Unearthing Natural Instincts
Rats! Although the mere mention of the word strikes fear into many human hearts, to a terrier’s ears, there is no more beautiful sound than “Get the rat.” Terriers were originally bred for ridding the farm of vermin. In the case of our beloved fox terriers, they were bred with longer legs to keep up with the hounds on fox hunts. Fox terrier vermin includes larger game, such as the fox, but anything that moves will do. If it runs, it’s done! Successful earthdogs are tenacious, compact dogs with rough coats to protect them from the terrain they will encounter underground.
Going to Ground
Earthdog is a great way to engage a terrier’s natural instinct by scenting prey and going to ground (into the den) to hunt. In today’s earthdog tests, the rats are held in a solid cage at the end of a tunnel built underground. Rat scent is laid at the entrance to the den, and the dog uses his nose to find the rat inside the tunnel. The dog must have a high prey drive because it is dark down there, and following quarry underground is not for the faint of heart. But then, our terriers are anything but sissies.
At the higher levels for the more advanced dogs, false dens complete with unscented nesting material are a part of the maze. The dog is supposed to use his nose to find the rat within a specified period of time. When the dog finds the rat, he must then work it for another specified period of time. Working includes such terrier activities as digging, scratching, barking, biting the cage; in short, most things terriers love to do when hunting. Not to worry, though, the rats are not harmed and some veterans even sleep through the process. Rats! Of course, it’s more exciting for the dog if the rat moves a bit.
The tunnels are 3 sided, top and sides, no bottom, and made of plywood. For American Kennel Club (AKC) events, the tunnel entrance has a 9 inch diameter. That’s why only the small terriers and dachshunds are allowed in the event. Fox Terriers are, of course, one of the approved Earthdog breeds. Depending upon the level of competition, tunnels have several 90o turns. At the Master level, there is even a baffle placed on the ground that the dog must travel under or over to simulate a tree root.
- Rats – used in the event are specially bred domestic rats from a breeder (yes, rats are bred for show purposes, too) or purchased from a pet store to ensure they don’t transmit disease. Actually, rats are very clean and intelligent animals and can even be clicker trained. A sturdy wooden cage with at least one wire side will be needed to protect the rat inside the tunnel.
- Tunnels – for starters, a 3 sided, 10 foot long box with one 900 turn made out of plywood is a good start. The bottom is open and the tunnel can be placed above ground, half buried, or entirely buried underground. In competition, the tunnel is buried with only the entrance open or exposed, but an above ground tunnel is fine for initial training.
This is a sport that involves very little training. Introduction to the tunnel and rats, along with a good recall is about all a team needs to have fun and be successful.
To get started, you want to spark your dog’s interest in quarry. Some dogs don’t need much encouragement at all! Place the rat in a cage and let your dog sniff. Tap on the cage and give your command such as “Get the rat”. Think of how dogs respond to the word “squirrel” without any training. They seem to come born knowing what that word means. That’s the kind of reaction you are looking for. Praise your dog when he looks at the cage. Really praise him when he paws or barks at it! Once your dog is excited about the rat, you are ready to place a caged rat at the end of the tunnel. Make sure your dog sees it and give your “Get the rat” command. Take off any collars or harnesses to prevent injury. Give your command and let Foxie go. You can get him revved up by patting his chest and, if your dog knows “Are you ready” use that and tell him to “Get the rat”. This is one instance where some agility commands – Are you ready – comes in handy to fire up your dog. Then, let your dog’s natural instincts take over. As in agility, don’t force him into the tunnel or he could become fearful of it. Fear of the tunnel will become a training issue and take a while to fix, so it’s best to let the dog make the choice – like free shaping training- and let him discover how much fun going to ground really is.
Two main organizations, The American Kennel Club (AKC) and the American Working Terrier Association (AWTA), sponsor Earthdog tests. See the AKC rule book and the AWTA website for the various breeds that are eligible to compete.
AKC completion features 4 levels of competition. In order of least to most difficult, they are:
- Intro to Quarry – no titles are earned at this level. The judge is allowed to give the handler tips, and most are very patient to allow the novice dogs a chance to develop an interest in rats. Just because Fido is an expert hunter at home, in a strange surrounding with other distractions, he may be reluctant to enter the tunnel. The 10 foot long tunnel with one 900 turn is buried, with rat scent leading to the exposed entrance. The judge sits or lies on the ground at the end of the tunnel, where the caged rat is located. This enables the judge to determine if the dog is working the quarry. When the judge signals, the handler must go over to the judge, who opens a trap door in the tunnel ceiling and the handler removes the dog.
- Junior Earthdog (JE title) – The dog is released from 10 feet away from the exposed entrance to the tunnel. The tunnel is 30 feet long with three 900 turns. The dog must get to the rat within thirty seconds and work the dog for 60 seconds. When the judge signals, the handler must go over to the judge, who opens a trap door in the tunnel ceiling and the handler removes the dog. The dog must successfully complete the Junior Earthdog test twice under two different judges, earning two legs, or qualifying scores to earn the JE title.
- Senior Earthdog (SE title) – The test becomes more difficult at this level. The dog is released 20 feet from the den entrance and works his way through a thirty foot long tunnel. The Senior Earthdog tunnel has three 900 turns plus a false den and a false exit. A dog who works the false den for more than 30 seconds will not pass the test. The dog must reach the quarry within 90 seconds and work it for 90 seconds. Upon reaching the quarry, the dog must begin working within 15 seconds or receive a non-qualifying score. Once the dog has worked the rat for 90 seconds, the judge will remove the rat cage and the handler must call the dog out of the tunnel. Not an easy task for a handler with a high prey driven dog! Three qualifying scores under two different judges are required for the SE title.
- Master Earthdog (ME title) – the epitome of earthdog completion, the Master Earthdog event, is designed to simulate a real life hunting situation. The main tunnel is 30-40 feet in length, with a minimum of three 900 turns. A false den and false exit are part of the maze as well. At this level, the dogs are expected to work with a brace (another dog). Braces are randomly drawn the day of the test. The handlers release the dogs and the dog who reaches the entrance first gets to work while the other dog must wait its turn. The second dog may work the quarry once the first dog is called out of the den. Four qualifying scores under three different judges are required for the Master Earthdog title.
Most fox terriers excel at this sport because hunting comes naturally to them. Handlers enjoy the connection with their feisty canine companions that results from playing a game their dogs truly love.
I only get to play this game once or twice a year with my dogs because there aren’t many earthdog tests in the area. But, when they do occur, the miles and time spent are well worth it. That doesn’t mean that we can’t go hunting in our backyard. A simple, 10 foot long tunnel with one 900 turn is buried in my garden and whenever I hear Hank & Billie making an unearthly racket, I know they’re in doggy heaven. That’s when I must beg, plead, and pray for them to come out. Rats!
To learn more about the exciting world of earthdog, visit these sites: