The Kerry Blue Terrier, called the Irish Blue Terrier in its homeland, is one of Ireland’s nine native dog breeds. The “Blue” in its name comes from the unusual slate blue color of the breeds soft, wavy coat and “Kerry” is a tribute to the mountainous region of County Kerry near Lake Killarney; where the breed is believed to have originated in the 1700s. Some sources state that the Kerry Blue actually came from Carrick-on-Sur in County Tipperary and was first called the Carrick Blue Terrier, but most, including the AKC, disavow this claim. This breed has also been known as the Irish Blue Terrier and Kerry.
The Kerry Blue, like most Terrier breeds, was first used by the poor—the dog of farmers and peasants—who could not afford to keep several different dog breeds, each for a specified purpose. Nor could they afford the high maintenance of larger dogs such as the Irish Wolfhound which in this time of limited resources and significant economic hardship would have cut into its owners ability to feed themselves. Terriers were bred to be scrappy enough to earn their keep, belying their smaller stature, and earning for thems the epithet “a big dog in a small dog’s body”.
Kerry Blues are noted for being the most versatile of the all-purpose Terrier Group. Like most Terriers, they were used to hunt vermin, rabbits, otters, and other animals that have for centuries been pests to farmers. But in addition, they were employed for hunting and retrieving birds and small animals, both on land and in the water, as well as for herding sheep and cattle, excelling at performing their wide range of tasks.
As is often the case with the humble Terrier breeds, we have scant records of their development and few written references of them prior to the 1900s. One of the first written descriptions of the breed and its origin comes from Dogs; their origin and varieties… (1847), by Irish breed expert H.D. Richardson:
“Whatever be the origin of this little dog, it is now a recognized variety; and from its extreme beauty, both of form and colour, combined with all such qualities as terriers should possess, developed in the highest degree of perfection, it is richly deserving of being cultivated. In form, it is, as it were, a perfect English Terrier ; in colour, it is bluish slate-colour, marked with darker blotches and patches, and often with tan about the legs and muzzle. It is one of the most determined of its race, and is surpassed by none in the skill and activity with which it pursues and catches its game, and the resolution with which it battles with and destroys it: I have seen lately a beautiful pair with some puppies, in possession of Mr. Nolan, of Bachelor's walk, Dublin ; and the Rev. Mr. Wilcocks, of Palmerstown, has also long been famous for this breed of dogs ; I believe Mr. Wilcocks was the first to introduce them into this country, but when they originally came I known not.
“In former times, a brace of terriers used to accompany every pack of foxhounds, for the sake of unkennelling Reynard, in the event of his taking to earth. This attendance has long been discontinued, as being no longer necessary, the fox being now run into too rapidly to admit of his giving the gallant terriers this trouble; some recent writers do not appear aware of this circumstance, but gravely furnish us with long extracts from Daniel, &c., relative to this now obsolete practice.”
Although Richardson called it a Harlequin Terrier, the breed he described was a slate blue color and most prevalent in County Kerry, but had been developed in surrounding counties also.
It is often posited that the Kerry Blue Terrier may be the result of crosses between the Poodle or Portuguese Water Dog and one or more early Terrier breeds to include the Irish Terrier, Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, English Terrier, or Bedlington Terrier. Some fanciers are also of the belief that the modern version of the Kerry Blue Terrier is the result of early crosses with the Irish Wolfhound as well. Matings of Kerry Blue Terriers with Irish Wolfhounds are known to have occurred, to what extent, however, is unknown and whether or not these crosses had any effect on the breed as a whole, or were just localized irregularities is likewise unknown.
A popular, rather fanciful, legend of the origin of Kerry Blue Terrier contends that the breed swam to Ireland’s shores to escape a sinking ship. In some versions, the dog was so beautiful that he subsequently mated with all the Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers in County Kerry, or even all of Ireland. Although, this story may seem a bit farfetched, it may actually contain an element of truth. At the time the Kerry Blue is believed to have been developed, many countries including Portugal and Spain conducted trade in the British Isles. It is certainly possible that the Portuguese could have brought along early ancestors of the Portuguese Water Dog, or the Spaniards the pre-standardized ancestors of the Poodle; a breed long known in the European mainland. Also, in 1588, between 17 and 24 ships of the Spanish Grand Armada were lost off the western coast of Ireland, meaning that however remote, it is possible that one or more dogs which may have been aboard could have somehow made it to shore.
