Terrier Dog Breeds: Everything You Need to Know

Despite their rather small demeanour, terriers will fill up the house with their energy and love of life. There is plenty of fun to be had with a terrier by your side, but before committing to a life together, here is what you should know about these beloved dog breeds.
terrier dog running
terrier dog running
terrier dog running

Terrier dog breeds are truly enthusiastic about life. They generally have a lot to say and a lot to see, but their diverse backgrounds make room for a lot of variety in their personalities and behaviour. If you think terrier breeds are a match for you, here is what to expect, in a nutshell.

A terrier dog’s job description

Most terrier breeds have their origins in the UK and were developed to kill vermin such as rats and mice in a variety of settings from the rural to the industrial, either above or below ground.

Terrier dog breed sizes

With one exception (the larger Airedale), terrier breeds are small dogs with huge – and fairly strong - personalities. With different histories and working styles, some of the terriers are quite feisty and tenacious while others are softer and less challenging, but all can be accurately described as ‘large dogs in a small body’!

The natural instincts of terrier dog breeds

Terriers’ instincts have been honed to perfection by successive breeding to locate and kill vermin quickly. Terriers who don’t have to stalk or chase their prey (as they are in very close proximity) are specialists in watching and killing their prey, often with a single bite.

As this predatory behaviour is self-rewarding for dogs (ie it doesn’t need an external reward such as a treat or praise), owners have to be aware that not only do their dogs enjoy carrying out these behaviours, they need to do them to stay healthy and happy. Often, these are also the behaviours they will resort to if they are bored, stressed, under-stimulated, excited – or just for fun.

This certainly doesn’t mean you should encourage your terrier be the terror of the local rodent population but it does mean that training and games should be targeted in ways that simulate hunting in order to keep them happy, healthy and fulfilled as well as improve your bond.

Terrier dog breeds’ behaviour and personality

In order to do their job successfully, a terrier breed needs certain key skills and characteristics.

Fun and active

Terriers love life and are always up for a game or an adventure so they are great for owners who wants a go everywhere dog but in a smaller package! Despite being a small dog, they enjoy lots of walks and exercise and so for fitness enthusiasts or just people who enjoy getting out and about, a terrier will be ideal.

terrier dog running in a field

Alert

With a history of looking out for vermin, a terrier will be the first to alert you to just about anything. As well as being constantly alert, terriers are quick to take any action they feel might be necessary. They can be reactive to other dogs – and may hunt small furries including cats.

Determined and courageous

Any dog capable of facing down a rat or larger, needs to be both tenacious and brave and most terrier have these skills in bucketloads.

Independent

If you want a dog who will hang on your every word or excel in obedience or dog sports, a terrier probably isn’t a great choice. They can and should be trained to be well-behaved, but they are rarely traditionally obedient! They may also be standoffish with strangers.

Potentially noisy

Some terrier breeds have a lot to say for themselves (especially those who traditionally would work underground as they may need to shout if they get stuck so they can be located and dug out). If your terrier gets bored, stressed or excited (or just because!) they can easily become nuisance barkers. This also can be a problem if they are left home-alone.

Excellent and enthusiastic diggers

Get ready for unwanted digging. Terrier breeds aren’t great dogs if you are garden-proud, unless you are prepared to fence off a specific area for them or build a digging pit.

Possibly destructive

If a terrier’s ripping and tearing instincts aren’t properly channelled, they can be destructive to home and property

Strong bite

If not taught bite inhibition and that human hands are delicate, they can bite hard even if unintentionally.

Is a terrier breed right for you?

There are a few things you need to be aware of before having a terrier join the family.

Exercise

Despite their size, a terrier will be surprisingly active and enjoy almost as much dog exercise as you want to give them. They do need at least an hour’s exercise a day.

Training

Many terriers look on dog training with amusement and few are traditionally obedient! Some find training classes too stimulating and find it hard to concentrate around other dogs and people – and so owners need to find a trainer who understands this and can provide them with the right kind of environment while they are learning to focus on their owner. They are however smart and intelligent, and with an owner who understands them – and has both patience and a sense of humour - they can do surprisingly well.

Sociability

Terriers are bred to work alone and so many can become problematic with other dogs if they are not well and positively socialised. To be successful, dog socialisation should be ongoing and carefully managed.

Terrier breeds generally love their own family but can take or leave other people – and some do not have much tolerance for children and the associated noise and running around. The different breeds – and individuals within the breeds - vary widely however and some are far softer and more tolerant.

Grooming

Most terriers have a rough harsh coat that is weather-proof and fairly easy to keep clean and tidy. Some will have coats that need regular stripping to keep in good condition and coat care should be discussed with the breeder.

Noise

Don’t expect your terrier to be quiet – and while some terrier breeds aren’t quite so talkative, others will require you to have very understanding (or distant) neighbours. Training should include teaching your terrier to have an ‘off-switch’ and a terrier-savvy reward-based dog trainer can help you with this.

Affection

This varies widely across the terrier breeds – some are very affectionate and are almost lap dogs at home, while others don’t have much patience at all for physical displays of affection but are still just as bonded to their owners. All owners should spend time teaching their terrier puppy to enjoy being handled and groomed to prevent future touch sensitivities.

Games

Terriers love dog games! Especially ones that involve playing with their owner tugging and digging. Interactive toys that allow them to rip and tear (even kibble or treats in an empty cardboard kitchen towel tube will do) will help keep their natural instincts satisfied and help improve the owner/dog bond.

The terrier dog owner checklist

You could be the perfect owner for a terrier if you:

  • Have limited space but still want a full-on active dog
  • Enjoy dogs who are independent and may not enjoy physical displays of affection (although remember all dogs are different) but will still follow you everywhere
  • Don’t mind noise
  • Enjoy playing games with your dog
  • If you have children, they are either older or else are quiet and ‘’dog aware’.
  • Have a sense of humour!
white terrier dog

Bonding with your terrier

The best way to bond with your terrier is through games that involve chasing, tugging, and digging. These are great fun for you both!

Explore even more family-friendly dogs with our article exploring the breeds that make friends with kids instantly.