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Earthdog: History

The roots of the Earthdog program go back to the beginnings of small game hunting. Farmers and hunters used the small terriers and Dachshunds to pursue vermin to its lair and then to follow the game into to the ground. These dogs had to possess not only the physical attributes that would allow them to descend into the animal’s den and to battle, the animal on its own terms, but they needed the courage and mental abilities to accept the challenge of subterranean pursuit.

The American Working Terrier Association initiated artificial den trials in the US in 1971. Several groups, such as the US Dachshund Field Trial Club, had tried various “go to ground” programs much earlier but those had been discontinued shortly after they started. AWTA’s program was designed to encourage the owners of small terriers and dachshunds to take up actual hunting with their dogs. However, many people felt the need for a more extensive and challenging test program. In 1988, a group of go to ground enthusiasts met in Clayton, California and decided to develop a program which could be accepted by the American Kennel Club.

Gordon Heldebrant, with help of Karla Diethorn Martin, headed this group and contacted enthusiasts in most of the eligible breeds across the country. Over the period of several years, they developed a three-level hunting test program for small terriers and Dachshunds. A number of clubs across the country held prototype tests to determine the feasibility of the various parts of the program. By 1993, they had convinced the American Kennel Club that the program would be a viable one.

In September 1993, a task force meeting was held to finalize the new program. At the meeting were Gordon Heldebrant ( Dachshunds), William (Sil) Sanders (West Highland White Terriers), Jo Ann Frier – Murza ( Border and Bedlington Terriers), Linda Sutton (Welsh Terriers), Jim Tebbets (Welsh Terriers). Representing the American Kennel Club were Robert McKowen, Vice-President; John Carroll (Director of Performance Events), and Jacqueline Fraiser O’Niell (Director, Special Projects). Over the two-day meeting, they formalized the regulations to govern the new event. It was Mr. McKowen that suggested the unique title that would differentiate the dogs in this program from other hunting test programs. His recommendation was to award qualifying dogs the title “Earthdog”. The program was adopted by the Board of Director’s of the American Kennel Club and was set to go into effect on October 1, 1994.

This new program encompassed Dachshunds and 14 of the small terrier breeds that had traditionally been used for this type of work. Australian, Bedlington, Border, Cairn, Dandie Dinmont, Fox, Lakeland, Norfolk, Norwich, Scottish, Sealyham, Skye, Welsh and West Highland. The first licensed Earthdog Test was held by the Greater Portland Dachshund Club on October 1 & 2, 1994. In the first two days of tests, Judges by “Sil” Sanders and Karla Diethorn Martin, drew 110 entries, of which 32 dogs earned qualifying scores. Dachshunds in both sizes and all three coats, Borders, Cairns, Smooth Foxes, Westies and Welsh, Pretty Ch.s, a UDTX, a Field Champion and a Dual Champion showed up ready to prove that “these dogs can do it.” By the end of the first weekend, 13 dogs had earned the title Junior Earthdog (JE).

The program quickly gained popularity with dachshund and terrier enthusiasts. In 1995, the first Senior Earthdog title was earned by a Border Terrier, Lady Wheaten, owned by Tarja Varis and John McGirr. In 1996, the first Master Earthdog title was earned by Beejay’s Chocolate Smoke CD, ME, a longhaired miniature Dachshund owned by Betsy Fortman and John Moore.

By 2001 Jack Russell, Manchester, Miniature Bull, Miniature Schnauzer and Silky Terriers had been added the list of eligible breeds and there had been 96 Earthdog Tests, with 4,742 competitors and 336 titles awarded.

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