It is certain that the Airedale Terrier originated in the valley of the Aire and Wharfe rivers, but the breed's exact genetic makeup is conjecture at best.
Small terriers were used from time immemorial for poaching the fields and streams
of the landed gentry. Rabbits and birds that strayed by chance beyond the
gamekeeper's sharp eye were 'fair game' to the poacher in search of food for his table.
Terriers had to be quick and accurate to catch this prey. They were considered 'easy keepers',
who slept by the fire or in the barn, required little in the way of food,
were a healthy lot and best of all, were extremely willing and capable workers.
They also kept the rat population under control.
When the towns of Leeds, Bradford, Otley and Bingley and the surrounding area first became industrialized in the early 1800s, the mill workers and miners were using their small terriers on the abundance of small game (primarily water rats) found along the banks of Aire, Wharfe, Colne and Calder rivers. In a short time, the Aire itself became so heavily lined with factories and mills that the otter and fish population retreated to adjoining less-polluted waterways.
The water rats remained behind.
It wasn't long before some bright lads hit upon the idea of mating the gameness of the terrier with the aquatic ability of the hound as the answer to extending their sport. No doubt they also reasoned that one or two such offspring could be kept at home as were their small terriers, rather than requiring the large kenneling facilities needed for packs of Otterhounds. Wilfred Holmes is credited with having made the first such cross of hound and terrier in 1853.
We know the Black and Tan Terrier (whatever you wish to call it English or Welsh) was the common terrier in the area. Therefore, would not the Welsh Harrier have been an obvious choice for a cross to obtain slightly more leg and the strength to work in water? In his book Hounds of The World Sir John Buchanan-Jardine describes the Welsh Hound, or Harrier, of the 1800s as black and tan or red with rough or wire hair, and smaller than its English cousins. He adds this, which would indicate a perfect trait to cross with a terrier: '(Welsh Harriers) hunt in a more independent style, taking nothing for granted and relying mostly on their own individual efforts.' This was (and is) contrary to the pack hunting style of the English hounds and of the Otterhounds. Then there is the suspicion put forth by Otterhounds authorities that the Welsh Harrier is in their ancestral heap!
So we have the wire-coated Welsh Terrier whose coloration was always black and tan or red and so affirmed in writings of the 1400s. We have the harsh-coated Welsh Harrier, always black and tan or red, but smaller than the Otterhound, which at that time rose to 68.5 cms and weighed as much as 54.5 kgs! The weight of the Waterside or Bingley Terrier, as the Airedale was first known, averaged 16-21 kgs. Today's Airedale weighs about 27 kgs.Now then, were the first Hound crosses the Welsh or the Otter? We shall never know!
These first Airedale breeders were intent on the results being nothing more or less than a terrier. What of the 'other terriers' frequently mentioned as outcrosses used to eliminate what were considered to be undesirable hound characteristics, such as heavy, low-set ears, rounded skull, light eyes, slow hound-like gait and soft wooly coat? (These atavistic faults, by the way, appear from time to time in Airedales to this day.)
It is difficult to imagine just how the Bull Terrier (one of those cited) would have corrected these matters, but it might have contributed substance. The Black and Tan Terrier had originally been selected for its drive, tenacity and punishing jaws, so they did not need the Bull Terrier for those attributes. Despite the geographic proximity and the fact that these breeds were not then what we see today, introducing the Dandie Dinmont Terrier would seem an unlikely choice to produce the desired coat, colour or ear type.Some records of the day lay claim to such mixes, while others refute it.
As late as 1930, a noted writer dismissed the breed as rather useless, saying 'Their coats are not heavy enough for them to act as retrievers in cold weather and their noses are not good enough for them to follow cold trails. Other observers at the time held an opposing view. One commented on the Airedale's exceptional capability 'not only to hunt vermin but also to hunt game and to retrieve it as well, as he has a very keen nose and is a remarkably good water dog.' As time went on, this latter view prevailed and holds today.
In 1882, Hugh Daniel, a well-known judge and dog writer, chaired a meeting of the Dales terriermen at the Airedale Agricultural Society Show held at Bingley. It eas finally decided to settle the name debate and the suggestion of Airedale Terrier was agreed upon to represent the entire area rather than a single town.
There is inevitably one person in any given breed who stands out as what today would be called the breed's first publicist, one whose writing ability and contagious enthusiasm for the breed make the world sit up and take a notice. In the history of the Airedale Terrier, Holland Buckley of Burnham, Bucks was the person.
Mr. Buckley wrote The Airedale Terrier, the first book, dedicated solely to the breed and it's early history. He writes of the confusion that existed in many breeds due to the lack of breeding records.
In the later half of the 1800's when dog shows were still in their infancy, breed classifications were not necessarily specific. The Broken-haired Terrier class, for example, took in just about anything that would visually fit that description. Pedigrees were often non-existent or imprecise: 'Ben, sired by Green's Jim out of Nan' would leave anyone save a close friend of Mr. Green's completely in the dark as to the lineage. Mr. Buckley tells of one dog having been awarded prizes as an Old English Black and Tan Terrier and as a Welsh Terrier although both parents were known to be Airedales, something not at all uncommon at the time.
By now the breed was definitely all terrier, but at 16-21 kgs, it was well beyond the size to 'go to earth', or terra firma, for which all 'terriers' are named. The larger size, however, proved to have definite benefits. Longer legs meant the dogs could work in water along the riverbanks without having to swim, while their strong deep chest enabled them to swim a fair distance when necessary. In the fields, longer legs allowed the dogs to clamber over stiles and other obstacles without having to be picked up and carried.
Still both size and the terrier designation were disputed.
Some felt the dogs should be considered hounds or (horrors!) crossbreeds. Initially, as one would expect, in any given litter some pups might display hound features, and others those of the terrier, lending credence to the crossbreed stand. Of course the Airedale was a mix, but almost every breed of dog in the world which was developed by man for a specific purpose began life as a crossbreed.
Through these close lines came all the top Airedales of the early 1900s, including virtually every good representative of the breed that was to be the foundation of the leading Airedale kennels in America. And still comments president about size, light eyes, soft coat - and those ears! Although the dog Bruce arrived in the US in 1881 (three years prior to the founding of the American Kennel Club), it wasn't until Ch Clonmel Marvel won the breed at Westminster in 1900 and repeated the win the following year at the Airedale Terrier was accepted as a rising star on American soil. It is interesting to note the pride with which imports were touted in the US and Canada. Owning or breeding show dogs began to carry the prestige of owning race horses. One man advertised that he was the first to introduce and exhibit these dogs in the US (an unconfirmed statement), while another offered 'the most successful Airedales living'. Another breeder, the proud owner of Briar Ranger (from Cholmondeley Briar), noted the dog to be 'full of the most valuable blood' and for more emphasis added, 'all stock recently imported from England'.
At the onset of World War I, the Airedale terrier became England's war dog, in part to overcome the stigma of enemy attached to the German Shepherd Dog (Alsatian).
To this day, many uniformed people still consider the Airedale to be an aggressive guardian of its turf. So be it. No doubt that misconception has deterred many an intruder! By the end of the 1920s, the demand had dried up and the profiteers retreated. A number of concerned breeders assumed the task of eliminating the problems caused by uniformed overbreeding, as well as putting right the Airedale's deteriorating public image. The comeback was slow but steady, and extremely gratifying. By the end of 1930s, the Airedale Terrier once again stood as undoubted King of Terriers - a sensible protector, willing worker, playful prankster and faithful friend.