Irish Terrier

Gemma Gaitskell
Dr Gemma Gaitskell (BVetMed MSc MRCVS, Royal Veterinary College, London)
Photo of adult Irish Terrier

Irish Terriers are medium sized, fiery, intelligent and athletic dogs which were originally used as all-round farm dogs. The breed originates from Ireland and thought to be the oldest of the Irish terrier breeds. They make excellent companions for active families and need a busy environment. They should have a ‘racy’ and graceful but at the same time strong and powerful appearance and have a lot of stamina. Their wiry coat comes in different shades of their characteristic red colour.

The Irish Terrier is affectionate and friendly with people but has a strong character and can be prone to getting into scraps with other dogs, so early socialisation is essential. A breed that is intelligent and learns quickly although is not always the most obedient they require plenty of mental stimulation and exercise to prevent them from getting into mischief. Their fearless and protective nature means they can make excellent guard dogs.

About & History

There is some uncertainty about the roots of the Irish Terrier, but it is thought to be one of the oldest terrier breeds originating from Ireland. Until the late 1800s the Irish Terrier came in various sizes, as well black and tan and sometimes brindle varieties in addition to the distinctive red colour associated with the breed today. As long as they were tough their colour and size was considered to be of little significance. By the beginning of the 20th century a selection process meant that all Irish Terriers were red.

The Irish Terrier is famously quoted as being ‘the poor man’s sentinel, the farmer’s friend and the gentleman’s favourite’ and originally had multiple uses including as a family pet and guard dog and as all round farm dogs which were good at killing different kinds of vermin and even able to herd sheep. In World War I they were famously used as messenger dogs in the trenches helped by their extremely loyal and fearless characters.

After being one of the most popular breeds in the late 1800s it has since seen a decline in numbers and today the Irish Terrier is a relatively rare breed. It is more common in America than the UK and Ireland and makes a good companion dog for families leading active lifestyles in addition to excelling in sports such as agility.


Irish Terrier Large Photo

Today accepted registration colours for the Irish Terrier are all variations of its characteristic reddish coat:

  • Red
  • Red Wheaten
  • Rust
  • Wheaten
  • Wheaten Red

The only marking permitted is a small amount of white on the chest. The coat should lie close to the body and is always of a rough, wiry texture and is weather-proof, with both an under and outer coat. The ideal height is from 46 – 48 cm (18 – 19 inches) at the withers with females normally standing slightly smaller than males.

The Irish Terrier should have an overall athletic, graceful and racy appearance, whilst at the same time appearing powerful, but not heavy or chunky. The neck should be carried somewhat upright and is fairly long, widening as it meets fine, sloping shoulders. The Irish Terrier should have a chest which is deep and muscular but not wide and the front legs should be reasonably long and straight, with strong bone and muscle. The back should be of a medium length, leading to strong muscular back legs. The tail is carried high but should not be curled forwards

The breed has a long head with a flat skull, which is relatively narrow between the ears and has no excess skin or wrinkles. The jaw is strong and long with a scissor bite and the lips and nose should be black. Eyes are dark, intense and fairly small but should show character and intelligence. Ears should also be small, set high on the head and fold over into a V-shape.

The Irish Terrier should move with a lithe, forwards gait, which conveys its character; strong and sturdy but at the same time fast and elegant. Elbows should be free from the sides but move parallel to the body and stifles should be straight.

Character & Temperament

The Irish Terrier is described as a ‘daredevil’ – it has a fearless and intelligent nature but is also extremely loyal and devoted to its owners. They can be reckless and often do not consider the consequences of their actions, which has earned the breed a reputation for being confrontational with other dogs. This means socialisation from an early age is important.

Despite this they are affectionate with people and renowned for being good with children. Their independent nature means they are not prone to suffering from separation anxiety and their contempt for danger means they make excellent guard dogs, although their physique is not necessarily the most imposing.


Photo of Irish Terrier puppy

The Irish Terrier is extremely intelligent, however, this intelligence combined with the breeds independence and strong and sometimes stubborn character can mean that training and obedience such as good recall can sometimes be challenging. They are motivated by food but are not always the most eager to please people.

Their strong character means that they need firm boundaries and benefit from a routine from a young age to ensure good behaviour. They also require adequate socialisation from puppyhood if they are to be taught to tolerate other dogs, as they are prone to getting into scraps. Irish Terriers are quick to learn so house training is not usually a problem.


The Irish Terrier is an exceptionally healthy breed, they generally have few health problems as they have generally been bred for function over form. Their lifespan is around 13-14 years old. There are no obligatory tests for the breed under the UK Kennel Club Assured Breeder Scheme. Two conditions which the breed can suffer from include:

Hereditary Footpad Hyperkeratosis (HFH)

Otherwise known as Corny Feet, this is a condition which emerges at around 4 to 5 months old and causes the footpads to become thick and hard which causes cracks to form. This can be painful and eventually lead to infections. DNA testing is available for the disease which is relatively rare, although more prominent in Europe than America and responsible breeding helped by testing has lead to a reduction in its occurrence.


A condition which has only recently been linked to the breed, causing bladder stones due to the incorrect filtering of cysteine, an amino acid in the kidneys. If these pass out of the bladder with urine and become stuck, causing a blockage the condition can be extremely painful. If present, cystinuria usually develops around 4 years old and only affects male dogs. Castration seems to provide a complete cure. There is currently no genetic test available but work is underway to develop one.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Irish Terrier needs constant stimulation, both mental and physical and this is essential to ensuring they do not become mischievous as they will look for their own entertainment. They need around 2 hours of exercise a day as they are very athletic and have great stamina. Ideally, some of this should be made up of time off the lead, however, obedience training is key to ensuring good recall as if tempted with a distraction the Irish Terrier is often single minded and prone to disobedience.

The breed excels in active, busy households with plenty to keep them entertained. Despite this need for distraction the Irish Terrier is not normally a hyperactive dog and they are generally calm at home. This breed is suited to owners with previous experience with dogs, particularly terriers.


The Irish Terrier requires minimal day-to-day grooming and occasional brushing at home is sufficient to keep its coat in good condition. However, the breed is traditionally ‘stripped’ which involves pulling out the longer, older, dead hairs and this is usually done once to twice a year. This may mean a visit to a groomer is required. Stripping maintains the colour and wiry quality of the coat and helps it to remain weather-proof, whereas clipping can cause it lose these qualities and become softer. When cared for in this way the coat barely sheds at all. The Irish Terrier only needs bathing very occasionally and is not prone to ear or skin problems.

Famous Irish Terriers

There are only a few famous Irish Terrier individuals in popular culture, these include:

  • Prince who followed his owner to the trenches in France and features on the Animals War Memorial in Park Lane
  • Rexxx from the film, Firehouse Dog
  • Jerry & Michael from the books, Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry by Jack London


There are very few popular Irish Terrier cross-breeds, perhaps due to their low numbers and sometimes difficult characters:

User comments

There are no user comments for this listing.