The Irish Wheaten Terrier is the epitome of form follows function. Centuries of evolution in the hands of the poor Irish families have molded the wheatens distinct look and abilities. Unfortunately, many people either have forgotten or choose to ignore the evolution that makes the Irish Wheaten Terrier what it should be.
Before discussing the working abilities of the Irish wheaten, here is a reminder of the wheaten’s development:
The proper Irish coat is more than just pretty. It is quite functional. The individual hairs have tight scaling. This allows the coat to endure both the Irish climate and countryside. Think of the hair shaft to be like a rose. A tight rose bud allows rain, wind and dirt to roll off, even in a storm. An opened rose acts like a cup. Dust, debris, and rain builds up within the flower. The wheaten coat does the same. A tight scaling, which gives the wheaten coat its shimmer and silky feel, protects the dog from retaining moisture and dirt in the coat. A wooly or cottony coat, which has always been a disqualifying fault in Ireland, would become problematic to both the health of the dog and its welcome into the home as a companion. Irish wheaten coats dry quickly and dirt and debris are quickly brushed off, or in most cases, fall off naturally. The importance of a correct coat is also why if the coat is curled, the curls must be large and loose. Tight curls will also retain moisture and dirt.
The size of the wheaten is a relatively simple thing that doesn’t require rulers or scales. A proper wheaten should be small enough to be able to enter a badger sett and big enough and muscled enough to be able to remove an adult badger. A badger sett is generally about 10 to 12 inches in diameter (25.4 to 30.5 cm). This is the size needed for a dog, dropped down almost to the ground, to be able to enter the sett, and possibly follow the tunnel in for as much as ten feet. Once the wheaten confronted the badger, they gripped it and them needed very powerful muscling in the shoulders and hindquarters to remove the badger backwards. If you take a ruler and measure a 12 inch square, your wheaten should be able to easily enter a tunnel that size. Height has little to do with this measurement since the dog’s legs would be in a crawling position. This is why there was no information for height in the original standard. What saved the wheaten from probable extinction was their ability against the badger, so even though this is not normally practiced anymore, it is still important to understand this part of their history and development.
The Irish wheaten is also known for being an easy feeder. They do very well on scant amounts of poor quality food. For generations, possibly centuries, wheatens in Ireland ate potatoes, bits of bread, buttermilk, and little else. Dr. Gerald Pierce warned that a better diet might increase size in offspring. They ate minimally and were not picky.
Mentally, the Irish wheaten was and is an instinctual, capable hunter, a happy companion, and a fierce protector. They were an all purpose dog, but to understand what this means, it is important to understand the exact purpose of the dogs owned by a poor Irish family. The wheaten was a poacher’s dog. Not only was it an excellent hunter, it hunted silently. An Irishman couldn’t afford having the attention of the British or the Garda focused upon them. It would mean prison time or worse. This was also included in the rules of the Teastas Mor – which was one of the working terrier titles required for wheatens in Ireland between 1937-1967. When they confronted a badger, they were to work silently. Their abilities as a hunter made the wheaten a very reliable dog against vermin. They are effective killers of rats, fox, and other animals that dared enter the family’s larder. Not only did they protect the family from four legged intruders, they also had a keen instinct to guard against hobos, thieves, and the authorities. The British hated them. They would set off a fury of noise and a show of teeth if an enemy to the family approached. Yet they were welcoming of beloved friends. Their sweet devotion to their families and those welcomed into the family helped bring smiles and joy to those families during difficult, cruel times. It should always be remembered that the happy, loving personality of the Irish wheaten to its family must remain to this day. On that point, there should be little compromise.
There are many valuable websites, books and other information about Ireland and the difficult times that helped in the development of the Irish wheaten. Just some of the basics have been touched upon here, but it is important to understand and remember this history when you are considering working your wheaten.
It is important to address this right at the beginning. Many people erroneously believe that because the wheaten has been described as an all purpose farm dog, it is a herding breed. It is not. The AKC has recently allowed wheatens to attempt to get herding titles. With considerable training, any breed can be trained to resist its natural instincts and complete an activity, however, herding is not part of the wheaten’s past and it probably shouldn’t be part of its future. When you observe a wheaten at these herding trials, what you are seeing is generally prey drive. They are not herding sheep, they are chasing them. While a wheaten might be introduced to sheep and other livestock, and be quite tolerant of them, herding is a specific activity that is not a strength of the breed. Maureen Holmes has been quoted when asked about this: “What would a wheaten do with a sheep? Eat it maybe.”
