Lancashire Heeler

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Lancashire Heeler
Rob Powell / Flickr.com

A hardy little dog from the Northwest of England, the Lancashire Heeler is thought to owe its existence to the Welsh Corgi and Manchester Terrier. It is a small, sturdy breed with an indomitable spirit and a love of people. Traditionally used as a drover’s dog with an abrasive style of working, the Heeler is brave and feisty, and needs an owner that can handle its independent nature and boundless energy.

This is a breed that needs more exercise than one might expect, given its small frame, and it has a tendency to nip at people’s ankles that can be a problem if it is under-stimulated. It is usually good with older children, but does not like to be handled roughly, and may not be suitable for younger families. The Lancashire Heeler is considered a rare breed, with already low numbers of Kennel Club registrations falling annually. The breed requires very little grooming, and can do well as an indoor pet. There are very few health problems seen in the Heeler: those that do occur mainly affect the eyes, and so the breed enjoys good longevity, with an average lifespan of 13–15 years.

About & History

Because the Heeler emerged from a working background, it is likely there was very little interest in documenting its development. Most breeding would have been conducted at a local level, with one farmer approaching a neighbour that owned a dog whose qualities he admired. What is known about the early days of the breed has mostly been inferred from common sense. The Welsh Corgi is a very old breed that has been used by drovers in its native Wales for centuries to drive cattle to market or slaughter. One particularly busy droving trail ran from Wales to the area around Manchester, where the Manchester Terrier would have been found in abundance, and it is believed that matings between the travelling Corgis and local Terriers would have been commonplace, laying the groundwork for the Heeler’s selection. It is likely that the town of Ormswick was a focal point for the early breeders, as it was also known as the Ormswick Terrier or Ormswick Heeler when it first came to prominence around one hundred and fifty years ago.

While the Lancashire Heeler exhibits the Manchester Terrier’s colouration, it is similar in shape to the Corgi, being long and low, with quite large prick ears. It also follows the Corgi’s style of working, and is known as a “nip and duck” dog – biting at the heels of cattle, then nimbly evading the ensuing kick. As the ancient tradition of droving died out, the breed continued to find employment as a ratter, and it still exhibits a strong drive to dig out and kill vermin to this day. Gwen Mackintosh, of the Norfolk-based confectionary makers, was an important figure in the breed’s history, though her first forays into the worlds of dog breeding and showing were with Dachshunds. After developing an interest in Heelers in the 1960, she began to breed them in an organised manner, and kept detailed pedigree records. This allowed the breed to be officially recognised by the Kennel Club in 1981, when it was designated a “rare” breed. As numbers have continued to fall, particularly in recent years, it is now officially considered “vulnerable”. Interestingly, the Lancashire Heeler is now thought to be more popular in Scandinavia than in its native England.

Appearance

Lancashire Heeler Large Photo
Svenska Mässan / Flickr.com

There is no frailty about the Heeler – it is a small but sturdy dog with an alert and energetic manner. In outline, it resembles a Welsh Corgi, though it is a little shorter in the back. Its head is flat and wide, proportional to the body, but solid enough to withstand a blow from a cow’s hoof. Its stop, which equally divides the crown and muzzle, is moderately pronounced, and the muzzle tapers toward the nose, which may be black or brown in colour. The jaws and teeth are crucial to the breed’s ability to work, and should be strong and perfectly aligned. The dark, almond-shaped eyes are set wide apart, the better to improve the Heeler’s peripheral vision while ducking between the herd’s hooves. The ears are set quite high on the head, are rather large, and must be upright, again resembling those of the Corgi.

The neck is stocky and thick, features that are accentuated by a particularly dense mane of hair. The back is firm and level, and must show no signs of dipping, lest this predispose to spinal problems (see below). The tail is set on high, and carried in a curve over the back, but not curled as would be seen in a Spitz. The chest is well sprung, with broad ribs.

The Heeler’s short legs must be reasonably straight; any tendency for some dogs to be “bandy-legged” is strongly discouraged, as this detracts from their capability to work. The upper limbs are solid and muscular, and the lower limbs have ample bone for such a small dog. The breed has a fine, dense undercoat and an outer, coarse top coat, which is weather resistant. The hair is generally quite short, though slightly longer in the mane. Both black-and-tan and liver-and-tan colour patterns are accepted, with either black or liver predominating and tan markings being present above the eyes, and on the muzzle and paws.

Though there was an old adage that said the Lancashire Heeler should be small enough “to fit in a poacher’s pocket”, the average male stands around 30 cm (12 in) tall at the withers, while females are a little shorter, at 25 cm (10 in), and both weigh somewhere between 4.2 and 5.8 kg (9–13 lb).

