Airedale Terrier History: Behind the Breed

(By Denise Flaim, original article:

Heroism during wartime can propel an average Joe into the spotlight. Just ask the Airedale Terrier.

Called the "King of Terriers" because he is the largest in that family of earth dogs, the Airedale is believed to be the result of crossing various terriers with another British original, the Otterhound. That shaggy-haired hound contributed not just size and bone, but also a good nose and a fondness for water - important qualities for the rather amphibious Airedale, whose job description included hunting rats and otters in the streams and rivers of Yorkshire.

The Working Terrier

Like so many of the terriers, the Airedale was a working dog developed by working-class men who didn't have the space or means to keep multiple dogs. As a result, the Airedale was intended to be a generalist, not a specialist: In addition to dispatching vermin, he could track and kill larger creatures, guard the family farm, retrieve everything from birds to rabbits, even drive home the occasional wayward cow. And while he was too big to go to ground like most other terriers, he had just as much spark and spirit as his smaller cousins.

This gritty versatility made the Airedale quite popular with poachers, who snuck on to sprawling Victorian estates to bag some of the plentiful game that was off-limits to commoners. (Failure didn't just mean coming home empty-handed: An encounter with the patrolling gamekeeper and his Bullmastiff might result in not coming home at all.) On Saturdays, the dogs were frequently victorious in the river-rat hunts organized by the area's factory and mill workers; the men would bet as much as a week's wages on the dog they thought could locate a rat hole on the riverbank, wait for a ferret to flush it out, and then chase its occupant through the water until it closed its powerful jaws around the fleeing rodent.

Given these modest roots, the Airedale was not exhibited widely in dog shows throughout England in the late 19th Century. When he was entered at local Yorkshire shows, he was exhibited rather vaguely as a "Broken-Haired Terrier," "Working Terrier" or "Waterside Terrier." Wanting to give the breed a more specific moniker, one prominent breeder suggested the name Bingley Terrier, but that was rejected in order not to give undue credit to that eponymous Yorkshire town. Eventually, the name Airedale was adopted, a reference to the twisting Aire River and its valley, or dale, where this robust terrier was developed.

Military Dogs of World War I

The Airedale might have remained a little-known terrier of the Yorkshire countryside were it not for the arrival of the Great War. While the Airedale made a name for itself as the premier military dog in World War I as a sentry, messenger, explosives detector and search dog for wounded soldiers, his native Britain didn't immediately appreciate his value in the trenches.

When the first Airedale was exported to Germany in the 1890s, that country was experimenting with the modern concept of a police dog. The Airedale fit right in: A handy size, he had a weather-resistant coat and excelled at tracking; in addition to being loyal and reliable, he was also courageous and protective when necessary. In 1900, the Germans used Airedales to patrol and carry messages and munitions during the Boxer Rebellion in China, with great success. By the time World War I dawned, the Airedale was a much valued military dog in Germany, alongside the homebred Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd Dog and, in later years, Rottweiler.

There was, of course, a bitter irony in having such a quintessentially British breed considered the ultimate German Kriegshund, or war dog. As the war raged on, the British were quick to discover the amazingly versatile resource that was right under their noses.

In The Presence of the Enemy

In the waning years of the Victorian era, gentleman farmer Col. Edwin Richardson had become very interested how the ancient Greeks and Romans used war dogs, and in short order he was sought out internationally to provide dogs for that very purpose. He dispatched combinations of several different breeds - Airedales, Collies and Bloodhounds among them - to Russia during the Russo-Japanese war; to Turkey to help guard a sultan's 700-woman harem, and to India to aid ethnic Nepali Gurkhas in maintaining British rule there.

In 1910, finally on his home soil, Richardson began the British War Dog School with Airedales and various breeds of sheepdogs. (Richardson knew that the Germans, in collecting stock for their military dogs, had come to Britain to purchase Collies, and used them with success.) But in short order it was obvious that the keen, harsh-coated terriers outshone them all. In the end, Richardson sent more than 2,000 dogs to the front, many of them Airedales.

There are numerous accounts of the tenacity and sheer pluck of these wartime Airedales, the most dramatic of which is the story of Jack. One of Richardson's own, Jack ran a half-mile through a hail of mortars and gunfire. When he arrived at his destination, his jaw was shattered his job and his front leg maimed. Dutifully, he permitted a critical message to be removed from his collar - then fell dead on the spot. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honor in the British military system, given for valor "in the presence of the enemy."

