Origins in Britain
The Yorkshire terrier actually began its development in Scotland, not England. While all dogs owned by the working classes at the time were small — laws denied them larger dogs to keep them from poaching with the dogs on the expansive hunting lands — there were several variations of “small.” The official requirement was that dogs owned by commoners had to be able to walk through a hoop that was seven inches in diameter. This led to the breeding of many short-legged, long-bodied dogs.
Weavers and miners in Scotland wanted a smaller dog to deal with the burgeoning rat population. They crossed a variety of terriers until they had a scaled-down dog that was still true to its terrier heritage. By today's standards, these early incarnations of the breed were oversized, weighing in at 12-14 pounds. Some even say that the Yorkie's tan head and legs were selected because they made the dogs more visible in the dark mine shafts.
The dogs were also used as entertainment. In a time when bulldogs were actually used to bait bulls in competitions (grabbing onto the nose and holding on), Yorkshire terriers were pitted against rats in miniature rings. Because the ratting competitions required little space, many pubs included them as part of an evening's merriment. The pubs also held many informal dog shows.
It seemed that Yorkies would never gain true popularity because the wisdom at the time declared that both men and women had to be attracted to a breed for it to succeed. People deemed the broken-haired Scotch terrier too fussy and feminine to gain popularity. They were wrong. Today, the Yorkshire terrier is the preferred pet of countless men and women the world over.
The Move to Yorkshire
When the weavers migrated to Yorkshire in pursuit of work opportunities, they brought their little dogs with them. At the time, they were called broken-haired Scotch terriers. They still served as ratters and as entertainment in staged fights against rats. But they soon gained other opportunities.
In those days, almost every animal was shown in some way. Informal competitions regularly sprang up to determine who had the best wool sheep, the finest cattle, the handsomest chickens, and of course, the best dogs.
Even before kennel clubs existed, dogs were being shown against one another and judged by those present or by some local authority. In the early days of the kennel clubs, almost any dog could be shown because there were no long pedigrees and generations of registrations. At first, Yorkshire terriers were shown in a class for “Scottish Terriers,” which could also include Cairn, Dandie Dinmont, and Skye terriers. But the Yorkie's continued existence looked doubtful, as those in high places proclaimed the breed unnatural and unlikely to be favored by men.
Creation of the Breed
The experts were wrong when they said that a breed had to be favored by both men and women to gain popularity. The small terrier became well loved by the women of the time. Thus, the weavers found themselves in possession of the secret to the Yorkie's breeding, with a valuable product to sell. The working-class men were soon selling puppies to the upper-class women and carefully guarding the lineage of their dogs. This secrecy surrounding their product is the reason there is so little firm information about the breed's early history.
The Waterside terrier was once common in Yorkshire. This dog was a ratter and a small breed with a longish coat, occasionally showing a blue-gray color. The Waterside terrier was crossed with the otter hound to develop the Airedale terrier. This may be how the Airedale came to be mentioned in the creation of the Yorkshire terrier.
The Paisley, Clydesdale, and Skye share a confused, inter-twined history. The Paisley line eventually merged into the Skye terrier, while the Clydesdale simply disappeared, but not before note was made of the fine and silky coat of the dog. While the Skye standard was in the process of being solidified, breeders occasionally threw in individual dogs that were prick-eared and had softer coats than the desired hard coat of the Skye. The Paisley and Clydesdale probably contributed color, as they are described as dark blue to light fawn. The Paisley actually got so far as to have a written standard, calling for “various shades of blue.”
Though the origin of the breed dates back only about 150 years, the breeds that went into the Yorkie's makeup can only be guessed. There's certainly terrier blood, and the Waterside, Paisley, Clydesdale, Skye, and black-and-tan terrier are all mentioned as possible progenitors. Other hypotheses include the Leeds terrier, Manchester terrier, and Maltese. Some even suggest the Airedale terrier, though the first four breeds are by far the best guesses.