As the name suggests, the Border Terrier has its origin on either side of the Cheviot Hills which form the Border country, and may be regarded as one of the oldest kinds of terriers in Great Britain. As a purely “working terrier,” Border farmers, shepherds, and sportsmen for generations carefully preserved a strain of this dog which could be found in almost every Border homestead. . . . a game terrier with length of leg sufficient to follow a horse, yet small enough to follow a fox to ground. The dogs had to be active, strong, and tireless; they had to have weather-resisting coats in order to withstand prolonged exposure to drenching rains and mists in the hills.
—The Complete Dog Book, New Revised Edition, 1968
An official publication of The American Kennel Club
Louise Monjo of New York recalls that “it was in 1967 that Border Terriers came into our lives. Four children, ranging in age from eight to sixteen, yearned for a dog—a dog to take to Central Park, a dog to play with. The pleas went on so they were given the Complete Dog Book to choose a breed. And they looked and they all agreed: it was to be a Border Terrier.”
Now enjoying Finn, her fifth Border, she has never regretted that choice. Like all other fans of specific breeds, Border Terrier people are fiercely loyal to what they regard as the most beguiling, intelligent, and good looking of all dogs and there is much to be said for this point of view.
“The Border is a special kind of dog,” writes Louise. “They thrive if they have steady, loving interaction with their owner. They like to share their life with people. Their otter-like faces and big brown eyes are very appealing as is their simple, workmanlike body—no frills, no exaggerations.”
Personally, I’ve always been attracted to Borders because the ones I’d met had all the positive terrier qualities (smart, energetic, and playful), but somehow were not plagued by that supremely negative of terrier traits: the instinctive urge to fight every other dog on the block. Indeed, the ones I’d encountered were supremely sociable with humans and other dogs of all kinds.
But according to Louise this is not always the case.
“The second Border we had, MacTavish, was highly strung and absolutely antagonistic toward other dogs. One dog owner who still lives nearby called him a Tasmanian devil and to this day avoids all my dogs—and this is years after Tavie died!”
There didn’t seem to be any way to modify MacTavish’s behavior either.
“After a few years with no improvement of his behavior at all and despite numerous professional training efforts, I got a female Border, Bessie, for MacTavish. And they were happy together—Bessie being a gentle, accommodating dog who gladly let my granddaughter dress her up in doll clothes and put flowers on her head. But Tavie did not improve with other dogs at all; he lived to be nineteen years old, hanging on to life by his fierce temperament. He and Bessie are buried together at my son’s place in Maryland.”
It does seem, however, that MacTavish’s feisty personality was unusual in the breed.
Douglas Benezra, a photographer now living in Portland, Oregon, is quite enthusiastic about them and speaks lovingly of Cara (officially Foxforest Angel Heart), his companion for many years.
“Border Terriers are mellow, tough, averse to fighting, and very loving,” he says. “But they do obsess a bit when they get an idea into their heads. Cara and I went regularly to a FedEx office in downtown Portland where the man behind the counter always gave her a biscuit. Whenever we were downtown and within four blocks of FedEx, she would start dragging me there even when it was not my destination. She did this once after the FedEx store had closed and was now a dress shop. I had to take her there to prove that the man with the biscuit was gone.”
Another friend who has known only sociable Border Terriers is Kathryn Woodrow, who grew up on a farm in Norfolk, England.
“I first became aware of Border Terriers in 1985 when my mother and I visited some friends of hers in Leicestershire who bred quarter horses and we found that they owned six Borders who ruled the stable yard as well as the household!
“Mum fell in love with them and when puppies were born, she visited again and came home with a bitch called Lucy who soon fitted into our household and got on famously with the Labradors and all visitors to the farm.”
Kathryn, who wrote lovingly about all the dogs in her life and particularly Otto, the Vizsla who currently lives with her and her husband David (“On the Farm,” Issue Twelve, May 13, 2013), has this to say about Borders: “They are good-natured, affectionate, and highly intelligent. They are also fearless. I have always found them to be very sociable with other dogs and even tolerant of cats.
“However,” she cautions, “I would not recommend them for a household with rabbits or hamsters as their hunting instincts may take over. It has to be remembered that they were originally bred for hunting.”
Yes, Border Terriers are hunters.
Doug Benezra recalls that when Cara “spotted ‘prey’ (squirrels, cats, seagulls, pigeons, and all similar ‘vermin’), she would go into a panther crouch and stalk in very slow motion. I would end the chase by clapping or making a noise which would send her running at them with the loudest barks possible which, of course, alerted the prey, which would then zip up a tree or take off.”
And it is this hunting instinct that those considering adoption must bear in mind—especially if they live in a city.
“Borders are not reliable off the leash,” warns Louise Monjo. “They must always be on a leash unless fenced in because they love to run free and they ignore the word ‘come.’ They like to explore, to find out what’s out there in the big world, to hunt. I can’t take advantage of the morning off-leash-time in Central Park. Our first Border, Dugald, ran off one day from our rural summer cottage and only returned the next day—very pleased with himself.”
Finn, the current Border Terrier in the Monjo household, shows another aspect of this predilection for hunting.
“In the country he enjoys his job of keeping squirrels away from the patio. His way of doing this is in line with his heritage. If none are visible, he first listens—head cocked, one paw raised. Once he hears movement, he’s off like a flash to chase the creature. Finn takes this job very seriously.”
Now often found far from their original homeland, the rural landscape which separates England from Scotland, Border Terriers have devoted fans all over the globe. But for those considering the breed, Doug Benezra warns, “Only buy a Border from a reputable breeder. Border Terrier people have been, and are, very careful to prevent cross-breeding.” And Louise Monjo concurs: “I think it is very important to find a Border through the AKC or Border Terrier clubs. There are not many Borders available and keeping in touch with a breeder, even visiting a kennel, can help you choose a dog.”
But is the effort worth it?
Perhaps. As Doug boasts of Cara, “Everyone who met her fell in love with her and claimed she was the best dog they ever met.”