Australian Silky Terrier

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Australian Silky Terrier

Far less delicate than the sleek, flowing coat would suggest, the Australian Silky Terrier is a tough little dog, bred to kill vermin in urban areas, but that has now adapted to become a companion and watch dog. Despite its small stature, the Silky is every inch a terrier, and as such is a feisty and energetic character with a penchant for mischief, including digging and sometimes barking excessively. Like its cousin, the Yorkshire Terrier, the Australian Silky Terrier prefers the company of adult humans to young children or other pets. In fact, the breed can be quite abrasive with other dogs, and will not back down from a fight, even when faced with a much bigger opponent.

The breed has retained its strong hunting instincts, and a home with a Silky Terrier is guaranteed to be kept free of mice and rats; however, this behaviour can also be misdirected towards cats and other small pets. Though some regular commitment is required, the striking coat that gives the breed its name requires relatively little work. The Silky is quite an energetic little dog, and needs regular walks to keep it in good shape physically and mentally, but once this need is met it can adapt very well to indoor living. Several common health problems that occur in the breed are discussed below, but it is not unusual for these hardy dogs to live to be 14–16 years.

About & History

The Australian Silky was developed as a cross between Yorkshire Terriers, imported from the United Kingdom, and native Australian Terriers towards the end of the nineteenth century. Despite today’s perception of the Yorkie as a lapdog, at this time, it was widely used for controlling rat and mice populations in populated areas. The Australian Terrier, the first of the indigenous Australian breeds, was used for a similar purpose, but was hardier and more adapted to the local environment. Some historians believe that other breeds like the Dandie Dinmont and Skye Terrier may also have been involved in these early stages. This experimental cross-breeding was a success, producing pups with the aesthetic appeal of the Yorkshire Terrier and the renowned intelligence of the Aussie.

For several decades, it was considered that a single litter could contain any one of these breeds, with Silky Terriers simply being those with the finest coats, and refinement of the breed was not practised until after the first breed standard was drawn up in Sydney in 1906. However, a rival standard was produced in Victoria only three years later, which only served to confuse early breeding efforts. This situation was resolved in the 1920s, when the two standards were amalgamated, and the breed became formally known as the “Sydney Silky”, only becoming the Australian Silky in the mid-1950s. The Silky began to make its way around the world in the wake of the Second World War, when servicemen who had been stationed in Australia imported these dogs to the United States. It was, therefore, formally recognised in America a full twenty years before the UK, being registered with the AKC in 1959 and with the UK Kennel Club in 1979.

Appearance

Australian Silky Terrier Large Photo

The Australian Silky is a low-set, sleek terrier, small in stature, but retaining the physical prowess to hunt vermin. Though it may bear some similarities to the Yorkshire Terrier at first glance, the Silky has more substance, and is less refined in several features. The head, for example, is more robust and wedge-shaped, with enough stock to the muzzle to suggest a strong bite, and with a flat, rather than domed, skull. The Silky’s oval eyes are dark and small in proportion to its face, as are the pricked triangular ears set high on the head.

The neck and back are lean and muscular with a slight crest behind the head, and the dog’s overall length is noticeably greater than its height. The back should always be level when viewed from the side, both to fit the standard and to avoid introducing spinal problems (see below). While the tail would have been docked in times past, it should now always be left full and is usually carried erect. The upper fore and hind limbs are strong and well-developed, and it is important the limbs are straight and true throughout their length to the small, cat-like paws.

The breed’s defining physical feature is its coat, which lies straight and flat, and is long – up to six inches along its back. This is a single-coated breed, meaning the fine, dense undercoat is lacking, and the markings are a mix of blue and tan. The Australian Silky is 23–26 cm (9–10 in) tall at the withers and usually weighs around 4–4.5 kg (9–10 lb).

Character & Temperament

Despite their refined appearance, Silkies display many typically terrier-type behaviours, being mischievous and stubborn. While these may sound like unappealing traits, to know a Silky is to love it, for they are full of personality and spunk. Rather than playing out the role of lapdog, the Silky prefers to act on his own wishes, and will dominate the home if allowed to do so, but can usually be convinced to fall back in line with a treat or correction as needed. The breed loves to be with people, and will spend as much time as possible lying on owners’ feet or snoozing on laps.

They are known for their propensity to bark at anything and everything, and this can become a problem if neighbours are sensitive to noise. Teaching the dog to bark and cease on command can help, but will never eliminate this strong tendency. As a positive, this behaviour does mean they make excellent watch dogs.

The Australian Silky is the archetypal big dog in a small frame, and often does not mix well with other dogs. While this might be helped by socialisation training, they are best placed in homes with no other pets, whom they may either fight with or see as prey. They also have a strong instinct to dig, and will certainly not leave flowerbeds undisturbed. Although older children may enjoy the Silky’s spark, younger children are likely to evoke a bite from this strong willed and independent-minded dog.

Trainability

Photo of Australian Silky Terrier puppy

Like most terriers, Silkies can be somewhat difficult to train, as they prefer to do things on their own terms, and lack the patience for intense training sessions. Of course, training will eventually pay dividends, and the breed does not want for intelligence, but they are unlikely to ever be the star pupils at an obedience class.

