Lakelands, in their current form, are a relatively recent breed, although in the English Lakes District there have been working terriers the antecedents of the modern version of the Lakeland Terrier--for hundreds of years. The breed was first recognized in Great Britain about the late 1920s/early 1930s.
An assortment of working terriers, none of which would closely resemble the modern-day Lakeland, actively hunted fox in Northern England since at least the 16th-Century. These terriers came later to be known by various names such as Patterdale, Fell, Cumberland, Westmoreland, and others, with the names given being attributed to the pack that they hunted with. They varied in general appearance, but shared common characteristics that enabled them to do the job they were bred to do: hunt the large and powerful Westmoreland fox along with packs of hounds.
The Lake district was historically an impoverished part of England, where the main economic activity was farming Herdwick sheep. Especially during lambing season, the sheep were vulnerable to attack by the Westmoreland fox, as were their poultry. It is important to note that the fox seen in this part of Northern England is a particularly large and aggressive strain often significantly larger than the Lakeland. The Lakeland had to be small and narrow enough to be able to fit into the rocky crevices where the fox would make its home or take refuge when hunted, yet have substance enough to enable it to successfully attack and kill the fox. A delicate balance was important: flexibility, agility, soundness, small size, and strength all had to come together for a working terrier to effectively do its job.
The terrain of the Lakes District terrain is harsh and rugged, and the climate highly variable and often unforgiving. The best suited terriers for work in this region had a weather-resistant coat and a sturdy, yet agile, build. Temperament was crucial. A Lakeland, no matter how structurally correct, could never stand up to the rigors of foxhunting if not for its boldness and intelligence. Shyness or lack of gameness (a term used to describe a terriers willingness to attack quarry) would render a Lakeland useless as a working animal. A poor coat would mean that, in the often cold and wet climate of Northern England, a Lakeland would likely never live long enough to even get to the rocky fells.
It is certain that Lakelands were bred down from the now-extinct Black and Tan Terrier (the Manchester Terrier is considered the most similar modern version); however, the other terriers that went into the breed's development are less clear. At the turn of the century, many modern-day terriers were themselves in a stage of breed development that would be very different than those same breeds today. The Welsh Terrier did not play a major role in the Lakeland's development in the early days, despite the similarity in size and general appearance to the Lakeland. It has been argued that the Bedlington Terrier is more closely related to the Lakie than is the Welsh. The Bedlington Terrier was introduced in some of the working terriers, to improve gameness and it is for that reason that we have blue and liver variations in color. Interbreeding with Wire Fox Terriers surely played a factor at some point in Lakeland Terrier evolution, and on rare occasions we see evidence of this via white markings on todays Lakie puppies. These days, the working terrier of the Lakes District still exist, although they are a somewhat different animal than those Lakelands currently seen in the show ring.
Over the years, breeders have refined this once rough-and-tumble working terrier into a classic showdog, however all modern Lakies should possess those basic elements of type and structure that would enable them to carry out their original purpose. Many modern-day conformation champions have been equally successful at Earthdog events--a sport that tests the working ability of terriers.
Prior to the 1930s, the breed was kept almost exclusively for its original purpose. Unlike some of the other terriers, they were a working-man's breed and had not attracted the interest of early show fanciers or aristocratic dog patrons of the Victorian era. Over time that changed, and Lakes District breeders met in 1935 to form a new breed club and settled on the name "Lakeland Terrier." The breed was accepted into the Kennel Club's stud book soon after. Within a few years, the breed had a solid footing in Great Britain and later the United States and, because of the dedication of a small group of breeders, basic type and structure emerged. The emphasis in breeding turned away from the working dogs and toward producing smart-looking show terriers that retained the characteristics valued by the breed's original founders. They also became prized as family pets. Their gregarious personality and highly adaptable nature, small size, and non-shedding coat endeared them as delightful companions for a wide variety of living situations.
In the ensuing years, Lakelands gained a reputation as formidable challengers in the show ring. And, relative to their small numbers, they have certainly won far more than one might expect of a rare breed. Lakies have won the highest honors at most major shows in the world and have consistently ranked among the top winning show dogs. In America alone, many years it was not uncommon for several Lakelands to be among the top-winning terriers and sometimes winning the breed was more difficult than winning the group or Best in Show.
The first major star in our breed was Champion (Ch.) Brazen Blonde of Oz, an outstanding bitch shown in the early 1960s and winner of 31 Best in Shows, at a time when there were far fewer shows than there are today. But for an untimely death in an automobile accident she may have had an even greater show career. She was owned by the first major promoters of the breed in the United States, Mr. & Mrs. Robert Weil, who went on to campaign many top-winning Lakelands over the next decade, handled by one of the top handlers of the day, Harry Sangster. In England, Eng. Ch. Rogerholme Recruit won the first Best in Show for the breed at a major international event: Crufts 1963. The Crufts Dog Show in England is billed as The Greatest Show on Earth and is certainly among the largest and most prestigious. Ch. Stingray of Derryabah would repeat this achievement in 1967, but went one step further by crossing the pond and winning the same award at Westminster Kennel Club 1968, the most prestigious American dog show. Moving forward from the breeds highly successful 1960s, the 1970s and beyond have seen a succession of top-winning Lakeland Terriers. The early 1970s were dominated by the breeds top producer, the Stingray son Ch. Special Edition. Then came the emergence of Ch. Jo-Nis Red Baron of Crofton, who collected a then-record 72 Best in Shows including Westminster 1976. His record was not to stand for long: beginning in 1977 a new star emerged: Ch. Cozys Mischief Maker, who collected 74 Best in Shows. In the 1980s there were a number of stand-outs, but the greatest winning of them was Ch. St-Roques Temperamental, collecting 41 Bests. Towards the end of the decade, Ch Kilfel Pointe of Vu achieved a number of Best in Show wins, including Montgomery County, and additionally made a remarkable contribution as a mother. In the 1990s, again there were a number of top winners but the greatest-winning of them was to again break the record for top-winning Lakeland Terrier: Ch. Revelrys Awesome Blossom collected over 100 Best in Shows, putting her in a very small and elite club of showdogs winning greater than 100 Bests. Another major winner during that time period, collecting over 50 Best in Shows, was Ch. Char-Dars Red Label. Since that time, the greatest winner has been Ch. Hi-Kel Terrydale Soldier of Fortune, also collecting more than 50 Best in Shows. The top winner most recently has been Ch Larkspur Acadia Save Me A Spot, winner of more than 20 Bests. Beyond these highlights, many Lakies have been strong contenders at all levels of competition, with dozens of different Best in Show winners representing our breed over the years. For a breed that frequently has among the fewest AKC registrations and show entries, this illustrates extraordinary commitment on the part of breeders, owners, and handlers.
The connection between the original foxhunting Lakelands to the Best in Show ring is that conformation shows evaluate dogs whose form and temperament is best suited for their original function. To this end, all reputable breeders strive to produce Lakelands that conform to the Breed Standard, which is a written set of qualities that would define a "perfect Lakeland Terrier," with reference to their original purpose. Just because most modern breeding programs focus on producing quality companion dogs and competitive showdogs does not mean that they have lost sight of what the breed was first developed for: the overall goal of preserving the essence of the breed is shared by all serious breeders.