Partially shrouded by the mists of time, the history of the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier sometimes reflects the Irish people’s gift as storytellers rather than historians. Folklore persists that following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, a dog swam to the shore of Ireland from a sinking ship. Supposedly, he then bred to native terriers to produce the Wheaten, among other breeds.
Most agree that this breed can be traced back 200 years. Many fanciers feel the Soft Coated Wheaten predates and is the progenitor of its closest terrier kin, the Kerry Blue and the Irish, in spite of the fact that the latter was shown for some eighty years before the Wheaten’s acceptance by the Irish Kennel Club. There is also reason to surmise a very early link to the Irish Wolfhound.
A Poor Man’s Dog
Long before kennel clubs and official records, Wheatens could be found all over Ireland, but the greatest numbers were in the south and southwest. There are records of numerous Wheatens in County Kerry as far back as 1785. They whelped in barns, hedges, and haystacks, and only the fittest survived. Quite early in Britain’s history, the “laws of the forest” were placed in force. These laws allowed only freemen and landowners to own hunting dogs such as hounds, Beagles, and spaniels. The poor tenant farmer or fisherman could not legally own any animal of greater value than five British pounds. Also, only wealthy landowners could own a hunting dog or sporting dog more than nineteen inches tall. Further, those dogs with “whole” tails were for the landed gentry. Otherwise, a tax was levied, which was not affordable by poor farm folk. Docking was done, to provide evidence that these dogs were within the bounds of the law. Thus was born the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier.
This “poor man’s Wolfhound” came to serve as guardians of the tenant farmer’s household and as all-purpose farm dogs. They were adept at herding and guarding sheep. They killed vermin and gave their family ample warning of intruders. They were keen on scent and might often be found with their owners, out for
the hunt, bringing down small game.
Certainly, the need for a dog’s companionship is firmly established historically. This versatile breed had a keen desire to please and a willingness to do whatever was asked. Indeed, the poor farmer had myriad chores, which this working, sporting terrier eagerly performed. It is said that they might even have been called upon to perform menial kitchen chores, such as turning the spit. They were hardy easy keepers, not fussy about food, and totally indifferent to the hardships of weather.
Growth and Arrival in the States
The Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier was registered with the Irish Kennel Club and made its debut at the Irish Kennel Club championship show on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1937.
Wheatens first came to American shores in November 1946, when a litter of six arrived from Belfast. Two of these were assigned to Lydia Vogel, of Springfield, Massachusetts, and were shown at the Westminster Kennel Club show the following year. In total, these dogs produced seventeen puppies, but public interest was not forthcoming. Consequently, Vogels’ efforts to earn AKC recognition were in vain and would not come to fruition for another twenty-six years.
In 1957 the breed surfaced in the United States once more. Spurred on by the O’Connors (Gramachree kennel name) of Brooklyn, New York, and the Arnolds (Sunset Hills) of Hartford, Connecticut, Wheatens began to appear at dog shows, competing in the Miscellaneous class. In 1962, once again on that most appropriate date, Saint Patrick’s Day, the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America was formed.
By 1972, the ranks of Wheaten Terrier devotees swelled to 500, with over 1,000 dogs. The breed was admitted to the American Kennel Club Stud Book on May 1, 1973, and on October 3 of that year, the Wheatens became eligible to compete in the Terrier Group. That October date auspiciously fell on the weekend of this country’s most illustrious terrier showcase, the Montgomery County Kennel Club show, then held in Ambler, Pennsylvania. At the end of this four-show weekend, the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier breed would celebrate its first champion.