Sunday, November 19, 2006

"Strong Dog" Trials: Where Fancy Leads to Fantasy

I received a note this week from a noted dog magazine asking if I would be interested in writing an article about the "Strong Dog" go-to-ground trials that have recently been set up by some of the show ring set here in the U.S.

My short answer was "no." The story here is that these "strong dog" trials were created by a Glen of Imaal terrier owner here in America who was trying to find some fake sport (not true field hunting or even barn hunting) that over-large terriers could do that was parallel to American "earth dog" trials.

It seems that agility, obedience, tracking, etc. were not exclusive enough -- any and every breed of dog could be found in these competitions.

What the large-terrier owners wanted was some type of fake field sport which they could claim was a mimic of some useful thing their breed once did.

Unfortunately, the Glen of Imaal and the other large Irish terrier breeds (such as the Kerry Blue) were never used for hunting. They were farm dogs, fighting dogs, cart dogs or types of turnspit dogs. Some of the Irish breeds, like the Irish Terrier, were cobbled up solely for the show ring.

Today in Ireland badger are still dug, but they are dug with the same dogs used all over -- working Jack Russell Terriers, working Patterdale Terriers, working Border Terriers, and various types of not too-large cross-bred dogs. In Germany and a few other countries, working Dachshunds (teckels) are also used.

The idea behind a "Strong Dog" trial is that a dog is needed to pull a large dead badger down a long length of pipe. Never mind that the goal of digging to a dog is to come down on top of the critter, not 30 feet away. Never mind that if you shot a badger any distance down a pipe you would probably have to shoot through your own dog first. Never mind that you cannot shoot a bullet around corners.

Remember, this "strong dog" stuff is a fanciers fantasty, not a digger's reality. Fanciers have never heard of badger tongs, snares, or locator collars and do not understand that when an animal is killed underground, it is generally an arm's length away.

What follows is a post I wrote in March 19, 2005 for this blog which sets out the origins of the fake work now being called a "strong dog" trial.

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No terrier breed is very old.

Depite the fact that all but one or two terrier breeds originated in the last 150 years, most breed histories are so riddled with myth, lies, confusions, disortions, exagerations and fantasies that they are nearly unfathomable.

Part of this has to do with the mythology of show ring aficionados. A coat color variation will pop up in a litter and someone will admire it and attempt to breed more like it. To butter the bread a bit, a short story is invented to explain why the attribute has some imagined import in the world of working terriers ("White dogs are less likely to be mistaken for the fox"). A dog's legs are low to the ground and another attribute is given meaning ("The dachsunds short legs enable it to get to ground with ease"). A dog's nose is lengthened, solely for looks, and we are told this is necessary for work ("The fox terriers long snout keeps its eyes well back from the fox").

In fact, most terrier breeds were never seriously or commonly worked, and even a few of the breeds which many believed were commonly worked never did much outside of one or two owners. The Sealyham terrier -- a great favorite of Sir Jocelyn Lucas -- was such a smash favorite that it was repeatedly said that Lucas "had the only pack of working Sealyhams" in the U.K., and he himself attempted to abandon the breed by crossing it with a Norfolk terrier which, in turn, resulted in such an unimpressive dog that it too passed into the realm of footnotes and fantasy until it was recreated and shoved into the show ring in recent years.

So it is with breed after breed in the terrier world, from Cairn to Norfolk, from Scottie to Irish, from Manchester to Skye, from Yorkie to Kerry Blue. None of these dogs ever saw serious work underground, at least not in anything like their current recognizeable form.

The short and simple truth is that the world of working terriers has changed very little in the last 200 years. The same dogs are being dug to today that were being dug to 100 years ago -- no more and no less. The shovels are the same and the bar is the same. Only the Deben locator is different.

This is not to say that a lot of trumped up histories have not been invented -- from fake paintings of Trump (Jack Russell's dog) to fanciful descriptions of shepherds protecting their flocks from marauding fox the size of wolves, to the creation of mysterious "extinct" breeds of terriers which, a close reading of history reveals, never even existed at all (or still exist, but under a different name).

