Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Geography of American Working Terriers

This is a repost. Originally from August 2004.

The map, above, is fairly illuminating, as it graphically represents where working judges sanctioned by the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America live.

The states in white are those that have any JRTCA working judges at all. The states that are muddy-grey colored have no JRTCA working judges. A pin (see a larger version of the map by clicking on it) represents the zip code of every JRTCA working judge in the U.S. in the current edition of True Grit magazine.

To get a "bronze medallion" for special merit in the field from the JRTCA, a dog has to work at least three types of quarry underground (fox, raccoon, groundhog, badger or an aggressive possum) operating as if it were out alone, and with the owner doing the digging, and a JRTCA judge has to be in attendance as witness the work. To get a certificate, a dog cannot work quarry in a barn, brush pile, artificial earth or man-made location (such as the crawlspace of an outbuilding).

Jack Russell Terriers are, far and away, the most commonly worked terrier in America. There are very few Fell Terriers in this country, and almost no working Border Terriers at all. Patterdale terriers in the U.S. are still relatively rare, and though some very good dogs are being bred by a handful of reputable breeders, too many over-large dogs are being produced -- many of them cross-bred in the not-too-distant past with small pit bulls in order to get a larger dog that can work game above-ground game -- barn raccoons and feral hogs in particular. There are some excellent Patterdales and a few good Fells in the US, but most of these seem to be owned by people that have had Jack Russell terriers at one time or another -- the dogs they started with before there were any Patterdales or Fells in the U.S.

In short, most working terriers in the U.S. are Jack Russell Terriers, and the map above tells a story.

Why does this JRTCA map look this way?

Some of it has to do with a population bias -- there are more people per square mile in the East and Midwest, and as a consequence associations are easier to maintain.

Another factor is that there are only about 50 pins on the map at all. This paucity of pins is partly a reflection of how few people actually work terriers in the U.S. beyond two-or-three time a year digs, and in part a reflection of the fact that being a working judge is truly a thankless task.

Of course there are more than 50 serious diggers in the U.S. Some of these diggers are ex-JRTCA working judges, some are people that dig a lot but have no desire to sign up for the thankless job of being a working judge, a very few diggers have Kennel Club registered dogs, some folks dig their dogs but have no club affiliation at all. And of course there are the patterdale-only owners, some of whom have joined the new UKC working terrier program or are members of the Patterdale Terrier Club of America.

That said, while this map is clearly not inclusive of everyone that digs their terriers, it is more-or-less geographically representative of the broad TREND of those that that do -- they tend to be in the East and in the Midwest, rather than in the Western United States. For example, of the 15 UKC working judges, as of August 2004, six are not in America, two are in California and come East to hunt, and the rest are in New Jersey, Kentucky, Virginia or Georgia -- states well-represented on the map above.

One of the reasons the map is skewed has to do with quarry availability. In the U.S., the bread-and-butter quarry of the working terrier is the groundhog. Raccoons cannot dig their own dens, and neither can possums. If dirt dens are not available, they will seek other alternatives -- hay lofts, brush piles, hollow trees, farm outbuildings, hay stacks, rock crevices, or old squirrel nests. With the exception of rock dens, these are not locations where a small dog follows quarry to ground and is then dug to. In short, it is not earthwork.

Red fox will dig dens on their own, of course, but in the American west they face real on-the-ground competition in the form of the coyote. A coyote will generally kill a red fox if given half a chance, and they directly compete with red fox for food.

In addition, the red fox is not native to most of the U.S., and its dispersal in the West is uneven as a consequence. While red fox are common in some areas (such as the prairie pothole region) they are quite rare in other areas (such as western Oklahoma).

Weather and time are another important reason fewer people hunt in the West. Fox will not den in warm weather unless they have kits, and in the U.S. we will not put a dog on a vixen with young. Without hounds to drive fox to ground, our fox-digging season is very short -- generally only 10 weeks long, and for most people with jobs this presents a very short period of time to get out into the field.

When people do get out into the field, of course, they have to find your fox! This is easier said than done, and is very hard job for a novice hunter with a novice dog. Red fox densities are variable, but settlement is generally much thinner in the West where there is less food than in the East, and where the fox faces direct competition with coyotes for food and den sites.

Raccoons are not native to the West, though they have spread with humans during the last 50 years, helped immeasurably by the creation of denning shelters in the form of barns, out buildings, road culverts, abandoned cars, and brush piles. A raccoon can expand a ground den a little bit, but it is not really made for digging. A skunk can and will dig its own hole, which is suitable for possum, but too small for anything but the smallest of adolescent raccoons.

Due to the absence of natural forage, raccoons are rarely found above 5,000 feet in the Rocky Mountain, unless they are living in close proximity to humans, though they have been reported at elevations as high as 10,000 feet if a steady food source is available.

Marmots and prairie dogs are found in some locations in the West, but the prairie dog is far too small for a dog to work, while the various species of rock marmots tend to gravitate towards areas with large boulders and talus slopes -- areas very hard to dig. Marmots are also absent from larger parts of the West outside of the Rockie Mountains. That said, if found in the right location, marmots are excellent quarry for working terriers in the Mountain States.

Some states -- notably California -- have very diverse geography and wildlife but also have very restrictive game laws which make working terriers difficult.

