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Cairn Terrier running outdoors.
Courtesy of BigandtPhotography.com/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Historically, small terriers and Dachshunds were used to find and drive away predators that destroyed livestock and compromised the food sources of early farmers. To do their job, these original earthdogs would chase quarry into their underground tunnels – a daunting mission that required persistence, bravery, intelligence, and independence. Today, small terriers and Dachshunds can enjoy pursuing their earthdog heritage by participating in AKC Earthdog events.

Test Historical Roots

Jo Ann Frier-Murza, an AKC Earthdog Field Representative and author of the definitive book on her sport, “Earthdog Ins & Outs,” explains that earthdog tests replicate the original function of these breeds. “The earthdog test simulates the work of the terriers and Dachshunds by offering them a chance to use their noses, brains, and instincts to enter a dark tunnel, scent toward quarry in its “den”, and then try to engage the quarry.”

In the past, earthdogs faced life or death scenarios while they were alone underground with their prey. Thankfully, modern life is no longer so harsh. Today’s earthdog events provide these dogs with a safe and modern imitation of their original function. The dogs still go underground after quarry, but of course the quarry isn’t wild animals. Instead, it’s two tame pet rats kept secure in a cage behind thick wooden dowels. In addition, the tunnels are human-made, so the rats and the dogs are safe.

AKC Earthdog is non-competitive, meaning a dog is judged on a pass/fail basis. In other words, he is competing against a set of requirements rather than other dogs. But at its core, this is an instinct-based activity. When the dog is underground, he must figure things out for himself. His owner isn’t there to point the way. Luckily, because terriers and Dachshunds were developed to work without help from people, they share the characteristics of independence and problem-solving.

Uncover Your Dog’s Instincts

In essence, the sport of earthdog builds on a dog’s instinctual skills. But do pet dogs still have those historical instincts? Any terrier or Dachshund owner knows they do. However, in our homes and backyards, we’re always trying to suppress them with rules like “don’t dig” and “don’t bark.”

When a dog comes to an earthdog event, the opposite is true – it’s okay for him to dig and bark. Participating dogs need to shake off the inhibitions we’ve put into their daily lives. Frier-Murza says earthdog gives them an outlet for all those behaviors they were previously discouraged from doing, which can often make it easier for them to live within the rules and boundaries at home.

But there is still a subtle training component to the sport. You’re exposing your dog to new experiences that will hopefully lead to a qualifying score in an earthdog test. And he is learning along the way. Frier-Murza says, “It is important to bring out the instincts in a systematic, sensitive way. Some dogs have less instinct than others, and it is best to let the dog’s response to the situation determine the pace of introductions.” For these dogs, she suggests you offer physical touch rather than enthusiastic verbal encouragement which is likely to distract the dog and prevent him from working out the situation for himself.

Discover the Tunnels

The club staging an earthdog event will create the necessary tunnels. And because the difficulty increases as dogs work their way up through the class levels (the main classes are Junior, Senior, and Master), these tunnels can be fairly elaborate. Nine-inch square tunnels are dug underground and lined with wood on the two sides and on the top. The quarry, the cage of two rats, is located at the tunnel’s end.

For beginner dogs at the lower levels, the tunnel is only 10 feet long and has a single turn. At higher levels of the sport, the tunnels are longer, and include more turns. The advanced levels are even trickier with side tunnels that lead to a dead end or back to the surface. This forces a dog to make decisions as he makes his way toward the quarry.

Earthdog sniffing the ground with a woman looking on.

Practice at Home

Because earthdog is quarry driven, your dog needs to have access to caged quarry to really have the full experience. But you don’t need pet rats to have fun with the sport at home. Frier-Murza has several suggestions for preparing your dog for earthdog. “Any kind of scenting games are useful. Tunnels on top of the ground are fun for puppies and they can be made of sturdy cardboard, Lally column foundation tubes, or large ductwork, all supported to prevent movement when the dog is inside.”

Encourage your dog to move through the tunnel by using a toy or treat. The point is to get him used to being in a tight space. Although small terriers and Dachshunds usually don’t mind tight spaces because it’s been bred into them, this is a fun way to play with your puppy if he’s never had that experience. You can even graduate to pieces of concrete culverts, chimney flues, or large PVC pipe placed partly underground.

