Lancashire Heelers - small in stature, big in heart
PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 February 2014 | UPDATED: 21:20 16 January 2018
This sturdy Lancashire breed might be small in stature but they’ve got big hearts. Emily Rothery reports
When sheep or cattle herding is mentioned most people will have a well-trained border collie in mind so it might come as a quite a surprise to find a sturdy little black and tan dog, running determinedly on short legs, efficiently rounding up animals many times its size.
Lancashire Heelers, also once known as Ormskirk Heelers, have been doing this job for hundreds of years in the north of England. It is generally accepted that this tiny tenacious breed is a cross between the Manchester terrier and the Welsh corgi and originated when Welsh farmers used drovers to take their cattle to northern markets.
The crafty canines would nip at the heels of the cattle and then instinctively duck away hence earning them the nickname of ‘nip and duck dogs’. Traditionally they were also used to catch rats and rabbits. To do this job effectively it was said that they had to be ‘small enough to fit into a poacher’s pocket.’ Heelers are still used by farmers in their home county and the Lake District today, although nipping is definitely discouraged.
Joan and John Patrick are Heeler enthusiasts and I am warmly welcomed into their home near Leigh to learn more about the breed. Joan tells me that she fell in love with them when visiting a neighbour’s farm. In 1989, when she retired from her job of district nurse, she felt the time was right to welcome a Heeler into her home. Joy was her first pup and Joan eventually went on to successfully breed and show her dogs.
She has bred a few notable Heelers over the years and was the first person to breed, exhibit and win the Best of Breeds for a Heeler at Crufts in 1998. She has bred 34 and owned five but she says:‘If I could have one dog back it would be Rupert’.
Rupert came to live with Joan and her husband John on their farm in Glazebury and soon made his mark. The intention was to keep him as a pet and breed from him. Rupert had other ideas though and soon became part of the working team on the farm.
John explains: ‘He loved the freedom of the farm and quickly learned to herd the sheep and cattle. He worked alongside our collie, Bunty, and just picked up the skills along the way. He soon learned to understand my commands and the two dogs developed an uncanny understanding.
‘They would do a double gather instinctively where she went one road and he went t’other. He was the best working dog that we ever had because he was so controllable. He was full of energy yet listened intently to every command. He was amazing for his versatility and excelled at everything although he never won as a show dog because his tail curved to one side.’
Rupert was also a good loading dog when we needed to take animals to market, something not all trained dogs can manage. ‘He caused a lot of interest at the cattle market and people would say “what the ‘eck’s that?”. They soon changed their tune when they saw how good he was at his job.’ chuckles John, who at 80 is still involved in training collies for sheep dog trials.
Rupert’s herding abilities were recorded in the Lancashire Heeler Club publications and visitors came from as far a field as Holland and Sweden to see him in action.
Joan said Rupert would also defend the lambs that had to be brought into the farmhouse to keep warm. ‘Rupert didn’t have a nasty bone in his body but would just give a little warning growl if anyone but us went near them.’
Rupert has sired successfully so it’s good to know that his line lives on. In fact Rupert, under his kennel name Shoeshine Boy of Patterjo, was awarded Sire of the Year in 2002 by a well-known brand of dog food.
Rupert retired, alongside his beloved owners, although continued to visit the farm until, befitting of his advanced years, he began to slow down. He lived until the grand old age of 16.
‘Heelers love to be with people and are also used as therapy dogs. Some are found to be very good at obedience, agility, working trials and flyball. What they lack in size, they make up for in personality and determination,’ laughs Joan.
No matter what role Lancashire Heelers are given it seems that their intelligence, enthusiasm and amiable temperament shines through. Firm handling and consistent training is the key. I am told that these pint-sized characters will even reward you with an endearing smile as they curl back their top lip when you talk to them. Their joy for life seems to be infectious and it’s no surprise to learn that once you’ve owned Heeler, you will never want to be without one.
I’ll leave the last word with Jayne Holligan another Heeler enthusiast, whose dog Pippi works on their Buttermere sheep farm in the Lake District: ‘Heelers are such hard workers and also great lap dogs. You never feel lonely with a Heeler in your life. In fact my partner Alan says if he’d had a Heeler in his life before me he would never had the need for any woman!’
Heelers are increasingly popular and there are now breeders in America, Holland, Finland and Sweden. Owners include former Coronation Street star Ken Morley. They have their own club www.thelancashireheelerclub.co.uk which supplied some of the pictures for this feature.