Airedale Terriers: A Comic with a Heart

By Chris Halvorson © 1996

If you like a Perry Como kind of dog — a sedate, slow-tail-wagger who likes to lay around the house all day — maybe an Airedale isn't for you.

But if you like a Robin Williams kind of dog — a comedian prone to anything-for-a-laugh antics — maybe an Airedale is just your kind of dog.

Add intelligence, an endearing bearded face, a hunter's heart, and a guard dog's spirit, and you have a breed with many advantages.

A look at the Airedale's origins and development makes the modern dog more understandable. The breed developed in the Aire River valley of Yorkshire, England around the middle of the 1800's. While there's some disagreement over the exact mix of breeds involved, it's generally agreed the pool included now-extinct English Black-and-Tan Terriers crossed with the Otterhound. This unlikely combination came together for the specific purpose of creating a tough hunting terrier who could swim like a fiend — and thus excel in the local farmer's sport of river-rat hunting.

As a bonus, farmers who supplemented their table by poaching on the local estates found that this new strain of terrier was a quiet hunter who could flush and retrieve fowl as well as rabbits.

Though first named Bingley or Waterside Terriers, by 1886 the English Kennel Club listed the name of "Airedale Terriers." The early dogs were rugged, but they earned ever-increasing respect by their abilities.

The utilitarian purpose of the breed makes for a classic case of form following function. Though the largest terrier, the Airedale should always be a medium-sized dog. The breed's AKC standard calls for males to be 23 inches at the withers, while bitches are slightly smaller. This usually works out to males weighing in at around 55-60 pounds, bitches about 45-50 pounds. A medium size enables the breed to maintain stamina and agility. Outdoor trekkers note that the Airedale is small enough to hop in a canoe or even be carried on horseback, if the need should arise.

The Airedale is a square dog, with its height at the shoulders equaling its length. Both males and females should be well-muscled and athletic.

Airedales have a weather-resistant double coat, with hard wiry hair growing over a softer undercoat. While early Yorkshire farmers may not have cared about appearances, today's Airedale owners generally practice considerable coat management. If untended, the Airedale coat grows thick, curly, and unruly. Some owners like this woolly bear look. Others find it untidy in appearance and messy in the house.

On the other extreme, Airedales readied for the show ring have their coats hand-stripped and shaped into a look that is quite stylish. Hand-stripping is the only way to preserve the ideal wire and color of the coat. Trimming an Airedale by hand — actually by using special grooming combs — takes time, patience, and considerable skill. Many owners who wish to show their dogs leave the fine points of grooming to a professional handler.

Most owners of pet Airedales make some grooming compromises. Some hand-strip part of the coat, usually the backcoat and head, then use clippers on the more difficult parts such as the rear and neck. Other owners clipper the entire dog or have it done by a professional groomer. Clippering is neat and efficient, though clippered coats lose some texture and color. Though this coat isn't carefree, it's a non-shedding coat. This is a tremendous advantage in a housedog.

All Airedales are tan with a black saddle. A small bit of white is allowed on the chest. More than one philosophical owner has remarked that Airedale coat color covers up a lot of mud, which is convenient.

Eyes, ears, and tails are little things that mean a lot in Airedales. The ideal Airedale eye is small, dark, and almond-shaped. Eyebrows groomed down over the eyes of a watchful Airedale give the breed the prized "hard-bitten" look. On the other hand, when at ease, the Airedale eye is noted for its lively twinkle.

Airedale ears are also expressive. When alert, ears are held forward and folded just above skull level, with eartips hanging down to the outer corners of the eyes. Dogs pull ears back when relaxed, silly, unhappy, or eavesdropping. The experienced owner learns to read Airedale ears.

Puppy tails are docked at three days. When done properly, only about one-third of the tail is removed. The adult Airedale should have a tail tip that's even with the top of its head.

Considering the breed's roller-coaster popularity during the middle years of its history, it's surprising that today's dogs are so similar to the founders. By the beginning of the 1900's, numerous English dogs had been imported to the United States. The Airedale Terrier Club of America (ATCA) was founded in 1900.

