Mr Henry Johnson – Airedale Terriers

I was born into an Airedale family in South Carolina in 1926. My father had seen these dogs in France in 1918, where they were being used by both the Germans and the British Army as sentry, message-bearing, and first aid kit bearing dogs in the trench warfare of the time. When he returned to South Carolina after the war my father went looking for an Airedale. I was born in April 1926 and grew up with old Airedale “Jingo”. He was a burly looking old traditional Airedale of about fifty pounds. Was my protector and constant companion as I got a few years on me. The neighborhood boys called him “the Johnson Bear” He went with us everywhere and kept the rascally squirrels high up in the trees and did not allow any strange dog or suspicious human to mess with us. My mother said I learned to walk by pulling up on old Jingo and teethed by biting him in the back while he stood perfectly still the whole time. So I figure I had a taste for Airedales from the beginning.

Had a string of other breeds in later life. Collies, German Shepherds, English Pointers, working terriers but came back full time to Airedales in the 1950s and ’60s when living in Grand Junction, Colorado and working as a uranium geologist all over the Colorado Plateau in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Was newly married with first child on the way and wanted a traditional versatile family/farm/ranch/hunting/working/companion dog.

Ended up with old breed type Airedales from Dudley C. Jerome, Fruita, Colorado, who was a big game predator control officer for the western slope of Colorado. Dudley was called out any time there was a rogue bear or cougar killing stock in his area of responsibility. He told me he had tried every breed of dog he could find and had ended up with one old redbone hound for cold trailing from a kill site and four Airedales who would take over the track when it heated up and run head high and silently on Air scent and quickly make a bear or lion tree or fort up in the rocks when they caught up with it. He also trapped problem beaver and used his Airedales to go in the water and pull them out. Beaver are tough to handle and sometimes that got pretty bloody.

I always had an Airedale for many years but did no breeding until I was living in Oxford, Mississippi in the 80s and was about to retire. Decided to start an Airedale breeding program for my retirement years. My breeding goal was the traditional Airedale from the late 1800s and early 1900s. That’s the time when they made their mark as a versatile hunting/working/companion dog for fur or feather, small or large, Did the Airedale still have the oldtime grit and hunting drive? I didn’t know but was determined to find out.

Started out with two showline bitches that I knew had the grit and hunting drive I was looking for and two or three old traditional country bred Airedales owned by Lawrence Alexander, a long time breeder of these dogs in Florence, Alabama. Line bred only from this foundation stock and in three or four generations the yard filed up with dogs that looked alike and acted alike. Only one outcross in twenty years. Swapped puppies for bloodlines with Odon Corr, Wessington Springs, South Dakota to bring in the blood of his Mo Breaks Buster, a 50 lb. all round predator control dog used by Odon in his government trapper work. Made several trips 1300 miles from Tennessee to South Dakota to see and became familiar with Buster and decided he would fit my breeding plans. Went back then with the on-going line breeding program and never outcrossed again.

The Sandhill Airedales went on to make a good name for themselves with hunting folk across the country and into Canada and Alaska and some went to Scotland, Germany, and Japan. Am now in my 91st year and pretty much housebound, so no more dog breeding of any kind. Airedales too much dog for me now, so live alone on 68 acres with a couple of Border Terriers for company and watch dogs. For eleven years wrote the “Tennessee Valley Airedale Terrier Association” column in Full Cry magazine and now post occasionally on the Traditional Working Airedale Board.

Used to travel all across the country and two trips to England to learn as much as I could from the successful efforts of long time breeders of dogs, horses, pigeons, and game fowl. Always the same story, Michael. Stick to the family line with inbreeding and line breeding. Breed only from the best of the stock you have to work with. That’s the only way to have quality control on the product. Emphasize the traits you want in the line and eliminate those you don’t want. Try to maintain the quality you have with every planned breeding and improve it if you can. In my case I liked to have pedigree information but did not breed from the paper. Bred only from dogs I knew personally and wanted their physical and temperamental traits in the line. Bred always for brains, good stable temperament, hunting drive, biddability, and courage. Grit? Yes, but with judgment to control it. All grit and no brains just gets you killed, man or dog. As John Park, an old time terrier man in Yorkshire, England, once told me, “The terrier that tries to fight the badger will lose.”

