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What is the Scottish Terrier Breed Personality?

Exploring The Mystique of the Scottish Terrier

Joseph Harvill, Ph.D., Editor of Great Scots Magazine

Cindy Cooke, author of The New Scottish Terrier (1996), says it's the character of the Scottie which charms and captivates. She also says an adequate description of that unique character is a daunting challenge. As she puts it, Scottie lovers find themselves "grasping for metaphors to describe the breed that has stolen their hearts."

She's right. Not merely because metaphors are challenging, but because appraisals are reflexive, blurring the line between subject and object. Scottie mystique has more to do with the synergy between Scotties and their people than with `hard' data of breed demographics, and therefore accounts of Scottie character tell as much about ourselves, our experience, and our values as about the dog described.

There's no need to apologize for that. There simply is no other way to appraise soul and character than by reference to metaphors and one's own lights.

That said, what can we say of the Scottie mystique? Shunning illusions of exhaustive truth, what metaphors can we enlist to provide at least keyhole glimpses of what I call the scottie-ness of a Scottie?

I've chosen as framework for this analysis of Scottie mystique an acronym made up of the letters in the word mystique itself. For this Scottie lover at least, the word mystique and its meaning, together with relational memories I attach to the individual letters, add up to a robust notion of what is special about the character of the Scottish Terrier.

Scottie Art Text MM Is For Mystery

`M' is for the mystery at the heart of mystique. Perhaps the first thing one notices about a Scottie in public is an unmistakable air of "I-am-special-and-don't-you-know-it." It's a combination of dignity, self-assurance, and poise, and at times suggests to me almost a self-aware burden of greatness. It's the `mystique' of the Scottie!

The word mystique is French, and connotes "an air or attitude of mystery and reverence developing around something or someone; the special esoteric skill essential in a calling or activity."

Scotties exude mystique. It's recognizable in the well-known "Scottie walk," as well as in their imperious manner in relationships. It's as if the Scottie's destiny was to be Mother Nature's class act-- and their soul evolved knowing it!

My own sense is there is mystery in the soul of the Scottie. Mystery in the sense that he always holds something back, something more in reserve. What you encounter is not all there is. Much like a person, the Scottie spirit is complex, and it's the hidden `something more' which one suspects is definitive.

You catch glimpses of this `mystery' at the heart of the Scottie when you watch him unawares as he enjoys his own company, as he surveys his world through window or gate, or as he sits in solitude apparently pondering life's imponderables. Sometimes you encounter the mystery in his eyes when you catch him thoughtfully studying you, and in the eye contact which follows there are astonishing glimpses of something deep and profound within.

Scotties can be aloof and psychologically distant. They can earn their reputation as "snotty scottie." But to those who know them there is more than canine egoism at their center. There is facinating mystery and mystique which keeps us coming back for more!

Scottie Art Text YY Is For Yesterday

More so than many breeds the Scottie's history is written in his heart and form. To know the Scottie's character one must know his yesterdays.

To know his role as vermin exterminator in the rugged Western Highlands of Scotland is to appreciate at a glance the marvel of design embodied in his dense, wiry coat, his short, muscled limbs, his large head and over-sized teeth, his independent spirit, and his tenacious, "die-hard" resolve. In the cairns and dens of Highland vermin burrows the timid don't survive and the co-dependent don't succeed.

In a singular sense the land and the dog are one. To walk Highland glens and moors, at once both friendly and fierce, and to meet the bruised but proud spirit of the Highlander is to see with new eyes the dog that wears Scotland's name. To read with sympathy the David-against-Goliath history of Scotland's defiant battles against foreign domination is to glimpse the soul of the "die-hard."

In special ways, to know Scottie's `yesterday' is to understand his mystique.

Scottie Art Text SS Is For Sagacity

The Scottie is a sage and philosopher among canines.

The notion of Scotties as philosophers is not as silly as it sounds. No less a philosopher than Plato paid tribute to dogs as model teachers of a life of wisdom. In The Republic, Book II, Socrates ponders how it is "That the sight of an unknown person angers (a dog) before he has suffered any injury, but an acquaintance he will fawn upon though he has never received any kindness from him." Socrates, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, argues a dog's grounds for such discrimination between friend and alien is knowledge and/or ignorance, and that such a trait of nature "shows a true love of wisdom" in their habit of grounding responses in knowledge.

