Silky Terrier History — In the Beginning

Huddersfield Ben

SILKY TERRIER BEGINNINGS

Although it may seem to some that the Silky sprang ready-made to life, it was in fact developed from the clever weaving of several now-extinct breeds in the late 18th and 19th centuries. But the origins of this breed go back much farther than that.

Many hundreds of years ago, most people in England were called serfs and were tied to the land. They were prohibited by law from moving. Furthermore, each child was required to take on the same job as his parents. If Dad was a farmer, so was he. They were not allowed to hunt, nor keep most hunting dogs. As far back as the Canons of Canute (an English king who died in 1035; he set up many laws or “canons”) these common people were allowed “the little dogs” because “it stands to reason that there is no danger in them.” The foresters had a hoop and only the dogs that could pass through the 7-inch diameter could be kept. The little dogs kept home and hearth free of rats and other vermin, as well as providing an occasional rabbit for the pot. They were bred generation after generation to be fearless and independent hunters. As their owners were bound to the land, prohibited from moving away by a system that demanded not only lifelong servitude to a distant master but also that their children and children’s children do the same, their dogs did not move around much either.

Gene pools were kept small with neighborhood dogs breeding together and each valley tended to have its own version. So it began. Each region had its own variety of little dogs, but all needed to be quick-thinking and independent, as their hard-working owners did not have the time to cosset them. They needed to be loyal, as their owners wanted a dog that protected the meager family interests, and was cheerful. The common people lived lives strewn with hard knocks — they needed dogs that were sprightly and optimistic.

Though some conjecture is inevitable, enough original accounts exist to cover the broad strokes of how Silky Terriers seemingly came “from nowhere” to exist as the unique and distinctive breed it is today. Three breeds – all extinct today – each contributed to the breed’s unique characteristics.

Waterside TerrierTHE WATERSIDE TERRIER

By the time of William IV (1765–1837), the Waterside Terrier, sometimes blue and tan in color, was common in Yorkshire. Slightly longer than tall, with a level topline and an erect or semi-erect ear, he resembled a Welsh Terrier – but much smaller, between 5 and 10 lbs. Prized for his loyalty and independent hunting abilities, he was “broken-coated”, which means he had a medium-length coat similar to today’s Cairn Terrier. A famous Waterside named Polly weighed 6 lbs. She had 5 inches of body coat and silver furnishings. She wasn’t afraid of water and would swim the river and hunt with the ferret.
News of the Waterside also came from Tasmania in Australia, where settlers prized the small blue and tan dogs for their ability to detect strangers approaching from great distances.

The Paisley and his close cousin, the Clydesdale Terrier, originated in Scotland. All these dogs had a fierce and loyal disposition. But to start, their mutual ancestor needs to be mentioned.

THE SKYE TERRIER

The Skye, originating from and named after the Isle of Skye in Scotland, was a unique breed as early as the 1500s. Sweeping long low bodies and swishing coats behind milady through the dank stone corridors of British castles, Skyes were a favorite of the nobility, even the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots. A Skye Terrier kept Mary company all the years of her long imprisonment. But Skyes are also true terriers, fiercely loyal and independent hunters, with courage unmatched in dogdom. They have a hard, nylony, floor-length coat with a definite undercoat and an erect or semi-erect ear.

THE CLYDESDALE AND THE PAISLEY TERRIER

In the late 18th century, several Skye breeders tried to miniaturize their breed. Speculation can imagine heated letters moving back and forth and drawing rooms echoing with voices raised in loud argument, but the purists of the day won out. No way could these smaller dogs be called Skyes. Denied recognition by the parent club, the “mini Skyes” were called Paisleys or Clydesdale Terriers, named presumably after those valleys in Scotland. They resembled Skyes, being long and low, but instead of the bigger dog’s vigorous 40 to 50 lb proportions were about 15 lbs. in weight. They also had a much softer and finer coat than the Skye’s and had the gloss factor which makes a Silky’s coat reflective like blue burnished steel.

The Paisley was blue and “self” colored, which means one single color, while the Clydesdale had what writers of the day called a “linty” coat – tan or flax furnishings together with a blue body coat.
So there are the three elements; the blue and tan, broken coated, slightly longer than tall Waterside, the short-legged, blue, long-coated, glossy Paisley, and the identical Clydesdale with golden tan, “linty” furnishings. Unique elements came from all three but they had one thing in common; they were all independent, cheerful, feisty, and loyal.

