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Style, Brains, and Clownish Wit
Everything one looks for in a spouse
By Chip Brown

Connoisseur
January 1990

Let us now praise famous dogs, airedale dogs: the patriarchal Master Briar, and his sons Crompton Marvel and Tone Masterpiece, and the prepotent Clonmel Monarch, who did “great service in refining skulls and generally passing on an air of quality.” And Mespot Tinker, who did so much to perpetuate the breed’s characteristic jet black saddle. And Cragsman O’King, with his paradigmatic intesntiy and strength and that special quality of soundness, which over the centuries the English people have prized in themselves if not always exhibited.

And on this side of the Atlantic, there were Calvin Coolidge’s Laddie Buck and Warren Harding’s Laddie Boy, the most famous airedale in U.S. History. He was pictured in cartoons and had his own valet and his own chair at cabinet meetings and once gave a long interview to the Washington Star. Not that airedales always behave with the discretion a president expects in members of his cabinet. Lou Holliday’s airedale Comet was once overwhelmed by the monotony of kennel life and used her knack for opening gates to unlock a series of kennel runs, giving a brief taste of freedom to a bunch of pent-up canines, including some diabolical stud dogs.

And the then there are those airedales whose names history has not recorded; the industrious terrier who posed proudly with one hundred dead rats – all handily dispatched by him in less than an hour. Nice work if you can get it. Or the airedale who knocked a young German boy from harm’s way as a grenade exploded in Berlin during the last days of the Second World War – the very same dog whose bright eyes and bearded mug persuaded an occupying Russian garrison to breach military regulations and provide a pot of goulash, which sustained the airedale and the boy’s family.

Airdales are currently ranked forty-first on the list of the American Kennel Club’s 130 most popular breeds. They trail the perennial leaders cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers, and poodles, and they are even outranked by the miniature pinscher. Some people feel they are hardly worth writing about.

“I can’t think of one reason to do an Airedale story,” says Thelma Boalbey, a publicist for the Westminster Dog Show. “They’re not rising in popularity. There weren’t that many in the show. Airedales didn’t win best terrier. All our 2,600 dogs fall into seven different groups, and an Airedale didn’t even win its group.”

Well, everyone knows the judiciary is biased. And airdale virtues are precisely those that contemporary human society lacks – humor, loyalty, intelligence, a certain dignified reserve, and an unobsequious attitude toward authority. Moreover, mere popularity has never been a reliable measure of intrinsic worth, as the meretricious titles on any best-seller will attest.

Dogs are the one area where people do not have to equivocate. We can dispense with equal time and savor the taste of rank partisanship. For the moment we can dismiss poodles, with their salon haircuts; golden retrievers, who have become the props of sensitive men; pit bulls, those abused pariahs now outlawed in some parts of the country; those flossy afghans escorting arrogant models up Madison Avenue; and wolf-jawed shepherds looking for the police academy; or all those aweful, pop-eyed lap dogs that get pushed around by house cats; and St. Bernards, whose history of heroic rescue and rum-running is offset by copious slobbering and free-swinging tails that can wreak more havoc than a lunatic with a broadsword. And please, no miniature pinschers! Have people gone mad? Something is seriously amiss in a world where miniature pinschers are more popular than airedales.

For sure, dogs should not be faulted for the flaws of their owners. And yes, it is hard to pick an aesthetic fight with cocker spaniels, though the hunter has been bred out of them. You will get no quarrel her with collies, Old English sheepdogs, and all Benjie look-alikes. The point is, right-thinking people know in their hearts that terriers are a superior dog, a breed apart, and the airedale is the king of terriers: foe of rats, loyal but not slavish, independent but not haughty, involved without being overeager, strong but never bullying. They meet the world head-on with an unrivaled mixture of style, brains, and clownish wit, the very ingredients one looks for in a spouse. “An airedale,” said Teddy Roosevelt, “can do anything any other dog can do and then whip the other dog if he has to.” “If he has to” is the key. The historian of airedales Gladys Brown Edwards says: “The airedale is not a snobbish, aloof royalist. He is a product of modern times, with their handyman trends; hence he is not only Terrier Rex but is also the Royal Huntsman, the Palace Guard, and the Court Jester… he has a ebullient joy of life, yet has the calm dignity befitting his majesty.”

Consider the resourcefulness of Moujik, an airedale still remembered after forty years in a certain Guatemalan household. He had been well trained to watch the house. “I remember one morning, when I was fourteen years old, I came over to the house at seven A.M., and I found this Indian in tattered clothes, standing in the hall. I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ And he just rolled his eyes. I looked down. Moujik had him by the wrist. HE had broken into the house to steal. I don’t know how many hours Moujik had been holding him there by the wrist, with just enough pressure to keep him from reaching for his knife. The guy was terrified. If he made the slightest movement there would be a low mutter from Moujik. He was held there very peacefully.”

Another airedale, named Molly, takes great pride in killing groundhogs around the place where she lives in Virginia. One day, however, she approached the house with something different in her mouth, a very small, rather wet but unharmed kitten. This she set down on the doorstep and disappeared, to return an hour later with a second kitten. Before the day was over she had produced three. After telephoning the neighbors, her owner concluded that Molly had found the kittens abandoned in a tobacco barn (probably their mother had been killed on the road) and had carefully carried them almost a mile, crawling under barbed-wire fences and crossing roads, to bring them home. Her astonished owners kept one kitten and found homes for the other two. Molly went on being a terror to groundhogs. The same owners had developed their weakness for airedales years earlier with Molly’s predecessor Max, who distinguished himself on one occasion by grabbing their eighteen-month-old toddler by the diaper to keep her from pitching downstairs.