A less dramatic and romantic scenario is that predecessors to modern Poodles or Portuguese Water Dogs were traded for other livestock or dogs. Ireland’s sheep were a sought after commodity and livestock of all kinds were traded with other countries. Or it could be that some of these foreign dogs escaped into the countryside. Both the Portuguese Water Dog and the Poodle are herding dogs and skilled swimmers and both have coats with similar color and texture to the Kerry Blue. Their temperaments are similar as well, although Standard Poodles are not quite as feisty. Portuguese Water Dogs, however, are known to be aggressive with other dogs as is the Kerry Blue Terrier.
The Irish people have long been the underdogs to the British ruling class, but remained proud, fierce, and ready to fight any way they could for their rightful place in the world. In much the same way the Kerry Blue has been the underdog to the Irish Wolfhound, aka the “dog of the nobility”. Kerry Blues even played a role in the Irish people’s ongoing struggle for basic human rights. It is widely believed that the breed was originally developed by the peasantry as their answer to the Irish Wolfhound. Just as the Irish rebels sought to get around the British ruling class, so too, the Kerry Blue was charged with circumventing this breed, who guarded the noblemen’s hunting grounds against poachers. The Kerry Blue’s job was to stealthily get the peasantry past them so that they could poach on this forbidden land.
Although first shown in Dublin in 1913, the breed enjoyed its heyday in the decade of the 1920s. A volatile and violent time in Ireland’s history, it was during this decade that Kerry Blue, or Irish Blue Terriers became associated with Irish nationalism making them one of the most well-known of the native breeds. It was also during this time that discord over the breeds name ramped up alongside political loyalties, with nationalist strongly in favor of the name ‘Irish Blue Terrier’; especially in light of the fact that the nationalist leader of the time Michael Collins, famous in Irish history for his role in fighting for Irish independence from Britain as leader of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) owned an Irish Blue Terrier named ‘Convict 224’. Not vesting itself in Irish nationalism, the Kennel Club of the United Kingdom (KC) chose to recognize the breed as the Kerry Blue Terrier in recognition of the breeds region of origin. In its native Ireland, however, the breed is still known as the Irish Blue Terrier, or sometimes just “the Blue”.
Collins was both a breeder and exhibitor of Kerry Blue Terriers; his devotion to them and his own popularity soon brought the Kerry Blues to the level of unofficial mascot of the Irish Revolutionaries in and around Dublin. The famous Irish revolutionary even gave these dogs as gifts to his friends. A man by the name of Harold Boland, about to set sail to America, received two of the dogs from him as companions for the journey. To Lady Hazel Lavery, with whom Collins was rumored to be more than just a friend, he also gave a Kerry Blue, which she named Mick, after Michael Collins. An apocryphal story surrounding this exchange exists, that Mick was inclined to bite everyone, with the exception of Lady Lavery and General Collins.
In the early part of 1922, after Michael Collins signed the treaty with England which resulted in the formation of the two separate states of Southern and Northern Ireland, a new Irish Parliament was formed. General Collins sponsored an Act of Parliament to make the Irish Blue Terrier (Kerry Blue) the National Dog of Ireland. Records from that period in Ireland’s history are spotty and often inaccurate, therefore no evidence exists that Collins’ legislation was ever heard or voted upon; indeed both may have occurred, but nothing can be proved. “The Big Fella” as Collins was nicknamed, was assassinated later that year before he could enact the legislation in the newly formed Irish State. However, even this proposed Act of Parliament puts the Kerry Blue Terrier closer than any of the other native breeds to a claim the title of National Dog of Ireland.
