The Wheaten dates back at least to the 1700s, where records of the breed in County Kerry and County Cork are numerous. Wheatens were found throughout Ireland, but more so in the south and southwest, long before official reports were maintained. They apparently were common and ran fairly freely, having their litters in barns, brush and haystacks, with only the fittest specimens surviving. The Wheaten Terrier is thought to be the oldest Irish terrier breed. Back towards the beginning of British history, only landowners - the gentry and nobility – could own hunting dogs. The poor tenant farmers and fishermen could not own any dog over 19 inches at the withers, and even then could only own a dog valued at five pounds or less. Furthermore, only landed gentry could own any dogs with whole tails; otherwise, a tax would be levied on the animal, which commoners could not afford. To avoid these rules, tenant farmers had dogs not readily recognized as hunting dogs, worth below five British pounds, less than 19 inches tall and with docked tails. The Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier was developed against this historical backdrop.
Irish folklore tells that in 1588, a dog swam to the Ireland shore from a sinking ship after defeat of the Spanish Armada. He supposedly mated with native terriers to produce today’s Irish terrier breeds, maybe including the Wheaten. Most historians appreciate this Irish story-telling and agree that the Wheaten can be traced back several hundreds of years. However, common thought today is that the Wheaten Terrier probably predates and in fact contributed to the creation of the other Irish terriers, including the Kerry Blue and the Irish, despite the fact that those two terriers were recognized by the Irish Kennel Club long before the Wheaten was. It is also thought that there is a link between the Wheaten and the Irish Wolfhound, which can be seen when observing the two side by side.
The Wheaten was an all-purpose working farm dog for the struggling tenant farmers, acting as a guardian of property, people and possessions, a vermin exterminator and a competent herder for flocks of sheep and even herds of cattle. Their well-developed senses of sight and smell aided them in hunting small game with their masters, and their sharp bark warned of strangers’ approach. Their even disposition, desire to please and dense coat made them adaptable to almost any task asked of them – including going to ground to bolt badger and fox. In addition to providing all of these critical skills, the Wheaten Terrier became a beloved companion to the farmers’ families.
The Irish Kennel Club did not recognize the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier until 1937, and it competed for the first time at the Irish Kennel Club specialty show on Saint Patrick’s Day that same year. The breed made its way to the United States in 1946. According to records, a litter of six Wheatens came from Belfast to Massachusetts that year. Lydia Vogles of Springfield acquired two of these puppies and exhibited them at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden the following year. Although these six dogs eventually produced seventeen known offspring, the breed did not gain much public attention or interest until 1957, when the Gramachree Kennel of New York (the O’Connor family) and the Sunset Hills Kennel of Connecticut (the Arnolds family) began campaigning their Wheaten Terriers seriously in the American Kennel Club’s Miscellaneous Class.
The Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America was founded on Saint Patrick’s Day of 1962. Interest in the breed swelled, and within a decade more than 1,000 known Wheatens were identified and/or in competition in this country, with more than 500 breed devotees working to gain breed recognition. The Wheaten was admitted to the American Kennel Club Stud Book in 1973, the same year that the breed became eligible to compete in the AKC’s Terrier Group with full registration. The breed had its first AKC conformation champion within several days. Canada recognized the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier in 1978.
The average life span of the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier is 12 to 14 years. Breed health concerns may include Addison’s disease, cutaneous asthenia (Ehrel-Danlos syndrome), food hypersensitivity, cataracts, persistence of the hyaloid apparatus, micropapilla, protein losing enteropathy (PLE), protein losing nephropathy (PLN) and renal dysplasia.