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Another event in the creation of the Silky Terrier occurred in the late 18th century— the Industrial Revolution, which began in northern England. The newly established factories and foundries quickly developed an insatiable appetite for workers. Scottish weavers and other workers flocked south, bringing along their families, and of course, their dogs.
The workers, streaming out from their backbreaking and monotonous jobs, longed for a pint and a “tickle” (a wager on something, anything to take them away from their drab surroundings) at their favorite pub. They loved to wager on how long it would take for a big dog to bring down a bull or a bear. But in 1825, bear- and bullbaiting was outlawed. So now what? The publicans were desperate for something new to entice customers.

Eureka! A small dog was thrown into a pit with 30 or 40 rats. It wasn’t a matter of whether dog or rat would win—it was a matter of how fast the dog could dispatch all the rodents. The smaller the dog, the more audacious the contest and the better the betting. Favorite breeds must have been the scrappy and tenacious Paisleys, Clydesdales, and Watersides. Polly, the Waterside mentioned above, was famous for her ability to dispatch rats in a pit.

The pub owners, in their search for ever smaller, ever-hardier dogs, liberally wove the three breeds together. So, the hands that began the creation of the tenacious sprite we know today as the Silky Terrier were gnarled and working class. They bred their dogs smaller to earn more money, and they bred them tough as nails.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE DOG SHOW

As the three breeds were woven together, something interesting occurred. Genes from the glossy, long-coated Clydesdale and Paisley and the short-backed Waterside occasionally combined to create small, short-backed puppies with straight, shiny blue and tan coats. How lovely! And as the publicans sat back and admired their creations, they had an idea. Why not create even more pub business by putting on dog shows? So as early as 1849, the British public was introduced to the little dogs at shows.
It was love at first sight.

Huddersfield Ben, the father of the Yorkshire Terrier.

THE INFLUENCE OF HUDDERSFIELD BEN

The father of the Yorkshire Terrier — and therefore the Silky — was a dog named Huddersfield Ben, born in 1865 and weighing about 12 lbs., and slightly longer than tall. He was owned by Mrs. Jonas Foster, who set the early fashion in Yorkies. Ben is the first dog to be recorded as a Yorkshire Terrier. Mrs. Foster entered Ben in a number of dog shows, winning 74 prizes along the way. Through Mrs. Foster’s breeding program under the “Bradford” prefix, her dogs quickly became the longer-coated, shorter-backed, and smaller dogs the Yorkshire Terrier is today.

AND THEN THERE WERE SILKY TERRIERS

But did the longer-backed, larger type disappear? No. We have records of Hudderfield’s Ben grandmother Katie emigrating to Tasmania, Australia. And if we know about Katie, there must have been lots of other little blue and tan terriers making the long voyage as well.

According to another source, in the period 1820 -30, a Waterside Terrier bitch of a blue sheen color, bred in Tasmania, was taken to England and mated with a Dandi Dinmont Terrier. Mr. MacArthur Little of London purchased some puppies from this litter and experimented with further breeding to produce the soft Silky coat. Later Mr. Little emigrated to Sydney and continued to breed.

Katie (and her unsung relatives) are the direct progenitors of the Silky Terrier. A newspaper article shared by Jan Broadby Klaus described her great-great-grandfather John Gillon’s masonry business in Hobort 1860 – 1880. In the forefront of the newspaper picture is a small terrier that could be a Silky. The breed was intended to be snake hunters and house watchdogs. This was while Yorkies were being bred to be dainty companions in Northern England. So, you can imagine that different attributes in very different areas were valued!

Silky Terriers — tapping deep into their genetic hard wiring of a tough little watchdog, bred to be the last line of defense for the practical pioneer farmers in the Outback. Sweet to their people, sometimes not so nice to strangers, and not thrilled about strange dogs. Quick to chase (and bring down) anything that scurries or slithers. In our modern age, it is easy to wish for every breed no matter what its size and shape to be sweet and biddable in all circumstances. That is not the genetic blueprint of the Silky Terrier.

So, then, why bother? A Silky CHOOSES to obey, to comply… to bond. And when those eyes look deep into your soul with love because they have decided that you are worthy, there is no feeling like that in the world.

 

 

 

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