From the Titanic to the Whitehouse

The exploits of Airedales like Jack immediately drew the public's notice, and the breed's popularity shot up accordingly. As is the case with so many breeds with working-class roots, the Airedale Terrier began to be noticed by those with the means and influence to promote them, among them socialite Mrs. John Jacob Astor, whose Airedale Kitty perished on the Titanic, as well as four United States presidents.

The breed is also associated with another prominent American who shared a similar up-from-your-bootstraps story, the noted black inventor and newspaper publisher Garrett Augustus Morgan. In addition to inventing the traffic light and the gas mask, Morgan developed the first chemical hair straightener, a "hair refining creme" that he first tested on his neighbor's Airedale. (It worked so well the dog's owner, not recognizing him, at first try to run him out of the house.)

President Warren Harding acquired Airedale, a six-month-old puppy named Laddie Boy, on the day after his inauguration in 1921. The terrier famously sat on his own hand-carved chair during cabinet meetings and received reams of press coverage, beginning the modern tradition of having the idiosyncrasies of the First Pooch covered relentlessly by the press, from his bone-cake birthday parties to his thoughtful fetching of Harding's errant golf balls. For his part, the 29th president had a thousand miniature bronze statues of Laddie manufactured, and distributed them to his political supporters.

Some of those statuettes survive today, avidly sought by political-memorabilia collectors. As for the Airedale, he has weathered more than a century of existence with almost as little change as his diminutive bronze likenesses - something that can't be said of quite a few breeds outside the very tradition-focused, fad-adverse Terrier Group. Baptized by the cold water of the River Aire, forged by the fire and smoke of the battlefield, the Airedale simply soldiers on.

The Airedale terrier today

Despite its glorious past, as with many breeds, the function of the Airedale Terrier has changed considerably. It is now primarily kept as a family dog, a function it fulfils perfectly. Looking at the above reading, however, it must be acknowledged that the stock is unfortunately segregated into show and working lines (fortunately, we also see mixed litters where breeders are not only concerned with looks, but also not only with working ability). Of course, it would be unjust to say that all show line dogs are unfit for work or sport (fortunately, this is far from true), or that all puppies from a working line litter are perfect for work. However, to say that the Airedale is an unspoilt breed, that most of them are suited to the tasks for which they were originally bred, and that certain dogs (hate me, but mainly from show lines) lack the fear of storms and shooting and aren't overly sensitive would be self-deception.

In my breeding, from my first litter (sired by a fine working Airedale, Styrian Spirit Jamie 'Alfie', with a very handsome appearance) I have tried to combine working and show lines from time to time, fortunately with good foundations, because I have no words for the temperament of my dogs that come from show lines (I would not breed with a shy dog, anyway). This fall I had the pleasure to bring in from Germany a 100% working line Airedale bitch, Aura vom Bunten Regen, who I have big plans for, and I like the look of her ancestors (normally I'm not a fan of the looks of working line Airedales) and her pedigree. Besides her, there are other youngsters in the family, but I will introduce them and Aura on this website in due course, after screenings and their first shows.

Continuing with the line of thought, there is a saying that "you can live with an ugly dog, but not with a shy one", which I fully believe. One thing is an unsocialised, "Mowgli" dog who lives in the countryside in a garden house and is rarely taken out in a crowd, so he will take some time getting used to at first, but I have had a dog (I won't write the breed or kennel name because I don't want to do the breeder any harm, and occasionally a shy dog can turn up in anyone's home despite all good intentions and selection), who, even after nursery, school, early and late regular socialisation, city walks, was unable to get used to strange people, so when at its last indoor show it tucked its tail under itself and was unable to relax, growling at the judge, I decided to have it neutered, however nice looking it was, and not to breed it. But looks are just as important to me, because it hurts the eye when you see some dogs that only slightly resemble their breed. Of course, no dog is perfext and I am fully aware of the faults of mine, and I try to improve and perfect the quality of the litters I have (both externally and internally).