Well, enough for now, some old hero philosopher said, “A man may smile and bid you hail, yet wish you to the Devil. But when a good dog wags his tail, you know he’s on the level.” /hsj, fults cove, Tennessee.

Never got into the science of breeding or all the various breeding coefficients. Just went mainly on instinct. Grew up with the traditional old-breed type and knew their versatility and intelligence and strong hunting drive. Read a lot about the origins of the Airedale in Yorkshire in the middle and late 1800s. Took the Airedale of a hundred years ago as my breeding goal. In my experience you need to focus the gene pool to get satisfactory consistency and quality control.

To me that means line breeding, sticking as much as possible to the family line. But in no way do you just blindly breed to the paper pedigrees, even in the best of family lines. I figure it is only into the third year with Airedales before you really know how much dog you have. In picking breeding pairs I chose only dogs I knew personally, Watched them constantly around the house and home and also in the field as much as I could. Could not do it all by myself, so farmed out young dogs (generally at a year to two years old) with people I knew would hunt them on various types of game and give me honest feedback. Then would take these dogs back and watch them some more before making breeding selections. Over time ended up breeding about one out of five dogs I had available. All in the family line but only one in five making the breeding cut.

Started with two show line bitches. Figured them to be highly inbred, with what I call a focused gene pool Show people are like sheep, they all flock to the same end of the pasture, all trying to get big name show winner dogs in their pedigrees. Looking at show dog pedigrees you will likely see the same dogs and same kennel names repeated many, many times. My two original bitches, both of whom had the brains and temperament I was looking for, were bred to what I called “country bred dogs”. Mostly from farm and ranch working dogs, not normally from big breeding kennels. A fairly diverse or unfocussed gene pool I think. I selected one or two old-breed type Airedales I knew personally and knew to be essentially the type I was looking for. Used them as foundation sires.

After those I stuck to those same eight or so dogs I had available to work with and to their descendants. I wanted to focus the gene pool and emphasize the physical and temperamental traits I was looking for. Selected only the best of what I had as breeders, never breeding anything that showed me any unwanted physical or temperamental flaws or weakness. About one in five made the cut as breeders. Gave away half my pups to others to encourage them to go back to the traditional working Airedale. Took back and refunded money for pups anyone complained about, no questions asked. Kept a couple of these unsatisfactory ones myself and they ended up making the breeding cut for me and a couple of friends who continue with strong Sandhill bloodlines today.

No matter how well bred a dog can be, most any of them can be ruined by ignorant or abusive owners and handlers. Will see now if I can copy something from one of your posts on Cur dog genetics and traits. If so, will say it quite accurately describes the traditional hunting/working Airedale we breed today. Brought back by selective line breeding from the old-breed types we had to work with. Fishing in the gene pool, I call it. And in the case of the “redline” type, recovered from a hundred year old type that popped up in some of the foundation “country bred” sires I used. I never had a web site or posted anything much on the Internet myself, but several other people did talk about the redlines.

12 thoughts on “Mr Henry Johnson – Airedale Terriers”

  1. Sitting here in my Derbyshire, UK home reading this with 2 of my friend Henry Johnson’s Airedales stretched out next to me.

    Cheers, John Q.

      1. Jackal, Cannot seem to get the pic’s onto your reply email. If you have interest perhaps send me a normal email address.

        Terrific website and accurate breed write-ups, that’s rare! I retired from a dog training career and while I still have a strong fascination with dogs, most of what is written about them is fantasy.

        Cheers, John Q.

  2. Henry was Mister Airedale. He had a collection of Airedale books that would be just about impossible to replace today, but unfortunately his books were hauled to the dump. Maybe some book person found them before they could be ploughed under or ruined by the rain. Henry was a great dog man and I was proud to call him a friend.
    I have written 3 books on Airedales, THE LOST CHAMPION, INTERNATIONAL GRAND CROWN, and (PADDY THE WANDERER – not published yet). Henry was a about ten miles from where I lived and he consulted on all three of the dale books. Many an evening we shared a sip of good whiskey and talked of all things great and small — I miss you friend,

    1. Lawrence, I read and enjoyed The Lost Champion and spoke to Henry about it. I will look for your second book and am glad to hear a third is in the works. I lived in the mountains of northwest North Carolina until moving to the UK.
      Henry Johnson was a good dogman.