As noted in previous posts, most terriers breeds evolved (or devolved as the case may be) from cross-bred farm terriers with little or no particular function. Most of these dogs were all-purpose pets and chore companions who, it was hoped, would score an occassional rat, bush a rabbit, and perhaps discourage a fox from entering the farm yard and stealing a chicken. In truth, their chief "job" then -- as now -- was to sleep, clean off kitchen plates, trot at their owner's side, and greet guests and family members with enthusiasm.

Some of these all-purpose terriers found honest work as cart dogs, riding high on the cart and protecting the horse-drawn "trucks" of the 19th Century from petty thieves. Every bread man had a cart dog, and so too did most fishmongers, butcher boys, and fruit merchants.

A few terriers found work as "turnspit" dogs. The job of the turnspit dog was to walk around an endless wooden "rat race" wheel turning meats that were being roasted -- or else churning butter, pumping water or even washing clothes.

Turnpsit dogs had to be short since they had to fit within half a turning wheel housed inside a small kitchen or out building, but they also had to be very strong, as their jobs frequently lasted many hours without rest.

What ever happened to these "turnspit" dogs? Most simply vanished, but one Irish type -- the Glen of Imaal Terrier -- was declared a "breed," though in truth it never much caught on with the public.

The Glen of Imaal Terrier stands about 14 inches tall, but it has a massive head and chest and weighs in at around 35 pounds -- more than twice the weight of the average vixen. These dogs were never designed to go down a fox den -- they are simply too big. This is a short strong dog designed to turn a spit. They also found some use in another arena -- badger baiting and dog fighting.

Small strong dogs were often used in the cruel-practice of badger-baiting which, it should be said, has nothing to do with badger hunting despite the rather obvious effort to confuse the two by animal rights lunatics.

Badger baiting is a betting game in which captive badgers are loaded into barrels, pipes or artificial earths so that humans can bet on dogs that are timed as they draw them out. A baited badger may face several dogs over an extended period of time and there is no larger point to it than to win sums of money or bragging rights, while considerable stress (and sometimes injury) is inflicted on the badger and the dog.

Badger hunting, on the other hand, is a legitimate form of pest control in which the badger is terminated as quickly and painlessly as possible, or else sacked to be moved to another earth. There is no betting, and the badger is not likely to suffer damage from the dog, though the converse cannot always be said.

The Glen of Imaal Terrier, which started out as a turnspit dog, found some popularity with Irish badger baiters and dog fighters. This was a dog that was large enough to pull a large badger out of a barrel -- something beyond the abilities of most 15-pound fox-working dogs.

The use of Glen of Imaal Terrier by badger baiters led some to believe this dog was often used for badger hunting. In fact, this was not so. Arthur Heinemann's Badger Digging Club, which later became the Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain, used Jack Russell Terriers to do the job. Sir Jocelyn Lucas used a pack of very small Sealyham terriers. Bert Gripton used very small cross-bred Jack Russells, etc.

When badger baiting was banned, a small group of Glen of Imaal Terrier owners invented a "test" in an attempt to give their breed continued purpose in a changing world. Thus was born the "Teastas Beg" and the "Teastas Mor" -- gaelic words meaning "Little Test" and "Big Test"

The Teastas Beg was a pretty modest affair and was really nothing more that artificial ratting and rabbit bushing.

"A Teastas Beag consisted of flinging rats into a large pond and allowing the dogs competing to swim and hunt one at a time. The inexperienced handlers of the rats created much merriment and a large proportion of the rats survived to tell the tale. In the case of the rabbits, each one was released from a marked spot on the fresh ground. As soon as it had taken cover the dog was released at the spot where the rabbit had been set free. He was required to run the trail accurately and to hunt well through briars and undergrowth. The actual catching and killing of the rabbit was immaterial as any untrained dog will often do that. Often to save time, the judges would call up a dog once he had satisfied them as to his capabilities."