However, you don’t need to build regulation tunnels for your dog. All of this is just for fun and building confidence. It’s in no way necessary for success. In fact, Frier-Murza warns that you shouldn’t practice earthdog too much because your dog might tire of the artificial situation and lose interest in the actual event. “Rare practice in the official tunnels is usually plenty once the dog has the idea. Serious practice cannot be successful without live quarry, so it is best left to an organized group to provide everything you need.”

Get Involved

Start by looking for a local club that offers earthdog tests in your area. Most have a website or Facebook page. AKC clubs are a great place to start your search. The club’s earthdog specialist should know what’s going on in the sport in your area. Some clubs may offer an opportunity to practice before an event, which can give your dog a taste for the underground fun. But if they don’t, that’s not a problem. You and your dog can still go to an event and enter the Introduction to Quarry class.

Sealyham Terrier

Learn About Introduction to Quarry Class

The Introduction to Quarry class is for beginners. Your dog doesn’t need any prior experience to participate. According to Frier-Murza, “This class is all about helping new dogs figure out what needs to be done and for you to get confidence too.” The tunnel is only 10 feet long with a single turn. Plus, the judge can see your dog through a viewing opening.

To help you prepare, Frier-Murza walks through an Introduction to Quarry test. “First you bring your dog into the ring and either walk with a leash or carry your dog to the release point 10 feet from the entrance with a scent line leading the way. When you release your dog with one short phrase, the collar is off.” She says the judge will let you approach the entrance to the tunnel as encouragement for your dog and you may be able to speak to him as well. However, you cannot touch him. And once your dog has entered the tunnel, your job is done. You must stand quietly and wait.

“That doesn’t mean your dog won’t get some help,” says Frier-Murza. “The judge can encourage the dog by creating sounds that make the rats more interesting.” However, once your dog begins to work, he must continue to do so for 30 seconds on his own. At the end of that time, the judge will ask you to come and get your dog through the trapdoor in the top of the tunnel.

According to Frier-Murza, the way you handle this extraction is extremely important. “It is never a good idea to snatch your dog from the den as soon as the trapdoor is opened. Instead, speak to your dog, encourage him to continue to work (“Did you find rats?” or “Get those rats!”), touch your dog, and act as though he is brilliant to have located and tried to get them. You should be there to partner with him in his work, not to snatch him away from it.” After a short while of reinforcement, you can then remove your dog knowing he has learned you were there with him while he worked.

Meet a Champion With an Earthdog Title

At the 2019 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the longhaired Dachshund winner of the Hound Group wowed the audience with his beauty and attitude. GCHP DC Walmar-Solo’s OMG SL JE, call name Burns, was a crowd favorite. Not only is he a successful show dog, he’s proven his abilities in the field as well. According to Frier-Murza, “It is unheard of for such a distinguished dog to win the Hound Group at Westminster. It proves he is a capable, versatile dog, a credit to the breed, and that his owners/breeders have a huge commitment to breeding show dogs that can actually do what they were bred to do.”

Burn’s Dual Championship (DC) indicates that he is a show champion and a field champion. For a Dachshund, that means he has competed in Dachshund Field Trials (using scent alone, two dogs trail rabbits together in competition for points). And the JE in his title stands for Junior Earthdog. This is one talented and accomplished dog!

Burns, the winner of the Hound Group at Westminster in 2019, has an Earthdog title.
Burns, the winner of the Hound Group at Westminster in 2019, has an Earthdog title.

Test Your Dog’s Potential

Do you think your dog has what it takes to be a champion earthdog? “You never know until you try!” says Frier-Murza. “Wild and crazy dogs may become subdued when confronted with a real hunting challenge while mild-mannered terriers might demonstrate that they were just waiting for the chance to be a terrier.” If your dog is one of the eligible breeds, give him a chance, preferably with a facilitator who is experienced with many breeds and dogs of different ages. Your puppy might not be ready until he’s matured, but once he’s of age, be patient while he finds his instincts. Most of the time, your small terrier or Dachshund will find his inner earthdog and thrive in the sport.

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