Additionally, it must be understood that although the Irish wheaten was a “farm dog”, the farm of the poor Irish generally did not include sheep. If they were fortunate enough to own sheep, they also owned a sheepdog. The poor Irish farmer owned pigs and maybe a few chickens or other fowl. They might have a small cow. Their property was small – generally less than five acres. It was poor quality, rocky, divided by sturdy stone walls and heavily vegetated. Open pasture, which is needed for flocks of sheep, was not owned by these people. In general, if an Irishman was caring for a flock of sheep, he was doing it as part of his renter’s duties for the landowner. He would not risk his “cabin cur” attacking the sheep.
Strong Dog is a modern effort to recreate the Teastas Mor trials that the wheaten and other Irish terriers were required to achieve before they could be awarded their championship in Ireland. A live badger is not used for Strong Dog. Instead, a weighted, stuffed dummy has replaced the live animal.
The wheaten terrier in Ireland was so accomplished at the badger trials, they outperformed every other breed until the requirement was banned in the 1960s.
The Teastas Mor was generally done along with smaller terriers referred to as “sounders”. The sounders were various small terriers that would go into burrows to locate the badger. They were called sounders because they were expected to bark and bay to alert the handlers that a badger was found. Once the sounders were scored, the native large terriers were allowed to take their turn at the badger. The large terrier’s scores were based on the dog’s ability to quickly and silently confront the badger, ideally in under one minute, and draw the badger out within about five minutes (this time has varied from about five minutes to under seven minutes), or at least remain in silent contact with the badger for that time. If a badger bit the dog, the dog was not allowed to cry out in pain, nor was it allowed to yelp in excitement, nor growl. It had to remain completely mute. If the wheaten managed to remove the badger from its sett, the badger was released and allowed to run off to find a new home.
The wheaten in this photo is Villa Rosa’s Lion of the Day. He was the best hunting dog ever owned by his owner and not only was he very effective against badgers, he was used on elk and hare with equal success.
These were the IKC rules for the Teastas Mor:
1. The trials must be conducted strictly within the law and are restricted to dogs and bitches which have not already qualified for the Teastas Mor Certificate.
2.a. A veterinary surgeon must be in attendance at the trial. Under no circumstances may a trial take place without one, and his name and address must be recorded on the application for a license and on the license issued by the Kennel Club.
2.b. In the event of any serious injury occurring to any dog or badger, the animal at the discretion of the Veterinary Surgeon shall be humanely and expeditiously destroyed.
3. The trial of any dog must be in natural setts. Under no circumstances may tests be carried out in artificial setts. A dog may not be tried more than twice in any trial.
4. Once a badger is drawn, it must not be released or returned to the earth until the conclusion of the trials.
5. Badger in captivity shall not be used for tests or training.
6. Sounders are expected to go to ground with alacrity. When a sounder reports the presence of game by a full and sustained tongue, a reasonable time shall be allowed before diggers begin to work. When the sounders records persistently from one section of the sett, digging shall commence under the direction of the judges.
7. The badger shall be drawn by a strong terrier, with the assistance if necessary, and the size of the badger and underground conditions noted by the judges.
8. If a sett is apparently unoccupied, several terriers may be run through it and their eagerness to search noted.
9. With regards to strong terriers, the Teastas Mor is to be awarded to the terrier showing gameness in attacking badgers. Five minutes is the minimum period a terrier shall be in contact with the badger, except when the terrier draws the badger in less time. Each terrier shall be withdrawn as soon as possible after the five minutes has expired. The judges may direct that a terrier be tried again if, in their opinion, the first trial was for any reason an insufficient test.
10. Five minutes are to be allowed a terrier before disqualified for failing to get in contact.
11. Barking shall be eliminated as much as possible and disqualification will follow barking after contact, provided that no terrier is disqualified for barking when in actual contact.
Modern Strong Dog
Modern Strong Dog tests are a lot of fun for both owners and dogs. It is to be stressed that these tests are a sport guided by the principles of good sportsmanship both inside and outside of the test field. Any dogs that are out of control will be excused from competing. Any owners exhibiting poor sportsmanship will also be excused.
Strong Dog is still mostly in the planning stages but is moving forward with the efforts of a handful of very dedicated large terrier fanciers. Unfortunately, with the focus over the last 30 years on a different type of wheaten for the show ring, most seem to have lost the terrier temperament and muscling typical of the original Irish wheaten terrier, there are few who compete. Hopefully that will change. This is another opportunity to remember the words of Maureen Holmes: First and foremost, they are TERRIERS!
