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Understanding a Working Terrier's Gameness

Among the world of terriers, gameness is a trait that is often misunderstood. Working terriers, as the name implies, are dogs who have been selectively bred for working and their work required specific characteristics that allowed them to excel in their tasks. A terrier's gameness is sometimes still perceived as a negative trait, often related to aggression. In reality, if we take a look back at the history of working terriers we will notice how gameness had nothing to do with aggression and that gameness was actually considered a virtue that helped these tenacious dogs carry on with their tasks.

rat catcher

A Look Back

Working terriers are small dogs with a past of being selectively bred to hunt down burrowing animals. The word terrier indeed derives from the Latin word "terra" which means earth.

As agriculture developed in Britain in the 1700s, working terriers were in high demand as they helped farmers get rid of critters who ate their crops, bothered other farm animals and infested their stores.

The terrier's work encompassed fitting through the burrows so the critters could be located. Once located, the terriers would bark and flush them out, and in some cases, even kill them.

Later on, when fox hunting became popular in Britain in the 18th and 19th century, hounds were often used for tracking foxes on foot, but many times the hunt was interrupted when the fox ended up hiding in an underground burrow. This is where the terriers came handy as they would "go to ground" and bolt it free so the hunt could continue.

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During the Industrial Revolution, terriers were also welcomed for their ability to kill rodents which were a major health problem so urban rat control became a new profession.

To get rid of the many rats, the bloody sport of rat baiting became popular and owning a ratter dog  helped earn a good sum of money from bets. Fortunately, this bloody practice has become illegal in most countries.

A Working Drive

ratter dogs

A terrier's work required a determined and courageous dog willing to fight animals that were often much larger than him in dark, tight places. Fights between the dog and cornered animals weren't unusual. Animals hunted down often consisted of woodchucks, groundhogs, foxes, rats, raccoon and badgers.

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In order to succeed in their tasks, terriers had to be capable of better tolerating the pain associated with being bitten or scratched and keep going. Pain sensitive and weak specimens were certainly not fit for the job.

Gameness is therefore the strong working drive that allowed these dogs to keep working despite being wet, cold, injured, ill or tired. When other dogs gave up, the terrier kept going which is why many owners today are so proud about their terrier's "drive" which makes them determined competitors in several canine sports.

"Gameness does not mean aggressiveness. Gameness refers to the ability to continue in the face of adversity, to continue trying no matter how difficult the task becomes."~D. Caroline Coile

yorkshiter terrier tail

The Terriers Today

While most terriers are used today mostly for companionship, their temperament, energy, swiftness, creativity and gameness are still attractive to many terrier owners who have opened their hearts and homes to these intelligent dogs. It's important to become aware of the "terrier personality" before committing to these dogs.

After many years of selective breeding, the strong instincts of digging, finding and even harassing other animals still remain alive and well.

This makes owning terriers quite a different experience (but oh, so intriguing!) from owning the average Labrador or golden retriever!

"Understanding these instincts and working with them, rather than against them, will help us have positive, happy relationships with our terriers.""~Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell

idea tip

Did you know? Today, owners of terriers can test their terrier's gameness in fun earth dog trials and the American Working terrier Association even offers a Certificate of Gameness title meant to test a terrier's natural instincts.


  • Terrier-centric Dog Training, By Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell, August 1, 2012, Dogwise Publishing

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