Airedales have a murky provenance, but they are indisputably British. Little more than a century ago, in Northern England, the Yorkshire watermen who hunted otters along the banks of the Aire and Warfe rivers crossed black-and-tan and other terriers with the otterhound. The resulting dogs were bred and refined, and gradually the houndy ears and yellow eyes and other “flaws” sank back into the sea of recessive genes. What emerged was a handsome, fearless, keen-eyed, long-legged terrier standing abut twenty-three inches. His coat was dense, wiry, and oily.

Ideally, the breed should weigh between forty-five and sixty-five pounds. “The body is short,” writes Robert Lemmon, an expert on dogs and an obvious partisan, “with well-arched ribs and deep but narrow chest, giving plenty of room for the lungs. The shoulders are sloping and their every line is indicative of supple power: fore legs perfectly straight and the feet compact and well padded. The hind legs should be strongly muscled, but by no means ‘bunchy.’ Skull wide, but rather flat, with small, dark eyes and little V-shaped ears set rather high.”

“No one has ever called an airedale beautiful in an aesthetic sense,” he writes, “but there is about him an appearance of compactness and symmetry, of straight-limbed and capable strength, that cannot but excited admiration. To see him in action with all the grace of his tense muscles in perfect play and watch the pound of well-paced pads is to realize that he’s a real dog.”

The airedale was a strong swimmer, as quick on a rat as a mongoose, and versatile enough to track, point, and retrieve; and he was an ideal competitor in water-rat hunts in Yorkshire. Airedales soon gained popularity elsewhere. Their temperament combined the sweet disposition of hounds with the stance and prowess of terriers. Stories of their bravery spread; airedales were reported to have followed panthers into caves while the pack of hounds assisting in the hunt waited prudently outside; airedales single-handedly rushed 500-pound bears, or in groups hamstrung lions. They hunted big game in Africa, India, and North America.

During the First World War they shuttled messages around the battlefield and came to the aid of wounded soldiers. One of their many traits is an ability to tolerate pain. They were conscripted in England and Germany to serve as police dogs, and the Japanese were so impressed by the airedale’s military utility that they tried to buy up British champions.

From the turn of the century until the 1920’s, boosted by the vogue they enjoyed with U.S. presidents, they were one of the most popular dogs in America. Clubs and breeders sprang up in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal. Thanks in part to their military service, airedales got a reputation for viciousness. “Never was there such a calumny on the sweetest-natured dog alive,” cried the airedale fancier Aylwin Bowen in 1950. But their popularity had fostered careless breeding, and the quality of the dogs declined; before long their vogue passed too. There were 7,224 airedales registered in the country in 1921. Just eight years later, their numbers had shrunk to 526. Breeders today do not regret the relative obscurity of airedales, for it gives them a chance to maintain good bloodlines.

Two airedales I know, Travis and Zack, happily challenge anyone who comes to visit them on their Denver “estate.” After much sniffing and some standing up on hind legs, Zack and Travis passed me into their home, before returning to their ongoing work – what their owner, Robin McGehee, calls the Airedale Excavation Project – a major archaeological undertaking in her yard. Painters paint. Singers sing. Terriers go to earth and dig.

Travis is four, the smaller of the two. Zack is seven. Both, of course, have the characteristic wiry black-and-tan coats and those mutton-chop faces. Travis came over to me with a dripping tennis ball in his mouth but would not give it up and in fact seemed to enjoy my fruitless effort to pry it from his jaws. “He likes to throw it himself and then go get it,” Robin said.

Zach was more standoffish and nuzzled against Robin. “You’re an airedale, aren’t you?” she said, “and it’s hard, yes, it’s tough, an airedale life’s tough, isn’t it, Zack?...” Travis abandoned the tennis ball and horned his way in. “You too, Travis, yes, you’re both airedales, aren’t you?” They looked up at her enthusiastically, excited to have their identities reinforced.

“Airedales like to show off,” said Robin, who teaches dogs obedience and is studying to be a vet. “They’re more imaginative than the sporting breeds. When I come home, they start playing ferociously. I know they haven’t been playing that hard. When Travis tosses the ball he’s saying, ‘Look at what a fierce hunter I am’ and ‘Look how I’m pulling your leg.’ Zack has a huge vocabulary. When I say, ‘Do you want to go see Auntie Bearbear? he knows who I mean. Or Bill, Abby, the vet, the park versus the canal, horse shows, breakfast, dinner. They sleep side by side on their backs, eight legs dangling in the air. I hate to make them sound like God’s gift, because they’re harder to train and they can be destructive, but I can’t help it; I think they’re a blast.”

Later that evening Zack is standing by the living-room fireplace. Travis nuzzles against my leg and lets me stroke his long, squared-off head. “You’re an airedale aren’t you? Yes, you are,” I say, taking Robin’s lead. He looks me in the eye. His nose is black and active. We seem to have reached an accord. “You’re an airedale too, aren’t you, Zack?” Zack regards me with a quizzical expression, the unnerving look of a consummately self-possessed professor peering at a student who has just delivered himself of a boneheaded observation. “Of course I’m an airedale,” he seems to say. “A better question is ‘What are you?’”