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There are two main meanings to the word terrier, both relating to a large family of hunting and sporting dog breeds and landraces. Terriers, a large group of feisty dog breeds, with representatives the world over, and the Terrier Group, a formal designation for show terriers, which encompasses many of the breeds from the larger family group.

This article will discuss the whole group of dogs that fall into the terrier family.

The origins of terriers

Almost all modern terriers are the descendants of dogs bred in the British Isles. Terriers can be documented as a distinct group as far back as medieval Britain. Dame Julianan Berners described terriers in a book on hunting, The Boke of St Albans, published in 1496. The first known English language book on dogs, Of Englishe Dogges, by Dr John Caius, published in 1570 also mentions this versatile group. [1] Caius describes terriers as being fit for hunting a number of different animals; he lists these and intimates that terriers are catagorised according to the types of animals they can successfully hunt.[2]

It would appear that hunters became the first selective dog breeders of the modern world.

Dog fanciers often speak of a terrier's "gameness", a word which relates to the dog's courage and tenacity. This "big-dog-in-a-small-body" attitude led to an era when terriers were used in fighting and baiting sports, particularly rat baiting and dog fighting. These activities are outlawed in most nations today, but illegal activities still take place. The descendants of fighting terriers such as the group generically referred to as pit bulls, are still exploited in this manner.

Today, the smallest terrier breed is the Yorkshire Terrier (although this breed is assigned to the Toy Group (see the discussion below) and the largest terrier is the Airedale Terrier.

The terrier group

The terrier group is one of (usually) seven groups into which the breeds of kennel club show dogs are divided.

These classifications are ill-defined in that although the major kennel clubs assign the same breeds to the same groups, a few breeds are classed differently by different clubs.

Some dogs have the word “terrier” in their names, but are not true terriers, such as the Black Russian Terrier and the Tibetan Terrier. Schnauzers are almost universally considered to be terriers, but are not named such and are not always included in the terrier group, perhaps because of their non-British origin.

Finally, there are many independent terrier breeds not aligned with the Terrier Group, as well as national breeds which may be known only in their countries of origin. The Miniature Fox Terrier (an independent pure breed) and the Ratonero Bodeguero Andaluz (only recognized by the kennel club of Spain, its native land), are examples.

For a list of terriers, see catalogue of terriers.


  1. Dame Juliana Berners mentions “terroures” in a list of dog breeds in a work on hunting, The Boke of St. Albans, first published in 1496. Dr. John Caius documents the existence of “terrars” in the first known English language text classifying dog breeds. The treatise was originally written in Latin: Dr Johannes Caius, De Canibus Brittanicus (1570) and translated by Abraham Fleming as Of Englishe Dogges (1576).
  2. “Terrars”, in Caius,op.cit.