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Your Bull Terrier's Amazing Extinct Ancestor: The English White Terrier

As an animal welfare worker, Jana worked with Bull Terriers. She had a boarding home for the breed and currently owns a perky specimen.

The English Terrier: A Dog With Many Names

The Bull Terrier's family tree can be traced back to the Bulldog and terrier cross. Among them was a beautiful creature—a breed that lasted a mere century, but greatly influenced the Bull Terrier and Boston Terrier.

This smart, elegant dog had several names, but for the purpose of this article, it shall be referred to as the English White Terrier. If you want to wow other Bull Terrier enthusiasts with your fine knowledge of bully breed history, tell them that this particular ancestor was also known as the:

  • Old English Terrier
  • White English Terrier
  • Old White Terrier
  • Old English White Terrier
  • British White Terrier

As fascinating as this part of the Bull Terrier's history is, the story is also tragic. From the English White Terrier came a priceless genetic legacy that touched more breeds than just the Bull Terrier. It came at a cost for the "White" itself, an example of what happens when a breed is forced into existence too fast and without consideration.

The Cradle of the White Terrier

Unfortunately, you cannot stun fellow bully lovers with a perfect understanding of this terrier's origins. Nobody holds that pearl. Since the 18th century, terriers existed in all shapes and sizes in the United Kingdom, possibly even earlier. None were specific breeds as the term would define today. There were no pedigrees nor consistent form that passed between parent to offspring.

The term "terrier" was fixed to any dog going to earth and hunting prey underground, including rabbits, foxes, and badgers. Among this motley crew were individuals with white coats and perky ears.

Breeding Mania

During the 1860s and 1870s, ring craft mania hit England and enthusiasts began creating breeds left and right. Many so-called breeds popped up, often with invented histories to give the appearance of pedigree.

The White Terrier's journey began when a small group of people singled out the white dogs and called it the English White Terrier. This was essentially its show name and not much else. From the start, the dog struggled to breed to form, as a pure-bred must. Owners claimed that those born with erect ears, which was the desired look, was a different breed from those with floppy ears. In truth, they were the same and puppies with both ear types were often found in the same litter.

During the dog's peak popularity, large numbers were shown and won prizes, despite the claims and physical differences among the dogs.

A Lack of Useful Records

Even after breeding happened in a more controlled manner, no useful records were kept. If they were, no useful examples survive today which is a great pity. Such paperwork would've revealed which breeds enhanced the original white terriers. However, it isn't hard to see why the most popular contenders include the Whippet and Italian Greyhound.

Some English White Terriers were more stocky, but most had the Greyhound's swan neck and chest. They had the same beautiful slope to the body and the keen gaze of a sighthound. The earliest breeders in the 1800s did not introduce the hounds (if they were indeed the White's ancestors).

To their credit, fanciers of the White did not invent a dazzling (and false) backstory for their breed. Some acknowledged the possible influence coming from the hound group, as well as not having a clue as to who created the prototype White before them and for what purpose.

An old photo showing a stockier example of the breed.

An old photo showing a stockier example of the breed.

English White Terrier Appearance

The English White had a lot in common with today's Bull Terriers. It was compact, with a ready energy, possessed a pure white coat, and also shared the "cat toes" and oval eyes. The White was among the earliest (some say the first) terriers to be bred for competitive showing. Weighing 12–20 pounds, the only color allowed was the black nose and eyes.

Unlike today's show bullies, a White with a patch or colored coat was disqualified. The ears were said to be graceful and hung close to the head. Some puppies were born with naturally erect ears, but they flopped over, the animal's ears were commonly cropped to gain the same effect. The flat skull was wedge-shaped with lean cheeks and delicate lips.

Despite their frailty, the dogs were muscular. They had a very trim look that enhanced the elegance of their Greyhound-like curves. The neck was long and slender, the body short and the chest narrow. The legs were perfectly straight and placed directly under the body.

The tail was of average length, thick at the base and thinning towards the point. In some dogs, the tail appeared to be almost straight and ideally should never be carried higher than the back. The hallmark of the dog was, of course, the clean white coat. The hair was short, hard and glossy.

Devolution Into Deaf Lapdogs

The young breed was doomed by three major factors: the desire for a porcelain coat, the use of defective studs and broods, and a weakening constitution. In the animal world, a white coat comes with a host of serious genetic disorders. In white dogs and cats, a propensity for deafness is common, and the English White was no exception.

Today, ethical breeders try their best to avoid matches that might produce such dogs. Sadly, English White specimens, known to be deaf or partially deaf, were bred regardless. This sped up the rate at which the problem affected the breed. Soon, so many dogs displayed some degree of deafness that the group as a whole was considered useless for hunting.

Nobody wanted a puppy with possible hearing problems. In the field, such an animal would fail to pick up on the prey's movements. Since it was no longer a working terrier, the White began its slippery slide into physical frailty.

The English Terrier Becomes a Dying Breed

The physical flaws killed most fans of the breed. Yet, for a while, the dogs charmed those who desired an affectionate pet. They excelled as companion animals, displaying a plucky intelligence and a loving nature. Also, though they were no longer used for hunting, the dogs were valued for their ability to keep the house free of rats.

In the end, however, their amiable spirit and popularity in the show ring weren't enough to save the breed. The majority of people didn't want a dog with so many genetic problems, health issues and one that served no practical purpose.

Unfortunately, back in the day, dogs were mainly kept as useful tools—for purposes such as herding, hunting and guarding. The English White Terrier was none of those. Yes, it caught rats, but so could other dogs. The hope of creating the perfect show dog flared the English White into existence, but bad breeding ethics lead to the inevitable end.

Scarcely a century old, and after thirty years on the show circuit, the last English White Terriers died out in the early 20th century. Now and again, stories will surface that the dogs still exist, but such claims are either false, wishful thinking or confusion with similar-sounding breeds. The little white dog is well and truly extinct.

Taken in 1891, this image shows a dog called White Prince. The early physical traits of the Bull Terrier are already visible.

Taken in 1891, this image shows a dog called White Prince. The early physical traits of the Bull Terrier are already visible.

A Priceless Legacy

The English White Terrier was no huge success on its own, but ironically, it became the cornerstone for several popular breeds today. It is likely that many more hail from the English White, but not every case has yet been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. Even so, it is generally agreed that this single dog had an epic influence on the terrier group. Some of the breeds can be found on the list below.

  • The Bull Terrier (both standard and miniature)
  • The Boston Terrier
  • The Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • The Fox Terrier
  • The Jack Russel Terrier
  • The rare Sealyham Terrier
  • The Parson Russel Terrier
  • The Rat Terrier
  • Possibly the American Pit Bull Terrier

Most of these breeds, especially the Bull Terrier, Staffordshire, Jack Russell and pit bull, are extremely popular nowadays. Owners and enthusiasts who love them cannot imagine a world without their furry favorites.

The very first breeders and the very last, who finally gave up on the White, had high aspirations for the dog that never realized in their lifetime. Yet, in a way, the end result surpassed every dream. The English White Terrier left an invaluable legacy in the canine world and especially set the scene for remarkable terrier breeds that persist to this day.

Further Reading

© 2017 Jana Louise Smit