Until the early 1920s, all Irish dog shows had to be held under the license of the English Kennel Club. But in a defiant political statement, the members of the newly formed Dublin Irish Blue Terrier Club (DIBTC), of which Michael Collins was a member, held an Irish Blue Terrier Show, forgoing approval from the English Kennel Club. On Saturday night, October 16th, 1920, the show was held at Longrishe Place, Summerhill, in Dublin. It took place after curfew, which meant those attending risked being thrown in jail or killed.
Exhibitors who came that night were from both sides of the fight, many in prominent roles. Sir James McMahon, the head of the British administration in Ireland attended, as did British Army Captain Wyndham Quinn who provided the trophy, the Wyndham Quinn Perpetual Cup. On the side of the revolutionaries, was IRA leader Gen. Collins and Dr. Oliver St. John Gogart, political leader and IRA sympathizer. The judges were Con O’Herlihy and Daniel Nolan; Mr. Nolan was wanted by British authorities and was a member of the Republican Army. The names of many of the dogs entered attest to the political affiliation of their owners and include: Convict 224 (Collins’ dog), Trotsky, Markavich, Dawn of Freedom, and Munster Fusilier. All came together in appreciation of the breed. In historical irony, the winning dog was Michael Collins’ Convict 224; both the dogs and the owner’s names were etched on the IKC trophy, presented by Capt. Quinn. The Captain’s trophy is still awarded today, along with the Michael Collins Perpetual Cup which Collins presented to the DIBTC.
The dog show, a huge success, encouraged the DIBTC to push their defiance of Britain even further. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1921, the Club held a larger dog show which included other breeds, on North Brunswick Street. They hosted the illicit dog show at the same time the English Kennel Club licensed dog show at Merrion Square was taking place. The DIBTC show was so successful that it marked the end of the English Kennel Club’s licensing of Irish dog shows. Building on their victory, members of the DIBTC placed an ad in a newspaper calling a meeting to form the Irish Kennel Club. They convened for the first time on January 20th, 1922.
H.D.Fottrell was a founding member of the Irish Kennel Club (IKC); he had the distinction of owning the first Irish Blue Champion, Rog Tailteann. Since members of the breed club formed the IKC, it comes as no surprise that the Kerry Blue (or Irish Blue) was the first breed registered. The IKC held its first show on St. Patrick’s Day of the same year at which 257 Kerry Blues were entered, the most numerous of any breed. The IKC elected Judge Hanna as the first Chairman. Mr. Hanna opposed the Irish Revolution, but knew a great deal about dogs. It was a pivotal decision because most of the members were inexperienced but enthusiastic; Judge Hanna molded the IKC into a strong organization which is still in existence today. After he retired in 1936, Mr. Henry B. Fottrell was elected Chairman, holding that office until 1978 (he also served as Secretary), when Mr. J.G. Plunkett took over until 1987. After Mr. Plunkett, Mr. Bill O’Herlihy, son of Con O’Herlihy, one of the judges at that first curfew-breaking dog show, became the Chairman of the IKC. The Fottrell House at Harold’s Cross Bridge is now the location of the IKC. The house was named in memory of Mr. Fottrell who held offices and helped guide the IKC for over fifty-six years.
In the early dog show days, the IKC required Kerry Blue Terriers to pass a test for gameness, called Teastas Mor certification. The test included catching rabbits and bringing badgers to bay in its set. Kerry Blues generally performed well on these tests, garnering the nickname “Blue Devils” as a result. (Today’s breeders strive to retain the Kerry Blue’s spirit and working traits while toning down their aggressiveness.)
1922 marked a significant year for the breed in England; Kerry Blues were recognized by the Kennel Club that year and exhibited for the first time in England at the Cruft’s Dog Show. Ch. Usna O’Rom won, becoming the first English bred Kerry Blue Terrier Champion. Festive Bells, who would become the first female English bred Kerry Blue Champion, was born that year, bred by Mrs. Brennan. Another significant event that occurred in 1922 was the forming of the Kerry Blue Terrier Club of England by Captain Watts Williams.