The breed's early hunting exploits brought the greatest fame. Airedales went "Out West" to hunt bear and bobcats, and Down South after wild hogs. Nothing was too tough for this terrier to tackle. During World War I Airedales served with valor as guard dogs and messengers. The breed's reputation grew as big as Pecos Bill's.

In 1920 the Airedale was the most popular breed in the United States, with 6,386 AKC registrations. Even the White House had a resident Airedale, Laddie Boy, owned by President Warren Harding.

The rapid, careless breeding that feeds this kind of popularity brought deterioration of breed type and temperament. Stories told by today's senior citizens about the Airedales of their youth often start: "Our neighbors had an Airedale that must have weighed a hundred pounds, and that dog could beat up every other dog on our block." By 1931, Airedales had dropped to 18th place in AKC listings, with only 412 registrations.

Fortunately, serious breeders managed to rescue this breed. Today the Airedale is once again a stable, sound, and medium-sized dog. It now ranks 49th in popularity among the 140 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club.

The most common role of the Airedale today is as a family dog. Airedales and children go together because they share a common interest in playing. When a puppy, an Airedale should be brought up with the same firmness, affection, and consistency that works with a precocious three-year old child. Owners who are lax in their "parental" duties to their pup may well end up with an Airedale-brat.

Tom and Kat Keys, breeders from Independence, Oregon, explain this to prospective buyers up front: "The Airedale has a great need for affection. He must be part of the family. You can't send him to some lonely backyard prison and expect to have anything other than an exuberant juvenile delinquent on your hands."

Airedale puppies enjoy a long youth, some owners claiming their ten year old dog "still acts like a pup." Tossing toys, stealing laundry or food, zooming around the living room — these dogs will act up for your attention. If you have no sense of humor, this isn't the breed for you. On the other hand, appreciative owners consider Airedales a constant source of comic relief.

Airedale "teenagers" have some mental immaturity long after their bodies are full size. They will often seem cautious in new situations. When the pup is about two years old, he'll click into maturity — suddenly he'll be steadier, more territorial, more self-assured.

When you have an adult Airedale in the house, any sound at the door brings a chorus of barking. Airedales can convert their challenge to a welcome in an instant, as long as their master gives the okay. However, intruders who try to enter will have to face a dog intent on protecting its home.

At the same time, Airedales are sensible watch dogs. They aren't as yappy/snappy as some of their smaller terrier cousins, nor are they aggressive. An Airedale "on his toes" makes you believe the old adage: "An Airedale doesn't start fights. He finishes them."

Airedales are trainable dogs, though they don't necessarily do well with the drill-and-jerk methods used in some obedience classes.

Dianna Fielder, breeder of show champions and agility titlists, has some standard advice for prospective owners.

"If you want a dog that's easy to train, does exactly what you want, and lives only to please you, get another breed of dog," says Fielder. "But if you want a dog that thinks for himself, is sometimes smarter than you (and that's hard to deal with), and is a clown with more personality than most dogs, then get an Airedale."

Fielder notes that Airedales do best when training is fun, interesting, and treat-orientated. However, the breed is easily bored with repetitive exercises and may just question a human's sense.

"If an Airedale has shown you that he knows how to do something like heeling," notes Fielder, "and you ask him to do it again, he might not. He'll just look at you as if you're not too smart, as if to say, 'I've shown you this once, and that should be enough.' "

The ATCA has an enthusiastic obedience contingent whose members compete successfully in advanced levels of competition. Other Airedalers have earned agility and tracking titles on these athletic dogs.

Several members of Search and Rescue teams in the United States have chosen Airedales as their partners. They report that Airedales have the drive, energy and stamina that make them effective, whether searching rubble for earthquake victims or looking for missing persons in wilderness or avalanche searches.