I find Plato's language true to experience, and not ironical. Scotties are `thinking' dogs in a sense quite remarkable. As novelist and champion Scottie-breeder, S.S. Van Dine, wrote in 1932, "[The Scottie] is one of the few dogs with whom human beings can actually argue. Scotties have their own ideas about things-- they work out their problems and arrive at very definite conclusions-- and they will go to the mat with you on any issue. If you are right they will, in the end, give in; but if you are wrong from their canine point of view (which, incidentally, is a highly sensible one), they can be as stubborn as only a Scotchman (sic) can be ... but they have that aristocratic and gentlemanly instinct which somehow makes them see when they are wrong; and, like a gentleman, they will acquiesce graciously when the truth is brought home to them."

Scotties as `thinkers' has little to do with parlor tricks or stimulus-response training. Dog trainers who demonstrate their prowess in canine intelligence by showing off with sheep dogs stack the deck in their own favor by choosing canines with mind-control in their DNA. Scotties, on the other hand, were bred to think and act on their own in isolated and dangerous sub-terranean situations where external directives and control didn't exist. Underground, facing ferocious teeth and defenses of a trapped predator, one thinks quickly and independently or one doesn't survive!

As the Scottie matures he wears the role of `thinking dog' ever more adeptly. Study his face in his solitude. You'll see modeled what Plato was referring to when he spoke of dogs as true "lovers of wisdom," and what I mean when I speak of Scottie `sagacity.'

Scottie Art Text TT Is For Terrier

"T" in the Scottie mystique stands for terrier. First to last, from beginning to end, the Scottie is the quintessential terrier.

The Latin word conjures up `earth dog' origins and the Scottie's primal function of going-to-ground in pursuit of prey. Originally one of a number of "lurcher" dogs, it was the Scottie's task to enter the burrows and sanctuaries of the fox and wildcat, to flush them out or fight them underground to the death. Gameness, without reference to size or circumstance, was and is the heart of the terrier.

That's why Scotties are fearless when challenged. Size is an attitude with them, and the Scottie has more than his share! They're ideal watchdogs, since it's noise which primarily deters thieves. The intensity of the terrier spirit renders Scotties constantly vigilant against intruders, and their larger-than-life bark sounds an alarm which cannot be ignored. On the other hand, Scottie terrier-ness makes them ill-suited to be doormats or yard ornaments. Their terrier-spirit is too high-strung and their self-awareness too developed to allow them to be anything less than peers in relationship. Some may find this spirit of canine egality a nuisance. Others of us find in it the soul of the Scottie mystique.

Scottie Art Text II Is For Independent

Scotties are independent wee dogs, quite capable of enjoying their own company. More cat-like than many breeds, Scotties often appear to want affection strictly on their terms. That's not to say there are no lap dogs among Scotties, but it is to say that a remarkable independence of spirit is trademark of the breed.

Some find such independence unwelcome. To them it's stubbornness and a threat to their own control. Pets, after all, are to be subservient and docile, an extension of the will of their masters.

By contrast, I find my Scotties refuse to be clones of my will, they challenge my self-absorption, and they confront me with the reality of Other-ness. In my better moments, when I permit myself to get beyond struggles of will, I discover in our conflicts and in their eyes the mystery of self-awareness in beings other than humans. To crush that independence or to co-opt it as extension of myself would be to lose the gift of authentic encounter with non-human Others.

Scottie independence can be exasperating, to be sure. It is also what enables Scotties to be experienced, not as clones, but as authentic relational partners.

Scottie Art Text QQ Is For Quixotic

Quixotic is the substantive describing the ethos and spirit of Don Quixote, the man from la Mancha. In the Cervantes novel, Don Quixote personifies one who is "foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals." In the story, Quixote, against all odds, risks all to fight the impossible foe and to dream the impossible dream.

That story and the word `quixotic' might have been written about the `die-hard' spirit of the Scottish Terrier. The best description of the Scottie as a canine Quixote-figure is that of S.S. Van Dine, written in 1932: "[The Scottie] meets life as he finds it, with an instinctive philosophy, a stoical intrepidity and a mellow understanding. He is calm and firm, and he minds his own business-- and minds it well. He is a Spartan and can suffer pain without whimpering-- which is more than the majority of human beings can do. He will attack a lion or a tiger if his rights are invaded, and though he may die in the struggle he never shows the white feather or runs away. He is the most admirable of all sports-- forthright, brave and uncomplaining. You know exactly where you stand with a Scottie; and if you are a friend, he is gentle, loving and protective."

In our age of ethics-by-poll-tabulation and truth-by-spin-doctoring there is something welcome and real about the Scottie spirit of quixotic integrity-against-all-odds. I find it one of the more inspiring aspects of the Scottie mystique.

Scottie Art Text UU Is For Unique

From his shape to his spirit, the Scottie is unique. Out walking, the Scottie will be recognized by passers-by who normally wouldn't distinguish a Beagle from a Bischon. "Oh, look. There goes a Scottie!," is the typical exclamation overheard from young and old alike when we walk our three in public.

It's true, of course, that Scotties have no monopoly on dog love. But it is also true that Scottie love is distinctive. I say that because no other Whitehouse canine ever captured the imagination of the American public as did Roosevelt's Scottie, Fala. Nor does any other breed have its own national organization of collectors dedicated to collecting everything sporting a Scottie! Nor has any other breed come close to inspiring the quantity of collectibles bearing its effigy, ranging from furniture to figurines. Nor is any other breed as recognizable by name by non-dog people as the Scottie. Scotties and Scottie love are in a category by themselves.

The Scottish Terrier is unique in ways both external and internal. To those up to the challenge, the Scottie's uniqueness offers canine companionship which knows no equal.

Scottie Art Text EE Is For Esquire

In British parlance `esquire' is a member of the English gentry ranking below a knight, or, historically, a candidate for knighthood serving as shield bearer and attendant to a knight. Today, abbreviated as `Esq.' it is a British title of courtesy, short for something like "gentleman-of-good-standing."

I've always felt there is something genteel about the Scottie's bearing, something of the well-bred gentleman in his manner. And the picture of shield bearer who puts himself in harm's way loyally attending to the safety of his knight vividly portrays the protective spirit of the Scottie. To me the word gentleman or lady best describes the mature Scottie. As Dorothy Gabriel wrote long ago, "There is nothing frothy or shallow in the nature of the Scottie. He never forgets-- his heart may break with grief, but he will not yowl about it. He is absolutely honorable, incapable of a mean or petty action, large hearted and loving, with the soul and mind of an honest gentleman."

Today something is sadly lost from the language of that kinder, gentler era when `gentleman' designated quality of soul and manners, not mere gender. The word `gentleman,' however, still captures the soul and manners of the Scottie at his best. He has class. And that's why for this Scottie lover `e' in the Scottie mystique stands for Scottish Terrier, Esq.


So there you have it-- one man's vision of the Scottie mystique. I know to some, all of it is hopeless sentimentalism. To which I say, I wouldn't have it any other way. For it is habits of the heart which define us as human beings and I know my habits of heart have been greatly enriched by the love of Scotties.

I could mention many personal encounters which illustrate what I have attempted to say. I think of my three, Nati, Gus, and Willie, so different in personality yet so focused in their love and loyalty, and they form for me what St. Paul once called "living epistles" in which I daily read new truths of the Scottie mystique.

One special experience says it all. It is the image of Gus in my peripheral vision as I sit at the computer in my office. He has entered the room unawares and silently raises himself onto his haunches, statue-like, forepaws raised in supplication as he waits motionless to make eye contact with the man he loves. Dark eyes speaking volumes, he waits without sound for me to notice him and to respond. No one taught him this entreaty. Nor do the other two Scotties employ it. It is his own chosen form of communication with the one he loves. Sometimes he supplicates to be let outdoors. More often his supplication simply is to be lifted up onto my lap, forepaws on my shoulders, for a hug and gentle conversation. What does it all mean? Simply this: "Master, I love you!"

Yet Gus never had churches, nor schools, nor legislatures to teach him the one thing most needful for the good life; no professors to give him knowledge; no lawyers to define his ethics, and yet he is educated beyond them all, as if to say: "Master, am I not already educated, do I not know how to love?"

Yes, Gus, true gentleman, you do indeed know how to love. And that knowledge is the miracle of your kind and your great gift to life.

Reprinted from Great Scots Magazine, Vol 3 No 6 (Nov/Dec) 1998. ©1998 Tartan Scottie.




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