Norfolk Terrier

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

The smallest of the modern working terriers, the Norfolk Terrier is a hardy and active dog that is sure to keep its home free of mice and other vermin. Despite their small stature, they were also used to ‘bolt’ bigger animals, such as foxes, and this is reflected in their fearless disposition. Although only recently recognised as a breed distinct from the related Norwich Terrier, it has its own attributes and characteristics, and is in fact, quite unique.

They are known to be very sensitive to their owner’s emotions, and thrive on affection and company. While their small size belies their toughness, they should not be left to live outside, as lack of attention is likely to drive these tenacious hunters to dig, scrape, and bark their way into all sorts of mischief. Norfolk Terriers get along well with children and other dogs, but have very strong hunting instincts when it comes to smaller pets.

They have a very durable, wiry outer coat and a soft dense undercoat that are easy to care for, and are easy to exercise, needing moderate amounts of walking daily. Like many working terriers, they can have a stubborn streak, and training can take time despite their high level of intelligence. Although outgoing, they make reasonably good guard dogs, as they are watchful and willing to bark when the need arises. Norfolks suffer very few breed-associated health problems, and many live to very old age, with the average life expectancy being around 13–15 years.

About & History

The Norfolk Terrier was, unsurprisingly, developed in Norfolk, and particularly around Norwich, in the late nineteenth century. A variety of terrier types including Irish Terriers, Border Terriers, and Cairn Terriers, along with strains of ‘ratters’ favoured by local Gypsy populations in the area were used to create a small breed from which both the Norfolk and Norwich terriers were later derived. The aim of those developing the breed at this point was to create a dog that was hardy enough to live in barns and other outbuildings, and that had strong hunting instincts, for the purpose of keeping farms clear of rats and mice.

Later known as the ‘Cantab Terrier’, it found favour with students at Cambridge University, many of whom kept these little dogs to keep their lodgings free of vermin. Many of the early Norfolk breeders were Cambridge alumni. An individual by the name of Frank Jones was responsible for their early exportation to the United States, where they were known for some time as ‘Jones Terriers’, although he was also later responsible for giving the type the name ‘Norwich’ Terrier.

Around the 1940s, breeders elected to stop interbreeding the two distinct families within the Norwich designation: those with pricked ears, and those with ‘drop’ ears. The prick-eared dogs went on to claim the name of Norwich for their own, while the drop-eared dogs were those we now know as Norfolks. It has been said that these represented quite different dogs from the beginning, and that to group them together for so long represented a general ignorance about the breeds; however, this seems difficult to prove. The Norfolk Terrier was officially recognised by the Kennel Club as a distinct breed in 1964, and by the American Kennel Club in 1979. It has never been bred in huge numbers, and Norfolk puppies can be hard to come by, as long-time devotees of the breed will often have pups reserved for a year or more.


Norfolk Terrier Large Photo

This keen little hunter exudes energy and alertness in its facial expression and body language. The fact that the major kennel clubs permit ‘honour scars’ in show dogs tells us a lot about its nature, being slow to back down from a confrontation. It is strikingly low to the ground, a compact and sturdy dog with good bone structure. The head is broad and solid for such a small dog, slightly arched in the crown, with a definite stop and a wedge-shaped muzzle. As with many terriers, a strong bite is a feature, with large teeth in good alignment. The breed has expressive oval-shaped eyes which are usually dark brown, and importantly has V-shaped ears which fold forward onto the side of the head.

The neck and back are quite short in proportion to the dog’s size, but the breed is well-muscled throughout. Being one of the breeds unnecessarily subjected to docking, older individuals may still be seen without the thick and moderately long tail which is usually carried above level, and acts as a reliable barometer to the dog’s mood. The forelimbs are well laid back, giving angulation and power, which helps in pouncing and digging. The hindlimbs are similarly strong, with the muscular upper limb leading well back to a straight hock (ankle) joint. In motion, the Norfolk Terrier seems to glide across the ground, with an easy stride and a level back.

The harsh outer coat is moderately long, and covers the dense, weatherproof undercoat. Colours permitted by the Kennel Club are:

  • Red
  • Wheaten
  • Black & Tan
  • Grizzle

The coat is sometimes clipped a little shorter, but shaping of the hair around the face, something practised by many groomers, is frowned upon by those in the Norfolk fraternity.

Male Norfolk Terriers average 25 cm (10 in) in height at the withers, and around 5.5–6 kg (12-13 lb) in weight, while females are usually around 22–23 cm (9 in) tall and weigh about 5 kg (11lb).

Character & Temperament

The Norfolk approaches the world without fear, always ready to run towards new people and animals, rather than sitting back and waiting to see how a situation unfolds. As pets, they are lively and affectionate companions, and are gentle and tolerant enough to make a good choice for families with young children. They have strong individual personalities, and anyone with the space and time for more than one Norfolk Terrier will be endlessly amused by the inter-dog ‘politics’ that develop! They are very adaptable, and can do well with indoor living, although exercise is important, as they have a strong inbuilt drive to dig and explore, which can be difficult to contain if they are under-stimulated. In the same vein, they may be a poor choice for any keen gardeners not willing to tolerate disturbance of their flower beds.