Socialisation training is important, and something that should be practised as soon as a pup’s primary vaccination course is finished. Although Australian Silkies are generally very sociable with people, their interactions with other dogs can be somewhat fraught, and teaching them at an early age how to behave in canine company is invaluable.

Health

There are a number of physical defects that crop up with sufficient regularity to warrant discussion, but serious medical issues are relatively rare in the breed. When choosing a puppy, always ensure you have carefully researched the breeder and that you are shown certificates of veterinary examination to minimise the chances of buying a puppy with an inherited problem.

  • Cataracts – These solid deposits in the lens of the eye can develop with age in any breed, but are relatively common in the Silky. Occasionally, puppies can be born with congenital cataracts, which can be seen as pale or crystalline structures in the centre of the eye.
  • Collapsing Trachea – A very common disorder, in which weakness in the wall of the main airway allows it collapse during heavy breathing. Two forms exist: intra- and extra-thoracic, with intra-thoracic collapse most often occurring during expiration, and extra-thoracic during inspiration. This is often exacerbated by wearing a collar, pulling on a lead, or barking. The most obvious sign is of a harsh, goose-honk cough, which may be intermittent and mild, or which can seriously affect the dog’s quality of life. Weight management is important in these dogs, and those severely affected may benefit from the relatively recent development of a surgically placed stent within the airway.
  • Cryptorchidism – In many male Australian Silky Terriers, the testicles do not complete their descent from the abdomen into the scrotum in the first few weeks of life. These affected pups should not be bred from in the future, as this is a hereditary disorder, and can lead to testicular cancer in later life unless the undescended testicles are surgically removed.
  • Diabetes Mellitus – Diabetes may develop as a result of chronic inflammation of the pancreas (a digestive gland) or, more commonly, from an autoimmune process in middle-aged and older dogs. As in humans, the typical signs are of increased thirst and unexplained weight loss, and management depends on dietary control, as well as regular insulin injections.
  • Hydrocephalus – A condition in which fluid builds up in the space surrounding the brain in young pups, who typically have enlarged skulls and variable neurological signs from intellectual impairment to seizures. This is an extremely challenging condition to treat, and unfortunately, most congenitally affected puppies are euthanised on humane grounds.
  • Intervertebral Disc Disease – Because of the Silky’s shape, having a long back, the breed is prone to degeneration of the discs that act as the spine’s shock absorbers, with many developing signs of back pain and loss of mobility from 7–8 years of age. While this is self-limiting and mild in most cases, it can potentially result in paralysis, and so any dog showing signs of back pain should be assessed by a veterinary surgeon.
  • Legg-Perthes Disease – Hind limb lameness in Australian Silky pups up to one year of age may be due to loss of the blood supply to the head of the femur. The affected hip joint becomes extremely painful as a result, and surgery is usually necessary to remove a portion of affected bone and prevent the development of degenerative joint disease.
  • Patellar Luxation – A “skipping” gait may be seen in this condition, in which the kneecap in one or both hind limbs slips out of position during normal activity. Because of the Silky’s small size, this may not be a significant problem, but some need corrective procedures to relieve discomfort and to prevent osteoarthritis.
  • Persistent Pupillary Membrane – A congenital defect in which the normal development of the eye and its iris is disturbed, with the persistence of attachments between the clear cornea and the coloured uvea that surrounds the lens. As a result, the lens may be misshapen, and vision can be affected. It is usually quite easy to see the defect in affected pups.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Silky Terriers enjoy having a garden in which to roam and dig, though they can live happily indoors with sufficient company and plenty of toys. As well as this freedom, they need between 30 and 60 minutes of lead walking every day. As long as these needs are being met, they are generally easy company around the house, only becoming excitable at the ringing of the doorbell or passing of a car, when they will quickly wind themselves up into a frenzy of barking and jumping, which is intended to deter any intruders.

Grooming

Because the Silky is a single-coated breed, it does not require long grooming sessions. Instead, owners imply need to tease out tangles and knots two or three times a week with a mixture of brushing and combing. With a thin coat, dirt tends to penetrate to the skin, and most need monthly bathing. In addition, occasional visits to the groomer will help keep the flowing hair trimmed to an appropriate length.

Silkies are prone to tartar build up and tooth loss in later life, and so it is a good idea to brush their teeth from a young age. While their nails do need occasional clipping, they are almost always black, making it very difficult to see the blood and nerve supply that runs down the middle of each, and so it is advisable to have nail clipping conducted by a groomer or veterinary nurse.

Famous Australian Silky Terriers

With its slightly more refined appearance, the Yorkshire Terrier has stolen the Silky’s thunder, to some extent, in populating the homes of the rich and famous. GCH Weeluv’s Allegro Grazioso can probably lay claim to the title of best-known Silky at the moment, following her recent Best in Show award at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Cross-Breeds

The flowing coat of the breed carries through into many of its offspring when crossed, with the following being some of the more common hybrids that have been developed.

  • Poolky – Cross between a Silky and Poodle
  • Silkchon – Cross between a Silky and Bichon Frise
  • Silkland Terrier – Cross between a Silky and West Highland White Terrier
  • Silkshund – Cross between a Silky and Dachshund

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