Strong Dog Trials are patterned after the Teastas More, however, instead of a live badger in a natural sett, a stuffed, weighted dummy is used in wooden tunnels. The dummy weighs about 35 pounds. The opening of the tunnels is 11 x 11 inches. The preliminary layout of the tunnels are as follows:
Junior Level – 30 foot length in total, with two 45 degree and one 90 degree turns. The time to quarry is ONE minute, begin work 15 seconds, return with quarry SIX minutes.
Senior Level – 30 foot length in total with two 45 degree turns and one 90 degree turn. Also included in this layout is false den (at the second turn) and a false exit. The time to quarry is TWO minutes, begin to work 15 seconds, return with quarry SIX minutes.
The Irish wheaten is an effective, natural hunter. It’s been claimed by many old timers that there are no better dogs to hunt game with than the wheaten. These abilities come from their past as a poacher’s dog. During the years of occupation of Ireland by the British, the poor Irish were not allowed to openly hunt game, so they poached. Owning a quality hunting dog was also out of their reach, so they made due by using the common dog and developing their instincts while retaining the moderate, cur-like appearance of their little companion. What came of their efforts was a dog with an excellent nose, excellent drive, instinctual interaction with the hunter, the effective killing ability of a terrier, and it was thankfully a silent worker. The abilities as a hunter has always been vital to the Irish wheaten, and to this day they are still used for hunting game. They are also mixed with various breeds in Ireland to produce quality lurchers.
Irish wheatens provided any game available, such as rabbit and partridge, for the stew pot. They also excelled at vermin elimination. Rats, mice, mink, otter, fox or badger were little challenge for a good wheaten. The fanciers of the Irish Blue (Kerry Blue Terrier) began setting up terrier trials based on the large terrier’s abilities, and it was natural for the wheaten to be required to do the same when they became a recognized breed. The Teastas Mor (the Big Test) is discussed above in the Strong Dog section. But before they could compete against badgers, they had to claim a Teastas Beag certificate (the Little Test).
The Teastas Beag was a more refined trial than the Teastas Mor. The large terriers were enthusiastic against large vermin, but having the abilities to hunt rabbit in the field, which highlighted the dog’s tracking ability as a true hunter, followed by taking on rats in a canal to prove the dog’s willingness to enter water after its target, is what the old Irish Blue fanciers believed provided proof that no Bull Terrier or impure blood was added into the breed. Bull terriers were not typically able to handle this more sophisticated trial. The photo below shows just how popular these trials were:
The following was written about the Teastas Beag in 1925:
The Teastas Beag consisted of flinging rats into a large pond and allowing the dogs competing to swim and hunt one at a time. The inexperienced handlers of the rats created much merriment and a large proportion of the rats survived to tell the tale. In the case of the rabbits, each one was released from a marked spot on the fresh ground. As soon as it had taken cover the dog was released at the spot where the rabbit had been set free. He was required to run the trail accurately and to hunt will through briars and undergrowth. The actual catching and killing of the rabbit was immaterial as any untrained dog will often do that. Often to save time, the judges would call up a dog once he had satisfied them as to his capabilities.
Wheatens are generally eager to enter the water, especially when introduced to it at an early age, as shown with these young wheatens in Holland.
The strong hunting talent of the Irish wheaten is still valued today. In Ireland, a few people are still using their dogs for various hunting endeavors. Small, very private groups are still fond of using their wheatens against badger and fox and othergame. They refer to them as “Heavy Dogs” and claim there is no finer breed for the work. Some will cross the wheaten with greyhounds or other breeds to produce high quality lurchers. Adding sight hound breeds produces very efficient, fast dogs against hare, but it’s been said that it only adds speed, since the hunting ability is so strong in the wheaten, and too much of an outcrossing reduces the wheaten’s influence in the field. The offspring often look like small wolfhounds. Below is a lurcher in Ireland that is half wheaten blood:
In Europe, Irish wheatens earn their keep more often than may be realized. The photo below was after a hunt in France. The wheaten who helped provide two rabbits and a partridge for the pot is Ch. Sherkin The Soft Irish Gentlewheaten.
However, even if the owner isn’t a hunter, an Irish wheaten will still go after game and vermin. The dog bellow is T’Celt the Soft Irish Gentle Wheaten. His owner is not an active hunter, but lives in the countryside where T’Celt, who is ten years old, brings home rabbits on his own.
