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west highland terrier westie dog with muddy face outdoors in nature

Does your terrier or Dachshund love to dig in the dirt? Maybe he squirms his way into animal tunnels and comes out with a surprise in his mouth. What is he thinking? Well, there’s a reason Dachshunds and small terriers are classified as earthdogs. Rather than trying to stop this “bad” behavior, channel the go-to-ground instincts of your earthdog and “dig” into the sport of AKC Earthdog.

Tapping Into Instincts

According to Jo Ann Frier-Murza, AKC Earthdog Field Representative and author of the book Earthdogs Ins & Outs, AKC Earthdog gives Dachshunds and small terriers the opportunity to utilize their instincts. “The earthdog sport is a simulation of the traits that were needed by original earthdogs to complete their jobs as hunters of wild animals that threatened the existence of farmers,” she says. Although most are now in-the-home companions, these particular breeds were originally developed to eliminate vermin that preyed on livestock and fish.

Small and flexible, British terriers were bred to follow quarry into their underground tunnels. Whereas Dachshunds (German for “badger dog”), like most German breeds, were developed as multipurpose hunters who would also carry out underground activities. In both cases, these dogs’ tasks required intelligence, independence, courage, and tenacity. Not to mention a piercing bark that the aboveground farmer could use to find his dog’s under-the-earth location. These traits might sound familiar, as they are infamous terrier qualities often considered challenging. As Frier-Murza says, “The terriers are the bad boys of the dog world.”

But in truth, these dogs are simply doing what they were bred to do. So, AKC Earthdog “allows the dog to perform the behaviors that are always denied in everyday life in the modern world – don’t dig, don’t bark, don’t bite,” Frier-Murza explains.

Defining AKC Earthdog

AKC Earthdog channels these historic personality traits in a safe and positive way. Rather than digging through the earth, the dogs are hunting in human-built tunnels that are made to a constant size. And instead of going after dangerous quarry, the dogs are in pursuit of tame rats. But don’t worry, the rats are safe in a cage kept behind thick wooden bars. This setup ensures no animal is hurt, rat or dog, while still allowing for testing of the dog’s innate skills and behaviors.

This is a non-competitive sport, meaning the dogs don’t compete against one another but rather against a set of expectations. So, there are no placements earned at an event. Dogs receive a ribbon for earning a qualifying score. Frier-Murza clarifies, “The sport has always been “pass-fail”, so the dogs are competing against the rules only. If they meet the minimum requirements of skills, then they pass.” Once a dog has passed all the skills in a given level, they qualify. And if they accumulate enough qualifying scores in each class, they are awarded a title. Titles can be earned in three main classes: Junior, Senior, and Master.

Introducing Earthdog Events

According to Frier-Murza, “At the entry levels, earthdog breeds are tested for the basic skills which are unique to earthdogs – entering a small dark tunnel based solely on the scent of the quarry, progressing through the tunnel to reach the caged quarry at a dead end, and engaging the quarry with intent.”  Engaging the quarry with intent means a dog needs to work enthusiastically or show a willingness to engage. Examples of working the quarry would be barking or digging. And when it’s time for the dogs to come back above ground, their handler removes them from the tunnel through a trapdoor over the working area.

At the higher levels of the sport, the test should involve challenges that come as close as possible to a natural hunting situation. “The advanced dogs must evaluate and respond to factors like the disappearance of the quarry in a simulated bolt (where the prey will run from the dog and leave the earth) or multiple openings to the den area, as well as showing teamwork with the handler, working with another dog to search a field, and negotiating obstacles inside the tunnel,” says Frier-Murza.

Frier-Murza notes that the newer dogs with a bit of experience under their belts can become quite excited. This can be a bit intimidating to the first-time dogs. But once those newbies discover what’s going on, they will join in the excitement. On the other hand, “the experienced dogs in the upper classes are more circumspect. They learn to be calm until it is their turn, because the on-off switch is necessary for clear thinking and success in the advanced classes.”

Spectators are allowed to watch quietly from ringside. Also, some exhibitors and judges will let observers follow the hunt across a large field during the Master Class. Even though the dog will be underground for part of the event, and therefore out of your sight, you can often hear the dog working. Plus, you can learn a lot about the rules and handling by watching other participants.

Participating Breeds

The sport is open to Dachshunds and small terriers who are at least six months of age. The following list includes all the breeds eligible for AKC Earthdog events:

Training or Instincts

Technically, a dog can be trained to do almost anything in a controlled situation. However, the skills needed by an earthdog are not ones you can train, but instead, are based on the dog’s inherent characteristics. That’s why the sport isn’t open to any dog who enjoys digging. The instinct to enter the den of a wild animal, negotiate through challenging underground obstacles, and then confront a dangerous predator isn’t universal to all dogs, but specific to the terriers and Dachshunds. “Those instincts are strong and other breeds simply don’t have that desire or courage,” says Frier-Murza. “The best hunting earthdogs are those who have the instincts and courage in balance with common sense that helps them make the best decisions on their own.”

But this sport still requires teamwork and a good working relationship between the dog and his handler. Frier-Murza explains, “Given the instinct to enter the earth, traverse the length, and engage the quarry, the earthdog should be compliant with its handler. Practice strengthens the teamwork, but there is not so much training in the traditional sense of the word.” In other words, humans can’t direct an earthdog how to do his job in the tunnels or when and how to search for dens and quarry. Instead, training really involves shaping the dog’s behavior so the dog can learn for himself how the situation works and how the handler fits into the team.

earthdog dachshund digging

Benefitting From AKC Earthdog

AKC Earthdog is wonderfully enriching and invigorating for participating dogs. They get to engage in all those fun but so-called bad behaviors like digging and barking. “When the dog has the blessing of its owner to exercise its instincts, everyday life often becomes easier. The dog recognizes that its owner has approved the natural behaviors, and the team will work together whenever there is a chance to do them appropriately at an earthdog event,” says Frier-Murza. Plus, now that the owner understands why her terrier or Dachshund behaves the way he does, the dog-human bond becomes so much stronger.

Frier-Murza believes that every single owner who brings their dog to an earthdog event does so because of the light it brings to the dog’s eyes. “Everyone gets a kick out of seeing a newbie dog suddenly “get it” and “turn on”. The kind of bark that a dog releases when it sees quarry is unique. Other dogs recognize it for what it is, and it is a joy for anyone involved in the earthdog sport.”

Plus, she believes that participating in earthdog helps dogs see their owners in a different light. “It is not unheard of for a dog to look deeply into its owners face during an earthdog event. It sure looks like mutual respect and gratitude and there are no treats involved.”

Earthdog can even be therapeutic for rescue dogs who are having a hard time bonding with their new owners and adapting to their new stable homes. Frier-Murza has seen rescues that turned around after starting in earthdog. “Everything changed when that little dog was introduced to something he could really understand – his hardwired hunting instinct. Bonding with the new owner was enhanced and then progress was rapid.”

Participating in AKC Earthdog Events

Don’t be nervous about heading to your first AKC Earthdog event. The non-competitive atmosphere leads to camaraderie among handlers. You will be surrounded by other terrier and Dachshund owners who will help introduce you to the sport and answer any questions you might have about your own dog.

Start by looking through the AKC Earthdog rulebook to become familiar with the regulations. You can even build some tunnels and dens at home to enjoy with your dog. Most importantly, let your dog do what he was bred to do and enjoy seeing him shine!

To help you get started, contact your national breed club or local performance earthdog club by using the AKC Club Search Directory. To learn more about upcoming earthdog tests, visit our AKC Events Calendar.