The word “terrier” derives from the French terre, or “earth.” In a nutshell, their name describes everything about their historically designed specialization for unearthing troublesome critters from their hiding places in the ground. Records date back to the fourteenth century of terrier-type dogs used to hunt and kill animals such as rats, foxes, badgers, and other animal “pests” bothering human settlements. These agile, compact, and tenacious hunting dogs were a valuable asset to mankind on ships and in fields. Generally small in size, terriers became the ultimate companion in efforts to smoke out critters from their hiding places when larger hounds would fail.
The Enclosure Movement in England, which began in the thirteenth century but saw rapid rise from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, set the stage for the development of terriers as a critical tool. As the landowning wealthy enclosed large tracts of land into their estates to increase wool production and enter market trade for profit, entire populations of subsistence farmers living off of common lands were displaced into crowded cities. The conditions in these urban industrial areas were primed for infestations of rats that would threaten inhabitants and their food supplies. Having dogs who could effectively locate and eliminate these animals was more than a little useful; it was often a matter of life or death. These amicable little dogs quickly grew in popularity across Western Europe, and developed into many different varieties throughout Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and other countries in the region in the nineteenth century.
In World War I, terriers proved to be an invaluable asset once again, this time to the soldiers fighting and living in trenches on the battlefield. In those trenches, hundreds of rats would come to feed off of waste, food sources, the dead, and even wounded soldiers. Having terriers around to keep the numbers down on these quickly reproducing vermin became critical to human survival. By killing off rats, terriers protected soldiers from disease, starvation, and constant harassment.
Long before we humans had the local pest control man to call, we had terriers to do the dirty work for us. Terriers were the right tool for the job, genetically designed for fearless, unrelenting pursuit of their targets, and with the athleticism necessary to carry out the mission. With keen senses and quick responses to the slightest hint of disturbance, these terriers didn’t stop at warning rodents and foxes away. They finished the job no matter what, so that the pesky little animals wouldn’t return or multiply.
Since then, terriers have been wonderful companions to people, living in and around their homes and businesses in order to protect the spoils within the walls. The terrier legacy may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s undeniably impressive for its value to humankind. Each dog carries this family history in its blood today; the terrier is a natural-born “critter getter” even in modern times.