If you ask the hunting Airedale folks, the correct answer to the question posed in the headline is actually, (D) all of the above. However, if you ask this same question of some of the folks in the performance division at the American Kennel Club, the answer would be, (E) none of the above.
In the view of some within the AKC, the Airedale is a fur and varmint hunter, not a bird hunter. With the Airedale Terrier Club of America’s Hunting and Working Committee stubbornly insisting that the dogs are in fact wonderful bird dogs, a fair question would be how two such supposedly knowledgeable entities as the ATCA’s Hunting and Working Committee and the American Kennel Club can be so far apart in their positions on this issue. And, whose picture of the breed is correct?
A brief look at the breed’s history might prove useful in providing an answer. Airedales were created to be do-everything hunters for people in the Aire Valley in Yorkshire, England. While much of the breed’s early work was hunting river rats, Airedales also were employed as bird finders and retrievers when residents of the valley did a little poaching on the estates of the landed gentry.
Most likely produced from crosses of the old Broken-Coated Terrier with Otterhounds (although it is possible other breeds were also included in the mix that ultimately resulted in the Airedale), the breed was originally known as the Waterside Terrier. It later came to be called the Bingley Terrier. Not until 1879 was it finally called an Airedale.
The versatility of this breed, while viewed as a blessing by those who hunt with their dogs, has actually hindered efforts to get the Airedale recognized as a useful bird hunter.
But historically, in both the U.S. and England, Airedales have been used to hunt birds as well as fur, much the same as all the continental breeds were developed for and have been used for both fur and feather hunting. In 1916, Warren Miller wrote in The American Hunting Dog, “On the borderline between the bird dog and the fur dog stands the Airedale, the dog that can hunt both.”
Certainly it is true that early American hunters used the Airedale frequently as a bird hunter and there are many references to the breed as a bird dog in the periodicals of that era. For example, in the May 1909 issue of Country Life in America, in a story titled “A Brief for the Airedale Terrier,” the author wrote, “The hunting instinct is very strong in the Airedale…The writer has found few dogs better equipped for shooting in covert or in the open. The Airedale’s speed, endurance and imperviousness to climatic conditions fit him for bird hunting. He loves the water and can stay in it by the hour on the coldest winter day without suffering any ill effects from it so he makes an ideal dog for snipe or to retrieve ducks and geese.”
In the March 1921 issue of Outing, a story titled “Airedales and Their Training,” said, “The Airedale makes an excellent retriever, particularly from water. I am aware that many old duck shooters scorn the idea and argue that the setter has no equal. But facts are stubborn things and it has been positively proved that the Airedale often equals any setter. Here again his innate courage is an advantage; he will unflinchingly meet conditions that make a setter hesitate and consequently will reach the bird quicker.
Though he does not possess the Chesapeake Bay retriever’s coat, he is fully as ready to enter cold water.”
There is ample evidence to support the position that the breed has been successfully used to hunt birds throughout most of its history. This has been recognized from the beginning by the United Kennel Club’s Hunting Retriever Club, as Airedales always have been eligible to run in HRC hunt tests and recently at least one Airedale person has taken advantage of that opportunity to earn a “Started” title.
For more than 20 years, following the successful path carved by the Poodle Club of America, as a hoped-for prelude to admission into the AKC’s hunt test program, the ATCA’s Hunting and Working Committee has been conducting hunt tests for the breed.
This year, thanks to some hard and persistent work by Saskatchewan Airedale fancier Heather Faulkner, Alberta fancier Yvan Mongeon and others north of the border, for the first time Airedales will be eligible to compete in the Canadian Kennel Club’s Working Certificate program for retrievers.
While the CKC’s Working Certificate (WC), Working Certificate Intermediate (WCI) and Working Certificate Excellent (WCX) programs, known collectively as the WCIX program, are less demanding than the CKC’s hunt tests for retrievers in some ways, they are an excellent introductory program for a breed that is just starting to participate in a formal testing program.
“We didn’t encounter a lot of resistance from the CKC,” said Faulkner. “Certainly the old school of thought, which says if you are going to hunt you have to have a Lab, is still very much alive in Canada. However, even the Lab people, after they’ve watched my Airedales work for a while, have come around to the idea of a hunting Airedale.”
Mongeon added that the Canadian Kennel Club did not seem to have a problem approving the idea of Airedales participating in the WCIX program. “The CKC seems to understand the value of new ways to enjoy and compete with dogs. This is a great way to introduce new people to the sport of hunting with an Airedale.”
What the action by the CKC does is leave the American
Kennel Club as the lone hold-out among the North American registries considered important by most Americans who hunt with, train and test their dogs. In his letter to the ATCA rejecting the idea of Airedales participating in AKC hunt tests, William M. Speck, vice president for performance events, said, “…We do not believe that the Airedale Terrier was developed especially for retrieving of waterfowl or the flushing and retrieving of upland game.
As indicated by your presentation, the Airedale was developed as a fur dog. While we are not prejudiced against Airedale Terriers, we do not believe this breed as a whole will perform up to the standard in the retriever hunting test program or the spaniel hunting test program.”
Steve Gilbert, who was chairman of the ATCA Hunting and Working Committee at the time the Airedale Club applied for admission to AKC hunting tests, said, “First of all, the statements made by Mr. Speck are not supported by the breed’s history. Airedales have always been used to hunt whatever game was available, be it feather or fur, the same as all the continental breeds–German shorthairs, German wirehairs, vizslas, Weimaraners, Brittanys, etc.–were developed to hunt both fur and feathers.
