Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Balancing Points of a Working Terrier

A repost from 2005.

The ideal working terrier, if there is such a thing, represents a set of balancing points. Above all it must be small enough to easily negotiate an earth and follow the quarry wherever it goes. At the same time it has to be large enough and strong enough to spend an entire day in the field, often in miserable weather.

Balancing points do not end with size, of course. There is also the issue of temperament. A very hard dog is likely to come away from too many encounters with gashes to the muzzle. This is not only painful for the dog, it can also be expensive in terms of time and money spent on antibiotics and veterinary care.

Another factor with very hard dogs is that many of them are mute or nearly-mute. A dog without voice is a serious liability because you never know if it has found its quarry or is merely stuck in the pipe.

It is worth remembering that a fox, groundhog or raccoon can see nothing underground. Nada, zip, zilch. The darkness is complete and the picture for both dog and quarry is pure blackness. For an experienced dog, this is less of a liability than for the quarry. The dog, after all, knows what a groundhog is, what a fox is, and what a raccoon is. This is not the dog's first rodeo.

For the quarry, however, this is probably the first time it has encountered a dog in its den. It has no idea what to expect, and its first inclination is to flee -- a response that rises rapidly if the dog is barking and growling just a foot up the pipe.

It is very rare for a fox, groundhog, possum or raccoon not to flee from a baying dog, as standing to fight is a very maladaptive strategy for a small animal. Unless there are young in the den, there is nothing in the pipe to defend, and in most cases a fox, raccoon or groundhog will simply abandon their young to the dog since self-preservation is a genetically encoded response.

A dog that goes in silently and grips the quarry is not allowing the animal to flee, but forcing it to stand and fight. While some terriers do learn to grip a fox by the throat and push it to asphyxiation, most do not, and most dogs take a pounding if they try to grip in every situation -- a bit like a boxer who knows only how to slug. Such fighters do indeed have wins, but they do not have great careers.

A dog that approaches all quarry in every pipe as if it can muscle its way to success is a dog that is going to take a beating over time. Under most circumstances, a groundhog cannot be killed underground -- they have no necks and skulls as thick as a breakfast skillet.

A raccoon is another serious animal with very good canines and a crushing bite. A fox has a very light build, but sharp canines which can leave deep muzzle punctures and take out an eye. If the rip is particularly serious, it may be two or three weeks before a dog can see action in the field -- a lot of time away from work, especially in a foxing season that may last no more than eight weeks in its prime, and offer perfect weather conditions for just a fraction of that.

The baying dog, on the other hand, is like a boxer with a full array of skills. If the dog understands its job -- and the digger understands his -- it will use voice and grit (and yes, this means the occassional use of tooth) to move the quarry to a bolt or a stop end, at which point the owner will dig down and either release or dispatch the quarry as required.


terriertrio said...

Great description which will go a long way in helping a JRTCA youth handler understand and articulate the value of an ideal working terrier as well as why a hard dog can be a liability in the hunt field.

Dan said...

Reading this I can't help but think that a little spot of selective breeding for noisier dogs, which sound a great deal nastier than they are (deeper voice than you would expect), might not be a bad idea. Along with this, a dog trained that it can't get hold of quarry but can only make noise might be quite an asset in the field.

jeffrey thurston said...

There is an excellent video on youtube which is about a professional terrierman in England. He confirms all you say in this post: "...the dog should bay furiously but not be too aggressive... the dog should not get a hold... should have a lot of yap but know when to back up or give the fox a little give... to the waiting gun... bred for yap, courage and loyalty... equally in some situations I can call terriers out..." I'm curious though how this works in a tiny tunnel 4 feet under the ground. How does the dog get out of the fox's way so it can bolt? I also watch videos from Eastern Europe with people hunting beavers, raccoon dogs and foxes with largish Parson Russells. These dogs definitely get a hold and pull on the animal. I think the holes there are bigger and the hunters seem to prefer a harder dog. I understand your concern for the size of the terrier but I personally think that big teeth and strong jaws are important overall terrier characteristics- they have to be strurdy tough little bastards- otherwise couldn't a courageous largish chihuahua cross do the work? Anyway- I'm sure you've seen the youtube video I speak of- it confirms all you say. Interesting too the fact that the terriers used in this case are small Lakeland Terriers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5SY4ZgGFJo

PBurns said...

Raccoon dogs do not dig holes -- they occupy dens and holes dug by others, same as raccoons and possums in this country.

Beaver also do not dig holes -- they manufacture log dens and pack mud around them, and beaver is not sensible quarry for any type of terrier as they are easily shot and trapped, are almost entirely aquatic, top the scales at about 50 pounds (or more!), and their dens are not dug so much as disassembled.

Fox settes are generally not dug by a fox, but are carved out of old rabbit settes (in Europe) or are holes originally dug by groundhogs (eastern US to midwest), or else are badger dens (Europe), or are structure holes (rock dens, log dens, push pile dens, dens under out buildings, old drain pipes, etc.).

One reason artificial dens are so successful in Europe is that fox prefer to find a structure den to digging one out themselves. If a fox digs its own den, it will be in very soft stuff -- sand or ash rather than regular hard soil. Remember, a fox is designed to slink and run, not to dig a 30-foot pipe in hard soil!

Fox are the same size all over the world (a 14-inch chest is a big fox!), and a small dog is almost always preferable to a large dog for the simply reason that the dog has to be able to MOVE wherever the fox moves, and it has to be able to move back and to the side FAST if the fox steps forward for a slash.

If a fox can bolt, it generally will provided there are not a lot of loud people and dogs blocking the escape hole. And there is almost always an escape hole. Most fox settes have at least two eyes, and they are not always obvious!

If a dog pushes a fox to a stop end, and the dogs bays and stands back a few inches or a foot, you generally get a nice "Mexican standoff" with fox and dog until you dig down and the light when you break through gins up one or the other side to make more contact.

If you are in parts of Europe where badger are the primary diggers of holes and it's legal to dig on them (it's not in the UK), you may find fox in larger settes, but it's the same size fox as everywhere else and a bigger dog does not add much to the equation if you are a real digging man or woman.

That said, not too many people are real diggers. Most "digging dogs" seem to see 10 blue-ribbon shows or some sort of artificial "trial" (with ribbon and certificate) for every real hole, and it's an absolute truth that it's easier to crank out a good looking big dog than a small one.

The folks who only dig three or four times a year do not have to worry too much if their dog gets knackered -- it will be months before another hole is seen. That's not the case for the fellow out every week, year in and year out. Those folks are never looking for a bigger dog, but are always interested in a small one!

PBurns said...

It's important to remember that underground a fox (or any other quarry) has no idea what it is up against. Every wild animal would rather retreat than fight, and so a dog with a good voice can generally do a very good job without putting in a tooth. That is especially true of fox, raccoon, raccoon dog, and possum which cannot dig away.

With groundhog and badger, a dog needs to use its teeth if the animal turns away to dig on -- one reason a terrier that works badger or groundhog needs to know the difference between butt and breath. You bay at breath, and you bite at butt!

Fox have been bolted from their dens by ferrets, and yes a loud chihuahua could easily bolt most fox. That's not even a question -- Ken James crossed his Jack Russells with chihuahua to size them down and he moved more fox than most people in this country!

The idea that terrier work is a dog fighting a fox underground is simply not true. Terrier work is a dog FINDING a fox... following it underground... pushing it out or to a stop end... and staying until dug to.

Sadly, the world of working terriers has been run over by young instant experts who think it is something else, and who bring too big a dog into the field, dig three dens in a year and then pose with their knackered and scarred dog as if "here's the proof" that they and their dogs are the shit. But why is that dog so knackered and scarred? Because it was too big to move in the pipe! In the end that dogs ended up jammed like a cork in a bottle, with the fox able to slash at it and the dog unable to move either forward or back, left or right. Most of the time, a wrecked dog is not the red badge of courage but something else -- a sign of too big a dog in too small a pipe.

As for a dog putting in a tooth, even my softest dogs do that, and there's no shortage of in-action pictures either. But putting in a tooth does not require a large dog, not does it make a dog "hard" as I used that term. I want neither a hard dog or a large dog; I want a small dog that knows how to grab a cheek and hold on if and when that is needed. I want a dog that's a boxer. But for a dog to box, it has to be quite a bit smaller than the ring.


jeffrey thurston said...

Thanks for the information- interesting that someone really has used chihuahua crosses! I like your blog because you have a very specific point of view and a specific interest and I think you really know what you're talking about from experience- OJT as opposed to book learned (at least as far as terriers go). I went off on a tangent after clicking on a couple of the links on one of your posts and came to an article by Steve Dale and then the comments after it. Hilarious how politicized the whole dog training issue is- it's really become a reflection of our weird country and the whole "politically correct" idea. People now in our culturally mixed wannabe inclusive society can't seem to admit that nature is HARSH and that dominance is very much a factor with dogs. Funny too because the argument that "natural" wolves don't show dominance like captive ones do actually bolsters the dominance argument because what is a dog but a captive (albeit domesticated) animal? Anyway- keep up the good work- I read with interest.