The American badger is common in some parts of the West, but more often than not its population is numerically thin on the ground. Badger are also hard to locate, as they will move every few days or so as they eat out, or chase out, a local rodent population (rats, mice, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs). Once the food is gone, so too is the badger. Unlike in Europe, the presence of a badger hole in the U.S. does not mean you have actually found a badger. More likely you have found a blank hole or, in some areas, worse -- a skunk, porcupine or snake.

Porcupines, rattlesnakes and skunks are fairly common in many parts of the West, and all three animals are a very serious threat to a dog. A dog sprayed underground by a skunk can be overpowered and die from anemia if not gotten out of the ground in pretty short order. A porcupine's defense system are barbed quills which can leave a dog wrecked in short order (and the owner's wallet drained after a visit to the vet). A dog bitten by a rattlesnake rarely lives, as the venom from even a small rattler is more than enough to kill a terrier.

In the South there are tens of millions of nutria, but they do not seem to be worked very often. In part this is due to the fact that in many Southern locations where nutria are numerous alligators also tend to be present. Another factor is that neither the American Working Terrier Association nor the JRTCA will give a working certificate to nutria as the holes are too big and shallow to qualify as real earth work. In addition the nutria, like the possum, is an animal whose primary defensive mechanism is bluffing. While AWTA will not give a certificate to possum, and the JRTCA will provided it is an "aggressive" possum, both seem to think the nutria is less than fomidable quarry for a working terrier.

A final obstacle to terrier work in the West is experienced people to show newcomers where to start. While the basics of terrier work are not overly complex, there are things to learn about locating quarry, digging, dispatch, and healthcare. To work any terrier in a safe manner requires several hundred dollars worth of equipment, as well as permissions from land owners. And then, of course, you have to have the desire to hunt, be in relatively sound physical shape, and be willing to devote the time to get out in the field in all kinds of wearther. It turns out all of this is a rare combination.

All of the factors above combine to create a "tipping effect" in much of the West where the chance of finding quarry is lower than in the East, and the chance of getting a dog injured is higher. When combined with a paucity of other working terrier owners, a very short working season, and the abundance of other kind of hunting opportunities, it is not surprising to find fewer working terriers in the Western United States than in the East and Midwest

Many of the western diggers that do exist actually come East to work their dogs, going to the trouble of loading themselves and their dogs into airplanes, trucks and cars for a week or two of hunting where quarry can be found on the ground.

This clearly takes a great deal of work and commitment, making these folks among the most dedicated working terrier enthusiasts in the U.S. A special hats off to them!


Bettina Woolbright said...

Great article, Patrick. It would be great to see a map of where working people are, not just judges. Maybe you can come up with that too!


LabRat said...

Hate to quibble with an otherwise fun and informative post- I hadn't looked at it that way before- but where are you getting the "raccoons are never found above 4500 feet" from? When we were living at just over 7000, we had to call the local animal control to rid ourselves of a particularly pesky one- no problem on the ID, as it was snarling at us from our Havahart trap. It wasn't an unusual experience for that AC officer, either.

They're pretty common here in general, and the terrain varies between 6000-7000 feet.

PBurns said...

Not a quibble. Wrong is wrong.

Various sources can be cited, but they appear to be wrong for two different reasons: the farther south you go the higher the altitude you can find them raccoons, and the more humans you have at a high altitude, the more likely the raccoon are able to get by on non-natural food sources (i.e. our trash) alone. See for one notation of raccoon to 5,000 feet in rockies, but noting that in Mexico they live at higher altitudes.

Will correct.

Anonymous said...


Let's say you have outbuildings with rats -- you don't want a working Jack Russell or it will do just fine on the rodents, but the dog won't get points from the Association?

I'm just wondering why none of my ag friends in PA have terriers or even suggested one when we were looking for a dog -- the horse folks traditionally had damalations in the stables and the growers all have either Border Collies, guardian breeds from rescue (Grand Pyrenee -- don't get this breed as a pet, please!) or "dog that was dumped in the country, but made itself useful and/or is so super friendly that we kept it anyway" (which is usually some type of retriever).

Just wondering. . .


PBurns said...

Hi Dorene --

Pretty much any small fast dog can rat, though they always do better if there's more than one dog,a dn I think terriers are especially good at, especially Jack Russells Ratting is not considered "work" for some reason, as it's not underground and the quarry, while tough ounce-for-ounce is not that formidable. As farm dogs, loose Jack Russells can be a real problem as they WILL self-hunt and eventually kill themselves on a skunk, groundhog, fox, etc.

Nonetheless, in Virginia, Jack Russells are very common stable dogs for ratting purposes, and they are imformally raced at horse shows. See >> for a little video of the Virginia Gold Cup races, for example.


Christian J. said...

I hunt in Oregon 2-4 times a week, I have dug to Nutria several times at over 6 feet, I found a coon in the ground two days ago, there are thousands of badger in eastern Oregon and any yote trapper will tell you how numerous they are as they complain all the time about them, not trying to start anything but this info on the west not having quarry is bogus, I went hunting w/ 3 other Terrier hunters today and going with 3 different people next week, so I dont see a lack of people here just a lack of club type participation..

K Wills Sterling said...

Airedale owners are trying to promote Airedales as hunting/working dogs. We have developed fur tests and hunting tests, with various degrees of difficulty attached to each level of the process. Airedales make fine water retrievers as well as hunters of big game, such as bear, and also smaller game, such as raccoons. Here is the primary site where you can learn more: There is a national meet every September, usually in Ohio, where dogs can be evaluated for suitability to hunting/working - temperament, skills, etc - and can test for certification in the various levels.