A Short History of Airedale Terriers

airedale terrier puppy playing in a yard of grass

The Airedale is often referred to as the King of Terriers due to being the largest in the dog family. It is thought to have resulted from crossing different terriers with the Otterhound, which is another British original. The shaggy-haired hound not only contributed to bone and size but a fondness for water and a good nose as well. These are essential qualities for the amphibious Airedale to have since its job responsibilities included hunting otters and rats in Yorkshire’s rivers and streams.

Working Terriers

The Airedale, like many of the other Terriers, was a working dog that working-class men developed who did not have the means or space to have multiple dogs. This resulted in the Airedale being intended as a generalist instead of a specialist. Along with getting rid of vermin, these dogs could drive home wayward cows. retrieve everything from rabbis to birds, guard the family and farm, and track and kill big animals. Unlike most other terriers he was too large to go to the ground. However, he had as much spirit and spark as his smaller cousins did.

The Airedale’s gritty versatility made them very popular with poachers. They would sneak onto large Victorian estates that were off-limits to commoners to bag game. (Failure didn’t involve just returning home empty-handed. A poacher who encountered a Bullmastiff and patrolling gamekeeper may end up ever coming home). The dogs were often victorious on Saturdays in the river-rat hunts that the local mill and factory workers organized. The men often bet up to a week’s worth of their wages on the specific dog that they thought would be able to find a rat hole located on the riverbank, then wait for it to be flushed out by a ferret, before finally chasing it through the water and closing its powerful jaws on the rodent attempting to flee.

Given the Airedale’s modest roots, during the late 19th Century it was not exhibited at dog shows very often. When entered in a local Yorkshire show, they were vaguely exhibited as a Waterside Terrier, Working Terrier, or Broken-Haired Terrier. One prominent breeder wanted the breed to have a more specific name, it came up with Bingley Terrier as a suggested name. However, it was rejected so that undue credit would not be given to the Yorkshire town of the same name. The name Airedale was eventually adopted, which referenced the twisting River along with its dale or valley, in the place where the robust terrier had been originally developed.

If it were not for the Great War, the Airedale may have continued to be a little-known Yorkshire countryside terrier. The Airedale made his name as the premier military dog during World War I where he worked as a search dog looking for wounded soldiers, explosives detector, messenger, and sentry. However, he was not immediately appreciated by his native Britians for his incredible value inside the trenches.

During the 1890s, when the Airedale was first exported to Germany, the country was in the middle of experimenting with the modern idea of the police dog. It was a perfect fit for the Airedale. He was a good size, excelled at tracking, and featured a weather-resistant coat. When necessary, he was protective and courageous, along with being reliable and loyal. In 1900, Airedales were used by the Germans in China to patrol as well as carry munitions and messages very successfully throughout the Boxer Rebellion. By the start of World War I, the Airedale in Germany was a highly military dog, along with the homebred German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, and the Rottweiler years later.

Of course, it was quite a bitter irony to have a quintessentially British breed of dog to be considered as ultimate war dog or German Kriegshud. As the war continued to rage, the British quickly discovered the incredibly versatile resource directly underneath their noses. During the Victorian era’s waning years, a gentleman farmer named Colonel Edwin Richardson became very interested in how war dogs had been used by the ancient Romans and Geeks. He was soon sought out all over the world to provide dogs for this purpose. He sent combinations of several breeds, including Bloodhounds, Collies, and Airedales, to Russia to help in the Russo-Japanese War, to India to help the ethnic Nepali Gurkhas maintain British rule, and to Turkey to guard the 700-woman harem of a sultan.

Richardson finally returned to his home soil by 1910 and founded the British War Dog School using various sheepdog breeds and Airedales. (Richardson was aware that the Germans came to Britain to buy Collies to collect for its military dog stock, and used them successfully). However, it became obvious very quickly that all of the others were outshone by the harsh-coated, keen terriers. Richardson ultimately sent over 2,000 dogs onto the front, with many of them being Airedales.

There are many accounts of the sheer pluck and tenacity of the wartime Airedales, with the most dramatic being the account of a dog named Jack. Jack was one of Richardson’s own dogs. He ran half a mile through gunfire and mortars. When he finally reached his destination his front leg was maimed and he had a shattered jaw. He received the Victoria Cross later, which is the British military system’s highest honor for his valor in the enemy’s presence.

The pubic attention was captured by the exploits of Jack and other Airedales, which resulted in the breed’s popularity skyrocketing. The demand for Airedale Terrier puppies from families that loved the friendly qualities of the dog’s personality, grew tremendously.  The Airedale, like so many other breeds that have working-class roots, started to be noticed by people with the influence and means to promote them, including Mrs. Joh Jacob Astor and four U.S. presidents.

The breed is associated as well with another very prominent American who also had an up-from-the-bootstraps history, the renowned black newspaper publisher and inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan. Along with inventing the gas mask and traffic light, Morgan also created a hair refining creme, which was the first chemical hair straightener. He tested it initially on his neighbor’s Airedale. (The product works so well that the owner of the dog did not recognize him and tried to run the dog out of his house.)