Besides training, Airedales need adequate exercise. Most breeders want new puppy owners to have a fenced yard. Airedales are adventurers, not homebodies. This isn't the kind of dog to hang around the house, especially if a rabbit crosses its path.

Given the Airedale's reputation as a hunter, many prospective buyers ask how the breed is with cats and other dogs. The answer is: It depends. The Airedale pup who comes into a house with a dominant cat will respect the cat. However, cats who run or react adversely will probably kick in the dog's prey drive, and there will be a shakier period of adjustment.

Unlike some of the more dog-agressive terrier breeds, Airedales live compatibly with other dogs, even those of the same sex. However, as in many breeds, two unneutered adult males are likely to fight.

Within the past decade, there's been a resurgence of interest in preserving the breed's hunting heritage. Those who favor Airedales for hunting note that the breed offers versatility other field dogs don't have.

David Duffey, a well-known gundog writer, hunts with his Airedale as well as several of the more traditional bird dog breeds. Duffey notes that Airedales have a niche in the hunting world.

"The Airedale will never out-retrieve a Retriever, or out-point a bird dog, or out-flush a Springer. But he will work as a flushing dog, and he can pick up and bring back whatever you shoot. And then, if you shoot a squirrel or a rabbit, you aren't going to mess up an Airedale as you might do if you have a specialist dog. The Airedale is an excellent dog for the casual hunter who likes to go out a few weekends every year and hunt both feather and fur."

The ATCA's Hunting/Working Committee hosts hunting tests in which Airedales must flush upland birds, do land and water retrieves, and track raccoons. Official ATCA hunting titles are awarded to dogs who qualify in the tests.

If the Airedale sounds like your kind of dog, be sure to shop for a pup from a reputable breeder. Be cautious if the price is less than $400 [1996 US price]. The ATCA can refer you to member breeders in your area, but there are some criteria you can apply anyone selling an Airedale.

The seller should be sure you understand the breed's drawbacks. For instance, the breeder should mention that Airedales dig. This is a consideration if landscaping is your hobby.

Though Airedales are basically a sound breed, most breeders x-ray the hips of their dogs to screen for signs of hip dysplaysia. Skin problems or allergies bother dogs of some bloodlines.

Breeder Corally Burmaster suggests Airedales have an unusual trait calling for a veterinarian who is familiar with the breed.

"Airedales rarely show pain," Corally notes, "and they're so game that they can be desperately ill before the average pet owner notices it. Some vets don't assign enough weight to the subtle signs that Airedales present when they're ill. I went through a crisis or two with my vet before he understood that when I called to say one of my guys simply wasn't being 'bad enough,' then we had a problem that needed immediate attention. Airedales' stoicism can be the death of them."

The bottom line is the assurance that the breeder will stand behind a pup and be willing to take it back if for any reason you can't keep it.

There are a certain number of sellers who don't follow through on that commitment, and consequently, the ATCA has assembled an active Rescue Committee. Rescue Chairman [in 1996] Lynne Jensen heads a network of volunteers who place Airedales from shelters or adult dogs given up by owners into suitable new homes.

"Most of these Airedales have simply become inconvenient or disposable to their owners," explains Jensen. "The reasons are as simple, and as complicated, as modern life: no time, too much trouble, moving, getting divorced or married, and on and on."

Airedales taken into the ATCA's Rescue Committee's care receive spaying/neutering, inoculations, medical and behavioral evaluations, and foster care prior to placement with carefully screened applicants.

"95% of our rescue dogs are just regular Airedales who simply want to be around people who appreciate the breed," recounts Jensen. And when the proper match is made, "These dogs blossom, and so do their owners."

Most people who have owned an Airedale agree that the breed's advantages weigh in its favor. Few breeds manage to be as stylish, noble, athletic, protective, and goofy as an Airedale. Once you've owned a good one, the only thing better is two or three more.

THE END




This article was originally published in the June 1996 issue of Dog Fancy. Copyright 1996 by Chris Halvorson.
Reprinted here with the author's permission. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission of the author is prohibited.