But further north, Irish wheatens help take on larger game. In the next photo, Villa Rosa’s Laoise shares another successful hunt with her owner. Laoise’s sire and dam, Villa Rosas Queve-Jumper and Villa Rosas Enya, were also excellent hunters and trackers. Villa Rosas Queve-Jumper is shown at the top of the page going into a burrow.
Below: Faxe (Villa Rosas Uisge Potheen) is is an accomplished hunter on deer. His owners are now training him on wild boars. Wild boar are very dangerous and only the most talented, carefully trained dogs should ever be used to hunt them.
Faxe can be used on a variety of game, including vermin such as fox.
Irish wheatens tend to have an excellent scenting ability. The biggest obstacle for them to be an effective tracking dog is to settle their terrier instincts and encourage the restrained focus needed to be excellent trackers. There are several wheatens that are currently being used for search and rescue work, which requires very specific training depending on what they are tracking (live tracking, cadaver dogs, etc.). Others have become success Blood Trackers.
Blood Trackers are useful for hunters of large game. The dog isn’t used for hunting, but rather to track a wounded animal. The animal may have been shot or hit by a vehicle. Wounded animals can travel for long distances. It could be difficult or impossible for a hunter to locate a wounded deer or elk over heavy terrain. The dog becomes a valuable companion. Training an effective tracking dog requires the dog to be able to follow scent over a variety of surfaces and weather conditions. Many dogs lose the scent if an animal travels through water, so for this level of ability, dogs must learn to scent the banks of a stream, river or pond to regain the track.
In Sweden a Wheaten can achieve the title game tracking Champion. The dog must then manage four artificial blood tracks and find the “injured animals”. MULTICH Villa Rosas Queve-Jumper (below) was the first Wheaten ever to achieve this title. He was also used many times to track elks injured by cars.
Maybe this seems obvious, but the most important job an Irish wheaten can do is be a good family companion. The earliest artwork we have for the golden terriers is the Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child and the Discovery of the Potato Blight. Both were painted in the 1840s and both display multi-generational Irish families in devastating situations, yet their little terrier is in important part of the family. In both cases, the wheaten is presented in a position to provide comfort.
In the 1930s, Dr. Gerald Pierce first wrote regarding the Irish wheaten’s temperament: The Soft-Coated Wheaten terrier has all the qualities which go to make a perfect companion. He is not quarrelsome, but is game and will defend himself if attacked. He is most affectionate, loves children, is obedient, an easily trained house dog, and is at home either in town or country. There is no better utility dog on a farm. His lovely coloured, abundant coat makes him a thing of beauty, so for sport, utility, or as a faithful friend to be proud of he cannot be excelled.
Maureen Holmes, in her many writings on the breed, continually referred to them as the “greatest pal for all generations.” This, along with Dr. Pierce’s description, is accurate, and any wheaten who veers from this is not considered to be typical.
Wheatens tend to be very intuitive with the family they love. They have an excellent sense of picking up on the mood of the family or individuals, they are responsive to the needs of the each family member and the entire family unit. They are protective of their owner’s property. They have a grand understanding of common language. And they are very adaptive to the unique personalities of the household. Wheaten puppies from the same litter can find themselves happily living in homes where one may be living on a farm, another might be in a home with a large group of children underfoot, another could be settled quietly on a couch next to an elderly couple, and another could be running or swimming alongside a triathlete in training. The thread that runs through them all is their devotion to their family and their unwavering desire to be a part of that family.
When you begin looking for a wheaten puppy, find breeders with good referrals. They will want to know more about your family and your lifestyle. All puppies are cute, but the breeders know their puppies very well by the time they are ready for new homes and they can match you to the best pup for your home.
Introducing them to a wide variety of of sights and sounds helps them to develop into happy, well-socialized adults.
Wheatens enjoy traveling with their owners, but as with any experience, they should be introduced to it carefully. Your wheaten should always have proper identification on it while you travel, and always remember to be a responsible pet owner. Clean up after your dog and respect the property of others.
As with any dog, the wheaten needs to have at least minimal training to make it the best possible companion. This brings us to the final section:
An Irish Wheaten Terrier is a terrier, and terriers can be quite a handful. It is important to understand the terrier temperament before you consider getting one, even if you are getting a mild-tempered terrier like a wheaten. There is something that must always be remembered: Wheatens play, Wheatens dig, Wheatens jump, Wheatens hunt, Wheatens climb,
Wheatens do what Wheatens want to do, Wheatens never forget anything.
