Among the marvels of human ingenuity is the way various breeds of dog were developed, mentally and physically, to tackle specific jobs. Consider the farmer’s eternal war against rodents and other burrowing mammals that devastate grain stores, raid henhouses, tear up fields, dig away riverbanks, and carry disease.
As their number-one weapon in subterranean warfare, farmers developed a variety of terrier breeds and Dachshunds. These “earthdogs” were built small and flexible enough to pursue quarry into underground lairs, but with jaws and forequarters of sufficient strength to hold and dispatch a recalcitrant woodchuck or gopher. They had to be smart, independent workers (there’s no room down a rathole for a handler), with keen eyes and a piercing, relentless bark that a handler waiting aboveground could use to mark their location.
Above all, a certain spirit was demanded, a plucky, devil-may-care fearlessness that has made the word terrier synonymous with feisty persistence.
These days, most earthdogs are valued as house pets instead of ingeniously contrived rodent-catching machines. But an inner exterminator still lurks within these breeds, and the AKC Earthdog program was founded in 1993 to test their go-to-ground instincts.
Earthdog is a performance event for Dachshunds and 28 terrier breeds. It has an introductory class and three levels of titling competition: Junior, Senior, and Master.
In earthdog, specially constructed tunnels, or “dens,” are laid beneath the ground by the event-giving club. At each level of competition, the dens are more challenging. The dog has from 30 to 90 seconds, depending on the competitive level, to enter the narrow, turning den and find the quarry at its end. The dog then works the quarry—bark, scratch, growl, and otherwise “worry” the rat, which is always safely caged. (In fact, the quarry is often a pet of one of the participants, sometimes even a purebred show rat.) A judge times and evaluates each run.
What might be appealing to a dog-sport newbie is that earthdogs require little, if any, training. It is fairly common for one with no experience to earn a passing score. It’s all about instinct.
“It’s not unusual to see a puppy in the introductory class tentatively enter the den and, in a minute or so, hear him barking and growling at his natural prey,” says Karla Diethorn, a longtime enthusiast of the sport. “He goes down the hole a puppy, but he emerges an earthdog!”
AKC Earthdog will awaken your terrier or Dachshund’s instincts and provide an opportunity for you both to get outdoors and enjoy quality time together. It might also change the way you think of your dog.
“I think once people attend an earthdog event, they see their dogs differently,” says Jo Ann Frier-Murza, author of the book Earthdogs In and Out.
“After an introduction to earthdog tests, owners see their dogs as animals with natural instincts, not pets or toys,” she says. “Instead of just taking their dog along with them when they go places, they might actually consider what the dog would like to do. Sort of the way a parent would take a child to a soccer game or a birthday party.”
Click here for all you need to know about starting in earthdog tests, including a list of eligible breeds, beginners’ pages, and rules and regulations.
Originally published in AKC Family Dog