Owning a terrier without ever seeing it work is a little like owning a bottle of wine only to read the label. People do such things, but what a lot they are missing!
After all, it's not like terriers were created to cruise kitchen linoleum to scarf up lost cookie dough. You can put a bucket of show ring rosettes out in a field, and your dog will not take a second sniff. On the other hand, your dog may stare out the window all day in the hope of catching the mere glimpse of a squirrel. A terrier is, first and foremost, a working dog and a terrier is happiest when given some chance to work.
Work can involve many things of course. If you are interested in small quarry it can involve ratting - a fast and exciting sport that will thrill your dog. Unfortunately, good ratting grounds are hard to find, and the common use of block bait poisons is a serious threat.
Traditional hunting with terriers is not everyone's cup of tea. Not only does it put the dog in some slight danger, but it involves a fair amount of work, not only in acquiring the tools and locating land upon which to hunt, but also in digging down to the dog. Not everyone is physically capable of hunting their dog in a traditional manner, nor is everyone interested in serious hunting, even if the quarry is allowed to bolt off unharmed.
The good news is that in 1971 Patricia Adams Lent, a breeder of Lakeland, Cairn, and Border terriers, founded the American Working Terrier Association (AWTA), and created a new kind of sport called "go-to-ground," which involves terriers and dachshunds entering a simple underground maze in order to locate caged rats. AWTA earthdog trials were first copied by the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (1976) and then by the American Kennel Club (1994). Today variations on this type of trial can be found in Denmark, Germany, Spain, Canada, Sweden, and Finland.
The origin of the American go-to-ground tunnel can be found in the artificial fox earths first constructed in the U.K. in the 1920s as way of encouraging fox to den far from roads. In the U.K., artificial earths are still constructed of two parallel rows of brick stacked three bricks high and topped by overlapping slates.
The go-to-ground tunnels devised by Patricia Adams Lent were constructed of wood instead of brick and slate, but were equally commodious, measuring 9 inches on each side, with a bare dirt floor for drainage and traction.
From the beginning, the goal of go-to-ground trials has been to be as inclusive as possible. Scottish Terriers, West Highland Whites, Cairns, Dandie Dinmonts, Norfolks, Norwich's, Australian terriers, Border Terriers, Fox Terriers, Parson and Jack Russell Terriers, Lakelands, Welsh Terriers and Bedlington's are all welcome at AKC and AWTA go-to-ground trials, as are miniature and standard dachshunds. The goal is not to replicate actual hunting, but to give people an opportunity to have a little fun with the dogs, and perhaps give Kennel Club terrier and dachshund owners some idea of what their dog's "prey drive" is supposed to be about.
In the basic go-to-ground trial, wooden den "liners" are sunk into a trench in the ground. The tunnels are up to 35 feet long, with a series of right-angle turns, false dens and exits. The "quarry" at the end of the tunnel is a pair of "feeder" lab rats safely protected behind wooden bars and wire mesh.
Three progressive earthdog titles are awarded at American Kennel Club trials. The rules are a bit long, but the essential set up requires the dog to traverse a scented 30-foot tunnel, which has three right-angle turns, and bay well protected caged rats at the other end. The dog has a set time to get to the rats and must bark, scratch or bite the wooden bars in front of the rats for at least 90 seconds in order to qualify. In Senior Earthdog the rats are then removed and the dog must exit on recall within 90 seconds. In Master Earthdog, a dog must work with another dog, search a field to locate the den, and also negotiate a constriction point and tunnel obstruction.
Earthdog is great fun, and quite instructive, as it quickly becomes self-evident what aspects of a terrier are relevant to work, and which ones are not. It comes as a shock to some people to discover that a dog with odd ears, the wrong-colored nose, one eye, a bad bite, and cow-hocked legs can do well at go-to-ground. In fact, true working terriers are not bred for looks, but for size, nose, voice and prey drive. In working dogs, beauty is as beauty does.
Go-to-ground trials have been a huge hit with American terrier owners, most of whom are somewhat amazed to see the genetic code explode inside their little dogs. The interior dimensions of the den liners - 81 inches square - allow even over-large terriers enough room to negotiate the turns, and with nothing but a caged rat as "quarry," the safety of a dog is guaranteed.
Though the die-hard hunter may discount large wooden "earths" and caged rats as quarry, the increasing popularity of go-to-ground trials should be seen as a welcome thing, as it has been a door to genuine field work for many people.
Owners of dogs that do well in go-to-ground trials should take pride in their dog's achievements. Like all sports that emulate real work (sheep dog trials, skeet shooting, lumberjack contests), a go-to-ground trial is both harder and easier than its real-world cousin.
A dog that will exit a 30-foot tunnel backwards in just 90 seconds and on a single command (a requirement for earning an AKC Senior Earthdog certificate) is a dog that has been trained to a fairly high degree of proficiency.
Are there secrets to doing well at Earthdog trials? Of course. Here are five of them:
- Practice Makes Perfect: The business of terrier work is not entirely instinctive; there is a degree of operant conditioning here that is often underestimated by the novice. Most terriers and dachshunds do not naturally go down long tight pipes without a bit of training. If you show up at your first Earthdog trial without having practiced, you are likely to wash out. To learn how to build a practice tunnel, and for some very useful training tips as well, see >> www.terrierman.com/tunneltips.htm
- Instinct Often Comes With Age: While entering a tunnel is learned behavior, what happens when the dog reaches the quarry is largely instinctive, and is at least partially age-dependent. The genetic code within a terrier rarely explodes before a dog is 6 months old, and the penny may not drop until it is a year or two old. Border terriers can be particularly slow starters, but most fire up well in time. Sadly, however, some terrier and dachshund lines have been "too long at the show" and now have no prey drive at all.
- Avoid Training in Mistakes: The two most common reasons for disqualification at Earthdog trials are the dog going over the top and, in Senior Earthdog, not exiting on recall. The remedy in both situations is to make sure the dog never encounters a rat when it is doing wrong, and always finds a rat when doing right. The way to achieve this is to place a sturdy wooden rat box inside a large trashcan at the end of the practice tunnel. Only after the dog has entered the tunnel is the rat box taken out and placed against the bars at the end of the den liner. Conversely, to train a solid recall out of the tunnel, remove the rat box and place it at the front end of the tunnel liner while whistling for the dog to exit. The only way the dog can now reach the rat is to exit the same way it has enters. With training, the dog will learn that a whistle means "come fast" and find the rat outside.
- Train the Dog to Search: Dogs that stick to the heels of their owners in Master Earthdog are disqualified, as the goal here is to search for an active den. To train a dog to search a large grassy field, do not feed it for a full day, and then place small "jackpots" of food in locations near rat-urine scented markers. The dog will quickly learn that the smell of rats means food, and will begin to search for that food with vigor.
- Head Down and Tail Up: In Junior and Senior Earthdog trials, begin with the dog held nose down and tail up. This position will reduce the visual distractions the dog will have, while focusing it on the rat scent that should trail out of the hole. The dog's front feet should be on the ground or almost on the ground, and the release should be easy and smooth and not jarring.
Dogs are not the only animals that see their genetic code explode at go-to-ground trials. Humans too are hunters by nature, and some people find go-to-ground trials so addictive they travel long distances to compete.
This is not terrier work in theory, but terrier work in practice, and it is alive and well in the United States today. For a happy few, go-to-ground is the "on ramp" back to this hunting field -- the common ground from which all true terriers descend.
- Written for Dog World in 2006.