Friday, February 20, 2009
Irish Terriers were taken to all parts of the British Empire, notably India and South Africa, and became popular in America - especially after the writer of animal stories Jack London, an owner, wrote two novels celebrating their 'unparalleled excellence'.
It was their courage which led to their pre-eminence as 'war dogs' during the First World War. Shipped to France with their handlers, they showed great courage as sentry patrol dogs, messengers, guards and ratters in the terrible conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front. One such was Larry who, under shell-fire, struggled back to base camp through miles of frozen slush and mud. Having delivered his message, he collapsed and died. They found a bullet lodged in his shoulder.
Col Richardson, who was responsible for the dog training programme, spoke of the 'gallant Micks' and was convinced that they had an almost psychic ability to find their masters in the mayhem of battle. He told of an Irish terrier who shipped himself to France with the troops and found his master in the trenches. It is impossible to conceive how he managed it.
So why are there so relatively few of them about today? Who knows precisely, except that there was a steep decline in the popularity of all terriers through the 1920s and 1930s. It could have been a post-war longing for change and a fashion for more exotic-looking dogs. Urbanisation would not have helped, but the halcyon days of the feisty, upbeat terriers of all kinds were over.
Like most breeds, Irish terriers owe everything to a handful of skilled and dedicated breeders who struggled on through the Second World War to feed their dogs and keep the breeding lines intact. This was no mean task with food rationing and privations of wartime Britain.
We can thank this generation for the lack of any serious congenital breed faults which are all too common in other breeds today. As my vet remarks rather ruefully, having not seen my two Irish since last year's inoculations: 'Fit as ticks, are you? Well, there's not a lot to go wrong, is there?'
There are some beautiful dogs about today, smart as paint, stripped and trimmed to a whisker for the show ring. There is also a steady stream of adorable puppies that make wonderful family pets. They have never been over-bred with too many puppies waiting for good homes. Rarely, if ever, does one land up like thousands of other dogs, in care. Nor have they ever been 'farmed', the iniquitous practice of raising puppies entirely for financial gain, which has caused such terrible havoc in some of the most numerous breeds.
There any no disadvantages to the dog-unless you are a control freak who cannot tolerate a dog who has a free spirit, is not naturally obedient, remains playful and energetic into ripe old age, digs holes, chews, is insatiably curious, full of ideas and innovations and is exasperatingly delighted with himself. In an age when convenience is the fashion, conformity the rule and depression almost the norm, I thank God for a dog with his soul intact, a heart warm and generous, that is perfectly adapted to modern living and has the wit and fire of his ancient terrier ancestors.
Here's my pair - Brawn and Bliss - who are getting groomed Tuesday, waaay overdue.