Up until 1968, the wheaten terrier in Ireland was required to fulfill a certificate of gameness to become a champion. These trials were called “Testas Beag” and Testas Mor”. Testas Beag was a test of the terrier’s ability to hunt using hares and rats. Testas Mor required a wheaten terrier to pursue a badger into its den and either remove it or remain in the den with it for at least five minutes. These tests were determined to be cruel and are no longer carried out. However, it is very important in today’s world to understand the mindset of a dog who was required to enter and remain in a den, face to face with a 20 plus pound badger for five minutes, or, preferably, to drag it out dead or alive.
Many wheaten terriers are brought into households with other animals, including cats and rodents such as hamsters and guinea pigs, also, and most importantly, children. An untrained wheaten terrier, or any untrained terrier, is capable of killing a cat or small pet, or injuring a child.
Wheatens JUMP. It can be difficult to break them of this if it is allowed from when they are puppies. They are very athletic and capable of jumping straight up to sneak a kiss on an adult’s face. For some people, including elderly or disabled people, or children, the “wheaten greetin’” can be an unintentionally dangerous thing.
Terriers can be difficult to train. They are genetically set to go into holes after badgers and fox, or to bolt off to chase a rat out of a grain bin. They often don’t wait for approval to do these instinctual things. So, to bring a terrier into your home requires developing a keen sense of the dog’s triggers and what will set them off. The dog must know that you, and your family, are in charge of the household.
There’s no one answer to training dogs. Each dog has an individual temperament and each human has an individual personality. Some pairings work well using a basic alpha dog training. There are many wheaten owners who feel that wheatens need a more positive training program. There are hundreds of books on the subject of training. It is an excellent suggestion to go through some of them and to honestly evaluate your home, personality types and willingness to train BEFORE you get an Irish Wheaten Terrier.
Whatever technique works best for your household is a personal choice, however, an Irish Wheaten Terrier must be trained. There are a few very basic procedures that will be addressed here.
Your Irish Wheaten Terrier must know how to be still (calm), and it must know three important words: NO! COME! STAY!
To encourage your Irish Wheaten Terrier to be calm can be a challenge. They are often a high-energy breed. This technique is one that is excellent with puppies and helps calm then down. While you are relaxing (watching TV, reading, etc) Take your puppy and tuck him snugly under your arm with your hand coming up between his front legs and your hand securing him at the base of where his neck goes into his chest. If he is wearing a buckle on collar, you can gently hold onto the collar. Now, PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE PUPPY! He will squirm and try to fight you to get away. You are showing him who’s boss in a very gentle way, but they generally don’t like being confined and will try to get away. Hang on and don’t let him win. Do not speak to him at all. Don’t say no, nor praise him when he calms down. Just hang on until he relaxes. Let him rest for a while. Maybe five to ten minutes or more. Then put him down and let him go about his business. DO NOT TELL HIM HE WAS GOOD! Calm behavior is to be expected, not praised.
Your next lesson is to become comfortable with the word NO. It is a word that lets your Irish Wheaten Terrier that you disapprove of his behavior and want him to stop. It does not have to be shouted, but it does have to be understood. It doesn’t even have to be the word “no”. It can be “EH” or “CHIT” or whatever word or sound you are most comfortable with and can convey in a confident way to stop poor behavior. An Irish Wheaten Terrier is very loving and in tune with his family and to be able to communicate disapproval to the dog is a vital training tool. It must be noted that wheaten terriers can also be very dramatic and will try very hard to make you think that you have broken their hearts. Be firm! They are quite clever with this and will try to manipulate you. Keep in mind that if your Irish Wheaten Terrier does not fully understand that it is unacceptable to dig through the trash can, you can end up with a very sick or dead wheaten terrier because you couldn’t express the word NO to him! That is just one example. The same must happen if your wheaten terrier is chasing your cat, chewing on furniture, attacking windows when something blows by, and on and on. What seems funny or cute when the puppy is three months old can turn into a horrible situation when your Irish Wheaten Terrier is 40 pounds of muscle and speed. Be consistent with your training and make your wheaten know that NO is NO!
The last two lessons that will be covered very briefly here will be to teach your puppy to come and to stay. For the safety of your dog, it doesn’t matter if he can sit, lay down, shake, roll over, or know a list of tricks. It is important that your dog knows how to come to you when called and to stay when commanded. This includes commanding to stay from a distance. If you have a dog who sees you from across a street and is running toward you, he is at risk of being hit by a car.
Teaching your wheaten to come and stay are basic training procedures, but they also fall into the area of personal training preference and individual personalities. Finding a training style that produces the desired final result is very important. However, not teaching stay and come effectively could be the difference between an excellent wheaten experience and heartbreak.