Character & Temperament

The breed is intelligent, alert, and very affectionate, and will usually not stray too far from its owners in the home. When outdoors, its strong instinct to seek out and hunt vermin mean it will busy itself unearthing beetles or anything else large enough to make the tiniest sound, and a house with a Heeler will certainly never have a problem with mice! It likes to play, and will happily chase a ball for hours on end, but will also enjoy lounging on a sofa while having its belly tickled. The Heeler can be stubborn, and has a mind of its own, and it needs an owner that can be firm but fair to assert their authority. Their playful nature means they are great companions for older kids, but youngsters may be too unpredictable and can run the risk of being bitten. They can be suspicious of strangers, and are not averse to barking when required, so can make good watch dogs. Lancashire Heelers may accept cats when they are raised with them, but should never really be left unsupervised with smaller animals.

Trainability

This is a clever breed, and can be wilful and stubborn. Training demands patience and consistency, but also assertiveness on the part of the owner. As a working dog, the Heeler likes to be kept busy, and will thrive in competition classes, such as flyball. Because of their working style, Heelers are naturally inclined to bite at people’s ankles, and this needs to be corrected and discouraged from puppyhood, though adequate exercise and mental stimulation is probably the best remedy.

Health

The Lancashire Heeler is a robustly healthy breed. Those conditions that do crop up with some regularity tend to affect the eyes, though back problems do occasionally occur, especially in overweight individuals. The ocular problems that are seen in the breed are commonly associated with the Collie breeds, and are often lumped together under the term “collie eye anomaly”. The Lancashire Heeler, along with breeds like the Rough Collie, should be presented to the International Sheepdog Society/Kennel Club/British Veterinary Association joint screening programme in order to identify individuals that are likely to pass on these problems, and to remove them from the breeding pool.

  • Cataracts – There appears to be a strong genetic influence on cataract development in the breed, with these opaque deposits appearing in the eyes of some dogs as congenital lesions, while others develop them as young adults. Cataracts can affect vision, and although many can be surgically removed, this is an invasive and expensive specialist procedure.
  • Choroidal Hypoplasia – This is a genetic disorder, present from birth, that also affects the eye. Hypoplasia describes the inadequate development of a structure to support its normal function, while the choroid is the broad, fine network of blood vessels running beneath the nerve cells of the eye that are responsible for vision. Impaired development of the choroid reduces the levels of oxygen and other nutrients available to these developing neurons, which then in turn fail to develop to their full potential. The resultant thinning of these tissues can be visualised by careful veterinary examination from around 6 weeks of age, and implies visual impairment to a greater or lesser degree that will persist for life.
  • Intervertebral Disc Disease – Though not as common in the Lancashire Terrier as in its parent breed, the Welsh Corgi, age-related degeneration in the quality of the shock-absorbing intervertebral discs can result in spinal compression, severe pain, and even paralysis in middle-aged and elderly Lancashire Heelers. Early signs can include a reluctance to move or to jump onto furniture. Selective breeding to promote the desirable straight back described in the breed standard has reduced the incidence of the disorder, but preventing obesity is an important consideration for any Heeler owner to reduce pressure on the dog’s spine.
  • Lens Luxation – The lens of the eye is maintained in its normal position by a network of very fine ligaments attaching to the coloured iris. The Heeler, along with many terrier breeds, experiences a weakening of these ligaments with age. In some dogs, this progresses to become a significant problem, as the lens may loosen to the extent of being displaced into either the anterior or posterior chamber of the eye, causing pain. This displacement also very often obstructs fluid drainage from the eye, causing the globe to swell and degenerate. If spotted quickly, surgery may be performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist to remove the lens while preserving some vision.
  • Persistent Pupillary Membrane – While it may not always be of clinical significance, the fine tissues that form in the anterior chamber of the eye during foetal life do not always completely regress, and some Heelers may be seen to have a mesh of fibres in front of the lens from birth. If this mesh is particularly prominent, it can impair vision.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Lancashire Heelers need a minimum of one-hour of exercise per day, and will particularly enjoy games involving chasing toys or balls. While they are good walking companions, their tendency to get in around one’s ankles can make them a nuisance to run with. Although they enjoy having a garden to rummage around in, this is not a necessity, and with adequate exercise most will be calm and quiet around the home.

Grooming

The breed has a coat that requires very little care. They shed a reasonable amount year-round, though this may be heavier in the spring and autumn, and weekly brushing should suffice to remove dead hair and to dislodge mud and dirt. Bathing is required only very rarely. The Heeler’s nails need regular clipping, and young pups should be taught to accept this as a routine. Carefully snipping just the very tips from each nail every 4–6 weeks from around three months of age should teach the pup not to fear the clippers.

Famous Lancashire Heelers

The closest the Lancashire Heeler has to a celebrity in the family was Foxthyme Material Girl, owned by Colin and Denise Russell, who won the prestigious “Best in Breed” title at Crufts in 1996, 2000, 2001, and 2004. This was a remarkable achievement at this most competitive of dog shows.

Cross-Breeds

Because of its rarity, it is unusual to find Lancashire Heeler cross-breeds. However, I think it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising breeder begins to cross them with West Highland White Terriers to produce High Heelers!

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