The Teastas Mor was simply an attempt to bring back badger baiting, albeit under the cover of a "club" activity. Only a handful of Teastas Mor events were ever held, as the authorities quickly ruled them illegal and in violation of the badger baiting laws. As one observor noted of a 1926 Teastas Mor event:

"On the first and second occasions the badger chute was defined as, (rule A4) 'A natural shore at least fifteen feet long, not more than sixteen inches wide with a bed ten feet from the mouth. A well about twelve inches square to contain the badger must be at least eight inches below the level of the shore and at right angles to it.' It is obvious that such an exact arrangement could not have been natural. It was artificial, the sides and top being of timber. This rule cause the Committee's undoing at the subsequent State Prosecutions. The Court held that the baiting of a captive animal had been proved which is contrary to the law and the defendant members of the Committee were fined."

Later the "earth," while still artificial, was constructed of earth and stones
and sodded over with grass. The end effect was a bit like a cross between an AKC earthdog set up and an artificial earth for fox.

Unfortunately, a twising den earth in real earth proved too difficult for over-large Glen of Imaal Terriers to negotiate!

"Natural badger work still appeared unwieldy to the Committee and the Teastas Mor on that occasion consisted of an artificial earth constructed of stones and covered over with sods some time previously. The growth of grass made it, in the absence of direct evidence, almost impossible to prove the construction artificial. The badger was put in early that morning before the possible arrival of any police inspectors. It was one captured by a small Blue Bitch of mine, 'Emer,' the previous week. These preparations defeated their own object, for the earth was too long and too narrow and too twisty for the dogs, and none of them succeeded in drawing the badger while some were severely mauled in the attempt. I never saw that particular earth, but it was feelingly pointed out that the members who constructed it had not entered any of their own dogs! After that it was a case of 'back to nature' - a decision both welcome and sound."

In fact, there was no "back to nature" with the Glen of Imaal; very few of the dogs ever worked historically, and almost none are found in the field today even in those countries where legal and illegal badger digging is common.

This is hardly surprising -- a dog designed to be mute and to fight anything it sees head-on is a dog that is hard to locate and likely to be wrecked in short order by a badger. Badger diggers at the turn of the century --as today -- prefer a smaller dog with more discretion and more voice. Unsurprisingly, they use the same terriers for badger work today that they did 100 and more year s ago -- Jack Russells, Fells, Patterdales, and various crosses in between.

For more see:


Éadaoin said...


Very interesting article. Though I thought I should let you know that the translation you have given for Teastas Beag/Mór is slightly inaccurate. Teastas is the Gaelic word for Certificate, not test. The Gaelic word for test is "triail", which also obviously translates as trial. If those who participate in these competitions have always thought the word teastas to mean test, well I can only say that this goes to prove the nonsense nature of the whole event. If the name is so inaccurate, how can it have been passed down from ancient times when there was no other language spoken in Ireland?

As the Irish language (Gaelic) is my first language, and I spoke it exclusively as a child until I learned English from the TV a few years later, you can be assured of the accuracy of this information!


Matt said...

Dear Sir,
I am a freshman to the terrier world, indeed I was trying to convince my girlfriend get another boxer when she fell in love with a kerry blue terrier puppy (that now lives happily with us), but since I got into it, I am trying to understand the development of terrier breeds. What was the use with the "oversize" terriers if they cold not be used as hunting dogs? I have seen photos of kerry blue killing badgers and retrieving fowl, I read that airedales were used to hunt otters, are these only exceptions to the rule? Are american terriers comparable to their european counterparts? In the "boxer world" american and european dogs look and are very different, european boxers are still personal defense dogs that regularly compete in schutzhund and mondioring, american boxers are just family pets, is it true also for the terrier breeds?

PBurns said...

See this article, which will explain most of it >>

Other articles, of interest to a Kerry Blue owner, might be >>

and >>

The short anwers is that these larger dogs are either hounds or pets or baiting dogs.


Matt said...

Dear PBurns,
thank You for your kind reply. I guess You could find this very interesting...

Best regards.