Is Your Dog a Champion Earthdog?

Earthdog breeds - Dachshunds and small terriers - were bred to find and drive away predators invading the grain stores of farmers. Earthdog trials put these breeds to the test. Jo Ann Frier-Murza, who runs the Village Green Farm Earthdog Center in Crosswicks, N.J., is an AKC Lifetime Achievement Award winner and author of the definitive book on her sport, “Earthdog Ins & Outs.” Here she answers some of the most asked questions about the sport.   How do earthdog trials replicate the historical function of these breeds? It simulates the dog going underground after a small wild animal, but of course we don’t use wild animals. The tunnels are adapted to our modern-day dogs, so it’s 100 percent safe for dog and quarry.

We’re talking about earthen tunnels dug by the club staging the event? 

Yes, a tunnel is dug underground, just below the surface. It’s lined with wood on the two sides and the top, nine inches square, and at the end there’s the quarry -- usually two pet rats. The rats are caged, so no harm comes to them. For beginner dogs, the tunnel is only 10 feet long and has one turn. At higher levels of the sport the tunnels are longer, with more turns. At the advanced levels they have side tunnels that lead to a dead end or back to the surface, so the dogs must make decisions as they make their way toward the quarry.  

Is this something that can be trained?

It’s an instinct-based activity, judged on a pass/fail basis. When a dog’s underground, he must figure things out for himself. Because they were bred to work without help from people, among the characteristics of terriers and Dachshunds are independence and problem-solving. In earthdog, we try to build on those instinctual skills with ones he’s learned from experience. You can say this is subtly a training situation, because you’re exposing him to experiences that will lead to the desired result: a qualifying score in an earthdog test.  Does a pet terrier these days still have that instinct? They do, but a dog’s instincts need to break free from his role at home. At home we always tell them, “Don’t dig, don’t bark.” When they come to earthdog, it’s OK to dig and bark. But they have inhibitions we’ve put into them in their daily life. And allowing them to follow those instincts, finally, in earthdog often makes it easier for them to live within the rules at home. It gives them an outlet for these instincts they were discouraged from using.  

Is there any way you can practice at home?

It’s quarry driven, so the dog really does need to have access to caged quarry. But at home you can build a little tunnel out of cardboard, or use chimney flews, and tease the dog through with a toy or a treat, just to get him used to being in a tight space. Normally, small terriers and Dachshunds don’t mind tight spaces – that’s bred into them. But if they’ve never had the experience, it’s a fun game to play. Many people do it with small puppies. The puppies enjoy having a new play surface and new activity, and it gets them used to being in that confined space.   OK, I’ve got an energetic little terrier. I’m looking for an activity we can do together. Earthdog sounds perfect. 

What’s the first step?

Look for a club that offers earthdog tests in your area. Most clubs have websites, and www.akc.org has the clubs listed, and then contact the club. The earthdog specialists in the club should know what’s going on in the sport in your area. If the club offers an opportunity to practice before the event, all well and good. If not, no problem. Just go to the event with your dog and enter him in the Introduction to Quarry class. No prior experience is necessary. See what happens, and have patience. Most times your earthdog will eventually find the instinct within.  

Do I need to buy special equipment?

Just a flat collar for your dog and perhaps a folding chair for yourself, where you can sit while you and your dog wait for your turn. And that’s the time when you’re meeting other people and their dogs. All kinds of people do this, so it’s a great way to meet people you wouldn’t ordinarily get to know.  Eligible Breeds Dogs of these breeds, over 6 months old, are eligible to participate in AKC Earthdog tests: Dachshunds, Miniature Schnauzers, and Australian, Bedlington, Border, Cairn, Cesky, Dandie Dinmont, Glen of Imaal, Lakeland, Manchester, Miniature Bull, Norfolk, Norwich, Parson Russell, Rat, Russell, Scottish, Sealyham, Silky, Skye, Smooth Fox, Welsh, West Highland White, and Wire Fox terriers.