Once the Kennel Club gave them their own classification and English dog fanciers found ways to groom them to be more attractive, by trimming their coats, they rose in popularity quickly on the dog show circuit not only in Britain, but in America as well. The English and American standards for the Kerry Blue Terrier are almost identical, including mandatory coat trimming.
Not only in Britain was 1922 significant in Kerry Blue history, but in America as well. That year four Kerry Blues were shown at Westminster, held at Madison Square Garden, marking their first significant exhibition in the United States. (The breed was first imported to America around 1918 or 1919 when five were brought over as pets). At that Westminster show and for two years following, they were placed in the Miscellaneous Class, until 1924 when the AKC granted full recognition to the Kerry Blue Terrier. At the 1926 Westminster Dog Show, a group met at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to form the Kerry Blue Terrier Club of America.
Kerry Blue Terriers, while not numerous, have spread across Europe. In fact, during and after WWII small breeders in France and Germany, and also other Western European countries, were key players in keeping the breed alive during and regenerated after the war. Today quality Kerry Blue Terriers and breeders are found in most European countries, at least in part due to the importation of Kerry Blues from the U.K. These foundation dogs include Lousiburgh Moving the Wind, Louisburgh Tur Ceatha, Louisburgh See Spray, Kamaghan Priam Donna, Kamaghan Thriller, Torum’s Jo El Ray, Torum’s Stormin Norman, and Arigna Oscar. Kerry Blue Terrier breeders across Europe collaborate closely and are dedicated to promoting healthy dogs with good temperaments. In Scandinavia, Kerry Blue Terrier kennels of note are Gaeltacht, Rollick’s, Schyloch, and Lingus. Italian kennels with quality Kerries are Balboa and Aran. Central Europe’s Kerry kennels are newer and smaller, but promising.
In the decades of 1970 and 1980, Binate, Granemore, Arkama, Louisburgh, and Torum Kennels of the U.K. made major contributions to the breed, producing a number of Champion Kerry Blues. Among them were Ch. Binate Plantagenet (won RBIS at Crufts in 1977), Ch. Arkama Take By Storm (Crufts Group winner), and Ch. Louisburg Tango of Granemore (won Top Kerry in 1989). The Granemore Kerries, owned by Malachy and Bridget McGeown, have to date produced fifty Champions. Ch. Granemore Valencia, winner of seven CCs, with Ch. Arkama Made to Measure, has whelped eight Champion offspring.
Among American Kerry Blues, two stand outs are American Ch. Melbee’s Chances Are and Ch. Kerrageen’s Hotspur. Ch. Melbee’s Chances Are, handled by Ric Chashoudian, at one time held the record for All Breed Best In Show wins for Kerry Blues and produced sixty-six Champions. Ch. Kerrageen’s Hotspur, handled by Bill McFadden, sired five dogs all of whom became Champions and contributed to the seven generations of Champion females from Arkama Kennel.
Even though the Kerry Blue won Best in Show in 2000 at Crufts, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious dog show, the breed did not enjoy the spike in popularity that often follows such a feat. Kerry Blue Terriers have never existed in large numbers and the breed is now on the list of Britain’s Vulnerable Breeds. However, Mr. Sean Delmar of the IKC is not worried about it. He asserts that if a breed becomes fashionable it runs the risk of becoming compromised by the churning out of inferior dogs in puppy mills. He believes that in Ireland the “numbers are fairly strong” and quality Irish Blues are being produced. He notes that they have three strong breed clubs in Belfast, Cork, and Dublin.
As of the 2010 AKC popularity list, Kerry Blue Terriers rank 120th out of 167 breeds in the U.S. Today, Kerry Blues participate in obedience, agility, herding, tracking, and earthdog events.
Kerry Blue Terriers are medium-sized, muscular dogs, with well balanced proportions and long legs. The height of males should be 18 ½ inches (measured from ground to withers) and the height of the females should be slightly less. For show dogs, the preferred heights are 18-19 ½ inches for the male and 17 ½-19 inches for the female. The allowable range for show dogs is 17 ½-20 inches for male dogs and 17-19 ½ inches for the females. Optimal weight for adult male Kerry Blue Terriers is 33-40 pounds, with adult females weighing a bit less.
