Confessions of a breed fancier
For whatever reason, everything about the Scottish Terrier appeals to me
I made a bold move in a recent column when I not only disclosed the fact that I have a dog, but that it is a Scottish Terrier. In fact, it’s much more serious that this: my husband and I have had multiple Scottish Terriers for almost 20 years, which makes us Scottish Terrier fanciers, thank you very much. And the fancying’s not wearing off, either.
When you commit to a dog breed, you’re also committing, for better or worse, to the associations and assumptions people connect to it. Terriers, for example, while widely found to be delightful companions, are often considered scrappy, tenacious, sometimes aloof, and frequently entitled. I once knew a Jack Russell Terrier who considered himself a kind of missile to launch at people’s pelvises, and not in a nice way. Retrievers might try to launch themselves at you, but it will be ungainly and benign enough to feel like a sort of hard-but-loving shove, and you just know it’s because they’re so darn happy to see you and not too keen about judging things like weight, velocity, gravity, etc.
Now: what kinds of people are attracted to these very different dogs? The breed you choose says things about you, some of which you’re conscious of, some of which you’re not, and some of which depend entirely on what ideas and experiences other people attach to that breed.
People ask me, “Why Scotties?” I honestly have no idea — for all I know it could have been the Scottie sweater Princess Diana wore a few times, with its ranks of white (ahem, in breed parlance we call it “wheaten”) Scotties and one, single black Scottie marching over her right breast.
When I was a child, my father had giant Chesapeake Bay Retrievers he only wanted for hunting a few days of the year. Tied up in the backyard and starved for attention, one used to stand outside the kitchen window, its front paws on the sill, its chain stretched taught as it looked wistfully into the house, day after day. Perhaps I’ve chosen Scotties because they’re compact, easy house dogs, affectionate but with an independent streak. Perhaps I wanted to define myself as very different from my estranged father, and having a very different dog was part of that process.
Or maybe it’s Scotties because of my practical nature. They’re low-dander dogs who, because they’re black, always look and smell fairly clean. They don’t shed any more than people do, and they’re small enough to pack a few into a household without losing too much square footage. Though they’re terriers, they’re not yappy, and they don’t have any issues with their ears, eyes, skin, or hips, as so many other breeds do.
Or maybe it’s my latent Scottish ancestry reaching out, or there’s something about Scottish culture in particular that appeals to me and I aspire to reflect — I want some of that grit, that saltiness.
For thousands of years dogs evolved and were engineered to suit our needs as hunters and farmers in exchange for warmth, food, and belonging to a powerful tribe. Now, the majority are bred to serve another purpose: identity. Tiny Yorkies that fit in leather bags compliment fashion-conscious identities. Sporting dogs project outdoorsy identities. Dogs can shore up our emotional well-being, and help us to define healthier, more empathetic versions of ourselves. They can also, tragically, be used to enhance dangerous, antisocial identities: dogs like Rottweilers, Dobermans and Staffordshire Terriers have been used and abused because they’ve been so frequently portrayed as guard dogs and fighting dogs, not because it’s in all their natures to be aggressive. Stray dogs adopted from the pound reflect a morality and social consciousness that purebred dog owners can’t access.
People have told me that I’m abnormally attached to doing “the right thing” — starting the kids’ RESPs right after they’re born, being vegetarian, driving an electric car … When it comes to dogs, “the right thing” is surely going to the Humane Society and picking up the dog who’s running out of chances. I don’t do this. I know I should, and yet ... For whatever reason, everything about the Scottish Terrier appeals to me. I fancy it. Whereas once they were bred to catch vermin and root out badgers in the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall, now they’re bred to make people like me ridiculously happy, just by existing as their fabulous, singular selves. Is this selfish? Maybe. And sometimes I feel guilty. But in a country that prides itself on diversity, perhaps there’s also room to celebrate and respect the glorious canine in all its permutations — the most physically diverse species on earth, with the remarkable capability of acting as a hairy reflection and enabler of our diverse selves.
Latham Hunter writes: ‘Terriers, while widely found to be delightful companions, are often considered scrappy, tenacious, sometimes aloof, and frequently entitled.’