      John Q.

  3. Hi John Q, I’m in Rugeley, Staffordshire and am looking for an Airedale with working bloodlines. Advice from someone with Sandhills lines would be a great start. Would it be possible to get in contact?


    1. Gareth, I would be happy to communicate with you but do not want to post my email address on a public site. I live in Wirksworth, Derbyshire and am in the process of buying a cottage a few miles east of Leek, Staffordshire.
      Nearly a neighbor of yours I’d say.

      I have no connections in the UK for working Airedales and while I have an intact male I have no idea if there are any female ‘dales around worth breeding to in the UK.

      As a result I have given thought to going to Heideterrier for my next dog but so far that has been a dead-end also.

      Cheers, John Q.

  4. I searching for a quality Airedale puppy. I want a companion dog I can train to hunt and track. Please contact me at (541)297-8391 thank you.

  5. I bought a large 97 lb. red Airedale from High Kountry Airedales (google them) out of Powell Wyoming. He has a short all red coat but the terrier personality (I have owned mostly fox terriers). They use them to deter grizzly bear in Powell. I know they air ship. He has Oorang working stock in him from his 100 lb. grandsire “Big Red Tonka.” I drove 17 hours from Washington to Idaho to get mine. It was worth the trip! Of the nearly 20 dogs I have owned he is the gentlest, most expressive intelligent eager to please and loving of any dog I have ever owned. Too bad he cannot be bred as he was neutered at 6 months. His deep bass bark stops the coyotes from howling behind us.

    Sadly, Airedales with short fur coats or non-black and tan coloring are misunderstood by fanciers thanks to the misinformed breed standard of the AKC- (65 lbs and only black and tan). Mine is registered CKC and was a bargain at 1000 dollars. Good luck in your search for a great Airedale. I would like to see more Airedales like mine come into prominence. I am thankful for breeders like the Eggletons who do not let breeding politics deter them from encouraging lines of larger, gentler, sweeter more loyal dogs. Duke’s Mom, Mikaela, is Black and her Dad, Rascal Flatts, is an AKC champion black and tan. My dog Duke’s litter born Sep 23 2019 consisted of One all black, one black and tan, and three all red males. Duke’s was the only “quadrant 4” redline “slick” coat in the litter. Because of his short coat they had nicknamed him “half brother.”

  6. I would add I am thankful to the work of Henry Johnson with his quadrant system observing and defining “red-line” earlier style short coat Airedales. It cleared up a lot of confusion for me. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet. It is my belief that Airedales (owned by presidentsCoolidge, Harding and Roosevelt were the national pet of choice until AKC started breeding them for looks instead of temperament. By the 1950s these dogs that look nothing like the original “old jerry” were too high strung and unpredictable to be considered good family pets. It is a sad case of breeding politics.

  7. I spent many a day and evenings at Henry’s place in Fultz Cove, TN. I used to drive down and bring the makings to cook him a meal or two as he didn’t like to fire up his stove. I won’t tell you why. I could tell a lot of stories about Henry. When I first started visiting Henry he had Airedales and as the years got on Henry shifted to Border and Fell terriers. I liked his little dogs just as much as the Airedales, although they seemed to get “gassy” quicker things could get exciting when those little terriers “fired” up. I spent considerable time at the local shooting range with Henry too. We had some times.

  8. I am proud to have known Henry as a friend to my father and I.Our great little dog Cedar ended up with him and lived out his days there til the age of 17 yrs and 3 months.He was a huge source of knowledge in working dogs ,his Airedales and Border and Fell terriers.I have e-mails that I highly value, where I would have a question,and he would dissect a pedigree and give knowledge (often firsthand) of the dogs in it.We talked until his passing ,which was a great loss not only to the dog world ,but world in general.Rest in peace Henry.

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