Buried deep in Irish folklore along with tales of leprechauns and the blarney stone is the history of the Irish terrier breeds that worked side by side with farmers. These adaptable dogs hunted rats, foxes, and badgers that ate grains, chickens, and eggs; protected people and property; and herded cattle. Because Irish nobles kept the beagles, hounds, and spaniels for themselves, common citizens also used terriers to hunt birds and small game as well.
Farmers kept no records, so when the many all-around farm dogs gradually became four recognizable terrier breeds, their origins were lost to obscurity. However, speculation is that the three long-legged terriers of the Emerald Isle – the Irish, the Kerry Blue, and the Soft-coated Wheaten – and the short-legged Glen of Imaal all spring from the same basic terrier stock.
Despite common ancestry, however, the Irish dogs have different personalities. The country’s namesake terrier has a reputation as a dare-devil; the Kerry is known for its gameness and protectiveness; the Glen is a silent and tenacious hunter; and the Wheaten – possibly the oldest of the Irish terrier breeds – is the least scrappy of the quartet but is in full possession of other terrier attributes: versatility, exuberance, and a love of life and family.
Despite its long history as a farm dog, the Wheaten wasn’t recognized as a breed in Ireland until 1937. The first Wheatens came to the US in the 1940s, but serious interest in the breed took years to develop. Finally, in 1973, they were recognized by the American Kennel Club and in 1998 were ranked 59th in popularity with 1988 individual registrations recorded and 56th in number of litters born with 890.
The Wheaten is a balanced, well-muscled, square dog with a distinctive coat and color and a docked tail. Males are 18-19 inches tall and weigh 35-40 pounds, and females are a bit smaller. The breed has the typical rectangular terrier head, small-to-medium ears that drop over at the skull, a large black nose, and brown, almond-shaped eyes.
The coat color is unique among the terriers, leading to the opinion that the inclusion of “soft-coated” in the breed name is unnecessary. All Wheatens are shades of … wheaten color. Puppies may be darker, and adolescents may have some darker shading on muzzles and ears, but adult dogs must be uniformly wheaten.
Coat texture is unique as well. Most breeds developed to work in harsh climates have double coats, also a feature shared by many terriers. However, the Wheaten has a long, soft, wavy single coat that covers its entire body and head and flows when the dog moves. The American Wheaten coat is somewhat heavier than that on the Irish dogs today, and potential puppy buyers may have a choice when selecting a breeder. However, whatever type you choose, remember that it can take up to three years for the coat to mature to its typical Wheaten color and texture.
The Wheaten combines the best terrier attributes without the sharpness typical of most of the dogs in this group. Steady, fun-loving, friendly, and willing to bark at unfamiliar people who enter his space, he’s not as high-strung as some other terriers, but he may nonetheless be scrappy with other dogs or have a high prey drive that stresses neighborhood cats and small wildlife. He’s not as suspicious of strangers as the Kerry or as bold as the Irish, but he does have a stubborn streak and needs early socialization to accustom him to a variety of people and situations.
Wheatens jump and bounce. They can leap straight up off the floor and are fond of jumping on people to get attention or display their high spirits. Training often takes more than a dollop of patience and a deep commitment to firm but gentle instruction and follow-up.
The Wheaten will settle into suburban and city living quite comfortably if obedience-trained for good manners and given daily exercise. He is a bright dog, though, and if left to his own devices, could become snippy or destructive. He likes tricks and games that exercise his brain and body; active toys such as balls, food cubes, and flying discs can satisfy his need for physical and mental stimulation. The Wheaten is good with children, but he must be trained to understand that even the children in the family can tell him what to do.
Like many terriers, the Wheaten also likes to dig, so fences to contain him should be sunk into the ground or placed on concrete.
The Wheaten coat keeps many potential owners from enjoying the great character of this breed. The soft, wavy coat needs constant attention to keep it free of mats and debris – daily combing is necessary for dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors and every-other-day grooming is required for indoor pets. Even a leaf picked up on a walk in the park can start a tangle, and sticky seed pods hitching a ride can be major disasters.
Special attention must be paid to the coat behind the ears and in other sensitive spots as mats and tangles in these places are not only difficult to remove, they cause pain to the dog. Thoroughness is necessary; snarls can quickly become felted pads of hair, which can in turn can cause hot spots and skin infections.
Basically a healthy dog, the Wheaten has a life expectancy of 12-15 years. The Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America guards breed health and tracks genetic problems through its code of ethics and a health committee. The code of ethics requires, among other things, that all breeding stock be certified free of hip dysplasia, genetic eye diseases, and brucellosis and other infectious diseases.
The breed is susceptible to three diseases thought to have genetic origin – protein-losing nephropathy, protein-losing enteropathy, and renal dysplasia. PLN involves loss of protein through the kidneys; PLE involves loss of protein through the intestines; and RD involves abnormal formation of the kidneys. All are rare in the US.
Although great strides have been made in identifying genetic markers and developing screening tests for many gene-based diseases, there are no test yet for PLN, PLE, or RD. Therefore, the breed club’s health committee recommends that close relatives of dogs with these diseases not be bred and that periodic tests be done on the relatives of affected dogs to determine if the disease is present and help establish a baseline for research.
The breed club is not sitting on its hands, waiting for someone else to do the work that will protect the Wheaten. Instead, the club sponsors research at three veterinary schools, including test breedings, clinical and genetic studies, and epidemiology. For more information, contact Dr. Elizabeth Ampleford, breed health coordinator, PO Box 2987, Batesville, VA 22924 or visit the Wheaten club website (www.scwtca.org).
The Wheaten is a medium-sized dog suitable for an active family that also has time and inclination for training and grooming. The usual caveats apply, however: when choosing a Wheaten puppy, look for one with parents that have been certified free of known genetic disorders, a puppy that is neither timid nor overly bold. If possible, visit the whole litter to compare the personalities of the puppies, meet the mother, and see the conditions in which the pups were born and raised. Early socialization is important as well; puppies that have been accustomed to different people, sounds, surfaces, conditions, and toys will adapt more quickly to new surroundings and training.
Plan on a puppy kindergarten class that will continue socialization, teach the fundamentals of walking on a leash, and begin work on the basic commands of sit, down, stay, and come.
The Wheaten is not a popular breed, so you may have to wait for a well-bred puppy. For more information about the breed and for a list of breeders, contact the SCWTCA by e-mail at SCWTCA@scwtca.org
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