A History of the Airedale Terrier
By Catherine Miskow
Mention the word "terrier" to anyone, and they will most likely conjure up the image of a small, neurotic, hyperactive dog.  Given this image, it is easy to see why people are shocked when I walk down the street with a thirty-inch, eighty-pound dog and tell them that it is a terrier.  "But he's so big!" they all reply.  "How can that 'thing' possibly be a terrier?"  I smile and tell them that my dog is definitely a terrier, and none other than "the king of the terriers," the Airedale. 
Like most terriers, the Airedale has its roots in the British Isles.  As its name implies, the breed originated in the Aire river valley of Yorkshire, less that one hundred miles from the Scottish border.  An assortment of vermin and other pesky animals roamed the banks of the river, including martens, foxes, rats and otter. These animals would dig through the riverbanks, invading and eventually, overrunning the neighboring fields.  To control these pests, the hunters and farmers of the valley often kept as many as five different dogs, each of which was specialized to deal with a particular species of vermin.  Most of these dogs were small terriers, with an occasional hound to handle the larger vermin.  Keeping so many dogs, however, was an expensive proposition, and generally, beyond the financial constraints of the average farmer.  Furthermore, while the small terriers were ideal for fighting and exterminating rats, they could do little against an animal that equaled or surpassed them in size.  Being land based dogs, they were at an additional disadvantage should their quarry take to the water.  The farmers soon realized that they needed one dog that could do the work of five.  Such a dog needed to be small enough to take on a rat, yet large enough to tackle larger prey, such as foxes or martens.  Most of all, though, they needed a dog that could pursue its quarry through the water.
The Aire river Valley in Yorkshire. Photo from Freefoto.com
Photo from Freefoto.com
To produce such a dog, breeders crossed the now extinct black and tan terrier with the English Bullterrier, the offspring of which was then crossed with the Otterhound. Some British cynologists suggest that the Airedale contains a strain of the Griffon Vendéen or even the Irish Wolfhound. The resultant dog was a pretty sorry looking thing by today's standards, but was definitely recognizable as a rudimentary Airedale.  Once the new breed had been established, it needed a name.  Initially, the dog was known as the  "Working Terrier" or the "Waterside Terrier," but there was little consistency among the usage of the names.  A prominent Yorkshire breeder had suggested the name "Bingley Terrier," after the village where the dog had originated, but neighboring villages soon grew jealous of the attention that was bestowed upon the village of Bingley.  Finally, the name "Airedale Terrier" was adopted, in homage to the river and the region in which the dog had originated.  This idea seemed to placate the Yorkshire populus. 
These early specimens ranged in size from fifteen to twenty-four inches, and weighed between thirty and eighty pounds.  Such a size was unheard of for a terrier, and many British dog lovers were hesitant to accept the new dog as such. Some people even began distinguishing between  "Airedale terriers" and plain "Airedales,"implying that the latter dog was a separate breed. 

"Airedale Jerry," the forefather of the modern Airedale Terrier.
"Airedale Jerry," the forefather of the modern Airedale.  Every Airedale in the United States today can theoretically trace its lineage back to Jerry..  (Photo taken from The New Complete Airedale Terrier."
Size is still a touchy issue with the modern Airedale.   Although the standard states that the dog should stand between 23 and 25 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 50 and 60 pounds, some Airedales stand close to 30 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 80 and 100 pounds.  These larger Airedales are of ten promoted as "working Airedales," and are most often desired as hunting dogs or guard dogs.       
The Airedale's popularity peaked during the first world war, during which they were used as Red Cross rescue dogs and as "four legged spies," who would make their way to the front lines and warn of the enemy's approach.  They were best known, however, for their role as messenger dogs, dogs that carried messages between command headquarters and the troops in the trenches.  Their size, dedication and near imperviousness to injury made them well suited to the job.  One Airedale named "Jack" illustrates the breed's personality and dedication to its work.  With a message tied to his collar, Jack ran through half a mile of enemy fire, arriving at headquarters with his jaw broken and one leg badly splintered.  He delivered the message, then dropped dead in front of its recipient.   Jack's perseverance and strong will reportedly saved an entire platoon from destruction.
Today, the Airedale is enjoying resurgence in popularity. Disney's 1996 live action version of "101 Dalmatians" featured a shaggy Airedale in a prominent role.  The original story, as well as the animated film featured an Old English Sheepdog in that role, but producers reportedly wanted an Airedale because of their trainability and their intelligence.  Indeed, Airedales are intelligent and versatile dogs, and have demonstrated their prowess in many events, whether in the field as a hunter or in the show ring as a "canine beauty contestant." In an article in Nature magazine, Albert Payson Terhune summed up the Airedale Terrier as follows: 
"He is swift, formidable, graceful, big of brain, an ideal chum and guard.  There is almost nothing he cannot be taught if his trainer has the slightest gift for teachingCompact, wiry, he is 'all there'...A PERFECT MACHINEa machine with a BRAIN PLUS."  Perhaps this is why we are attracted to these dogs.             

Text copyright 2001 by Catherine MISKOW.  All rights reserved. 
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Edwards, Gladys Brown.  The New Complete Airedale Terrier, 3rd edition.  New York:  Howell Book house, 1978.

Miller, Evelyn.  How to Raise and Train an Airedale.  Trenton, New Jersey:  TFH Publications, 1958.

Miner, Dorothy.  Airedale Terriers, A Complete Pet Owner's Guide.  New York:  Barron's Educational Series, 1998. 

Miskow, Catherine.  "Introducingthe Airedale Terrier."  Speech presented in partial fulfillment for the requirements of the course "Public Speaking 110," at the University of San Francisco.  San Francisco: March, 1994. 
Terhune, Albert Payson, in The New Complete Airedale Terrier,3rd edition.  p. 27.