Their heads are long, but always in proportion to their bodies, and their skulls are flat, with very little stop. The skull is of medium width between their ears, with slight narrowing toward the eyes. The foreface is moderately chiseled below their eyes, avoiding any wedginess in appearance. The skull and foreface are about the same length. They have small, dark eyes that are not prominent, but have the typical keenness of expression found in Terriers. Their small, V shaped ears are of medium thickness and fall forward close to their cheeks. The fold sits slightly above the top line of the skull. The Kerry Blue’s cheeks are clean and level; their jaws are muscular and deep. Their black noses have large, wide nostrils. Their strong, white teeth can either be level or the upper incisors can slightly overlap the lower teeth.
The texture of the Kerry Blue Terrier’s coat cannot be harsh or wiry; it must be soft, wavy, and dense. If the dog is to be shown, the coat must be trimmed and neat, and the head, ears, and cheeks clear except for whiskers.
The coat color in maturity may be any shade of blue gray, ranging from slate to light blue gray. The shade should be uniform, with the exception of darker to black hues allowed on the muzzle, head, ears, tail, and feet. Kerry Blue Terriers’ coat color transitions as they go from birth to adulthood. This process, called “clearing”, has several phases. At birth they are usually black, changing to a deep, dark blue with shades of brown. As puppies mature, the adult blue gray color shows up throughout the coat, becoming progressively more distinct. Usually by eighteen months of age the Kerry Blue has finished clearing, but the exact length of time varies among individual dogs.
Kerry Blue Terriers have somewhat long necks that widen gradually to the shoulders. Their long, sloping shoulders are well laid back. They have short backs which are level and deep chests of medium width. Their ribs are deep rather than round. The abdomen has a slight tuck-up and the loin is short and strong.
Their elbows rest perpendicular to their bodies and when in motion, stay clear of their sides. Forelegs are straight when viewed from the front and side; pasterns are short and straight. The muscular hindquarters have a full range of motion, with no drooping or crouching. Kerry Blue Terriers have long, powerful thighs, well bent stifles that do not turn out or in, and hocks near the ground. From the back view, the dog’s hocks are parallel to each other and upright. The Kerry Blue Terrier’s tail is set high, of medium length, and carried erect. Tails are preferred straighter.
Their strong, roundish feet are somewhat small with thick, uncracked pads. The arched toes do not turn out or in and the toenails are black. When moving, Kerry Blue Terriers should exhibit full freedom of movement. Their forelegs and hindlegs travel straight forward and the stifles do not turn in or out.
Kerry Blue Terriers are energetic, athletic, and intelligent dogs. This lively breed is playful, at times even rowdy, making them well suited to families with children. In fact, the September, 1988 issue of Good Housekeeping Magazine, recommended the Kerry Blue as a great dog for kids. (Note: As with any dog breed, they should be supervised with young children.) This breed thrives on their humans’ attention and needs to be included in family activities as much as possible.
While Kerry Blues are affectionate, devoted members of their human family, they are much less fond of other animals and may not get along well with other family pets, especially cats. Their instinct to hunt could lead them to harm other small animals in your household, as well. They are generally aggressive toward other dogs of the same sex, so if you already have a dog it is wisest to choose a Kerry Blue of the opposite sex. Early and consistent socialization, training, as well as prevention, are keys to avoiding dog fights. But it is important to note that even with the best training, a dog of this breed may still become aggressive toward another dog. Experienced Kerry Blue owners agree that the chance of dog fights occurring increases exponentially, with each additional canine in a household.
Their protective instinct and suspicion toward strangers make them excellent watchdogs. Loyal and fearless toward their loved ones, Kerry Blues’ deep bark serves as a warning to intruders. Mrs. Helen Eiden, of Eiden Kennels, relates an anecdote about her Kerry Blue, named Blue, who was a natural guard dog. Onea winter night during an ice storm in NYC, Mrs. Eiden returned home from work only to discover a large hole in her window. Her neighbor rushed over to tell her that she had witnessed two men prying open the window, but before she finished dialing 911, she saw Blue hurtle through the curtains, blinds, and window, teeth bared. The neighbor laughed hysterically at the sight of the two big guys tearing down the street, terrified, with the dog in hot pursuit. Of Blue, she said “All you saw were teeth!” Henceforth, Blue’s nickname became Jaws Two; no apartments in the building were burgled, as long as Mrs. Eiden—and Blue--lived there.
