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Traits of Different Types of Terriers

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

If you think terrier dogs are ordinary, then think again: terriers are dogs that need special toys and training.

If you think terrier dogs are ordinary, then think again: terriers are dogs that need special toys and training.

What Dogs Are Terriers?

There are terriers and terriers, but if you name the word "terrier," you'll most likely picture those small wiry, feisty and fearless dogs seen romping joyfully on farms. The truth is that there is great genetic variance among the terrier group; indeed, terrier specimens can go from a mere couple of pounds up to over 70 pounds! For this reason, the terrier group is often sub-categorized in three other sub-groups:

  • Classic working terriers: These are the hunting terriers used to track, find, trail (and sometimes kill) underground quarry. The Jack Russel Terrier and the Patterdale Terrier are some types.
  • Toy terriers: These are terriers that have been downsized for companionship.
  • Bull type terriers: These are terriers bred with bulldogs. With the taut muscles and power of the bulldog and the tenacity of the terrier, these fellows made excellent bull-baiting dogs. American Pitbull Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers are part of this sub-group.

All About Terriers

The name terrier derives from the Latin term "terra" which means "earth." In France, the word "terrier" means burrow, which perfectly makes sense since these dogs were often used to hunt underground critters such as rats, groundhogs, foxes, raccoons, and badgers. In order to be good hunters, their size had to be inferior to the size of the animal they flushed out of the burrows. This was very important as larger terriers could block airflow in the tunnel and risk asphyxiation.

However, not all terriers dealt with the underground world and dirt. The Kerry Blue Terrier and the Airedale terrier, for instance, were used to hunt river rats and otters. Wheaten terriers, on the other hand, were often used as herding dogs. And bull-type terriers were used in the sport of bull-baiting.

American Pitbull Terrier

American Pitbull Terrier

Irresistible and Not-So-Irresistable Terrier Traits

While terriers have many appealing looks, don't be fooled by looks alone. Some terrier owners who did not do their homework well were forced to deal with some out-of-control terriers and never imagined these feisty dogs were so... feisty. So if you are interested in any of the terriers, do your research and learn more about some of their traits.

Note: Of course, because the terrier group is quite vast and encompasses quite a variety of personalities, the following descriptions may not fit all representatives of this group.


This is a selectively bred quality found in working terriers. It encompasses a strong eagerness to persevere despite injury. This was seen a lot in the bull-baiting breeds which had to continue attacking despite injury, dehydration, and exhaustion. These dogs were often used in the past to fight other dogs in the pit for human entertainment. In the classic working terriers, gameness involved continuing hunting and flushing despite dealing with some dangerous underground species.

Inter-Dog Aggression

Some terriers have a hard time getting along with other dogs, especially the bull terriers. The United Kennel Club's standard depicts the American Pitbull Terrier as exhibiting some level of dog aggression. This requires an owner capable of providing loads of socialization and obedience training so to obtain control around other dogs. For this reason, if you are considering adding another bull terrier to your family, your best bet is to get another of the opposite sex. Also, you must consider that with this breed you may not be able to take your bull terrier to dog parks, especially after reaching social maturity. Of course, this does not apply to all the terrier dogs as each dog is an individual. Aggression towards humans is uncharacteristic of this breed and highly undesirable.

Independent, Tenacious and Stubborn

Because classic working terriers were selectively bred to hunt and kill underground burrowing animals and rats on farms, this breed group tends to be a bit on the stubborn, independent side. The job of these dogs did not require close teamwork with humans. Terriers were fast, feisty, and focused on the task and didn't require guidance from the human.

Training a terrier requires a slightly different approach compared to other types of dogs. Don't expect to motivate these fellows in the same way you would a Lab or a Poodle. Treats may not interest a terrier as much as other breeds. Rather, they may love to chase something and then have the treats. Yet, keep in mind, terriers won't naturally play fetch unless you teach them; most likely they'll take the toy you toss and carry it away!

Active and Feisty

Don't be fooled by the small sizes of many classic terriers; they still need exercise and mental stimulation. Terriers love games, tunnels, and doggie sports such as earth-dog trials and agility. One word of caution: avoid using laser beam toys or flashlights, as some terriers (and many other dogs) can develop an obsession. Many terrier owners enjoy terriers because they are fun dogs to watch as they play and romp and bring joy to the world!

Diggers and Barkers

You will have to blame selective breeding for these traits. These dogs may dig their way to China given the opportunity. This is due to this breed's drive to hunt for underground critters and flush them out their burrows with their powerful barks. At home, these dogs will dig in the garden and be fast to announce the presence of strangers or other abnormalities.

*Note: many terriers obviously may not get along with small pets, such as hamsters, mice, and gerbils.

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Grooming Needs

Do your research when you select a terrier; some have strict grooming needs. Wiry-coated terriers may need to have their coats stripped by a pro. Set money aside for expensive grooming with some of these folks and don't assume you can do it yourself at home.

As a dog trainer, I occasionally get phone calls from owners claiming their classic terrier barks, digs, runs and is too hyper. All I can do is congratulate them for having a terrier in the real sense of the world, as this is what normal terriers do! So if you are considering a terrier, please do your research, the shelters have many of them because of ill-made decisions. Don't fall into the trap of thinking they are easy to maintain dogs and can live locked up in an apartment all day. Yes, some can be a handful, but with the right owners, they make wonderful pets especially when they are loved for what they are. If you still want a terrier but feel a bit overwhelmed, consider locating a rescue and finding an older fellow who has mellowed down a bit.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on January 24, 2013:

There are such a wide variety of Terriers available. Pick the one that is right for your lifestyle.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 09, 2013:

I'm happy you like my article of terrier dogs! Thanks for the shares and votes up!

Eiddwen from Wales on January 08, 2013:

So interesting and useful; I share all around and vote up.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 07, 2013:

Hi Larry, Some rescues find that an older fellow makes a better choice as they are much calmer than youngsters at the prime of their lives. I hope you feel better soon!

Larry Fields from Northern California on January 07, 2013:

Hi alexadry,

When I get on top of my health situation, I'll give serious consideration to adopting from a rescue. (I've had great fun borrowing a neighbor's BC mix for day hikes.) You've confirmed my impression that a classic vermin-hunting terrier would be too much dog for me.

Voted up and interesting.

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