“Secondly, our proposal contained more than 200 pages of breed history and facts concerning Airedales in hunt test programs which clearly showed that the breed was developed to hunt birds as well as fur…In fact, the 1905 edition of the AKC’s Stud Book Committee Report said, ‘Regarding the division of breeds into sporting and non-sporting divisions, your committee is of the opinion that if they are to be so divided that they be allotted as follows: Sporting–Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, (various hounds and Beagles), Setters, Retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels, Water other than Irish Water Spaniels, (various spaniels), Pointers, Fox Terriers, (Various terriers) Airedale Terriers, Bedlington Terriers, Whippets.’ So at one time even the AKC considered the Airedale to be a ‘sporting breed.’
“In retrospect, when the Airedale was moved from the sporting group to the terrier group, it proved to be devastating to the breed as a hunting and working dog. Most young people today view all terriers as nothing but hyper, yappy little dogs. They know nothing of the rich history of terriers as sporting dogs. But at this year’s Airedale Field Nationals there were 191 entries with 21 dogs earning qualifying scores.
“All the judges, who, incidentally, were AKC retriever and spaniel hunt test judges, had nothing but good things to say about the dog work and at our national hunt test in 2005, both AKC spaniel judges said that Braedon, one of my dogs, would turn heads at any spaniel event.
“In fact, as early as 1999, widely respected spaniel judge Milton S. Holcombe said in a letter to Bill Speck regarding Airedales in AKC hunt tests, ‘…I saw some dogs with great potential as working dogs…If it were my decision to make, I would give them a chance as some of the dogs have potential, it just needs some honing.’”
Yvan Mongeon noted that he has difficulty understanding the AKC’s position. “Perhaps they think we do not have the numbers to make it worth their while to include Airedales in AKC hunt tests. But they are missing an important point. Recognizing Airedales as a hunting breed would bring new people into their events, which would not only provide revenue for the American Kennel Club along with its licensed and member clubs that hold these events, but also workers for hunt test clubs chronically short of people to help with their tests.
“It seems some of the people in the AKC’s performance division have turned a blind eye to the fact that the kennel club itself and its licensed and member clubs are the main beneficiaries of more people trialing and testing their dogs.”
Despite the AKC’s decision, Airedale folks continue to make the case for these big terriers as desirable hunting dogs. Aside from the fact that they present a very different picture from the ubiquitous black Lab, one important aspect of hunting with an Airedale, say those who do so, is that they are not difficult to train. Mongeon said, “There are people who will tell you that training an Airedale is a really tough job but it’s not half as difficult as they would have you believe. While you need to be firm with them, you also have to make training as much fun as possible.
“Half the battle is the dog’s attitude and nothing destroys that more than unfair corrections and poor training. It is amazing how little force is needed if you can figure out how to help your dog understand what you want from him. With this breed, there is no substitute for praise. Airedales put their heart and soul into everything they do. They are very dependable when they are properly trained.”
Gilbert noted that it has been his experience that Airedales are quite easy to train. “Most are quite soft and want to please. However, somewhere along the line, you will find a tough spot that must be worked through. Airedales do not do well with ‘force’ training.
They are highly bonded and definitely people-oriented, which means they don’t make good kennel dogs. “They are much like flat-coats in that they are quickly bored by repetitive training. You have to be clever to keep an Airedale interested. This is a true thinking dog that wants and needs a thinking man or woman as a hunting partner.”
This does not mean, however, that the breed does not have quirks that need to be taken into consideration when training. “You can’t cut corners when you are training an Airedale,” said Faulkner. “They keep you honest and you must be sure of what you want from them.
They are thinkers, no doubt about it. They won’t do something just because you said so. They want to know the reason. They can be stubborn, but then so am I.”
Mongeon concurred. “You have to have a great sense of humor with this breed and you have to be both patient and consistent in your training,” he said. “They will get in trouble if you leave the door to temptation open. They have a very strong need to check everything out. Because they are so curious, keeping them focused on the task at hand can sometimes be challenging.”
The development of the ATCA’s hunt test program along with opportunities provided by the HRC and now the CKC has had a definite positive impact on the breed. According to Gilbert, more than half of the current crop of
Airedales has been bred for performance and a goodly portion of those bred for hunting.
“If you take all the performance Airedales into consideration, the ratio of performance/hunting Airedales to show Airedales would be about five to one,” Gilbert said. “A specific example would be this year’s ATCA floating specialty. There were 191 entries for the hunt tests and another 121 for agility, obedience and rally for a total of 312 performance entries. There were 57 entries for the dog show portion of the specialty.
“What this means is that it is not difficult to find an Airedale pup with hunting ability.
Even before the ATCA and HRC hunt test programs came into existence, there were Airedale breeders who bred strictly for hunting ability and nothing else. So there has always been a strong base of hunting Airedales.
“For years now we have seen serious buyers at the Field Nationals or regional hunt tests coming to see the parents of their prospective pup work. If that is not possible, most breeders will make arrangements to take the prospective gun dog purchaser hunting with their Airedales.”
Mongeon added that the number of participants in the ATCA’s hunt tests has been steadily increasing. “More Airedales are doing a good job in these tests and getting good scores so it is getting much easier to find an Airedale pup with the ability to not only hunt for you but also do the job very well. Looking back 20 years to the humble beginning of this program with a handful of participants, as compared to today’s highly successful test program, is a real pleasure for those of us who were there at the start.
“In practical terms for the breed what this means is that there are greater numbers of pups being bred with the right stuff for hunting. The field-tested parents and grandparents are leaving a wonderful legacy in the breed. I’m sure that the CKC’s WCIX program will also have an impact although it may be small at first.
“Most of the interest in Canada at the moment seems to be in the western provinces.
However, I’m sure many of our Airedale friends in the U.S. will be heading north to be among the first to get official CKC titles. Besides, the Canadian Prairies are a beautiful place to visit with millions of ducks and geese passing through here every fall.
“What better way to enjoy them than with a shotgun in your hand and a hunting Airedale at your side?”