In the Airedale Terrier, as in all breeds, early socialisation is very important, as much and varied stimulation as possible. We give the puppies the basics by having them sleep in the same room with us, and only when they have outgrown the house and have the right immunity do they move out onto the terrace and start to systematically break up the yard. They are exposed to all sorts of noises, from the TV to household appliances to our parrots' clucking, and are regularly picked up and petted, first by us and later by our visitors. As we have more than one rescued kitten in a built-in cat run for their own safety, our puppies are introduced to the smell and sight of cats at an early age.

Some thoughts on who (I think) this breed is for:

you must have a whole lot of humor and never expect obedience and servility typical of a German Shepherd, otherwise you will be very disappointed! As I mentioned in the introduction, socialization and dog school are highly recommended, and it is always a good idea to keep their minds occupied.

If you want a nice garden, chew-free furniture, intact furnishings and peace of mind, don't choose an Airedale (or any terrier), because the they can surprise you later, although it is calmer due to its size, so it won't be as crazy as an adult, as any smaller terrier. I mentioned these on the main page, and my golden retriever analogy there should be treated with reservations, because although Airedales are easy and fun for me and for the breed's lovers and keepers to live with, a terrier is a terrier.

Care and health of the Airedale

This breed needs grooming. If you want a beautiful and well groomed dog at all times, and not a sheep that is clipped twice a year, it is worth taking them for a handstripping every few months or learning the process - not an impossible undertaking, but hard physical work and takes hours. I honestly hate trimming :D, but it's worth it for the end result and that's the breed I chose ūüėä It's important that they get used to grooming as soon as possible, so I start introducing them to handstripping knives as puppies and give each puppy to its new owner with a trim. So they get the basics here, but I always encourage owners not to wait long months for the next trim, because no one will undertake the mission of grooming a bulky, heavy, untrained, intolerant, big-haired dog, and it's also not good for your pet.

They are basically healthy dogs, but dysplasia does occur, and it is worth bearing in mind that even a puppy from dysplasia free parents should not be over exercised, climbing too much on stairs, or fattened up while growing up (the latter is unlikely to happen in an active terrier puppy, I will discuss this below). I would recommend joint protection only in moderation, mostly in case of sudden growth and/or growth lameness, which fortunately is not common.

We feed raw meat, with occasional days of dry dog food . We feed the pups with kibbles first, and then when they are old enough, we start offering them raw meat. I always leave it up to the future owners to decide whether to feed them raw or dry food, the only thing I try to make sure is that if they do feed them with the latter, it should be of the best quality possible. Not necessarily in the most expensive price range, but certainly not the poorest. The ones that have worked for us (regardless of having corn etc. in it), and have given us puppies that have grown nicely and had a small, tough end product are Ecopet Natural Puppy Maxi, Premiere Best Meat Junior, Concept for Life X-Large Puppy (unfortunately I can't find Puppy All Breed anywhere anymore), and in the past Farmina Team Breeder Sensible Puppy

On the subject of feeding, I would also stress the importance of quantity. You can't really fatten up a growing, active puppy , so don't judge how much is enough and feed it as much as it wants. If he does start to get overweight, you will notice and it is easier to cut back on the quantity than to watch a stunted, undeveloped adult dog for years, pardon the expression. Since the Airedale is not a St. Bernard or any other giant bodied breed, it is unnecessary to keep it deliberately lean and it doesn't matter what the amount is on the feed bag, it is only a guide.

I don't complicate raw feeding too much for healthy adult dogs of average age in good condition. What I give most dogs regardless of age and condition on a regular basis and really consider good is salmon oil, I also recommend it in puppyhood instead of (or in addition to) green mussel powder.

In addition to salmon oil, I use supplements such as Luposan or other herbal blends, carrot powder, algae powder, probiotics etc. in puppies and older dogs, or sick or pregnant dogs, but be careful with the proportions and especially with mixing the supplements as some can cause diarrhea in my experience.

One thing to watch out for, and there is a lot of material on the internet about how to feed raw, is the balance of meat, meaty bones and organs. In addition, it is safe to give some cottage cheese, whole raw eggs, boiled eggs, leftover cooked soup vegetables (except onions, cabbage etc. banned foods), and some rice or cooked pasta, some boiled oatmeal is not a bad idea, however these are just my own experiences over many years, I am not a dietician.