This breed’s high energy level and intelligence necessitate that their owners provide them with plenty of physical and mental stimulation, otherwise they may become frustrated or bored, which can lead to destructive and problematic behavior. This high-spirited and headstrong breed needs not only an active family, but an owner and trainer who can maintain a leadership role with the dog. In addition to their daily pack walk, outdoor activities should also be included on a regular, preferably daily, basis. Kerry Blue Terriers love to play games, especially when they involve a ball or Frisbee. But never allow your pet off leash outside of an enclosed area, as they may take off after another animal or even a person running past, and attack it as prey. While it is crucial to socialize your Kerry Blue from an early age with people of varying sizes and ages, your dog’s instinct to hunt will supersede all else, if granted an opportunity.
Training Kerry Blue Terriers can be challenging, not because they lack intelligence, but because of their dominant and sometimes willful tendencies. According to Coren’s Intelligence list, Kerry Blue Terriers are above average in trainability. But their aggressive and stubborn traits make them a less desirable choice for new dog owners or for those who prefer a laid back, easy going approach to dog ownership. This breed requires early socialization and obedience training, which will need ongoing reinforcement throughout the first two years of your pet’s life. Establish clear rules and limits for your dog, following through with them consistently. Dogs who are not provided consistent rules for daily life or do not understand what they are, will manifest confusion, anxiety, and frustration by behaving in ways that annoy or upset you. If you are not willing or able to commit the time and energy necessary to train and socialize this breed, do not get one.
While firm and consistent leadership is imperative, anger or harsh treatment is never productive, whether verbal or physical. Kerry Blue Terriers respond to positive training in the form of praise and rewards. Incorporate training informally throughout the day and put forth the effort to make it fun, you will be rewarded with a dog who is eager and willing to learn from you.
Kerry Blue Terriers can adapt to apartment life provided they get enough exercise, although a home with a securely enclosed yard is optimal for this breed. Kerry Blue Terriers can live in the countryside, as well.
The good news is, Kerry Blue Terriers are a low shedding breed, which makes them a good choice for allergy sufferers; the bad news is that this breed requires more grooming than most. They need weekly baths (which will not dry out their skin as is the case with many breeds) and their coats should be brushed at least once a week. Their hair requires consistent maintenance to prevent matting and to remove any debris caught in their Velcro-like coats. Kerry Blue Terriers grow hair inside their ears which needs to be plucked. Keeping their ears clear helps prevent waxy build up and ear infections, to which they are prone.
Their coats should be trimmed every four to six weeks. One difficulty with getting their coats trimmed properly is finding a groomer familiar with this breed, who knows how its hair should be cut. Alternatives are to learn to cut the hair yourself, or have your Kerry Blue trimmed like a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier. Show dogs require even more extensive grooming.
Kerry Blue Terriers are a healthy breed with a lifespan of between twelve and fifteen years. Two genetic diseases that occur in Kerry Blues have become so rare as to be negligible; they are Progressive Neuronal Abiotrophy (PNA) and Entropian.
PNA affects the dog’s nervous system and shows up in puppies between eight weeks and six months old. Some show symptoms such as head tremors and stumbling; others appear healthy but may be carriers. Currently no treatment for infected dogs exists and the disease leads to an early death. However, occurrences are rare; in the 1970s the disease was traced back to certain Kerry Blue Terrier lines. Breeders armed with this information took great care in their selective breeding programs to weed out possible carriers.
The other known genetic problem is Entropian, or inward growing eyelashes. At one time this condition was not uncommon, but today it has almost disappeared in Kerry Blue Terriers.
Some other health concerns of this breed include: