriers from this time through to the early 20th century can be a maddening experience—with even more breeds thrown into the mix (the Cairn, the Dandie Dinmont), depending on who’s telling the story.
The Kennel Club of New South Wales was one of the first to start differentiating types of this foundation terrier. In 1898, the club offered classes for “Australian Rough Coated Terriers” and “Silky Haired Terriers.” Other kennel organizations followed suit, and in 1903 the club drew up and adopted the first standard for the Silky-haired Terrier. In her book, Australian Born, Australian Bred, Jan Boyce notes that at this time, many Silky breeders also bred Australian and/or Yorkshire terriers, and much interbreeding occurred. This early standard was the first step toward establishing the Silky’s own identity. By the 1920s and ’30s, the Silky was established as a useful farm worker and a popular pet in its homeland. It was time for the rest of the world to take notice.
Bright Lights, Big Journeys
Before Sir Boomerang checked in for his Qantas flight, Pan American World Airways also played a role in the Silky’s introduction to the U.S. In 1950, Merle and Peggy Smith, who both worked for Pan Am, were dining at a San Francisco restaurant, when a woman came in with a puppy. It was, she told them, a Sydney Silky Terrier. “I made such a fuss over it, my husband promised to get me one in Australia for a Christmas present,” Mrs. Smith told the New York Times. And on his next trip to Sydney, he brought back a female. “We knew nothing about dogs. We were lucky, for she was an exceptionally good one.”
So good that the couple who knew nothing about dogs would soon become members of the newly formed Silky Terrier Club of America—and their first dog, Brenhill Splinters, along with their second imported Silky, Wexford Pogo, would go on to produce a line of champions.
It was one of their puppies, Redway Blue Boy, who appeared on the cover of This Week and inspired Holaday to import Sir Boomerang. The magazine, as well as the Smiths, received hundreds of letters from readers wanting a Silky of their own.
(“Thank heavens This Week didn’t publish a photograph of a kangaroo,” quipped one Qantas official after Sir Boomerang’s publicized arrival.) The president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Hugh E. Paine, imported two Silkys on the basis of the magazine cover, and another high-profile fan, Hollywood star Ann Miller, requested a Silky while she was on tour in Sydney.
Blue Boy went on to appear in even more magazines, including Popular Photography and Sports Illustrated, and it wasn’t long before the “rare” new breed was a popular pet. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted in 1955, “Rarely does a breed new to this country take the public’s fancy as completely and quickly as has the Silky.”
A Club Is Born
The Smiths were not the only Silky exhibitors who started out as pet owners. Many of today’s Silky fanciers will tell you that they started out with a pet, until their desire to find fellow Silky owners led them to their local dog shows and then into the ring (and whelping box) themselves.
And so it was on March 25, 1955, when 10 people interested in breeding Silkys gathered at the home of Roland and Betty Stegeman in Richmond, California. That day, they formed the Sydney Silky Terrier Club of America. As the club worked toward full AKC recognition, they dropped the “Sydney” from the name of the breed (at the request of the AKC), and started a studbook.
By 1958, an estimated 400-500 Silkys had been imported from Australia, and on May 9, 1959, the Silky Terrier became the 113th breed to be recognized by the AKC. The STCA became an AKC member club in 1966.
Establishing a Presence
The Silky “was totally alien to most people when we started, and for years after that,” says Beverly Lehnig, a former Silky breeder, current AKC judge, and STCA vice president. “People would say, ‘Oh, my goodness, a Yorkie!’ And we’d say, ‘No,’ and try to point out the differences.”
It’s an education that still goes on today. Florence Males, a former breeder, owner, and handler of Silkys (and a recently retired AKC field representative), still makes the distinction in the judges’ education she per forms for the STCA. The key points she makes over and over again? “That we’re more Australian Terrier than we are Yorkshire Terrier-except that we have the Yorkshire Terrier coat.”
Unlike the Australian Terrier (which is double-coated), the Silky’s coat should be, according to the standard, “straight, single, glossy, silky in texture.” Unlike the Yorkie’s coat, the Silky’s should not approach the floor. “If it’s a proper texture it’s not very hard to groom,” says Males. “It’s so much like human hair.”
In a 2001 issue of The Silky Terrier Times, breeder Linda Gross recalled the first time she saw a Silky in the arms of a woman at an all-breed show: “The dog’s hair was spectacular: liquid silver tipped in black, rich browns and golden tans.” Mesmerized, Gross approached the woman, who told her it was a Silky and invited her to feel the coat.
“As I let the dog’s hair run through my fingers, the woman said, ‘That’s why they’re called Silky Terriers.’ The hair was cool to the touch and like that of a little girl’s. Amazing!” Gross was sold.
Silkys Today and Tomorrow
Males says that the breed has developed nicely over the years. “In my very first litter [in the 1970s], I had two Silky types, a ‘Yorkie type,’ and an ‘Aussie type’. It got so that now you have all Silky types.”
“We got laughed at a lot,” says Lehnig of the breed’s introduction to the fancy. “We got a lot of smirks, and, ‘Oh, you’ll never get this breed to come true.’ Even once we got recognized [by the AKC], judges wouldn’t take us seriously as far as group placements and so forth.”
In 2007, the Silky came in at number 74 in the rankings of breeds by AKC registration figures. It’s a position the club is happy with. Through careful management and education, the breed has managed to duck the mass trend of mini-sized breeds that can be toted in purses. In 2021, the breed ranked 116 of 197.
“The Silkys are a little bigger and are just very active,” says Males. “I can’t imagine holding one still for that long. My sister does put her Silky in a carrier on the back of her bicycle, but she’s jumping around the whole time.”
Like Sir Boomerang, and Blue Boy, and Casey, and Charlie, this Silky’s behavior is a perfect illustration of the spirit inside the little dog from the big country, half a world away: “It shows that she’s not going to settle down,” says Males. “She’s going to enjoy the whole experience- and show the world she’s here.”