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  • AKC Earthdog is a dog sport involving a simulated underground hunting scenario.
  • Many Earthdog breeds were bred to hunt subterranean quarry and still possess those instincts.
  • Providing natural opportunities for your dog to dig and explore can help them excel at Earthdog.

Do you own a terrier or Dachshund? Have you noticed your dog’s love of digging and barking? Perhaps your lawn is full of holes, or your dog continually hunts backyard animals. These activities no doubt bring your dog immense joy, but it may be unlikely that you feel the same.

The sport of AKC Earthdog might just be exactly what your Dachshund or terrier is looking for. Earthdog is a terrific way to channel your dog’s instincts and allow them to indulge in their beloved behaviors. Dig in for more on the history and heritage of Earthdogs, and how to prepare your dog for success in the tunnels.

The Sport of Earthdog

AKC Earthdog offers dogs a simulated hunting situation for underground quarry. Dogs seek out caged rats at the end of a series of long, dark, and sometimes branched tunnels.

“The dogs get experience hunting with their noses, crawling through underground tunnels, and locating their quarry. Then, they have a chance to show that they would be willing to bolt or attack if given the chance,” writes Jo Ann Frier-Murza, AKC Earthdog Field Representative and author of the definitive book on her sport Earthdog Ins & Outs.

Frier-Murza emphasizes that the dogs can experience the basics of the hunt in a safe, planned, and predictable environment. The tunnels are built at a generous size so the dogs have plenty of space to hunt within the den.  Great care is also given to the quarry throughout the event. The small vermin used for the tunnel is usually a rat. They are kept safe from any danger and do not come in contact with any hunting dog that has gone to ground.

Jo Lynn, Breeder of Merit Bronze and AKC Parent Club Delegate, has been participating in Earthdog for about 15 years. She’s the owner of Earnest, a Glen of Imaal Terrier puppy and a member of the AKC Puppy Pack 2.0. Lynn loves the reaction of the dogs in an Earthdog trial.

“It’s great watching the dogs and encouraging them to use their noses and their paws and to go into the tunnels to find and work the rats. Listening to them bark, whine, dig, and chew on the bars, and seeing those very special ratters who go at it in a fierce way is very exciting and satisfying,” says Lynn.

The Earthdog Instincts

Frier-Murza also enjoys watching the dogs because they are given the chance to perform work they were bred for.

“The characteristics needed to perform the task are bred into the dogs, both physically and mentally,” she says. “When dogs are allowed to perform that task, their instincts are awakened and given an outlet. The dog seems to feel a sense of accomplishment and relaxes into a more balanced life view.”

She notes that Earthdog breeds often don’t know how to release their urges, but the chance to participate in the sport gives them that very opportunity. As a result, they often end up as better companions and housemates.

Lynn believes that although much of Earthdog is hunting instinct, many dogs need time and encouragement to let their instincts shine.

“Think about how we interact with our dogs in the conformation, obedience, and agility rings. If the dog wants to check out a scent in the ring, we discourage it!” says Lynn. ‘Then we take them to an outdoor Earthdog test, slip off their collars and say essentially, ‘be a hunter, follow your nose, dig and crawl, bark and chew.’ No wonder many dogs need some time to wrap their heads around that.”

The Heritage of the Original Earthdogs

Only certain Earthdog breeds are eligible to participate in AKC events. Sizes may range from the diminutive Norfolk Terrier to the larger Bedlington Terrier. Most of these dogs have a heritage that makes them perfectly suited to the sport.

“The original Earthdog breeds were needed to get into underground dens and chase out or dispatch predators below, ” Frier-Murza explains. “These predators, mainly foxes, otters, and badgers in Europe, killed livestock like lambs and poultry and destroyed pasturelands.”

Sometimes, predators were located and run to ground by other breeds like Otterhounds, but Earthdogs were released at an occupied den to do their job underground.

“Those original Earthdogs were selectively bred according to their ability to get the job done,” says Frier-Murza. “Some of those with poor conformation or imperfect temperaments were lost underground, stuck in a tight spot, buried by indiscriminate digging, or killed by overconfidence with their quarry. The dogs who were good hunters and survived were the ones who were continued to be bred.”

This resulted in one unique mental quality—an eagerness to enter small, tight spaces to pursue quarry, even in pitch darkness. Most terriers did not have to learn this, as it’s something they’d inherently accept as part of their job. Today’s modern examples of Earthdog breeds often still retain this characteristic.

How to Help Your Dog Excel at Earthdog

Earthdog revolves around instinct, but that doesn’t mean you can’t boost your dog’s chances of becoming a champion Earthdog. Frier-Murza believes it’s fine to enforce the rules about digging, barking, and biting things in your home or yard. But, it’s just as important to provide natural, outdoor opportunities for digging, finding things, biting at obstacles, and barking at suitable targets.

“Owners can take their dogs on leash to a park and encourage them to investigate brush and animal holes, and chase squirrels and rabbits,” she says. “Owners should show interest in what the dogs have found, and never discourage them from anything that is hunting-like. Those experiences will encourage their instincts and strengthen your teamwork.”

Although he won’t be participating until next spring, Lynn is already preparing to introduce her puppy, Earnest, to the two pet rats she keeps in her stable. In the meantime, Earnest has already taken a liking to running through Lynn’s regulation-size above-ground Earthdog tunnels.

Although she realizes having pet rats and practice tunnels isn’t possible for everyone, Lynn suggests starting pups early by letting them play in tunnels made of cardboard boxes, to help them adjust to dark, tight spaces. She also suggests taking advantage of opportunities at your local AKC Earthdog club.

So, if you have a terrier or Dachshund, consider digging into AKC Earthdog. But, get ready to get dirty as you allow your dog to tap into his deepest instincts. As Lynn says, a little mud on your clothes simply means your dog probably did some good work in those tunnels, which is just what you want them to do.