While otter hunting was never a particularly popular British sport, it apparently existed there to some extent from very early times – first to prevent otters from preying on fish, and later because otters were the only available hunting quarry from April to September. Specialized dogs were necessary to track and land the otters, which could fight fiercely and weigh upwards of 20 pounds. The Otterhound’s ancestry is the subject of some debate. The confusion is understandable, because in its infancy as a breed the Otterhound was much more terrier-like than hound-like, made up of almost any rough-and-tumble dogs that would hurl themselves without thought into freezing water to chase otters.
Some early authors believed that the Southern Hound and the Welsh Harrier were the Otterhound’s primary predecessors – a logical theory since many Otterhounds lived in Wales and Devonshire, which were the main strongholds of the Southern Hound. Other writers thought that the Otterhound got its coat from the Old Water Spaniel and its hardiness from the English Bulldog. The Griffon Nivernais from France and the English Foxhound have been proposed as contributing to the mix. Still others credit the Bloodhound, based on the Otterhound’s similarly domed skull and length of ear. As early as 1575, John Turberville made no distinction between the Bloodhound and the Otterhound in his writings about otter hunting. One of the more well-reasoned theories about Otterhound origin came from Marples, who pointed out the strong similarity between the Otterhound and the old French Vendeen Hound; each breed closely resembles the other in coat and conformation. The Otterhound contributed to the development of the Airdale Terrier breed.
The Otterhound dates back to the 13th century, when King John (of Magna Carta fame) reportedly hunted with a pack of these dogs. In the 14th century, Edward II became the first Master of Otterhounds in England, with Elizabeth I becoming the first Lady Master of Otterhounds. Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard II and III, Henry II, VI, VII and VIII and Charles II each held the title of Master of Otterhounds at some point in history. According to all authorities on the subject, the best-trained pack of Otterhounds ever hunted belonged to Squire Lomax of Clitheroe in the 1860s. Legend has it that the Squire’s hounds were so highly trained that he could control the entire pack with a casual wave of his hand.
The Otterhound reached its peak of popularity in England beginning in the middle of the 19th century. During the latter half of the 19th century, the breed already was virtually identical to the Otterhounds of today. As many as twenty to thirty packs of these hounds were hunted regularly throughout the hunting season, in an effort to reduce the number of the river otters and thereby preserve fish as a human food source. They were highly successful, and the river otters began to disappear. In 1978, Britain passed a law protecting the last of the otters by banning the sport of otter hunting, making the Otterhound’s skills largely obsolete. Scotland banned otter hunting two years later. The Otterhound Club of Great Britain was formed by devotees to prevent the breed from disappearing like its former prey. Unfortunately, many packs were destroyed by their owners, and eventually only two Otterhound packs, totaling about 100 dogs, remained in all of England – one in Kendal and the other in Dumfries. With the help of breed fanciers, these large shaggy dogs found a new occupation in the show ring, where their delightful appearance and endearing personality made them an instant favorite.
Otterhounds first appeared in the United States around the start of the 20th century. Six Otterhounds made the breed’s American benched-show debut in Oklahoma in 1907. The American Kennel Club accepted Otterhounds for registration into its Hound Group in 1909. The first AKC registered otterhounds - Hartland Moss Trooper and Harland Statesman – were both owned by H. S. Wardner of New York. Mr. Wardner was one of two exhibitors of Otterhounds at the Oklahoma show and was one of the first Otterhound breeders in this country. Veterinarian Dr. Hugh Mouat began the first serious breeding program in the United States in 1937. A bitch and dog, Bessie's Countess and Bessie's Courageous, both from Dr. Mouat's first litter, became the breed's first American Kennel Club Champions in 1941. The Otterhound Club of America was founded in 1960 and held the breed's first National Specialty in 1981.
This breed never achieved the wild and wide popularity of many other terriers in the United States. Nonetheless, their sage character and tousled appearance have earned them many fanciers far and wide. Modern Otterhounds are rarely used for hunting. However, their keen sense of smell and cheerful determination have made them extremely competitive in tracking trials, and their athleticism and intelligence have earned them advanced titles in agility, obedience, utility and other performance disciplines.
The average life span of the Otterhound is 10 to 13 years. Breed health concerns may include bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus), elbow and hip dysplasia, multifocal retinal dysplasia, epilepsy, sebaceous cysts, panosteitis (shifting lameness), allergies, arthritis and Glanzmann’s thrombasthenia, a serious and potentially fatal bleeding disorder.