Great Britain has given us a large and boisterous family of dogs called the terriers. Latin buffs know “terrier” derives from “terra,” which means earth. And this scrappy bunch is born and bred to go to ground to battle critters that defend themselves tooth and nail – literally.
Today, many terriers have left badger holes and fox dens for the cushiness of their West Elm couches. But at least one of their ranks got a century’s head start on such creature comforts, becoming the darling of Victorian ladies and earning a prime place on their silk-swathed laps.
As its name says quite clearly, the Yorkshire Terrier is associated with the County of York in northern England – the same backdrop that gave us the stormy moors of “Wuthering Heights,” the folksy veterinary tales of James Herriot and, more recently, the upstairs-downstairs dramas of great houses like television’s “Downton Abbey.”
But the breed’s deeper roots are far to the north, in rugged Scotland. For centuries, that was home to the Skye Terrier, named for the weathered, heather-covered island off the Scottish west coast.
The Skye & Clydesdale Terriers
Now a rare breed, the Skye has an elongated, low silhouette and a distinctively long, hard coat that is never patterned. But centuries ago, there was a smaller, more compact version of the Skye, called the Clydesdale Terrier, named for the valley in the Scottish lowlands where it originated. Instead of the Skye’s harsh outer coat, the Clydesdale Terrier had a silky, soft coat that was blue and tan – the same distinctive coloring that is such an important feature of the Yorkshire Terrier today. (A very closely related and similar breed to the Clydesdale was the Paisley Terrier, which was differentiated by being all blue. Eventually the two breeds merged, and, confusingly, their names are often used interchangeably in Yorkshire Terrier histories.)
About half the weight of a modern Skye Terrier, the Clydesdale was still a bit too big to be considered a Toy dog, and hadn’t completely lost its instincts for ratting and other vermin-eliminating activities. But during the 19th Century the Clydesdale evolved into a show dog, exhibited on a box so the length of its coat could be admired.
The Clydesdale Terrier was sometimes shown as a variety of the Skye, its eye-catching blue-and-tan coat tied back over its eyes. But its popularity was blunted by Skye fanciers, who became tired of losing to these soft-coated upstarts at dog shows. In both breeds, length of coat was valued, but the Skye fanciers maintained that the Clydesdale’s soft coat was wholly unsuitable for the Scottish clime and likely resulted from cross breeding.
Eventually, the Clydesdale Terrier – which had never been very widespread beyond the eponymous valley that inspired its name – went extinct. But not before it paved the way for the Yorkshire Terrier.
A Toy Terrier?
In the middle of the 19th Century, when the Industrial Revolution upended the way textiles had been made for generations, weavers from Scotland migrated south to Yorkshire, bringing their terriers with them. There, the Scottish arrivals were crossed with local dogs – in particular, the Waterside, or Otter Terrier, and the Old English Terrier.
While these small terriers were doubtless a lap-warming distraction to the immigrant textile workers, their vermin-hunting skills were also put to good use in the mills where their owners worked and the cramped housing where they slept.
Originally known and shown as the Broken Haired Scotch Terrier or Toy Terrier, this capable little ratter was soon back in the show rings, where, like its Clydesdale forefathers, it was admired for its luxurious coat, however challenging it was to maintain. Exhibitors put “boots” of linen or chamois leather on the rear legs of their dogs to prevent them from scratching and damaging their coats. And the hair on the head was tied in a topknot that has become the traditional way to present the breed.
By the 1870s, the dogs became so popular in Yorkshire and beyond that they earned the name Yorkshire Terrier, and all mention of their Scottish roots was obliterated.
All Thanks to Ben
If there is one dog responsible for assuring the existence of the Yorkshire Terrier as we know it today, it is Huddersfield Ben. Born in 1865 in the town that gave him his name, Ben was sort of his own grandpa: His mother, Lady, was bred to her own son to produce him, and Lady herself was the product of an identical inbreeding.
Though Ben was reported to be on the large side, clocking in at 11 pounds, he consistently produced offspring that weighed half that. A favorite in the show ring who also excelled at rat-baiting competitions, Ben was struck by a horse-drawn carriage at the relatively young age of six. But his enormous popularity as a stud dog ensured that his genes have come down to virtually every Yorkshire Terrier alive today.
The Yorkshire Terrier soon traveled to America, where Victorian ladies became enamored of its confident manner and charm. But by the 1940s, the breed had fallen out of favor, presumably due to its grooming demands in a wartime-distracted America.
Smoky the War Dog
Its popularity was rekindled by Smoky, a 4-pound Yorkie that had been found, inexplicably, in a foxhole in the New Guinea jungle. Accompanying an American GI on his combat flights over the Pacific, Smoky survived 150 air raids, warned of incoming shells and ran telegraph wire through narrow pipes to help build a critical airbase. Even postwar, Smoky’s missions made headlines: She was the first documented therapy dog, cheering patients at veterans hospitals with her endless stream of tricks, which included walking a tightrope blindfolded.
Today, the Yorkshire Terrier has come full circle, distinguishing itself from its terrier brethren anew for its ability to warm laps – not dispatch rats. Your couch awaits.