The breed is intelligent and alert, and is always very attuned to its owner’s mood. Despite its outward fearlessness, the Norfolk Terrier takes criticism badly, and will become very dejected if scolded or treated unfairly. They are naturally protective of their territory, and quite inclined to bark. This is not normally a nuisance behaviour, although problems can arise with insufficient exercise or company.


Photo of Norfolk Terrier puppy

Norfolk Terriers are undeniably clever, communicative dogs. However, they are usually too interested in the sounds and smells in their surroundings to concentrate on training sessions for long periods. Training can therefore present a bit of a challenge. It is important to break training sessions into chunks, as many Norfolk owners comment on their dog’s short attention span.

Positive reinforcement with words of encouragement or the occasional treat works wonders. Take care not to chastise a Norfolk Terrier too harshly during training, for he is likely to become sulky and withdrawn, and not interested in carrying on with the lesson.


Perhaps part of the reason for the Norfolk Terrier’s fearless attitude and air of invincibility is the breed’s good health. Inherited and congenital diseases are remarkably uncommon, but as with any pedigree, problems can arise, the more common of which are listed below.


Norfolks have a predisposition to developing this neurological disorder, which results in a variety of seizure presentations. The classic presentation of systemic involuntary muscular activity manifests as dramatic convulsive seizures, but signs can be as subtle as transient confusion, or even uncontrolled salivation.

Signs may first be noticed from a few months of age, but due to their intermittent nature, may not be noticed until later in life. A range of treatments are available. Careful veterinary evaluation is necessary in this breed in particular to ensure portosytemic shunt (see below) is not wrongly diagnosed as primary epilepsy.

Portosystemic Shunt

Generally seen as a congenital disorder, i.e. present from birth. Affected puppies will often be noticeably smaller than their siblings, and as time passes, may develop other signs, including seizures, vomiting, diarrhoea, and excessive thirst. Medical and surgical treatment options are available.

Mitral Valve Disease

The direction of blood flow through the heart is controlled by several major unidirectional valves, one of which is the mitral valve, located between the left atrium and ventricle. Congenital and degenerative disorders of this valve in the Norfolk Terrier may allow backwashing of blood along a pressure gradient, leading to secondary heart enlargement and signs of heart failure.

These can include abdominal swelling, coughing, exercise intolerance, and episodes of weakness (see syncope below). Medical treatment yields very good improvements in most dogs, and can be maintained for years.


Episodes of syncope, or fainting, are reasonably common in Norfolks. While these may be due to a benign process, for example, insensitive blood pressure receptors in the major arteries, they may also occur secondary to mitral valve disease, as mentioned previously. Veterinarians treating Norfolk Terriers must take care to make a distinction between the possible underlying causes.


The eye’s spherical shape is the result of a carefully controlled balance of fluid production and reabsorption. Processes resulting in increased fluid production, or more commonly, reduced drainage, may allow intraocular pressure to rise. This can result in enlargement of the eye, loss of vision, and pain. Older dogs are affected, and treatment may involve removal of the damaged eye – a procedure resulting in lasting relief of pain.

Lens Luxation

Seen in middle-aged and older Norfolk Terriers, may arise without apparent cause, or more likely after trauma. The lens of the eye is held in place by a ring of ciliary muscles, which bestow the power of accommodation, allowing the lens to expand and contract to focus on objects at varying distances.

Norfolks, and many other terrier breeds, suffer degeneration of the ciliary attachments with age, potentially leading to luxation/dislocation of the lens. This frequently affects vision and may also result in secondary glaucoma (see above). Although this usually happens in one eye initially, it is not uncommon for the second eye to later suffer the same fate.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Norfolk Terriers have plenty of energy, but they are small dogs, and do not require huge amounts of planned exercise. However, around half an hour a day should be considered the minimum for lead walking, as this activity provides much-needed mental, as well as physical, stimulation. Access to a garden is not essential, but where possible, can allow these little dogs to expend a lot of their surplus energy.


The wiry outer coat of the breed may be clipped occasionally to make it easier to keep clean, but tends to be fairly easy to manage with semi-regular combing sessions. Brushing or combing once a week stimulates healthy hair growth and helps redistribute oils through the hair, as well as reducing the amount of stray hair finding its way into carpets and furniture.

As with any dog, Norfolk Terriers spending much of their time indoors may need their nails cut regularly. This is a fairly simple procedure, except in dogs with black nails, in which it can be difficult to discern a safe line of cut. Similarly, regular brushing of their teeth helps minimise any build-up of tartar and plaque, and is usually well-accepted when first introduced at a young age.

Famous Norfolk Terriers

Their relative rarity means that only the very eagle-eyed are likely to spot a Norfolk Terrier in the media:

  • Eric – Boy-turned-Norfolk Terrier in Allan Ahlberg’s children’s book, Woof!
  • Rags and Ninety, credited with being the progenitors of much of the modern breed soon after the turn of the twentieth century


Norfolk Terrier crosses tend to be hard to come by, but the following two may sometimes be seen:

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